Judith Butler Documentary Discusses Jewish Upbringing’s Influence on ‘Gender Trouble’

In this documentary uploaded to YouTube, Judith Butler discusses her work and her childhood. Though the documentary is in French (with bits of German conversation), it primarily Butler speaking in English with French subtitles.

Butler was born in Cleveland, Ohio to a Jewish family. Her parents, Butler explains, were very engaged in politics and debate and owned a small set of movie theaters in the area. Butler reveals that her work in “Gender Trouble” is heavily influenced by her Jewish upbringing.

“I grew up with a generation of American Jews that understood assimilation meant conforming to certain gender norms that were presented in the Hollywood movies. So my grandmother slowly but surely became Helen Hays. And my mother slowly but surely became kind of Joan Crawford.”

“Maybe ‘Gender Trouble’ is actually a theory that emerges from my effort to make sense of how my family embodied those Hollywood norms,” Butler muses, “and also how they didn’t.”

Butler recounts that she was never very good in school, referring to herself as a problem child who would speak back at her elders and skip class. Her mother was warned by her school that she might one day become a criminal.

Butler Judith Child
Butler as a child.

As a punishment, Butler was allowed to stay in her Hebrew school on the condition that she took private lessons with the rabbi.

“He asked me what I wanted to study,” Butler tells of their first meeting. “And he was very suspicious of me because I was this problem children. And I told him I wanted to know why Spinoza was excommunicated from the synagogue. I wanted to know whether German idealist philosophy was linked to the rise of Nazism, and I wanted to understand existential theology. And I was 14 years old.”

Watch the documentary below. It is broken up into 6 segments.

  • danmeek

    Hi Eugene. I’m watching and loving these, thanks so much for posting them. As I’m watching however I’m wondering why the three figures in your site banner are all male! Surely we could make a recogniseable silhouette from JButler’s quiff and get some female gender happening in your branding too?

    • Critical Theory

      Hi Danmeek,

      The designs were done gratis by a friend with some design savvy. I had suggested several non-male figures including Angela Davis and bell hooks (Butler was skipped because she seemed to difficult to turn into a recognizable silhouette). Unfortunately, the artist involved has become very busy and hasn’t completed the other suggested silhouettes.

      As for me, I’m entirely incompetent when it comes to art. So for now, we’ll have to stick with the three old white men.

      • danmeek

        Well, that’s disappointing.