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13th March 2024

Has feminism returned to essentialism?

After years of the feminist movement trying to extricate itself from gender essentialism, we’re seeing a regression in attitudes towards essentialist views; what does this mean for gender equality?
Has feminism returned to essentialism?
Credit: Magda Ehlers @ Pexels

Increasingly, I’m hearing people talk about inherent differences that drive a wedge between men and women. Although this has surpassed the traditional ‘men are stronger’ and ‘women are more nurturing’ talk, the frustrated, pull-your-hair-out-because-I’m-so-tired-with-the-world kind of arguments I’m hearing nowadays don’t fall far from the essentialism tree.

For those unfamiliar with the term gender essentialism, it’s the conflation of sex and gender as one and the same, and the belief that gender differences are an intrinsic result of biology. 

I blame much of the recent essentialist surge on TikTok and the herd mentality that it’s birthed. Within the feminist sphere, many years were dedicated to breaking down essentialist views . But it appears that with the dramatic entry of social media brain-rot, young people have once again regressed to an archaic mentality.

The most common form essentialist rhetoric I’m seeing now pertains to matters of ‘empathy’, in particular. Women have always been assigned the ‘caring’ and ‘loving’ labels, all soft around the edges and emotionally perceptive. And it’s true that girls are still socialized into adopting this nature. However, there appears to have been a recent breakdown in the distinctions between socialization and being born this way (Alexa, play Lady Gaga).

It’s become popular for women to label men as uncaring, or even incapable of the empathy and emotional capacity that women have. I’ve heard men being condemned to a life sentence of ‘emotionally inept’ by people I know, sometimes even arguing that this is the result of intrinsic biological differences in the brain. On the days I don’t have the strength to argue, I smile and nod along, murmuring ‘Ugh, yeah men suck’. You can throw rotten tomatoes at me for being a bystander later; I’ve got a point to make first.

This is certainly a flip from the original essentialist ideas that condemned the loving nature of women as less valuable than typically ‘manly’ characteristics. Now, women are placing themselves on pedestals for harbouring an abundance of compassion that men are apparently devoid of. Perhaps it’s this role reversal in gender superiority that have swept essentialist undertones under the rug.

The argument that the genders are innately different perpetuates gender inequality. When this idea becomes echoed into society, there is a tendency to forget the category of ‘people’, favouring instead the binaries ‘man’ and ‘woman’, and the assets associated with them. 

The best way I can think to describe this is in relation to Greta Gerwig’s Barbie. (Spoiler alert). Also – if you haven’t seen it yet, do it right now. Not because it’s necessary to understand this article, just because you should watch it. That’s why I wrote this. It’s all just a ploy to make you watch Barbie.

A lot of women expressed disappointment at Barbie’s forgiveness of Ken after he stole her house, made Barbieland a patriarchy, and caused her to have a breakdown. Many people were also dismayed that Barbieland wasn’t returned to a total matriarchy, and that Barbie didn’t continue treating Ken like dirt on her pristine stiletto; he deserved to be treated like that, it was funny, that’s how women are treated by men, it’s a taste of their own medicine.

But here’s the thing: No one deserves to be ignored or berated in the way Barbie treated Ken, or in the way Ken treated Barbie in retaliation. This isn’t an issue of gender but one of basic human compassion.

Unfortunately, compassion has, once again, been gendered. The messages directed towards men that ‘this film is not for you’ also got under my skin. Of course, it wasn’t intended to pander to typically ‘male interests’, but films are made for the consumption of everyone. Stop gendering things that don’t need to be gendered. Stop gatekeeping things because you gender them.

Returning to the point I was making: gender equality cannot be achieved whilst we maintain the dogma that the binary of men and women is biologically absolute. It’s a vicious cycle that can never go anywhere. And I get why women do it – we are angry, tired, and frustrated at the way we are treated, so we bite back by concluding that bad experiences are a result of men- full stop- rather than the socialization that enables certain behaviour. The inability to separate men from patriarchy is part of the problem.

The best way to achieve a goal as broad as gender equality and women’s liberation is with solidarity and tolerance. This may sound hippy – and overly simplified – but the gendered barriers we build between each other are the very we must overcome to gain gender equality.

So, stop thinking of people as the gender they are, and start thinking of them as people.

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