An important step in beginning to grasp Butler’s theory of performativity is to realize that performativity and performance are not the same thing. Gender is performative; it is not a performance. This is why gender feels like a central factor in our sense of self rather than like an accessory we can take on and off at will.
To help understand what performativity is (in addition to what it is not), I find it useful to consider Butler’s source of the term. The concept of “performativity” originates from the study of linguistics. Specifically, J. L. Austin used the term “performative utterances” to describe a part of speech known as a “speech act.”
In case you’ve forgotten your high school English lessons, nouns name objects, verbs name actions, and adjectives and adverbs describe those objects and actions. Nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs are all parts of speech, categories we can use to describe words and their functions. “Speech acts” are another part of speech with which we are less familiar–at least in theory, though we encounter them on a daily basis. For an example, consider the following screencap from a Simpsons episode:
“KEEP OUT” is a speech act–an utterance (or, in this case, a written phrase) which does what it says as it says it. (Other examples include “I do,” when being sworn in, and “I now pronounce you husband and wife.”)
The bottom half of the sign (which says “OR ENTER, I’m a sign, not a cop”) is a nod towards the fact that speech acts are not inviolable. They can be altered or disobeyed, because they are not objects but utterances. This is not to say that these utterances do not have power, merely that they are not necessarily, incontrovertibly factual.
TL;DR: Confused by Judith Butler? Watch the Simpsons.
— Jazzi Kelley