Angie’s AP Lang Independent Project

Angie Niver (she/they), Editor

While ‘autonomy’ is a largely recognized term in the public domain through contemporary debates about reproductive freedom and consent, our struggle to achieve autonomy goes beyond the realm of sexuality. But what does ‘autonomy’ even mean? Simply put, autonomy is the right or condition of self-government, but in most political and social spheres where it is discussed, we are often asked about autonomy in relation to our bodies. While it’s clear there’s a lack of autonomous choice in matters dealing with sexuality, Judith Butler would argue that binary gender and the way it’s implemented, strips us of our bodily autonomy as well. In “Gender Trouble” Judith Butler divulges the way that gender is reproduced through its construction, rather than something natural and innate as it is claimed to be. This parallels arguments made in their essay “Beside Oneself; On the Limits of Sexual Autonomy” where they questions the autonomy of our bodies when they are both the recipients and the culprit of violence, along with how we may go about fighting for autonomy, if even possible.  

Traditionally, binary gender has been accepted as equivalent to your sex and determinate of different societal roles and social expectations tied to that gender. Judith Butler, as a queer person and gender theorist, is among many challenging these traditional values. The first question Butler asks us in their book “Gender Troubles” is if gender is something we are said to “have”, or if it is something we are said to “be”. If it is something we are, is it innate? And if it’s something we possess due to construction, how is it constructed and enforced? Butler first explains that our gender and biology are not the same, but when they are equated, gender is claimed to be “fixed”, or inescapable. This is done to claim gender as something naturally occurring, rather than something placed upon us, allowing it to be reproduced and enforced without question. That is, until the contemporary emergence of queer voices in more prominence which has challenged that notion. Since gender is treated as “one size fits all”, gender is violating our autonomy by stripping us of our choice and of our right to self identify. I think of a class we had a few weeks ago where we were asked the question if binary gender is harmful. The clear answer is yes, and Judith Butler would agree. One of the answers to this question is that the sheer existence of people feeling misrepresented by the binary placed onto them is proof that there is harm endured from the binary. The existence of queer people is an undeniable fact. And that very existence is proof of harm endured by gender. Not only does binary categorization of gender misrepresent people, but it’s implemented as a way of putting people into classes. Not only does gender strip us of our autonomy in self identifying, but it also makes us more susceptible to losing sexual autonomy. This is proven by the fact that 91% of victims of sexual violence are women or queer people, and 99% of perpetrators are men (US Department of Justice). 

It struck me particularly how Butler discussed the nature of the body. Butler argues that the body is also somewhat of a construct itself, only holding “signifiable value” once gender is placed upon it. In terms of gender, the biological features of our bodies determine the gender that is ascribed to them, but along with this comes determination of their value. It is no secret that binary gender is patriarchal in nature, and women are deemed inferior simply because of being women. Women are expected to be subservient to men, incubators, recipients of violence, and willing in their objectification. Besides women, people unrepresented by the binary are even lower on this hierarchy, being the recipients to homophobic violence out of hate, and even sometimes for correctional purposes. Beyond just gender, our bodies seem to determine our value in all facets of identity whether that be race, disability, adherence to beauty standards, or any intersection of these. So how do we “re-conceive” the body “no longer as a passive medium?”

In “Beside Oneself”, Butler builds on the question to what extent our bodies are actually even our own. Due to its public dimension, we are constantly being exposed to the gaze of others, but also being vulnerable to violence, touch, and systems of oppression. The body is further complicated by being the recipient and the agent of all these things simultaneously. However, when Butler says “we are disposed to each other”, they are implying how we are physically dependent on one another. How do we struggle for autonomy when our bodies are so vulnerable to each other? And where does this leave gender? 

This is where I got lost. Butler brings up the question of if we can fight for autonomy from the things imposed on our bodies, yet also consider the way we are physically dependent on one another, however they don’t seem to provide an answer. I have a hard time with problems that lack answers, and Butler even goes as far to say “we cannot rectify this situation”. I’m not sure if they’re referring to the condition of physical dependency, or thus claiming we lack a right to our own autonomy, but none of it sits well with me. Worse, I fear they’re right. And that’s profoundly upsetting to me. I’m not willing to accept the belief that my body isn’t fully my own because I’m a sexual minority, that my womanhood has immediately stripped me of autonomy both in the ways that it imposes gender upon me, and that gender subjugates me to patriarchal violence. Why should I have to admit my body isn’t fully mine, and further, it is partially belonging to those who perpetrate violence against it? Does that imply that my physical dependence on people gives them the right to my body? I understand that we have physical dependency on each other, and that complicates the idea of autonomy. However, I will not accept that autonomy isn’t achievable. Rather, I think our dependency on each other makes autonomy a struggle we must attempt collectively. If we are all vulnerable to each other, and thus interdependent, then I believe this means we must be struggling for the autonomy of everyone.  

Earlier I quoted a question by Judith Butler asking how we can “re-conceive” the body as more than just a “passive medium”. I believe we must first recognize our bodies as dependent on each other, and then we can begin the struggle for “autonomy”. I believe what Judith Butler is arguing is that when we recognize that we’re physically dependent on each other, it is not to say that everyone has a claim over your own body. Rather, it’s to illuminate the responsibility we have to each other to struggle for liberation from gender and sexual violence. Further, violating someone else’s body is a violation to the perpetrator as well by stripping themselves of humanity. Maybe we can’t “rectify” the condition of being dependent on each other, but maybe that’s exactly what we need to liberate ourselves.