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’. A change occurs when the words are uttered. The purpose of the theory of performativity is to help us understand and explain the notion of linear gender and heteronormativity.
This refers to the idea that a person’s biological, legal, and social gender should be ‘in line’ with each other (i.e. a cis person) 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 gender binary. People who are understood to be men but wear skirts, or children who are understood to be girls but shorten their hair, often have to deal with other people’s confusion, comments and inquiring questions – ‘they are doing their gender wrong’.