Gender Trouble trouble

Interviewing isn’t always easy: if you’re poorly prepared or if you’re trying to lead the subject down a road they don’t want to go down, you can easily find yourself getting your arse handed to you on a plate. It happened to me once with Terry Pratchett, a brilliant author who taught me a valuable lesson about the importance of preparation for even the most trivial interview.

That was mortifying enough, so imagine how it must feel to be publicly owned by an interviewee when you’re interviewing a major figure for a popular current affairs magazine. That appears to be the case in this New Statesman interview with Judith Butler, in which the interviewer attempts to tell Butler what her own work is about. It’s the kind of interview that, as a writer, you read from behind your fingers.

It’s also really interesting in what it says about coverage of gender:  Butler is a key figure in third wave feminism and her 1990 book Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity is considered a key text in feminist and queer scholarship. She has a lot of interesting things to say and a body of work going back very many years, but the interviewer seems determined to force her into the JK Rowling vs Evil Trans Activists dialogue so beloved of so much of the UK and US press right now. And Butler is having none of it.


Let us be clear that the debate here is not between feminists and trans activists… So one clear problem is the framing that acts as if the debate is between feminists and trans people. It is not.

…It is a sad day when some feminists promote the anti-gender ideology position of the most reactionary forces in our society.

Interviewer: But people have been nasty to JK Rowling on the internet!


I confess to being perplexed by the fact that you point out the abuse levelled against JK Rowling, but you do not cite the abuse against trans people and their allies that happens online and in person.

I disagree with JK Rowling’s view on trans people, but I do not think she should suffer harassment and threats. Let us also remember, though, the threats against trans people in places like Brazil, the harassment of trans people in the streets and on the job in places like Poland and Romania – or indeed right here in the US.

So if we are going to object to harassment and threats, as we surely should, we should also make sure we have a large picture of where that is happening, who is most profoundly affected, and whether it is tolerated by those who should be opposing it. It won’t do to say that threats against some people are tolerable but against others are intolerable.

As Max Morgan put it on Twitter:

If I was this interviewer I would have told my editor that the dog ate the emails and they’d have to run something else.