Gender? I Hardly Know Her Exploring the Hyperreality of Gender and Sexual Identities

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Ridley Handley

(UBC Arts One, Prof. Robert Crawford Seminar)


At first glance, gender and sexuality have little to do with Jean Bauldrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation, with the irreversible collapse of the true, real, and referential. But Judith Butler, over the course of several essays, establishes that both constructs do, in fact, perfectly embody Baudrillard’s concept of the hyperreal. Untethered from the body, and broken down into a purely performative set of actions, corporeal signs, and discursive processes that denote nothing of significance, gender and sexual identities become precisely what Baudrillard calls the “imaginary of representation” (Baudrillard 2). In other words, they allegedly signify a true, physical essence that never existed, claiming to originate from the very bodies they produce. And to maintain this illusion, and the meaning of conventional presentations, the heteronormative standard also manufactures “abject” identities, creating a Baudrillardian Disneyland wherein traditional binaries manifest their reality by rejecting the unacceptable, unreal, and illegitimate. Sociologist C.J. Pascoe brings this particular phenomenon to light in Dude, You’re a Fag: Masculinity and Sexuality in High School, an ethnography that details the ways in which the prospect of failed gender and unreality governs her subjects. She unveils how River High’s students used the spectre of the “fag” to delegitimize nonconforming identities, and ultimately exposes the baselessness of such labels. Thus, this essay examines how gender and sexuality, as imitations without originals, reapproximations of an invented ideal, generate their own hyperreality, a simulation endlessly reinforced by the belief that it hasn’t already encompassed us all.

In order to first examine gender as a hyperreal concept, generated without a physical antecedent, Butler devotes much of her work to uncoupling gender from biological sex, thereby severing it from a real, material origin. She fiercely challenges the “illusion of an inner sex or essence or psychic gender core,” or the notion that masculinity and femininity inherently belong to male and female bodies (“Imitation” 317). Instead, she argues that gender has neither a beginning nor a birth, that it “is an identity tenuously constituted in time, instituted in an exterior space through a stylized repetition of acts” (“Gender” 140). In other words, the socially-accepted behaviours, styles, and appearances associated with each gender identity gives gender its meaning, the artificial and theatricalized costume of the body creates the phantasm of gender, but not the body itself. And without a corporeal entity or an origin to stem from, gender must endlessly recreate itself through “bodily gestures, movements and styles of various kinds,” through social scripts that “constitute the illusion of an abiding gendered self” (“Performative” 519). But this “abiding gendered self,” rendered culturally intelligible by behaviours and signs “on the surface of the body,” neither exists nor causes gender (“Gender” 136). Instead, the concept of gender “no longer even knows the distinction between signifier and signified, nor between form and content,” but still purports to stem from material precedent in the body (Baudrillard 64). And this disentangling of gender from anatomy, combined with Butler’s assertion that it exists only as an endless series of performances, pushes gender, as a construct without a real origin, towards the hyperreal.

Furthermore, not only does Butler contend that bodies do not produce the meaning of gender, but she actually contends that gender produces the meaning of bodies, that the socially-constructed hegemony of heterosexual gender norms governs the material world. In Butler’s model, sex is not “a bodily given on which the construct of gender is artificially imposed, but… a cultural norm which governs the materialization of bodies” (“Bodies” 2-3). And if bodies only become gendered entities in communication with social others and cultural characterizations, then only by becoming gendered entities do bodies become significant. Thus, biology, and all its tangible materiality, gives neither gender nor bodies intrinsic meaning, and sex is “not simply what one has, or a static description of what one is: it will be one of the norms by which the ‘one’ becomes viable at all, that which qualifies a body for life within the domain of cultural intelligibility” (“Bodies” 2). According to this understanding, while anatomical differences among humans certainly exist and are certainly material, only the adherence to socially validated and constructed ideals of “sex” makes bodies matter, as it renders them comprehensible and recognizable. In this way, the relationship between sex and gender becomes like a “map that precedes the territory” (Baudrillard 1). Instead of gender simply representing a real body, gender as a hyperreality dictates and creates the real, and therefore sex, even as a physical reality, becomes retroactively installed, a counterfeit origin and empty designation used to give bodies cultural significance.

Another Baudrillardian aspect of sex that Butler examines is the discursive process that manufactures its social power. She argues that language maintains the idea of sex through the same reiterative process as gender, and that only in its endless citation does it become an authority. “Within speech act theory, a performative is that discursive practice that enacts or produces that which it names,” and in turn these linguistic constructions fashion our reality (“Bodies” 13). Thereby, culturally iterated gender norms become mere simulacra, “never exchanged for the real, but exchanged for itself” (Baudrillard 6). Performative speech acts do not represent reality, and the “citational practice of sex refers to the kind of ‘prior’ authority that is, in fact, produced as the effect of citation itself” but does not cause it (“Bodies” 109). Butler likens this rearticulation of gender norms to a judge who “does not originate the law or its authority,” but instead “reinvokes the law, and, in that reinvocation, reconstitutes the law” (“Bodies” 107). But from where do gender norms draw power other than in their own utterances? “The already existing law that he cites, from where does that law draw its authority?” (“Bodies” 107). Clearly, “‘sexed positions’ are not localities,” or roles that bodies naturally inhabit, “but, rather, citational practices instituted within a juridical domain” (“Bodies” 108). And through discursive performatives, the invention of an abiding biological sex becomes reality, the power under which all gender identities must organize. But in truth, the reality of sex relies exclusively on its repeated citation, on mere references to its name.

Fully disconnected from biological sex, itself a linguistic construct, and producing its own meaning, gender now enters a state of complete hyperreality, a socially-constructed illusion for which no real foundation exists. It is “a kind of imitation for which there is no original; in fact, it is a kind of imitation that produces the very notion of the original,” and in doing so, gender perpetuates its own false reality (“Imitation” 313). Therefore, in Baudrillardian terms, gender proceeds to the third order of simulacra, existing only to “mask the absence of a profound reality” instead of representing it (Baudrillard 6). “Gender is always a doing, though not a doing by a subject who might be said to preexist the deed,” and in this endless performance, constantly reiterated to create the very idea of itself, gender confesses its own unreality (“Gender” 25). Learned methods of “doing” gender may give cultural intelligibility to otherwise meaningless bodies, but what gender claims to represent does not really exist. All the stylized behaviours and mannerisms that convey the gender identities of specific bodies merely constitute “a kind of impersonation and approximation” (“Imitation” 313). But instead of approximating a real and inherent concept, gender performances all mimic the “phantasmatic ideal of heterosexual identity,” an impossible and artificial standard that gets repeatedly “appropriated, theatricalized, worn, and done” (“Imitation” 313). And thus, as the “generation by models of a real without origin or reality,” reiterated and sustained exclusively through its own performance, gender precisely fits Baudrillard’s definition of the hyperreal (Baudrillard 1).

Furthermore, not only is gender a hyperreality, but the process of maintaining its binaries creates a simulation akin to Baudrillard’s Disneyland. In Baudrillard’s world, “Disneyland is presented as imaginary in order to make us believe that the rest is real,” (Baudrillard 12) but this comforting illusion merely conceals the fact that “reality no more exists outside than inside the limits of the artificial perimeter” (Baudrillard 14). And according to Butler, neither the boundaries of Disneyland nor gender mark the line between real and imaginary, and instead both serve as “deterrence machine[s], set up in order to rejuvenate the fiction of the real in the opposite camp” (Baudrillard 13). Under this system, masculinity and femininity achieve meaning through the continual repudiation of an “abject” identity, the threatening spectre of failed gender that reinjects the real into conventional identities (“Gender” 133). For example, successful masculinity often involves rejecting femininity and homosexuality, thereby disowning unacceptable and unintelligible identities to reaffirm its own validity. Thus, just as conceiving of Disneyland and the outside world as “opposite camps” establishes where reality allegedly exists, so too, does the “ideal dimorphism, heterosexual complementarity of bodies, ideals and rule of proper and improper masculinity and femininity…establish what will and will not be intelligibly human, what will and will not be considered to be ‘real’” (“Gender” xxiii). In other words, the gender binary fills its Disneyland with failed and noncomforing identities only to reject it, to simulate the existence of valid genders where none exist.

Sociologist C.J. Pascoe describes how this repudiation of the abject plays out in Dude, You’re a Fag: Masculinity and Sexuality in High School. For months, Pascoe dwelt among the halls of River High, a secondary school in the United States, to observe the gendered rituals of its inhabitants. In her analysis, she concludes that establishing successful masculinity involves, among other things, the “continual iteration and repudiation of an abject identity,” represented here by the “fag,” a haunting spectre of failed gender (Pascoe 14). And by “repudiating and mocking [the] weakness” associated with the “fag,” the students could assert their own validity and culturally intelligibility (Pascoe 166). River High’s attitude toward the Gay/Straight Alliance perfectly encapsulates this phenomenon, as the school omitted its meetings from announcements, prevented its inclusion in the club fair, and banned its members from the wearing gay pride shirts to homecoming. The principal argued that the problem with the shirts “was not homosexuality but sexual activity,” yet in the background of his protests, the homecoming skits featured girls running “their hands down the front of the boys’ bodies” and “wiggling their hips in the boys’ faces” (Pascoe 150). Evidently, the principal did not object to sexually-charged displays, but to the GSA’s triumph of non-normative identities. Thus, this tolerance of “explicit expressions of heterosexuality,” and the rejection of the noncomforing, creates a Baudrillardian Disneyland, in which the artificial delegitimization of an “abject” identity allows the appropriately masculine, feminine, and straight to feign their reality (Pascoe 150).

Pascoe’s analysis exposes another component of gender that this essay has yet to examine in depth: the hyperreality of sexuality. Just as masculinity is not an identity “any boy possesses by virtue of being male,” Pascoe’s observations reveal a similar lack of real, concrete origins with regards to sexual orientation (Pascoe 5). For example, many of River High’s male students claimed that they would never call an actual homosexual “fag,” a phenomenon Pascoe dubs the “Eminem Exception.” When asked how he could constantly degrade gay men yet perform alongside Elton John, the rapper Eminem confessed he didn’t “‘mean gay as in gay, ’” but rather as in “‘weak and unmanly’” (Pascoe 58). Similarly, Pascoe discovered that the boys at River High don’t always use “fag” to degrade specific sexual orientations, but to insult other men for effeminacy. And if “the lack of masculinity is the problem, not the sexual practice,” if the labels and identities have no basis in an abiding sexuality, then they, too, become absorbed by simulation (Pascoe 59). Sexualities are “not images, such as an original model would have made them, but perfect simulacra, forever radiant with their own fascination” (Baudrillard 5). Heterosexuality itself, which alleges to belong beyond Disneyland’s borders, must be endlessly recreated and substantiated by repudiating femininity, asserting sexual ownership of girls, and “lobbing homophobic epithets” at other males (Pascoe 5). Thus, sexuality becomes just as performative as gender, stylized, repeated, and ritualized, a hyperreality created by its own production and not by a true source.

Butler further discusses the hyperreality of sexuality in Imitation and Gender Insubordination, which posits that “compulsory heterosexuality often presumes that there is first a sex that is expressed through a gender and then through a sexuality,” and thus manufactures for itself a false base in something enduring, biological, and real (“Imitation” 318). But since the simulation constantly demands this “performance of sex, then it may be only through that performance that the binary system of sex comes to have intelligibility” (“Imitation” 318). The normative scripts associated with each sexual orientation actually create that orientation, and “are disingenuously renamed as causes” (“Imitation” 318). Furthermore, Butler contends that sexuality can never be “fully ‘expressed’ in performance” because “there will be passive and butchy femmes, femmy and aggressive butches” (“Imitation” 315). In other words, while acceptable butch lesbianism, for example, requires exhibiting masculinity, there will always be butch lesbians who present more effeminately. And yet, all those who violate expectations “will turn out to [be] more or less anatomically stable ‘males’ and ‘females’” (“Imitation” 315). Effeminate butches and dominant femmes still have societally valid bodies, and often identify with their assigned sex, but this does not guarantee that their sexuality aligns with it. Therefore, there are no “causal lines between sex, gender, gender presentation, sexual practice,” and sexuality, untethered to the physiological and endlessly recreated in its own staging, becomes hyperreal (“Imitation” 315).

This conception of gender and sexual identities, rendered culturally intelligible only by the rejection of an abject identity, also illuminates the ways in which the social world simulates its hierarchies. As Baudrillard defines it, “the only weapon of power is to reinject the real and referential everywhere, to persuade us of the reality of the social,” and gender does just that (Baudrillard 22). In fact, the power of gender relies exclusively on this reinjection of the real into the “effect of its own originality,” into the “ontologically consolidated phantasms of ‘man’ and ‘woman,’ [that] are the artificially produced effects that posture as grounds, origins, the normative measure of the real” (“Imitation” 313). In other words, the false belief in the illusion of gendered categories, and in their purported origins, manufactures their reality. And this “heterosexual matrix” attains significance only in the simulation of its own existence, in manufacturing a “reality of the social” that excludes and devalues nonconforming identities (“Imitation” 316). The fact that masculinity, for example, relies on “the threat of feminization, an imaginary and, hence, inadequate identification,” testifies to how male gender identities claim the throne of the gender hierarchy (“Bodies” 101). According to this framework, masculinity’s acceptance and existence necessitates the degradation of femininity, creating the hyperreality of its dominance through the alleged inferiority, and even illegitimacy, of female and queer bodies. Thus, the belief in the reality of gender not only reinforces its continued hegemony, but it also debases the identities that the gender simulation artificially designates as invalid.

To speak more specifically to this system of gendered and social hierarchies requires an examination of compulsory heterosexuality, and of how the belief that sexuality, not just gender, stems from a true origin actively harms nonconforming identities. Since “compulsory heterosexuality sets itself up as the original, the true, the authentic,” it implies that queerness “is always a kind of miming, a vain effort to participate in the phantasmatic plenitude of naturalized heterosexuality” (“Imitation” 7). Hence, this regime simultaneously posits the “notion of the homosexual as copy” and “heterosexuality as origin,” providing the normative, naturalized identity that all others hope to assume (“Imitation” 8). Compliance with this heterosexual real, with the alleged origin of all other abject sexualities, brings with it cultural intelligibility, safety, and recognition. Failed imitation of these “norms brings with it ostracism, punishment, and violence,” and in this way, the performance of heterosexuality becomes mandatory (“Imitation” 315). But since, just like gender, “heterosexuality is compelled to repeat itself in order to establish the illusion of its own uniformity and identity,” it becomes just another construct advancing up the precession of simulacra (“Imitation” 315). The effect of heterosexual “naturalness is only achieved as a consequence of that moment of heterosexual recognition,” but that naturalness does not actually produce it (“Imitation” 317). Evidently, compulsory heterosexuality merely constitutes the “desert of the real,” manufacturing a false reality through endless citations and reenactments (Baudrillard 1).

Ultimately, examining Butler’s models of gender and sexuality through a Baudrillardian lens reveals not only that both are imaginaries, contrived systems of ascribing meaning to certain bodies, but that these systems must continually recreate themselves, through various iterations, performances, and stylized presentations, in order to survive. Moreover, untethered from any origin in the physical reality of bodies, gender becomes the means by which these bodies express their sexuality and cultural intelligibility, and without it, bodies would cease to have social significance. Therefore, gender adheres precisely to Baudrillard’s definitions of hyperreality, an imitation without an original, a continuous reapproximation of simulated heterosexual ideals. And by extension, these counterfeit ideals also manufacture the deviant, “abject” identities like Pascoe’s symbol of the “fag,” the unintelligibility of which establishes the reality of conventional gender norms in the same way that Disneyland establishes the reality of its surrounding territory. Pascoe’s discussion of phenomena such as the “Eminem Exception” provides yet more insight into the ways in which labels, and sexual orientations themselves, lack real causes regardless of what compulsory heterosexuality alleges about its naturalized origins. Thus, tackling this heteronormative regime must entail bringing queer, nonbinary, and other noncomforming identities into the folds of hyperreality, since according to Baudrillard, it can no longer be escaped. But by accepting that the imaginary does not end at the borders of Disneyland, that the heterosexual norms that set themselves up as valid and true are themselves copies of nothing, and by ceasing to define intelligible gender in relation to examples of “failed” gender, perhaps currently impermissible identities can achieve legitimacy. Perhaps, the gender simulation built on the degradation and rejection of abject people, may one day disintegrate, leaving all of our identities equally unreal.



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