What Is Gender Essentialism and Why Is It Wrong?

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We’ve all heard that “men are from Mars and women are from Venus”, but what does this actually mean? Well, it’s basically saying that men and women are just fundamentally different. They’re two different beings with two entirely different outlooks, traits and ideas.

But why is this? Why do we assume that males and females are so fundamentally different? Men and women are different but is this natural or are we taught to be so. Nature or nurture?

Let’s talk about it…

What Is Gender Essentialism?

Gender essentialism is the idea that there are traits, opinions and characteristics that are explicitly female and feminine, and there are others that are explicitly male and masculine. Essentialism is defined as the “belief that things have a set of characteristics which make them what they are”.

This forms the idea that men and women have different opinions, traits and actions because of fundamental differences between the sexes. Basically, it’s the belief that our biological composition (sex) is the primary reason for differences between men and women.

Gender essentialists consider biological sex to be the primary factor in deciding gender. So, a person’s gender assignment at birth decides their entire identity (characteristics, interests, hobbies, opinions).

Where Did Gender Essentialism Come From?

Gender essentialism developed from Plato’s claim that everything and everyone has an “essence” that defines its identity and existence. This “essence” is fixed and can’t be changed.  

The Church expressed support for this idea in many theological discussions of the time. Essentialism quickly entered discussions about gender and became the basis for the doctrine that there are two distinct sexes, male and female. The concept was that these two distinct sexes had been made different by God. They couldn’t be changed and were the only two options for sex and gender.

During the second wave, feminists (such as Simone de Beauvoir) posed that gender identity and differences were part of a social construct to oppress women. This differed from the initial idea of gender essentialism. Some understood that gender is socialised. People develop their understanding of gender-based on their upbringing and their exposure to different social agents.

There is no evidence to support gender essentialism. It’s simply a close-minded system of thought that defines our culture, its historical roots and many modern social systems. However, it isn’t fact or proven.

Why Is Gender Essentialism Wrong?

This outdated idea has been disproven and discredited many times.

During the mid-20th century, science and proven fact became more prominent in discussions about gender. People began to develop an understanding that the traditional idea of gender was essentially made up. It was devised and calculated by the systems and beliefs of one community.

The traditional idea of gender didn’t account for cultural influences or cultural change. People realised that gender essentialism didn’t agree with the scientific understanding of sex and gender.

Those that argue against gender essentialism aren’t necessarily arguing that there aren’t biological differences between males and females. However, these differences do not warrant distinct social expectations or stereotypes that lead to discrimination and subjugation.

Sex Is a Spectrum

It has been scientifically proven that there are more than two sexes. Sex is a spectrum of anatomy, hormones and biology. This spectrum has several clear variations that account for the vast majority of the world’s population.  

‘Intersex’ is an umbrella term that describes people who are born with a variation in sex characteristics. This can include chromosomes, hormones or genitalia. Biologically, these people aren’t distinctly male or female.

Gender essentialism doesn’t consider the other sex variations that exist. We’re all labelled either male or female at birth based on our sex phenotypes. However, not everyone is biologically male or female. There aren’t just two sexes that form the basis for every identity on the planet.

Intersex conditions aren’t usually fatal but many are hidden or “treated” at birth. Others are labelled either male or female by the parents with the understanding that this may change when the child gets older.

Gender Is a Social Construct

By now, it’s fairly well-known that gender is a social construct. Gender norms, conventions and stereotypes differ from culture to culture. For example, masculinity and manhood will look very different in British culture than in Brazilian culture.

Gender isn’t uniform. There isn’t one universal image of man or woman that every person in every culture understands. Perspectives on gender can differ on a societal but also individual level. This means images of man and woman will look different in different societies. But also individually, people’s own interpretation of gender is different from others. It depends on a person’s own outlook, experiences and insight into the topic.

Judith Butler famously critiqued traditional concepts of gender in her 1990 book Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. Butler argues that a person’s sex at birth doesn’t define their behaviour in any way. Instead, she posed “gender performativity”. Gender performativity is the idea that people learn to behave a certain way in order to fit into society. Butler claims that the human need to fit in keeps gender roles alive.

“We act as if that being of a man or that being of a woman is actually an internal reality or something that is simply true about us, a fact about us, but actually it’s a phenomenon that is being produced all the time and reproduced all the time, so to say gender is performative is to say that nobody really is a gender from the start.”

Judith Butler

Queer Identities Exist

Simply put, if gender essentialism was the rule of life, queer identities wouldn’t exist. Trans people, non-binary people, homosexuals, etc wouldn’t exist.

Gender essentialism rules that a person’s identity (gender, sexual orientation, interests, etc) are based on their biological composition. If that were true, trans identities would never have developed. There would be no biological need or reason.

Homosexuality wouldn’t existed. Gender essentialism demands that men like women and women like men. If that were the case, heterosexuality would be the only sexual orientation in existence.

There is also gender differentiation. Gender differs from culture to culture. Gender essentialists believe there must be one universal image of man and one of woman. In England, skirts are feminine but just a few miles north, in Scotland kilts (skirt-like clothing) are worn by men as a part of traditional attire.

Usually, each culture does have social conventions and norms for men and women. But what one culture considers feminine, another might consider masculine. Therefore, it’s not natural or inborn.

Trans People vs Gender Essentialism

Gender essentialism does extreme harm to the trans community, especially transwomen.

Gender essentialism has led to several trans-exclusionary feminist organisations. Most notably, TERFs: Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists. TERFs actively exclude transwomen and transfeminine people from their activism. They view transwomen as upholding gender stereotypes and, thus, harming the movement for women’s liberation. TERFs regularly compromise their “liberal” stance to side with conservative politics – primarily to exclude and devalue trans identities.

Transitioning Doesn’t Uphold Gender Roles

Many claim that “trans people are conforming to gender stereotypes by altering themselves to fit their gender”. However, this isn’t the case. By this idea, trans people are only trans after they have fully transitioned and assumed the typical image of their gender.

First of all, this assumes that all trans people want to transition. There are many that are comfortable with their body as it is and actually don’t want to transition. Their identity as male, female, non-binary or otherwise isn’t defined by their genitalia.

Many misinterpret transgenderism as wanting to “become the opposite sex”. In reality, trans people are simply finding their authentic selves, which includes all aspects of their identity (sex, behaviours, appearance, interests, etc). In other words, they’re simply searching for better ways to express themselves. They’re already men, women, non-binary or otherwise.

Diversity in the Trans Community

The trans community is very diverse. Not all transwomen look the same. Not all transmen look the same. There is so much variation and individuality within the trans community that it’s difficult to pinpoint any one image of man or woman.

There isn’t an essentialist view of any identity because there are so many forms of expression. Expression comes from a person’s personality, their likes, interests, culture, hobbies, etc. The way they choose to express themselves isn’t dependent on their sex or gender.

For example, transmen can be feminine and transwomen can be masculine. Non-binary people can be androgynous but they can also be masculine, feminine, or alternate between the two.

Sexual orientations also vary. People may be homosexual, bisexual, pansexual, etc. None of these conforms with gender essentialist ideas, which basically state men like women and women like men. Sexual orientation is established by the gender(s) that a person is sexually attracted to, not their own gender.

How Does Gender Essentialism Cause Harm?

Homophobia

Gender essentialism assumes that men like women and women like men. The theory poses traditional values for relationships. Gender essentialism is rooted in heterosexism.

What is heterosexism? Heterosexism is discrimination or prejudice against homosexuality based on the assumption that heterosexuality is the normal sexual orientation.

Gender essentialism is popularly used to promote heterosexist values. In recent decades, many countries have seen progress for same-sex/queer relationships. However, all of these countries are still built on heteronormative cultures.

We assume a person is straight until they come out and redefine their sexuality. Even then, we still see same-sex relationships from a heteronormative perspective. For example, asking lesbian couples “Who is the man in the relationship?” or assuming that masculine lesbians can’t date each other.

There is also a big issue surrounding the erasure of some sexualities. Bisexuality and pansexuality are often ignored or dismissed as a “phase” or “confusion”. When a bisexual or pansexual woman dates a man, she is still bi or pan. Asexual people also struggle, given that many people “don’t believe” in asexuality.    

Non-Binary Identities

Gender essentialism relies on and defines the gender binary. So, man is man and woman is woman. There are only two genders and your gender is assigned at birth based on your sex phenotype (penis or vulva).

Non-binary identities reject the typical gender binary. Non-binary people don’t identify as male or female. These identities can come under the trans umbrella. It’s important to note that a person’s gender is self-assigned and self-defined. Gender labels can mean different things to different people.

Non-binary identities redefine gender based on the individual. People are experiencing more freedom to label their own identity and express it however they want. This disproves gender essentialism entirely. If male/man and female/woman were the only natural genders, non-binary identities would never have developed.

Consent and Sexual Violence

The pressures of social relationships, power dynamics and gender essentialism makes it difficult to discern autonomous decisions about consent.

Society teaches men and boys to be active and open about their sexuality. We expect that they’ll constantly want sex and have a consistent sex life. This puts pressure on boys to fulfil social expectations. They’re supposed to be dominant and well-versed with sex.

For women, there are even more pressures and adversities. Society teaches women and girls to be conservative with their sexuality. Many women are told to preserve themselves for the will of one man. Girls with high body counts are mocked and abused. On the other hand, people also expect that girls will be sex experts to please the man they’re with.

Girls are taught that boys’ pleasure is more important than their own. Many young girls discard their own satisfaction for their partner’s. They ignore their own discomfort (or even pain, in many cases) to satisfy the man they’re with.

Gender essentialism powers and promotes rape culture, by supporting harmful stereotypes surrounding sex and sexuality. Gender essentialists believe that men are entitled to sex, therefore entitled to women’s bodies regardless of women’s choices, pleasure and consent.

Gender essentialist heteronormativity also infiltrates same-sex couples. Lesbians may find it difficult to be dominant. Masculine lesbians may also find it difficult to be submissive because this may “undermine” their masculinity.

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