Missing gender difference’s relevance

By Nicole Dionne

There is a brand of rhetoric within feminism that I find incredibly troubling. It is one that embraces dichotomy, reinforces old myths about gender identity and runs counter to common goals of feminist movements. An example of this sort of rhetoric is Eve Ensler’s ‘girl cell’ monologue presented at tedtalks, India in November 2009. Ensler describes the ‘girl cell,’ which amounts to an embodiment of feminine stereotypes. She argues that everyone has a girl cell within them and that it is integral to the survival of humankind that we foster and express our girl cells. Ensler’s view– while certainly dramatic and biologically perplexing– is not an isolated or fringe one within feminism. Well-meaning feminists I’ve spoken to, both on campus and through my regular internet haunts, feel particularly invested in incorporating ‘feminist principles’ into current institutions or doing away with those institutions altogether to invent new ones based on these principles. Like Ensler’s girl cell, feminist principles are ideas, attributes and traits that have been historically prescribed to those of us born with ovaries. Institutions, organizations and any other collection of humans or their endeavours that do not embody these traits are seen as sexist, perpetuating patriarchy or misogynistic.

If the irony of this viewpoint doesn’t immediately make your head explode, let me lay it down for you. Women are a diverse group of people with a multitude of personalities, values and aspirations. Reinforcing a feminine/masculine dichotomy of traits and principles alienates women who don’t conform to attributes traditionally seen as feminine. It is not empowering to reinforce stereotypes that limit the bounds of what it means to be a woman. Furthermore, accepting this idea negatively impacts non-gender-normative individuals by perpetuating myths of gender dichotomy and determinism. The truth is that gender itself is culturally constructed. There are no traits or attributes that are inherent or instinctive to women over men or vice versa. Cross-cultural analysis has shown that even the idea that there are only two genders and that they align with biological traits is not a universal or pervasive view. Classification of what constitutes as feminine is culturally defined and not a reflection of true human condition.

Many of these dichotomizing ideas come from well-meaning feminists. What they’re responding to is that historically, within our own culture, attributes that have been categorized as feminine have also been imbued with a negative stigma. Women themselves have been viewed as weaker and lesser, and men who embody feminine traits have been similarly seen as inferior. To some extent, this way of thinking still persists today. Many institutions that currently exist were founded during that period of exclusion. That is what my well-meaning feminists take issue with and are trying to combat.

The way to combat this, however, isn’t to indiscriminately emphasize and extol what has been historically considered feminine. Doing so only reinforces and perpetuates myths of gender dichotomy and determinism, confining women to a particular set of traits. The correct solution is to altogether repeal the gender-charged classification systems applied to personality and attributes. Let’s wipe the slate clean and evaluate these attributes and principles and decide if we want to include them into our institutions on their own merits– not due to their association with an archaic system based on misinformation about gender. After all, before we are ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’, we are human.

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