The ideas of Foucault can be seen as an influence on Butler in a number of ways. The most important of these is Foucault’s treatment of power and its relation to the body and sexuality as well as his identification of the body as the central target of power. As Butler is trying to prove that gender and sex differences are a social construct, the idea that those in power as well as society can shape our perceptions of our bodies and sexuality would be appealing to use.
However, Foucault does not make very many statements regarding gender, he is more concerned with the idea of how society and power shaped how sexuality was seen and discussed, and thus our ideas of sexuality are formed by artificial means. Thus Butler has to use his ideas in a way that differs from his original message in order to use them to further her own agenda. Butler attempts to shape Foucault’s ideas by applying his ideas about the treatment of sexuality to the ideas of sex and gender.
In other words she uses Foucault’s idea that society and power shape our perceptions and create social constructs that we take for granted, but shifts the focus to sex and gender. This redirection of the idea works well for Butler as she was to build upon Foucault’s reasoning as well as adding her own spin when she is explaining how sex and gender are complete fabrications created by society. However as said before Foucault and Butler tackle different areas while applying the same idea, and thus vary significantly in the specific details of what they present.
They do share the belief that many roles in society are constructions rather than having any innate differences that make them truly different, with our constructed beliefs creating differences which really aren’t there in any meaningful way. It could be said the Butler is misusing Foucault’s ideas by applying them to the radical idea that sex is nothing more than a social construct, a much more extreme view than the one Foucault gives on sexuality, but she provides enough of her own evidence to warrant the borrowing of Foucault’s ideas on society and power.
They also share the belief that these created distinctions were purposely made to disenfranchise those not in power or who differed from the norm, as seen in Foucault’s descriptions of the extremely negative portrayal of those had “non-standard” sexual practices and Butler’s examples of how the idea of a “woman” has been used as a ways to keep men in power. Overall Butler does borrow significantly from Foucault, but due to the different (but related) subjects which they are approaching (sexuality, sex and gender) they differ on specifics and Butler’s goals are so different that she creates the original idea of sex being a social construct.
Butler also has a strong political agenda, as she sees gender and sex distinctions as having a strong negative effect on politics, as the artificial differences created by them causes unnecessary tension. She disagrees with the idea of feminism as it does not completely solve the problem as its whole concept has been formed within the social prism of gender and sex and even if it succeeds in total gender equality, the artificial differences will still remain.
Instead she proposes the idea of parody as a way to make it obvious how much emphasis has been placed on the assumptions about gender with the aim of eventually destroying the social constructs that have been created around gender and sex. She believes that when this occurs it will enable positive and transformative politics to emerge. Overall Butler is influenced by Foucault, but since her aims are so much different from his, her ideas end up varying greatly from his and her central idea is highly original.
Both share the idea that many differences that people perceive to be real are actually social constructions that have been created over the years and whose aim was to reinforce those in power and disenfranchise those not. However, as Foucault’s focus is on sexuality and Butler’s is on sex and gender, they focus on different areas of this same idea. They reach similar conclusions however, and believe it would be greatly beneficial if people realized how artificial these differences are and managed to break past them.