Gender Essentialism is the belief that there are basic, essential differences between men and women. This carries through to education (girls aren't good at maths), politics (men are just more rational) and the home (women are natural caregiver) and is really important in maintaining sexism
So the Independent had released a baffling, faux-progressive article about Jaden Smith becoming the face of Luis Vuitton womenswear. According to the author, Katie Glover, clothing is how we declare our gender to the world and it’s the responsibility of people to dress in a way that best aligns with patriarchal gender essentialism. So, in the interest of defending everyone who finds that a touch restrictive, I’m going to try and dismantle why this is so poisonous, point by point.
- ‘OK, I know women have been wearing trousers for decades but they’re usually a femme version of the male equivalent - and I’m not talking about unisex clothes like jeans and t-shirts.’
Women’s clothing was for an exceedingly long time, exceedingly impractical – in some ways it still is. Petticoats, corsets, crinolines, bustle pads (these also have a racist history, but that’s another article) and other fashions were all uncomfortable, restrictive and even dangerous, in the case of 19th century corsetry. Women fought hard to be allowed to wear trousers and other more practical clothing – here in Britain there was even a ‘Rational Dress’ movement. Why the brief history lesson? It’s really important to understand why trousers are considered gender neutral in a way that dresses aren’t. It was only by gender transgression, by breaking the rules of gendered dress that trousers achieved their gender neutrality.
- When you get out of bed in the morning the most important thing you have to do all day is tell the world what your gender is, because …Deep down your real job is to reproduce, and showing other humans your gender is the first step on that path.’
Human beings aren’t walking sex machines. Whilst reproduction is, of course, vitally important, the primary job of each individual is not to declare their sexual availability to the world. That kind of thinking is responsible for a lot of rapes and sexual assaults the world over. Because, if ‘declaring’ gender (as if norms of gender presentation are so stable or easily parsed) is about sexual reproduction, surely dressing in a revealing manner would be a declaration of sexual intent? Surely wearing clothing that emphasises one’s attractiveness would be an invitation for sexual contact?
- ‘So, when some people come along and want equal clothing rights, that upsets the apple cart a bit’
Damn right it does. That is one apple cart that should be knocked over, emptied out and set on fire. The strict policing of gender performance, an essential part of the enforcement of the gender binary, is a key function of patriarchy. Keeping genders as two separate, discrete categories, with minimal overlap, facilitates misogynistic and transphobic violence. Only by upsetting the apple cart, only by encouraging gender transgression – and actively supporting the communities that have championed it, particularly LGBTQ+ people and colonised peoples – can we dismantle patriarchy.
- ‘But trans people should be aware that well-known faces like Jaden Smith are starting to encroach on our territory.’
The funny thing is, there is logic in this particular statement. There is an argument to be made about the way in which revolutionary actions created by marginalised communities are only acknowledged when taken out of its cultural context. Trans people have been, and continue to be at the forefront of gender politics. Trans and non-binary people are pioneers when it comes to analysing, challenging and breaking down oppressive gender norms. Trans people were essential in the creation of drag culture, an art form that often provides pointed analyses and eloquent critiques of gender and femininity. The fact that the face of gender non-conformity is someone who has not claimed a queer identity (as far as I’m aware) is worthy of criticism. Luis Vuitton could have made a GBTQ+ man the face of their womenswear (and a LBTQ+ woman the face of menswear), thus placing gender non-conformity within the community that continues to shape it. However, a man in women’s clothing is not ‘encroaching’ on trans territory. The idea that a trans woman is comparable to a man in woman’s clothing is itself transmisogyny and should be banished altogether.
There are two more points that I want to make here:
First, Jaden Smith is a young black man. This may seem like I'm just stating obvious but it’s vitally important. I can’t help but think that, had Luis Vuitton chosen a young white man, this piece would not have been written. Black men are expected to perform masculinity to a standard white men are not. The fact that a black man has become a face of gender non-conformity as opposed to white men like David Bowie is a wonderful thing. Would I rather Luis Vuitton had chosen someone publicly queer? Absolutely. But let’s give credit where it’s due.
Second, this whole piece relies upon gender non-conforming and non-binary people not existing. Jaden Smith is not the first person to dress or behave in a way that defies the gender binary. There is no ‘trans uniform’; trans people have at least as many different gender presentations as cis people do. By demanding that trans people dress in the most gender normative manner possible, Glover is enforcing the idea that trans people need to ‘prove’ their gender. This gender policing is part of the reason why so many trans people cannot get access to the healthcare they need. That attitude is "literally" killing people.
There is more that can be said, not least the blatant and constant erasure of non-binary people, but I think I’ll leave that up to someone else as my rage concerning that subject is mostly a long string of expletives.
Second generation British-Nigerian fat agender person. Style enthusiast, decent baker and lazy poet.
Find me on instagram @mazisahedgehog