Let’s cut to the chase: I abhor gender essentialism and not just in the abstract sense that this stuff hurts women as a class (though it does and that would certainly be reason enough to detest this type of biological determinism). My reasons, however, are personal as much as they are political. My life has been marred by extreme violence and abuse, body image issues, anorexia, addiction, and severe depression. I spent much of my teen years hating myself and wanting to die. But it wasn’t always like that. As a little girl, I was an entirely different person. Happy, confident, curious, a natural leader. What happened, you ask? Gender happened. Specifically, being forced into the female gender role. You know, the one that should have come naturally, given that I was born female and all.
In this post and the next, I’ll be discussing gender essentialism–the belief that women are one way and men are another way and these differences are the result of biology, not socialization–and the damage done to girls when they are forced into the female gender straightjacket. Unfortunately proponents of gender essentialism are everywhere. And it’s not just conservatives, MRAs and evo psych adherents (lots of overlap there) who believe that men and women are inherently different due to biologically determined gender roles. Recently I’ve come across several self-described feminists and feminist allies seemingly invested in denying that gender is a social construct. My guess is that most people believe, more or less strongly, that at least some gender differences (not to be confused with sex differences though they frequently are) are innate. This is very much the mainstream view, which is why it’s so annoying when those who subscribe to it pretend they’re courageously speaking an unpopular truth that some of us ladies just don’t want to accept.
And why would women be particularly reluctant to accept an essentialist view of gender? Duh! Because while the gender binary is limiting for men as well, in a patriarchal society (and which society isn’t?) it’s far more limiting for women. Gender essentialism has been used to advocate, explain, and excuse the oppression of women for eons, what with us being “naturally” passive, submissive, emotional, illogical, helpless, nurturing, self-sacrificing, dependent, peace-loving, and all that.
Some gender essentialists, like trans activist Julia Serano, argue that the problem isn’t the female gender role (which Serano believes most women “naturally gravitate toward;” I’ll discuss my own experience with that “natural” gravitation later), but the fact that sexist societies (including feminists!) devalue femininity and overvalue masculinity.
There’s no question that patriarchal societies place far greater value on traits considered masculine (e.g., aggression, independence, individualism, ambition, determination) than traits considered feminine (e.g., nurturance, harmony, cooperation, empathy, sacrifice), and the consequences of that have been disastrous. I believe everything from rising income inequality and constant wars to environmental devastation and the abysmal way we treat animals can be traced back to this imbalance. Where Serano and I part ways, however, is that I don’t believe women are “naturally” more nurturing, conflict-averse, or in touch with our emotions any more than we’re biologically destined to wear pink, walk in high heels, and suck at math. Gender essentialists routinely go wrong by assuming a biological basis for gender differences that are easily explained by socialization.
But whether we accept or reject gender essentialism, the truth is that no one can know for certain if gender roles are the result of nature or nurture. While gender essentialists like to pretend that there are “countless studies” proving their contention that gender is innate and that this is “not even debatable anymore,” no such studies actually exist. That’s because the only way to answer the nature or nurture question would be to separate babies at birth to be raised by gender-neutral robots in an environment completely devoid of humans, media, and other socializing influences. Obviously such an experiment would be abusive, making it extremely unlikely it’ll ever happen.
So let’s look at what we do know. We know that boys and girls are socialized very differently (here’s just one small–but hardly insignificant–example) and that there’s a massive social system in place that rewards people for performing gender correctly (i.e., in accordance with their biological sex) and punishes them for stepping out of line. There is no escaping this system, no matter how much we wish to.
As a little girl, I was able to hold out longer than most. There were two main reasons for this. First, while my mom didn’t (and doesn’t) identify as a feminist, she had little patience with gender role bullshit. She didn’t believe in having different chores, rules, or expectations for boys and girls, nor were there gender appropriate and inappropriate toys in our house (gender appropriate appearance was a different matter; my mom used to love to put me–but not my brother–in pretty little dresses until I got old enough to dress myself and insist on wearing pants). Second, we moved around a lot so my brother was my main playmate and my exposure to kids who’d been through traditional gender role socialization was limited.
A couple of years ago I read an interview with Michelle Obama’s brother in which he recounted how they liked to play “office” when he and Michelle were kids. Although he says Michelle totally ran the show, she was always the secretary and he was always the boss. Because, of course, boys/men are bosses and girls/women exist to assist them–even if they end up doing all the work. Gendered play like that would have been inconceivable for me and my brother. I had Barbies, yes, but the way we played with them was not quite the way Mattel intended. I gave my Barbies green mohawks and dressed them in Mad Max garb. Then we played Road Warrior with my Barbies and my brother’s “action figures.” Or Justice League where the dolls were superheroes. Leadership, strength, courage, competence–there was never a gender component to any of those qualities when we played. The female characters were just as smart, tough and kick-ass as the male characters.
So why was I the one with the Barbies and my brother the one with the action figures? First, while I was exposed to very little gender role indoctrination at home, I didn’t live in a bubble. I certainly absorbed the message that Barbies are for girls and action figures are for boys from gender-segregated TV commercials, toy catalogs, and toy store aisles as well as from other kids and from family friends who brought us gender-appropriate gifts. And secondly, it may be that children gravitate toward dolls of their own sex, though this requires more study. But while the Barbies were technically mine and the action figures technically belonged to my brother, we not only played with each other’s toys, we also helped each other pick out new ones. I remember telling my brother to make sure he asked for the action figure that came with the crocodile for Xmas.
What I didn’t care for as a little girl was most of the stuff that little girls supposedly naturally gravitate toward: pretty dresses, skirts, princess shit, tea parties, the color pink, babies, etc. I did enjoy baking, but then, so did my brother, and when a family friend visited with her new baby, it was my brother who seemed to know “instinctively” how to hold and interact with the little bundle, while I was clueless.
By the time my family settled in one place and I started spending more time with other kids, I was so confident and assertive, they mostly accepted me the way I was. In addition to being self-assured and not taking shit from people, I was extremely active, adventurous, and inquisitive. I had so many interests that boredom was a completely alien concept to me. By the time I was nine or ten, I was one of the two leaders of a group of a dozen or so neighborhood kids that included both boys and girls, some of them several years older than me. Most people thought of me as a tomboy, though I dislike the label because it suggests that my behavior was normal for boys, but not for girls. I didn’t want to be a boy and I didn’t think girls were inferior. I just wanted to be me, and I didn’t yet understand that who I was wasn’t acceptable.
That’s not to say that my early childhood was all sunshine and light. On two separate occasions pervy adult men tried to prey on me (no, I can’t be 100% sure what their motives were, but why else would an adult male try to lure a nine year-old girl into his car?). And I couldn’t quite understand why certain older relatives and family friends always seemed so much more interested in my brother. But I was spared much of the crap little girls experience at the hands of little boys, partly because I wasn’t stereotypically feminine (hyper feminine girls got picked on the most) and partly because I had a gang of kids behind me to back me up.
Unfortunately the system was about to redouble its efforts to force me into my biologically preordained gender role. Prepubescent girls who tell the gender norms police to go fuck itself are one thing; teenaged (and near-teenaged) girls who attempt the same are quite another. In the second part of this post, I’ll discuss how I was made to conform to my “natural” gender role and what it did to me.