Tuesday, January 20, 2004

So today's Feminist Theory discussion centered on the concept of 'essentialism'. Talk about interesting (in an 'ow-my-head-huuuuurts' kind of way) and it actually sparked a pretty good deal of controversy within the class. In my own ignorance, I find it hard to believe that anybody can believe in essentialism, but maybe I should explain what it actually is first. It is the idea that things (ie, people) have something essential to them that transcends history, time, culture, society, etc. and is fundamentally unchangeable. In feminist theory, this applies specifically to the concepts of gender. Is it possible to define something as essentially male or essentially female? (Naturally, biological factors--including the ability to bear children--are outside this realm).

I would argue that gender (which is not the same thing as sex--sex is biologically determined) is not essential; that it is determined by our old friends society and culture, but apparently many of the classmates would disagree with that, and argue that there is something essential to being a 'woman'.

+Essentialism (from Emory) - this one is pretty close to the handout we got in class today, so it is especially good.
+from Queertheory.com - a collection of online essentialist resources

It is interesting to think about what traits we identify with gender: aggression, maternal instincts (and I finally grasp the concept of gendered language!), the enjoyment of certain genres of movies/books/art/music/etc., cleanliness, domestic abilities...and of course it is nearly impossible to separate yourself from the concepts of essentialism in any meaningful way.

In the summers I work as an interpreter at a historic site, and I get to dress in period (17th century) costume. I dress as a seventeenth century man (largely because there were never women at my historic site) and now that I think about it, there are different behaviours that I adopt when dressing like a man:
+sitting with legs open
+more authorative walk
+standing straighter
+attempting to imagine myself as illiterate

I don't really see any of these behaviours as essentially masculine, though--especially since some of the other tasks I perform at Ste-Marie would have been/still are "feminine" work (cooking, sewing, knitting) that would have been performed by the men, because, well, there weren't any women around.

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