Gender essentialism and its adverse effects on society

Jennifer Boch, Staff Writer

Although it has been embedded in how society thinks about gender and relating ideas, gender essentialism is the problem you have ve probably never explicitly heard of.

Its impact can be found across multiple areas of study, including English, Philosophy, Psychology, Biology, History and Anthropology. Each major provides a different view of this concept, but in general, gender essentialism is the notion that men and women are categorized by their differences and are restricted to the options provided to them within this binarized group.

The most simplified example is the common practice of limiting blue coloring to boys and pink coloring to girls. This example may seem insignificant, but gender essentialism has been used to justify gender-bias and reinforce traditional stereotypes that are harmful to society’s progress.

These biases and stereotypes include the personality characteristics that are seen as feminine, which include but are not limited to gentleness, empathy, sweetness, nurturance, submission, dependence, sensitivity and hysteria.

On the flip side, it includes the characteristics that society deems as masculine, such as logic, impassivity, strength, independence, courage, aggression and assertiveness. This inflates other issues that can lead to sexism, violence, lack of consent and homophobia.

Let’s take a look at how different Wilkes University majors might discuss this issue. The study of Biology is often used as evidence for maintaining gender essentialism as this scientific perspective discusses the differences between the two sexes, which most people equate to gender.

It is important to note that we acknowledge there are genetic and biological differences in the makeup of different sexes. However, a student can learn in Anthropology 101, at the beginning of human civilization the development of culture brought the development of gender because gender is understood as a culture based structure, while sex is a separate concept.

The confusion over this distinction leads to many of the problems gender essentialism creates and adheres to. Anthropology also helps us see that different cultures have different distinctions in addition to the concept of gender binary, or a two gender system. 

An amazing resource for discovering these different cultural views is a map published by the Public Broadcasting Company PBS in 2015, titled “Map of Gender-Diverse Cultures.”

Furthermore, in both the study of English and the study of History, a major theme is gender. In literature, it is easy to see the persistence of gender roles and stereotypes.

In Wilkes University’s English 233 Survey of English Literature I, students read early English writings, including Beowulf, the Canterbury Tales, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

All these stories portray traditional gender roles and stereotypes, which are sometimes the topic of reflection in class.

When looking at women’s significant role in history, a student can also see distinct time periods’ views of female leadership and livelihood. Psychology also addresses gender essentialism when discussing the patterns of characteristics between the genders as well as other theories on parenting and interpersonal relationships.

Lastly, Philosophy helped develop the concept in the first place. The concept of essentialism was written about by Plato to explain how everything has an essence or specific nature. Today many philosophers prefer to view the world as what our different cultural mindsets discern rather than an inherent essence.

All in all, one can see that gender essentialism is everywhere and poses a great deal of negative implication on a wide range of communities.

Gender essentialism restricts people into a category, limiting self-expression and invalidating some individuals. This holds society back from progress, because the world would be a better place if people were no longer essentialized but seen for who they are.