You may have heard feminists accuse people who make blanket statements about people based on their gender of "gender essentialism." But what is gender essentialism, and why is it harmful? The concept, which originated in feminist theory, is very applicable to many current events and everyday interactions.
"Essentialism" as a philosophical concept started with Plato, who posited that everything has an "essence" that makes it what it is. A rock, for example, is a rock because there's an inherent "rockness" within it. Many philosophers have since come to believe that our understanding of the world is instead dependent on how our brains perceive things and how our cultures label them — and the same thing applies to gender.
If someone subscribes to gender essentialism, they believe that there's a "maleness" or "femaleness" inherent in men and women, whether that's a spiritual or scientific property. (Gender essentialists often don't acknowledge non-binary people). People often use biology to justify essentialism by positing that our chromosomes or hormones or brains make us feminine or masculine (which isn't true).
So, if someone's accused of being "gender essentialist," they've made claims about gender differences being biological, rather than a social construct. Here's why that's a problem, and how it hurst all of us.
1. It Minimizes All The Ways Gender Norms Harm Us
2. It Encourages Stereotypes
Gender essentialism furthers ideas about what is "normal" behavior for certain genders, which contributes to the pressure people of all genders already face to embody a societal ideal.
3. It Invalidates Genderqueer People's Identities
By claiming that two X chromosomes make you a woman and an X and a Y make you a man, we invalidate people with neither chromosome pattern, women with the "male" pattern, men with the "female" pattern, and people who don't identify as men or women.
4. It Encourages Benevolent Sexism
Benevolent sexism is the idea that women are superior to men due to their femininity, and it's just as harmful as hostile sexism. When we say women deserve respect because they're so gentle, motherly, and beautiful, we're saying that other women don't deserve as much respect, and we're boxing women into categories they may or may not identify with.
5. It Invalidates Cultures That Do Things Differently
Not every culture has the same gender roles, so when we claim that the gender roles we know are "natural," we imply that other cultures are doing things unnaturally — for example, that the higher proportion of women doctors in Russia or women soldiers in Israel is wrong. When we acknowledge that there's no "right" way to do things except the just and fair way, we become more tolerant of other cultures and more intersectional as feminists.
6. It Justifies The Status Quo
When we say that women just naturally want to spend more time at home, we ignore the fact that they often have no choice. When we say that men are naturally sexually aggressive, we may not believe we can end sexual assault, so we don't try. So, gender essentialism ends up maintaining a very problematic status quo.
7. It Limits Our Self-Expression
When we posit that everyone is inherently completely masculine or feminine and can't deviate from that, we discourage men from exploring their feminine sides, women from exploring their masculine sides, and non-binary people from expressing their gender identities entirely. We all have the potential to behave in so many different ways in different situations, and claiming that our biology limits us restricts our self-expression.