Gender essentialism is the widely discredited and outdated idea that men and women act differently and have different options in life because of intrinsic or essential differences between the sexes. In other words, it is the idea that men and women are fundamentally different for reasons that are unchangeable.
Gender essentialism is often used to excuse gender-based biases in society. For example, it can be used to justify the idea that jobs traditionally held by women are often accorded less respect and lower pay.
Gender essentialism is both informed by gender stereotypes and reinforces them. It can have numerous effects on society.
Gender Essentialism and Homophobia
This outdated concept can promote assumptions about how relationships "should" work that are rooted in essentialist notions of gendered behavior. For example, asking a married lesbian couple, "Which one of you is the husband?" assumes that the traditional male role is necessary for a successful marriage. That further implies that one of them must be performing the male role, whatever that means.
Gender Essentialism and Non-Binary Genders
However, gender essentialism is not supported by evidence. Instead, it is a common system of biases that affect how the world works. People who identify as non-binary explicitly reject the notion of gender essentialism by forgoing either male or female identities. People who identify as male and female can also reject gender essentialist norms through actions, beliefs, and behaviors.
How Gender Essentialism Imperils Consent
Gender essentialism can make it difficult for people to make active choices about consent. This is, in part, because many common gender essentialist notions are about sexual behavior.
For example, men and boys may be taught from an early age that they are always expected to want sex.
In contrast, women are taught the opposite. This puts pressure on men to be sexual, and sexually aggressive. Simultaneously, women are encouraged to deny their sexual desires.
Gender essentialism also encourages rape culture, since men may believe they should keep pressing a woman for sex and that the man is entitled to sex.
Such dynamics may play out in same-sex couples as well. However, they can appear in slightly different ways. Some gay men, for example, may have a difficult time acknowledging that they are not always interested in sex. Some lesbians may have trouble being sexually assertive.
Refuting Gender Essentialism
People who argue against gender essentialism do not attempt to claim that male and female bodies are the same. Instead, they posit that there is no reason that the biological differences between the sexes should lead to specific expectations for male and female behavior. They believe that there is no reason such differences should encourage inequalities in opportunity.
In the sexual realm, the argument might be that some people may tend to be more active, and others more passive, in the bedroom. However, those differences would be expected to have to do more with personality and other factors than with gender.
In fact, while there is often one member of a couple who is more interested in sex, that person can be of any gender.
Arguments against gender essentialism are supported by evidence that gender expectations differ significantly across cultures. They are also supported by very different sexual and gender norms that have existed in different places and different eras. Such differences are apparent with respect to not only sexual behavior but a variety of other aspects of life.
Arends-Tóth J, van de Vijver FJ. Cultural differences in family, marital, and gender-role values among immigrants and majority members in the Netherlands. Int J Psychol. 2009 Jun;44(3):161-9.
Schmitt, D. P. (2003), Are men universally more dismissing than women? Gender differences in romantic attachment across 62 cultural regions. Personal Relationships, 10: 307–331.
By now, it should be no secret that allyship with trans people is a core component to intersectional feminist thought.
Yet there is still one question I consistently hear from well-intentioned friends and colleagues: “Don’t trans people validate the idea that men and women must exist within certain societal roles? Doesn’t it perpetuate gender essentialism?”
This question – conjoined with the constant assault of doubt and skepticism aimed at the entire existence of trans identities – has likely haunted a fair share of politically conscious trans activists themselves at one point or another over the course of their transition.
To answer this question, we’ll need to start by defining gender essentialism:
Gender essentialism is the idea that men and women have inherent, unique, and natural attributes that qualify them as their separate genders.
These differences are often biological or sexual, and they are almost exclusively viewed as polar opposites: Men are strong, women are weak; men are dominant, women are submissive; men have penises, women have vulvas; men have a high sex drive, women constantly need convincing; and so on and so forth.
Moreover, gender essentialism fuses gender and sex to one another intrinsically. To someone promoting gender essentialism, gender and sex are identical. Naturally growing a masculine-read body, but being a woman (i.e. a trans woman) is a sheer impossibility.
This is the reason why some see transitioning as a submission to essentialist thought: Trans women and trans men are making their bodies more feminine or masculine, accordingly, and thus promoting this fusion of gender and sex. Right?
Not exactly.This assertion isn’t as cut-and-dry as it might seem.
In fact, it is absolutely possible to take a stance against gender essentialism and still continue to transition – or to support your Queer kin who are doing so.
Transition Itself Is Non-Essentialist
As I mentioned above, two core parts of gender essentialist thought are the biological and sexual assumptions that go along with a person’s definition of what it means to be a man or a woman (and being neither of these, of course, is right out of the question).
A common narrative that trans people express is that they aim to become their “true selves.”
However, striving to become one’s true self is not the same thing as the popular misconception that trans men or trans women are working to “become the opposite sex.”
The differences between these two are subtle, but important.
The first description implies that they are already men, women, or non-binary and are searching for ways to better express their reality.
The latter implies that their identity is completely invalid until they alter their bodies. Right from the get-go, we’re subjected to a cissexist perspective on trans realities.
Of course we’re going to believe that transitioning is inherently essentialist when the argument starts this way – because it has been inaccurately presented to us as inherentlyessentialist.
The journey to become one’s “true self” frequently passes through many places. A common one involves the person freeing themselves from the gender expression expected of people with their body and adopting one that feels more natural.
Another involves altering their body so that they can feel more comfortable in it, which allows them to reclaim it for themselves in the way that they see best fit.
Both of these self-affirmations break apart the idea that the person is permanently and biologically tied to their gender, while still affirming their right to be autonomous over their own body and to alter it to their content.
Transitioning is non-essentialist by its nature because it actively defies the idea that bodies need to or should operate in accordance with how they “naturally” operate.
It denies the presumption that our bodies have a biological predestination and queers (as opposed to maintains) the social constructs surrounding gender and our bodies.
Trans People Are Diverse
Another major reason why the “transition-as-essentialist” argument falls flat is because not every trans person is identical or wants the same things.
A full body transition is not desired by every trans person.
There are even major trans activists who promote the radical idea that trans women can actually love the body they’re in and don’t need to feel coerced to change themselves.
Conversations between trans people about their bodies, the gendering of them, and the significance and political meaning of physical transition have been happening in Western culture for as long as two trans people have been talking to one another. In fact, trans people have been defying the gendered expectations of their bodies for at least as long.
Furthermore, the argument that transitioning is inherently essentialist undermines the diversity that exists even within people who are transitioning.
Butch trans women exist.
Femme trans men exist.
Transitioning agender and non-binary people exist.
These expressions and identities, in and of themselves, subvert gender essentialist expectations by queering the binary constructs of gender, gender roles, and expectations.
A person’s decision to change their body – or advocating for increased autonomy so that they can – does not necessitate advocacy for a gender essentialist world.
Just the opposite, it adds options and opportunity for people to exist in non-essentialist ways. It opens doors for people to express their genders and reclaim their bodies where they would otherwise feel trapped.
Most importantly, it shows off the gender binary and the norm of arbitrarily gendering children for what these systems really are: broken as all hell.
Well, Okay, Maybe It’s a Little Essentialist
I’ve spent the last two sections demonizing gender essentialism and showing how it is not the sole purpose for transitioning, and I stand by those arguments.
Gender essentialism – in the way I defined it above and the way that it’s understood throughout our society – is a totally garbage concept that is largely to blame for much of the gender-based oppression within our culture.
This is obvious just by looking at how our own identities differ from the social norms that exist around us. We alone dictate that gender essentialism simply can’t be natural law.
Biologist and Queer-feminist activist Julia Serano talks about her own apprehensions toward gender essentialism in regards to her own identity in her book Excluded: Making Feminist and Queer Movements More Inclusive.
She compares the nature-vs-nurture dichotomy first by showing the flaws in gender being recognized as only genetic:
“[I]f being genetically male automatically led to a male identity, masculine gender expression, and exclusive attraction to women, [then] how did I become a bisexual femme-tomboy transsexual woman?”
Simply put, if gender essentialism were the rule, genderqueer identities just wouldn’t exist.
The ills that gender essentialism has brought women and non-binary folx has led many of these people to embrace gender artifactualism, the understanding of gender as strictly a social construction.
After all, gender norms differ from culture to culture, and they certainly don’t accurately describe every person within our own culture, so they can’t be natural or inherent to us as humans.
But Serano addresses an inconsistency with the idea that gender is exclusively a social phenomenon as well.
She describes scenarios in which male children were reassigned as female (after their “ambiguous” genitals or botched circumcisions led doctors to mandate it for them) grew up to be men or have “male-typical” traits, despite them being raised and socialized as girls.
She also touches on how this gender artifactualism doesn’t coincide with her own gender reality, using a similar argument as above:
“[If] socialization artificially brainwashes all of us into becoming heterosexual masculine men and feminine women, then how do you explain the existence of fabulous bisexual femme-tomboy transsexual women such as myself?”
Out of this conundrum, Serano concludes that there is only one explanation: Gender is neither essentialist nor artifactualist, but is both essentialist and artifactualist, each to some degree depending on the individual person. She refers to this concept as the holistic model of gender.
So while neither our biology nor our socialization exclusively dictate who we will be and how we will identify, there is evidence that both of these influences simultaneously and convolutedly guide us toward one direction or another. (This outcome should be unsurprising in a field of study that works to deny binaries and dichotomies).
From there, finding the comfort zone between self-affirmation and political idealism is up to the individual – as not every trans person is an activist, after all.
Gender essentialism is a tricky topic.
On one hand, it’s been used to legitimize both sexism and trans-antagonism; on the other, evidence suggests that it might not be entirely unfounded for every person.
Finding the middle ground between our bodies and our cultural influences has always been a paramount idea in feminism – and the politics of transitioning are no different.
Not to mention that advocating for and supporting transgender rights by acknowledging the diversity that exists within trans people is inherently non-essentialist, the only result that could come from progress is that more doors and opportunities will be opened for people to explore their genders and create a society that respects the full array of human experience.
Kaylee Jakubowski is a Contributing Writer for Everyday Feminism. She is a trans, Queer feminist with specific interests in ecofeminism, anti-imperialism, Queerness, and statistical approaches to social justice work. Xe is pursuing a B.S. in Statistics with a minor in Women’s & Gender Studies. Feel free to Like her Facebook Page, follow her on Tumblr, or see what she’s up to musically. Read her other articles here.
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