What Is Gender Essentialism? Why Does It Matter?

A reader recently asked me to expand on the concept of ‘gender essentialism’ after seeing me reference it in a piece, because she was somewhat unclear on the subject. While there are lots of terrific internet resources discussing this important theoretical concept and its applications to the real world, I realised that I hadn’t discussed it in detail here, and it was worth talking about at more length, rather than sandwiching it into larger essays and thoughts on gender, gender identity, and social perceptions of gender.

The concept of gender essentialism is rooted in a binarist view of gender: there are two genders, male and female. Each gender is associated with specific physical, social, and cultural traits that are innately native to that gender. For example, gender essentialism is behind the idea that only women have internal genitals, that men tend to be stronger than women, that women are more emotionally sensitive, or that men are better at math and science.

Essentialism in general contributes to sexism, as you can see from the examples above, but it also plays a very special role in transphobia. In terms of how people interact with the binary trans community, gender essentialism drives hateful and bigoted comments about how trans men and women aren’t ‘real’ men and women. A trans woman who has chosen not to have (or hasn’t yet gotten) genital surgery, for example, is a ‘man in a dress’ under the framework of gender essentialism, because external genitals=male in the eyes of these arbiters of gender. Conversely, a trans man can’t be a ‘real man’ if he has breasts, because these are associated with women.

Gender essentialism is used to deny binary trans identity, forcing people into genders they are not on the grounds that their physical or social traits fit a different gender. This assumes firstly that certain traits only go with certain genders, and that people should not be accorded respect and dignity with reference to how they identify. If a woman says she’s a woman, she’s only a woman if external judges deem her to meet the standard of femininity.

Gender essentialism drives a great deal of hate speech and other hateful behaviour towards the trans community, especially trans women. Trans women have been beaten, raped, and murdered for not performing femininity ‘correctly’ or for ‘deceiving’ people. This creates an external pressure for trans women, who are pushed to ‘pass’ by looking, behaving, and performing in a certain way to ‘look like women’ even though this may actually conflict with their personalities, internal beliefs about gender, and preferred mode of gender expression. A trans woman might be hypervigilant about wearing makeup and shaving her legs even though she personally dislikes these practices and believes they can be oppressive, for example, because she knows she is more likely to be passed as a woman.

Gender essentialism also affects nonbinary people, like me, who sit outside the gender binary. Because gender essentialists believe firmly in a gender binary and reject the idea that people may not identify as male or female (indeed, they reject the very idea of ‘identifying’ at all, believing that people are one gender or another, as determined by genitals and various superficial traits), they refuse to acknowledge nonbinary people. We do not exist under their framework, and instead must be categorised and forcibly pressed into one gender or another: thus, as a person with breasts, I must be a woman, with my own thoughts on the matter being largely irrelevant when contrasted with the larger urgency to eliminate confusion or upset about gender.

The gender policing used against nonbinary people, agender people, and other people who are not men and women is different than that used against binary trans people. It is still harmful, albeit in different ways. We are less likely to be assaulted for our gender, for example, though such incidents do happen. Like binary trans people, we endure hateful speech, commentary, and speculation on our ‘real’ gender and genitals. We also experience the repeated bigotry of having our own identities erased by people who believe they are better determiners of who we are, despite the fact that they are not living the experiences we are, in the bodies we inhabit, with the minds we have.

Gender essentialism, then, is the insistence that a few traits can be swiftly used to categorise someone’s gender, and that these traits are inflexible. It is, furthermore, the belief that people can and should be slotted into the ‘correct’ gender category regardless as to which gender they identify with. It’s often followed up with attitudes that people who do not fit within essentialist worldviews are simply being difficult or tiresome, or are wanting to be ‘special snowflakes.’ These attitudes suggest that people struggle with gender identity not because there is a fundamental mismatch between their actual gender and the gender assigned at birth, but because they want attention and affirmation from the people around them.

These attitudes are immensely harmful, and they dominate society. Gender essentialism makes the world an extremely dangerous place for trans people, particularly binary trans people, especially trans women — with trans women of colour living at a particular intersection of bigotry that makes them even more vulnerable. Gender essentialism matters because it is a  popular and harmful framework for conceptualising gender, and despite the fact that it is wrong, it is rarely challenged, even within many progressive communities. (For example, feminists often equate having a vagina with being a woman, or believe that only women can get pregnant/all women have the potential ability to get pregnant.)

Fighting gender essentialism involves breaking down internal attitudes about gender, and also challenging people who resort to essentialist arguments. Only by pushing back on it will people eradicate it.