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Adam, Eva and the Kathoey - Judith Butler and Thailand's Third Gender

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The term gender can be interpreted in many different ways. Is it something you are, or is it something you become? American feminist and post-structuralism philosopher Judith Butler theorizes gender as a performance. For the past few decades, there has been some shifting in the regular gender categories in South East Asia, especially in Thailand. Whereas Judith Butler argues that one can hardly escape the traditional gender performance, the emerge of the so called 'third sex' in Thailand, also referred to as the Kathoey, causes reconsiderations of her arguments. Concerning Judith Butler's theory, would the Kathoey be considered an exception or a confirmation of her theory?

Introduction to Judith Butler

Judith Butler, born in 1956, Ohio, managed to gain significance in the fields of anthropology and political philosophy with her work on gender theory (Coole, 2006). The feministic literary critic became famous with her book 'Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subvesion of Identity' (The European Graduate School, 1990), in which she critically discusses works of Michel Foucault and other influential writers such as Simone de Beauvoir and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. She and her works are often associated with her application of radically constructivist and deconstructionist approaches to gender (Coole, 2006). Even though this paper will aim to discuss Butler's theory on gender as a whole, its main source will be her essay, written in 1988 for a Theatre Journal, called 'Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory'.

Butler sees gender as a performative act. In her essay on gender constitution, she elaborates this statement using various arguments, derived from various writers. She believes that gender is not something you are born with, instead it is something you become, through a project of performing the appropriate acts. In this sense, she states that gender is 'an identity instituted through a stylized repetition of acts'(1988, p.519). Within these acts, one's body plays a crucial role and therefor gender must also be understood as the everyday bodily gestures, movements, and enactments of various kinds which 'constitute the illusion of an abiding gendered self'(1988, p.519). Not only does Butler consider these acts to constitute the identity of an individual, but also to establish an identity which is a compelling illusion whereas the actor himself, along with the social audience, come to believe this constructed identity, and to perform it in the mode of belief.(1988, p.520)

In an attempt to find the source of these act, Butler turns to Beauvoir and Merleau-Ponty. From their theories she states that gender is seen as an historical situation rather than a natural fact (1988, p.520). With this assumption, she does not deny the existence of the material and natural dimensions of the body, however she differentiates this aspect of the body from the process by which the body come to bear cultural meanings (1988, p.520). Furthermore, the body can be best understood as an active process of embodying certain cultural possibilities. By doing so, the body gains its meaning through a concrete and historically mediated expression in the world. The body itself has thus no intrinsic meaning to the appearance of the world. One is not simply a body, one does one's body by the materialization of historical possibilities.

The kathoey in Thailand

The kathoey is a distinctive social group in Thailand. They bring a great contribution to the tourist economy in Thailand but also serve the economy in general. Especially current Bangkok is the site of the region's most extensive commercial gay scene (Jackson, 1996). These kathoey, also called 'ladyboys', are a male-to-female transgender or an effeminate gay male. Important to notice is that they differ from the Western transvestites, whereas they are not considered male or female and are necessarily gay. Their social group is generally accepted, which is shown through their participation in the economy in predominantly female occupations, such as in beauty salons and shops, and their visibility in the media. Kathoey also work in entertainment and tourist centers, in which they are really seen as 'ladyboys' rather they women. Due to their distinction from male and female gender, and from Western transvestites, one has a hard time defining this social group within the Western vocabulary. In Thai, there are related phrases to address kathoey, such as sao prophet song, which means second kind of woman, or phet this am, which suggests a third gender (Jackson, 1996). If the Kathoey could really be considered as a third gender or a second type of woman, what effect does this have on Judith Butler's theory on gender theory?

Judith Butler and the third gender

In order to see whether Kathoey gender fits into Judith Butler's theory, this essay will discuss on three of Butler's main arguments. The first one analyzing the historical indication of the Kathoey, secondly discussing the distinction between sex and gender and thirdly focusing on gender in a theatrical sense.

Judith Butler states that gender is an historical idea whereas the body is a set of possibilities, which gains meaning through its expression in the world(1988, p.521). The acts that create a 'gender' are historically determined, whereas the possibilities are constraint by historical conventions, and repeated over time. Butler states that the purpose of this sustained and repeated project is survival, whereas those who fail to 'perform' their gender will be punished. Furthermore, Butler strives to find existing possibilities for the cultural transformation of gender through acts, however, she notices that deviating from the preset genders performances is rather difficult, if not impossible, due to their historical constrains.

In Thailand however, one did deviate from the preset gender categories by creating a whole new gender, namely the Kathoey. The possibilities for social change depend on the possibilities the development of the history provides for cultural transformation of gender. Noticeable is that Thailand's history of gender categories is rather different from the global development. This is due to the more liberal environment of the Buddhist county and because Thailand, unlike many other countries, was never colonized by the West, and has thus never been influenced by the Western paradigm and with that, the Western assumptions on sexuality and gender. Peter A. Jackson, researcher of Thai history at Australian National University, argues that, due to the difference in history, the queering process of Thailand differentiates from

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