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Let’s Talk About Gender Essentialism, Shall We?

Gender has been created and enforced through societal expectations. Instead of being understood as a biological difference, gender has always been perceived as a social construct. Both men and women perform the roles which are assigned to them by society

The concept of gender has been created and enforced through societal expectations. Instead of being understood as a biological difference, gender has always been perceived as a social construct. Both men and women perform the roles which are assigned to them by society.

The biological difference between men and women has been understood as a direct result of being socialized into occupying separate roles, a phenomenon that has created a restrictive and limited interpretation of gender.

The famous French Philosopher, Foucault’s Theory on Prison showed that “gender is a process of social conditioning, even though it used to be viewed as inherent to a person’s identity”.

In Beauvoir’s book, The Second Sex, she pointed out that “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman”, exposing the formation of gender roles along with the phenomenon of gender itself as a social construct. But, the time has come to move beyond the belief of gender as a social construction and evolve our thinking about it.

One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman

Gender has always been viewed as the socially constructed roles, behaviours, activities, and attributes considered appropriate for both men and women as per society. Men’s and women’s way of presenting themselves has been a direct result of the societal expectations and attitudes that they conform to from birth.

In other words, we can say that the expectations of our gendered society have been quite evident in terms of the usage of language by both males and females, the kind of clothes worn by them, and their way of conducting themselves.

What is gender essentialism?

As pointed out, Beauvoir theorized gender differences to be socially constructed, which, turned out to be the main alternative to the concept of gender essentialism. Gender essentialism refers to a belief that males and females are born with distinct natures, as a result of which, biological sex turns out to be the primary factor in determining gender.

Thus, this theory underlies the societal idea that the essence of a person is biologically determined, but in reality, this is an artificial and social imposition.

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It can be said that both men and women have socialized into the spaces and stereotypes assigned to them by society. As per societal expectations, the experience of being a woman depends on her marital relationship, which has been imposed from a very young age.

Women are often objectified by men, who, act as spectators holding a dominant position. On the other hand, the socially constructed identities of men remain separated from the notion of femininity.

At present, a slight transition has been observed related to the meaning of the term ‘gender’ as working women have also been recognized by society along with men helping their mothers and wives in the household chores.

But still, working women have to face conflicting pressures of managing the household chores along with working outside, ultimately, they are performing double labour. At the same time, women are also expected to battle with their emotions, therefore, they are also doing emotional labour.

The harm of gendered roles

In the case of men, who have always been defined by the characteristics of being strong and dominant, have been expected to become the breadwinner as per society. But at present, they have also been found getting engaged in household work along with taking care of the family members, which, used to be the sole responsibility of married women.

It has been felt that everything changes once the sex of a child is determined, as in the way they are treated as well as observed. This can be explained with the help of a very common example, which, is gender colouring.

In our society, girls are always expected to love the colour pink and so, they are always gifted things that turn out to be pink. While, boys are ridiculed if they are seen wearing pink coloured clothes, as the colour blue is considered to be more masculine.

Colour should never be gendered, it depends on the choice of the person, irrespective of being male or female. It has also been observed that girls are always gifted kitchen sets, on the other hand, boys are given cars to play with. Society expects the female gender to look after the household chores as well as the family, as they are said to have nurturing qualities.

But, the male gender has always been expected to become the breadwinner as they are said to be superior to women not only physically, but, also intellectually. Therefore, we can say that gender is performed as we perform the roles assigned to us by society.

Gender is not performed, gender is performative

This idea turns out to be in contrast with Judith Butler’s perception of gender. According to Judith Butler, the renowned American Philosopher, “gender is not performed, gender is performative”.

They have stated that gender performance is ongoing, which, finally, produces an individual. In other words, we can say that gender performativity is something that is realized throughout the different aspects of our lives beginning from infancy and young childhood, passing through the period of adolescence, and finally in our adult lives.

The social construction of gender is not just confined to performing gendered actions during childhood, it also extends into adulthood. It comprises the way women are looked at and presented in their everyday lives. While performing a simple act, women are always found to be constantly thinking of how they are being seen doing it.

An earmark trait of womanhood is to think about oneself first and foremost in terms of the judgment given by other people. The idea of being watched and the women being an observed object has been expanded on by Foucault’s Theories of Gender and Socialization.

Everyone is being watched, but by whom?

In his Prison analogy, Foucault noted that the prisoners will still attempt to escape even though they are being told about the presence of a security guard. But, if they start believing that they are always being watched and will be caught by the guard if they attempt to escape, their behaviour might change. The prisoners will not try to escape as they believe that they are always being watched by the guard.

As a result, we can say that the feeling of being constantly watched evokes the required performance, which, is socially acceptable. Foucault’s theory can be used to show that the main reason behind the appearance of women as a watched entity is the constant socialized expectation of women to be passive, feeble, quiet, and submissive.

It will be a mistake to assume that people will not be able to break such expectations, but, the consistent exposure to societal expectations compels women to conform to them.

Time to break free from expectations

We cannot deny the change which has taken place in society at current times related to the position of both men and women, but, still, the concept of gender is being perceived as a social construct. In other words, we can say that society expects both genders to conform to their expectations.

But, the time has come to move beyond such a limited and restrictive interpretation of gender and evolve our thinking about it.

Our thinking needs to evolve so that both genders receive equal treatment without being the sufferers of gendered-specific actions. Change in the mindset of people regarding the conception of gender is the need of the hour, which, will finally lead to an equal society along with being a developed and advanced one.

Image source: George Corcuera, Roadne productions via pexels, amazingmikael via Getty Images, free and edited CanvPro

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About the Author

Angshumita Borthakur

I am an avid reader, who is currently pursuing graduation from Miranda House and loves to write on different issues, mostly the ones pertaining to gender. My interest to write on the issues related to read more...

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