The word performativity was first used in linguistics in relation to what an utterance or expression does rather than what it means. Performativity is based on an understanding of language as causing an action or a state that affects people’s emotions, identities or materiel conditions. Examples include expressions such as ‘I hereby name you…’ or ‘I declare you husband and wife’. When the words are uttered, something changes.
A fundamental premise in gender research is that gender is a social and cultural construction. This means that gender cannot be understood as something a person has or is but rather as something that is made and created. The exact way in which this happens is subject to several different interpretations. Performativity theory offers an important understanding of how gender and sexuality are made and holds that gender is constructed through our linguistic and bodily expressions. When these are repeated over and over again, a pattern of expressions that make an individual appear as a woman or a man emerges. The observation that ‘She is a woman and that’s why she likes to sit with her legs crossed’ changes to ‘She likes to sit with her legs crossed, which makes her a women’. Thus, gender is created through expressions and utterances in everyday life and requires repetition in order to be perceived as stable over time. The expressions and utterances associated with women and men, respectively, vary both geographically and historically. What is constant, though, is that societal norms and normative punishments both control and are controlled by performative expressions. Every time a person who identifies herself as a female or is assigned a female gender identity ‘sits with her legs crossed’, the norm that says that ‘women like to sit with their legs crossed’ is reinforced, something that causes people who like to sit with their legs crossed to be understood as feminine or women.
The purpose of the theory of performativity can be said to be to help us understand and explain the notion of linear gender and heteronormativity. That is, that a person’s biological, legal and social gender should be ‘in line’ with each other (see also cisgender) and that two opposite linear genders are assumed to be sexually attracted to each other. Performativity also points to the power of confirmation from and sanctions imposed by the surrounding society when it comes to forcing people to comply with the binary gender norm. People who are understood to be men but who wear skirts, or children who are understood to be girls but who cut their hair short, often have to deal with other people’s confusion, comments and inquiring questions – ‘they are doing their gender wrong’.