Gender Essentialism from All Sides

This is a very long essay that I’ve written mainly for the purpose of connecting dots in my own head, so it goes from some broad “Feminism 101” analysis to a more specific point about the theoretical treatment of gender essentialism within (some) radical feminist circles. I don’t think it really has a target audience, as such, except for, you know, me.

One of the standard tropes employed when creating a strawfeminist is to imply that she thinks men and women are exactly the same. Bonus points to be added based on the number of times the author describes him/herself as a countercultural rebel braving unfriendly waters by merely suggesting that there are any differences at all, and holds him/herself as someone who just wants truth and science to win out over all this political rhetoric.

At this most basic level, the idea of gender essentialism posits that men “are” a certain way due to the biological effects of hormones and brain wiring, and women “are” other ways for the same reason. Feminists tend to argue that many of these differences are imposed through conditioning, and that even casual comments such as “Oh, men just can’t clean up after themselves” or “I do all the talking because I’m a woman” represent pressure to conform to that norm, or at least, make it more difficult to talk about the possibility of changing inequalities.

Anti-feminists who take delight in the thought that they’ve laid bare the falsehood of the feminist agenda to eradicate all differences between men and women rarely admit that these “natural differences” somehow all manage to privilege the male experience. Check out the Feminism 101 article on the subject. They also miss what seems to me a contradiction in their position, as Betacandy points out in the quoted post under “Clarifying Concepts”: “If it’s so natural, why all the conditioning?”

Here’s the thing: We could do brain scans, develop behavioural surveys, conduct observational studies and draw statistical charts until the end of time, and maybe they will actually prove that our common gender stereotypes are pretty darn accurate, on average. But it is absolutely undeniable to say that some people do not conform to expectations–in fact, I’d say that it would be impossible for one person to completely conform to all aspects of the archetypal gender role assigned to him/her, what with people being different individuals and all. So my crazy idea is: what if we just…let them be? And…stopped trying to figure out how it happened and what caused it or how much variation is too much variation and whether they’re an aberration or an abomination that causes desolation, or what?

Part of this is inspired by my basic stance on gender essentialism and my conversations with Jay, who has said in comments that he can’t quite let go of some of his ideas about differences being inherent rather than acquired, though he’s pretty down with that whole equality thing. From that angle, I’m essentially saying: fine. Don’t. Don’t force yourself to start believing that hormones/body structures have no impact whatsoever on one’s way of interacting with the world from the inside out, especially if you want to speak in terms of averages and most/many. I honestly don’t think we can ever know for certain – there’s never existed a vacuum away from these expectations and roles and aspects of conditioning that could serve as our “control group” to determine whether, in their absence, the differences would still exist. So in the meantime, awaiting the day when the truth will become inarguably apparent to all of us, how’s about we just act like we don’t have a clue about universals and start (here’s where I get really crazy, I know) listening to people talk about themselves?

The other inspiration for finally writing this post has been the fact that I’ve been reading a lot more writing by transpersons, as well as heated arguments between radical feminists and transpeople/allies on the issue of, basically, whether it’s real and/or acceptable to be trans. I’m going to admit straight up that I do not “understand” transgenderism. Back when I was first awakening to the idea of being an “ally” to the GLBT community, I was admittedly confused by the “T” in the acronym and, for lack of a less condescending way of expressing it, how it worked. Now, a decade later, when I read people describing what it feels like for them to not “match” in terms of brain/body, I can’t relate to what they’re describing beyond the most basic level of empathy and humanity. It’s just not something I’ve ever really had to think about, and the concepts are pretty foreign to me.

That’s kinda why, when someone talks about experiencing his/her own body this way, I know it’s real (not that my sanction is required to make it real, but this post is driven by the statements of people who, at least partially, discredit the experiences). It’s personal, and it has nothing to do with projecting roles, attitudes or mindsets onto anybody else. And in all honesty, I cannot wrap my mind around the “radical feminist” position that “trans*activists” are actually reinforcing gender essentialist binaries by speaking the way they do about their experiences (or, ultimately, by daring to exist). Because to my mind, listening to transpeople talk requires that one immediately renounce the notion that simple facts of biology make you who you are in terms of male vs. female, and it opens up this whole new set of questions about social conditioning, breaking out of it and what happens to the way one experiences the world (or is experienced by the world) after a transition, all of which help the rest of us to better understand how it is that role-reinforcement works. I’ve read enough of the radical feminist argument to intellectually “get” what they’re trying to say, but I can’t for the life of me manage to actually grasp how people who feel that their destinies are in complete opposition to their biologies ends up reinforcing the notion of biology being destiny (beyond just the whole “binary creation is bad” thing, which is, I think, an exceptionally myopic and dogmatic way of looking at the world).

The conversations often get pretty esoteric and theoretical and take a tone of “these people are telling stories about their lives that could be harmful to our politics, which is just not okay“. The mentality seems to be “If we let them talk about themselves this way, and accept that what they say might be true, we would have to call into question our assumptions about our own experiences and the way the world works”. To which I respond: yahuh.

Which brings me back around to how this applies to your basic conversation on gender essentialism 101. The idea that maybe these differences are not innate and that we should stop and listen to people tell us about themselves and how they “are” as people requires your friendly neighbourhood average Joe/Jane to radically rethink his/her own assumptions about the way the world works. And as a feminist, my general attitude is: deal with it. It’s not okay for you to call into question and/or dictate who I am because it would be inconvenient for you to shut up and just listen to what I say and you’re not sure if there’s enough mobility in your worldview to squeeze in the snapshot that I’m giving you from the angle that I’ve got on the grand scheme of things.

If you’re a “female who rejects how females are expected to be and behave under patriarchy, and who loves her femaleness and that of other females”, good for you. Turns out, so am I (though I’m not lesbian, so my love for the femaleness of others takes kind of a different form from that of the commenter). I don’t see any “trans*activists” telling others that they can’t be that person. I’m grateful for the internet and those on it who will open up their lives for those who, like me, initially heard the term “transgendered” and went “how the fuck does that work?” and, yep, it turns out that learning about it has, in some ways, required me to make some shifts in my worldview that weren’t always convenient and that still aren’t always easy, either academically or emotionally.

But since the main point still applies, I’ll repeat it verbatim with some different pronouns: It’s not okay for me to call into question and/or dictate who s/he is because it would be inconvenient for me to shut up and just listen to what s/he says and I’m not sure if there’s enough mobility in my worldview to squeeze in the snapshot that s/he’s giving you from the angle that s/he’s got on the grand scheme of things.

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3 thoughts on “Gender Essentialism from All Sides

  1. tigtog says:

    Great post (and I love your categorising).

  2. purtek says:

    Thank you. And I think making up category names might be the very most fun part of having a blog in the first place. 🙂

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