307 Doherty Essentialism
Essentialism is the belief that things (people, objects, concepts) have particular qualities or characteristics that define them, and that if a thing does not possess the qualities and characteristics ascribed to Thing A, it is not and can never be Thing A. Essentialism is often used to justify social hierarchies, putting people into binary categories of white/non-white, man/woman, heterosexual/homosexual, middle-class/working-class, and sane/insane, able-bodied/disabled, healthy/unhealthy. O'Brien and Szeman use the example of "blaxploitation" films of the 1970s to illustrate how essentialism functioned to reinforce racism (93). These films employed primarily black actors and portrayed stereotypes of black men as vulgar and poor, living in violent urban neighbourhoods or as slaves in the South. Marlon Riggs' film Ethnic Notion discusses black stereotypes from 19th century American pop culture that survive today, and how constant exposure to these representations of blacks to the exclusion of all others made mainstream (white) society conceptualize all blacks inhabiting those qualities, and even came to affect black people's perception of themselves. Stuart Hall discusses the dangers of internalizing a race identity politic: "[A]s always happens when we naturalize historical categories (think about gender and sexuality), we fix that signifier outside of history, outside of change, outside of political intervention" (111). Hall argues that essentialism not only shapes how oppression is systematized and reinforced, but how we undertake the struggle to free ourselves from oppression. In grasping a label such as 'black' or 'gay' or 'woman' so that we can achieve equality with 'white', 'straight' and 'man', we acknowledge and reify the very binary systems that define our subjugation (111). If we're fighting for the rights of black people, we must acknowledge that there is a thing called 'blackness' that certain people have and others do not, even if that blackness is a social construction.
Diana Fuss also takes up this argument in her essay, "The Risk of Essence." Here, she states that, while essentialism is generally harmful, it may have some uses as a tool of deconstruction. Depending on one's subject-position, the 'risk of essence' can be taken, and used strategically to question constructed essentialist notions about groups:
- "The deconstruction of essentialism, rather than putting essence to rest, simply raises the discussion to a more sophisticated level, leaps the analysis up to another higher register, above all, keeps the sign of essence in play, even if (indeed because) it is continually held under erasure. Constructionists, then, need to be wary of too quickly crying "essentialism." Perhaps the most dangerous problem for anti-essentialists is to see the category of essence as 'always already' knowable, as immediately apparent and naturally transparent. Similarly, we need to beware of the tendency to 'naturalize' the natural, to see this category, too, as obvious and immediately perceptible as such (21).
Fuss, Diana. "The Risk of Essence." Essentially Speaking: Feminism, Nature and Difference. Place: Routledge, 1989. 1-22. Print.
Hall, Stuart. “What Is This ‘Black’ in Black Popular Culture?” Social Justice 20.1/2 (1993): 104–114. Print.
O’Brien, Susie, and Imre Szeman. Popular Culture: A User’s Guide. 2nd ed. Toronto: Nelson Education Ltd, 2010. Print.
Riggs, Marlon. Ethnic Notion. 1987. Film.