Identity continued: a discussion of essentialization
A month or two ago, I had a discussion with a friend on the bus about identity. We were talking about gay identity, and I was telling him about my seminar paper. He started telling me about how in the black community (he’s black and I *think* straight, though I hate to make assumptions) there are definitely gay men, but no one would ever talk about it, because of the certain image that the black man is supposed to fit into. He explained that a lot of people feel that your “Blackness” is supposed to be superior to all else, and presumably a certain narrow kind of blackness, so that being gay does not fit into that identity.
I’d heard about this phenomenon before, and it got me thinking about how we essentialize all sorts of identities. I definitely think it’s true of the queer community. I’ve noticed myself doing it a lot, not so much anymore, but when I first left the South, with my Southern identity (letting my accent get stronger, cooking a lot more Southern food than I ever cooked at home, exaggerating elements of my background). But where I see it happening a hell of a lot, and where it’s been bothering me a lot lately, is the essentialization of the female identity.
I think many of the problems I’ve been struggling to understand lately – legal, social, political – come from a refusal to accept the diversity that exists among women. Abortion and reproductive issues? Women aren’t supposed to have sex outside of marriage. They’re supposed to be good, pure, and chaste. Even the modern woman isn’t supposed to sleep with *too* many men. Maybe birth control is okay, but abortion? You’re not supposed to talk about it. The abominable state of rape laws and selective prosecution? Women are supposed to dress modestly and stay away from bars and wild parties. Homosexuality? Psh, don’t even get me started.
Here is what society has told me about being a woman: Career is great, but family still comes first. Getting married should be an ultimate goal. When in a group of other women, marriage and boyfriends are the most acceptable topic. Always shave your legs, underarms, and bikini area. Nice girls don’t have hair. Wear makeup, lotion, nail polish, etc. Dress provocatively, but not <i>too</i> provocatively. Wear jewellery and skirts. Short hair is only okay if it’s still “cute.” Women should be independent, but society should still protect them. Drink, but don’t drink excessively. Girly cocktails are the acceptable beverage of choice, by the way. Sexuality is something that can be gossipped about, but never discussed openly in mixed company, and certainly never with your sexual partner.
Of course, the list goes on. Anyway, I find that thinking about it this way makes it easier to understand my position on a lot of things. I don’t want society to dictate how I can be a woman. I don’t want it to say that I can only marry men, because that’s what women do, that I can’t take control of my own reproductive health choices, because I need to be protected, or that if I dress a certain way and get raped, it’s my own damned fault. I want society to celebrate diversity and allow women to be independent and free to choose who they are how they want to live their lives. I want attacks on diversity not to be tolerated, but I don’t want paternalistic “protection” that puts me in a box.
Posted on May 29, 2008, in feminism, identity, lesbian, privilege, queer, race and tagged favorite posts, feminism, gender essentialization, identity, intersectionality, law & politics, lesbian, personal, politics, queer, queer POC, race, sexism, women. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.