For many critical aspects of family life, all the world truly is a stage. When a parent scolds a child on the playground, all eyes turn to watch and judge. When an executive’s wife hosts a work party, the guests are witness to traditional gender roles. And when two fathers attend a back-to-school night for their child, other parents take note of this relatively new family configuration. Family is popularly considered intimate and personal, but in reality much of family life is lived in the public eye.
These performances of family and familial roles do not simply communicate messages to others. They are also central to the deep structure of family law. Drawing on sociological and feminist theory, this Article argues that iterated, everyday performances are performative—that is, they create and then maintain collective understandings of mother, father, child, and family itself. The law plays an integral role in this by imbuing the performances with legal salience to define the categories at the heart of family law. This Article terms this dynamic process “performative family law.”
Aspects of this mutually constitutive relationship between performance and family law are deeply troubling, raising significant concerns for core areas of doctrine, policy, and theory. First, family law’s prevailing approach to defining familial categories is normatively narrowing because legal actors tend to give effect only to traditional, dominant images of the family despite seismic demographic changes in family form. Second, the obscuring effects of the public face of the family often warp the policies designed to address family violence, most notably child sexual abuse. Finally, by ignoring the pressure of performance, scholarly debates over the public-private divide are incomplete and have failed to explain why the concept of family privacy retains such enormous appeal.
In response, this Article proposes a new framework for family law that decenters dominant performances and provides an alternative means to define familial categories and counter family violence. It is not possible or even desirable to eliminate performativity entirely, but it is important to resist its more troubling aspects. A denaturalizing framework promises a more pluralistic approach to the emerging demographic transformation of the family and deeper engagement with the variety of family life today.