Performativity illustrated: Why are women shorter than men? (Steffen)

In Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of ‘sex’ feminist philosopher Judith Butler (1993) suggests that what is formed through the iteration and citation of powerful discourses is not only gender identities. In her account, sex is also connected to discourse, i.e. our bodies, our biology, our anatomy – all this is not ‘natural’ in the sense of being something extra-discursive. Put differently, the ways in which gender and biological sex materialise are not independent from performative practices. In this contribution, I’m going to illustrate Butler’s conception of performativity by reffering to a recent documentary that asks why women, on average, are shorter than men.

Butler’s theory of performativity has received widespread attention among academics. Her account might have been regarded as provocative because it implies that materiality and discourse are inextricably entwined. Although materiality was already crucial to Foucault’s notion of discourse, both concepts still seem to be (mis)understood frequently as a strictly opposed binary (cf. Barad 2007).

So how does discourse, according to Butler, matter to the materialisation of bodies? Indeed, it might appear relatively intuitive to regard gender identities as being (re)produced by repetitive acts of saying and doing. From our childhood we are interpellated as either girls or boys and therefore we tend to comply with the expected behaviours and norms according to our gender. Imagining, however, that even sex – in the sense of the biological characteristics of bodies – is constituted in the same way might be more astonishing. It may easily appear as if Butler would overly inflate the socio-cultural capacity to construct reality (and the material bodies within). For example, I can dress up as a drag queen but that doesn’t make me, anatomically speaking, a woman. But this, as far as I understand her, is not Butler’s point. Neither does she deny biological limits, constraints, and differences, nor would she regard them as arbitrary. Rather, she suggest that the limits of ‘sex’ cannot be regarded as independent from discourses about ‘sex’. What does that mean?

To be honest, Butler’s style of writing is demanding. But while she received an anti-prize for “bad writing”, her theoretical accounts are far from nonsense. Fortunately, there is a recent documentary by French director Véronique Kleiner (2013) which, in my view, illustrates the importance of Butler’s contribution with an easily accessible example. Pourquoi les femmes sont-elles plus petites que les hommes? (see English trailer here) challenges the quickest and simplest answer to the question why women are shorter than men: nature. It’s the anatomy of the human species. Men are taller than women. That’s just the way things are. Period.

But why is it that when we speak about biological characteristics they’re often assumed to be ‘natural’ and unchangeable? Isn’t Darwin’s theory of evolution an account of how the biological characteristics of species are quite changeable? Doesn’t epigenetics show us how bodies can adapt to environmental changes quite quickly?

Blue whales have the largest vaginas of any living organism (source of info: logical deduction from sexist silence; source of inspiration and image:

The next best answer to the ‘sexual dimorphism’, i.e. sexually differing body sizes, might be that men have to be taller because they – at least the heterosexual ones – fight each other to win a woman’s favour. Indeed, there are some parallels to the dimorphism as it occurs in other species such as deer or gorillas among which we find significantly bigger males. The largest living being on earth and allegedly in history, however, is the female Blue Whale. Although males are smaller than females, on Wikipedia it is currently only mentioned that Blue whales have “the largest penis of any living organism”. Why am I not surprised that the largest vagina, which, considering the size of females, should also be the largest sexual organ on the planet, does not receive any attention (let alone admiration)?

The documentary highlights that most people who tried to explain sexual dimorphism asked why men are taller than women. This question implies that women are the passive baseline against which male growth is measured. Both the accuracy of evolutionary theory and a non-sexist approach, however, require to put the question the other way round as well. We get different answers when we are not only interested in the size of males (and their penises), but also in the size of women acknowledging that they too can grow taller.

Food is crucial to body size. The amount eaten and in particular the intake of protein correlates with size. When females give birth, Kleiner argues, they are particularly in need of protein and iron, which is highly concentrated in meat. Iron is also essential to prevent the risk of anemia during periods. Although, from this perspective, it can reasonably be argued that meat is more benificial to women’s bodies than to men’s bodies, even in face of the abundance in contemporary ‘consumer societies’ men eat significantly more meat.

As there doesn’t seem to be a biological logic behind this, the documentary turns towards a self-recursive field that all too often manages to work without obvious logic: culture.

“Siberia: After a reindeer has been slaughtered, the woman presents the meat to her husband while she gnaws at the bones. If you’re a woman you may deal with the leftovers. Uganda: When families sit down to eat, the men are always served first. By the time the young girls get a chance, there’s no meat left. Morocco: The men eat before children and women who learn to refuse meat. India: At mealtimes the woman feeds her husband and children, boys before girls. It’s common to find households in which women are vegetarian but not the men. The Auvergne [France], not so long ago: Women didn’t sit at the table but spent their time going from oven to table serving the master of the family. Then they’d eat whatever is left over. If there was a bird, they’d get the carcass and neck, if a rabbit, the head.” (Kleiner 2013: 45 minutes, 30 seconds)

A further example by anthropologist Françoise Héritier is that women in Burkina Faso were observed to let baby girls wait when they desired to eat or drink whereas baby boys were served immediately. When asked the women all said: “If a boy cries you have to feed him right away because his body goes red, and he’ll explode with fury. So you have to feed him”. The reason they gave for letting girls wait was not physiological but sociological: “A woman will never be satisfied throughout her life, so it’s better to teach her this right from the start”. Getting girls used to frustration, Héritier argues, they are grown up in a way that waiting for another’s benevolence feels natural to them, while boys learn to expect immediate satisfaction of all their needs and desires.

The intake of meat is highly gendered, and this is likely to affect the materiality of bodies. While Kleiner (2013) seems to naturalise meat consumption, it is rather questionable to consider meat as a nutritional necessity for humans because a high protein intake can be met with plants as well (beans, pulses, potatoes, and wholemeal grains, for example, contain protein; cf. Leitzmann & Keller: 263-267). However, dietary variety is without a doubt more difficult in lack of the abundance of ‘consumer society’, and Kleiner shows convincingly how crucial meat consumption is for explaining the space-time-history of our bodies. When Butler proposes a return to the notion of matter she refers to “a process of material­ization that stabilizes over time to produce the effect of boundary, fixity, and surface we call matter” (Butler 1993: 9; cf. Barad 2007: 64). The fact, that women are shorter than men may have materialised, it is very real; but, reading Kleiner and Butler together, the current sizes of our bodies did not occur independently from gendered and very sexist discourses, and they are bound to the performative practices how we feed our babies and how our food production and consumption is gendered. Considering that culture rather than an essential entity is a dynamic doing, the future sizes of our naturalcultural bodies must be considered as radically open. There is a possible future in which women are taller than men, but I suggest that we just aim at meeting halfway.



Barad K (2007) Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning. Durham, London: Duke University Press.
Butler J (1993) Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “sex.” New York: Routledge.
Kleiner V (2013) Pourquoi les femmes sont-elles plus petites que les hommes? [documentary]. France: Point du Jour.
Leitzmann C and Keller M (2010) Vegetarische Ernährung. Stuttgart: Ulmer UTB.


Are we feminists or pro-feminists? (Steffen’s take)

Post by Steffen Hirth (despite what the author stamp says)

“I am a feminist.” I say this about myself, and most of the time I feel comfortable about it. However, it might matter to the reader that, as a subject, I am usually interpellated as an abled white male, I am heterosexual, I live in the Global North in a former colonialist empire that regards itself and is usually regarded as ‘developed’, I own a European Union’s passport, I have a university degree and a monthly income from an academic position that provides me with financial power slightly above my personal needs, most of the time I am still regarded as ‘young’, and I belong to the species that set itself the objective to dominate this planet. In other words: I am relatively privileged and at present it is unlikely that any significant form of class discrimination, racism, homophobia, sexism, ageism or speciesism is directed to me. With all this in mind, there are obviously severe reservations against my intention to talk about and even define feminism(s). Be critical.

Some people think that white people should not evaluate whether something is racist or not because it is people of colour (POC) who experience racism. Practically, I agree with that[1]. Racism is both an (inter)subjective experience and a social and cultural structure which, in the contemporary power relations, is almost entirely directed towards whoever is regarded as POC. From this perspective, there is a logical progression to the view that men cannot be feminist because they are men and so they do not experience the same forms and the same intensity of sexism as women do. I agree, of course, that as men we don’t have the same experiences and we’re (structurally) much less vulnerable to sexism, but I still believe we should be allowed to call ourselves feminists.

My analogy with racism might be deluding, because I certainly think that men shouldn’t explain to women in which situations women are experiencing sexism or discrimination, just as white people shouldn’t explain to POC when POC are entitled to feel racially discriminated. This is ‘mansplaining’ and ‘whitesplaining’, and not just bad manners, but an act of intrusion and appropriation. My intention, here, is merely to think about the eligibility of calling myself a feminist, while the gender identity that I am usually performing, and which is socially imposed on me by others, is clearly male. Indeed, I think, that I can be a male feminist and should be entitled to be acknowledged as one by other feminists. I don’t mean that they should accept me simply because I call myself a feminist, but they should

  1. regard me as a potential feminist regardless of my gender (in theory) and
  2. judge me based on what I do and say about issues relevant to feminist concerns (in practice).

I should maybe further explain the context. My friend and colleague, male and generally as privileged as I am, argues that men shouldn’t call themselves feminists, they can only be ‘pro-feminists’ or even exhibit ‘pro-feminist behaviour’. I assume he holds this view out of respect for the work that female activists and theorists have done to emancipate themselves and other women from patriarchy. Even if I share this respect for great feminist women, I still don’t think that men shouldn’t be entitled to be feminists. More importantly, I argue that the notion of a ‘pro-feminist’ implies a problematic essentialisation of feminism, sex, and gender that feminists have argued against for good reasons. I am now going to elaborate more deeply why I think so.


Challenging binary fixations of space, place, gender, and the future

Feminists fight against the many ways in which society disadvantages women as a social group. It is a profound part of past and contemporary social hegemony that people are categorised into male and female which each are connected to certain expectations and rules of how one should behave, what one is legally allowed to do, how much one’s labour is worth, which social positions one is assigned, when and how one is expected to speak or act, and which spaces one can roam in. Whether by ignorance or on purpose – because it is easier, because it benefits them –, many people still take these roles and hierarchies for granted, perceive them as naturally given, and therefore regard them as unchangeable.

At the heart of feminist theory and practice is the aim to overcome this and many other binaries. Categorising the world into male and female, nature and culture, or the West and the rest, is a practice which digs trenches between social groups, and it is as much a product of certain power relations between these groups as it is constitutive of these power relations. Geographer Doreen Massey in her influential work highlights how analytic categories, which are conventionally conceived as ontologically separate, actually co-constitute each other (Massey 1992). For her, the spatial constitutes the social, and the social constitutes the spatial – thinking these categories relationally prevents us from succumbing to the illusion that these categories have a fixed, essential, individual existence. Whether we are talking about people or analytical categories and theoretical concepts like space or the social, contemporary relational feminism is directed against the view “that the world is composed of individuals and that each individual has its own roster of nonrelational [‘natural’] properties” (Barad 2007: 333). Like Marxism, it is a critique of current social relations – structural but contingent connections and disconnections between living beings, things, substances, practices, concepts and meanings that are maintained, for example, by binary thinking, speaking, and acting, by simplistic inclusions and exclusions.

Simply put: Binary thinking reduces social complexity to allow control over bodies. Feminist theory directs our attention to the processes of how binaries come into being, how they are socially and materially enacted (Barad 2007). By objectifying women and demonising Mexicans and Muslims, US President Donald Trump successfully strengthened his image as the strong white male capable of ‘making America great again’. Seen from a perspective of white male supremacy his task might indeed require to exercise control over bodies along the lines of gender, race, and class. Avoiding this kind of binary thinking, for Massey (2005: 12), requires us to take ‘difference/heterogeneity/multiplicity/plurality’ into account. She insists

‘that the story of the world cannot be told (nor its geography elaborated) as the story of ‘the West’ alone nor as the story of […] the white, heterosexual male […] Such trajectories were part of a complexity and not the universals which they have for so long proposed to be’ (ibid.: 11; italics mine).

Claims of universal truth such as Western supremacy appear to be true, not because there is any natural basis for it, but because thinking like Trump means to provide simple logics which gain meaning by blending out the complex rest of possible truths, defying the contention, the contradictions, the plurality of meanings, voices and perspectives. Being aware of the powerful making of social and spatial boundaries for Massey is crucial to a critical notion of politics:

‘[I]magining space as always in process, as never a closed system, resonates with an increasingly vocal insistence within political discourses on the genuine openness of the future […] only if we conceive the future as open can we seriously accept or engage in any genuine notion of politics […] Now, here again […] there is a parallel with the conceptualisation of space. Not only history [and future] but also space is open. In this open interactional space there are always connections yet to be made, juxtapositions yet to flower into interaction (or not, for not all potential connections have to be established)’ (Massey 2005: 11).

Massey, here, is defending the very conditions for the existence of politics. If we don’t regard space and time as genuinely open, we live in a world in which the history of space-time appears objectively reconstructable, its trajectory determined, and its future already written – why trying to engage in politics, if we cannot change anything? Sadly, a big number of people, at least implicitly, have a deterministic world-view (or are not vigilant enough to recognise acts of political closures), and a small number of people know well how to instrumentalise that (enacting political closures, i.e. universal truths). Thinking politically, and thinking in a feminist mind, it only makes sense to regard the future pathways of the universe as radically open or indeterminate (which is different from just being unknown, and neither should future outcomes be misinterpreted as being arbitrary).


A performative understanding of feminism

Masseys thoughts resonate with – and in some cases build on – a range of other feminist theorists (cf. for example Gibson-Graham 2006, Haraway 1991, Young 2006). Most prominent are philosopher Judith Butler’s theoretical considerations of how subjects are constituted performatively. In her conception performativity means that the identities of both gender and sex are constituted through the materialisation of regulating norms (Butler 1997: 40). Powerful discourses stabilise these identities through their iterative authority.

The notion of a ‘pro-feminist’ implies that men, rather than being feminists, can only be supportive of real feminists. It draws a material and discursive boundary around feminists (female), pro-feminists (male), and non-feminists (male and female). While male non-feminists would be non-feminists by nature, female non-feminists would be non-feminists by, for example, personal choice or structural incapacity. From this perspective, the very definition of feminism would be based on the exclusion of men because of their anatomic features. But regarding feminism as a women’s club, in my view, means to lose sight of feminist’s actual goal: empowering women pending the dissolution of the structural injustices and inequalities around sex and gender. At its ultimate level, feminism is a political project. It should be defined by its goals, not by its members.

In pursuit of this goal, feminists have shown that the existing inequalities are not just a ‘natural’ given. When we adhere to sex and gender, we do perform roles – at times consciously, but more often unconsciously – that make the sex and gender binary abundant and appear natural. Furthermore, many feminists have insisted that feminism is not about denying differences. Indeed, there are important differences between humans, and between men and women as well, but we can no longer just take them for granted. We have to take responsibility for the question which differences should matter in a particular context, and which ones shouldn’t. For being a feminist one shouldn’t have to be well endowed with a vagina; it should be sufficient to support the political project which raises awareness that things could be performed otherwise because the future is yet to be determined.

Steffen Hirth, Manchester, 22/02/2017



Barad, Karen (2007): Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning (Durham, London).

Butler, Judith (1997): Körper von Gewicht (Frankfurt am Main).

Gibson-Graham, J. K. (2006): A Postcapitalist Politics (Minneapolis).

Haraway, Donna (1991): Simians, Cyborgs, and Women. The Reinvention of Nature (New York).

Massey, Doreen (1992): ‘Politics and Space/Time’, New Left Review, 196, 65–84.

Massey, Doreen (2005): For Space (London).

Young, Iris M. (2006): ‘Responsibility and Global Justice: A Social Connection Model’, Social Philosophy and Policy, 23, 102–130.

[1] In principle, the term ‘People of Colour’ could be used for any kind of appearance – including white – which becomes object of being defined as deviant by more powerful subjects. We don’t know what the future holds.