Judith Butler is a well-known academic who focuses on feminist and queer theory. She crosses multiple academic disciplines in an interdisciplinary methodology for Bodies That Matter. Butler analyzes film and literature as well as texts in the domain of philosophy and psychoanalysis to build her claims. She finds that notions of sex and gender are rooted in heteronormative ideals that must be reconceptualized.
Willa Cather grew up in Nebraska and worked as a teacher and journalist prior to becoming a full-time writer. Her best-known novels are O Pioneers! (1913) and My Ántonia (1918). Cather did not identify openly as a lesbian but lived with another woman for 38 years with whom she had a lesbian relationship. Butler examines My Ántonia and one of Cather's short stories "Tommy, the Unsentimental" (1896) and finds both provide an opportunity for an interpretation where names and naming conventions challenge patriarchal and heteronormative ideals.
Butler references the work of Luce Irigaray multiple times in Bodies That Matter. She is particularly impressed with what she sees as Irigaray's "insubordinate" reading of the works of the ancient Greek philosophers. This "insubordinate" reading per Butler allows Irigaray to find a space for women and the feminine in works that largely seek to exclude or subordinate women from the overall narrative. Butler draws upon this methodology of reading texts in new ways to uncover symbols of sex and gender that resist heteronormativity.
Nella Larsen worked as a nurse for most of her life and wrote in her spare time but published only a few novels and stories during her lifetime. Butler examines Larsen's novel Passing (1929) which is about two women named Clare and Irene. Both women are African American, but Clare is married to a racist white man who believes she is white. The novel centers on the relationship between Clare and Irene until Clare dies by falling or else jumping or being pushed out of a window. Butler believes that Irene desires Clare for the freedom that "whiteness" represents.