34 How Can Nella Larsen Be an Essentialist and a Constructivist in the Same Book?

Ethan Dorval

Essentialist feminism asserts the belief that that there is a thing, or essence, that connects all women, a “natural difference” from men. It strives to identify the othering of womanity by traditional male, patriarchal establishments and highlights the psychological, biological, and even linguistic differences between the genders. This idea, an essential nature of things, can be identified in Nella Larsen’s Passing when the main character Clare writes that she needs to be around her “own” people. This suggests that Clare feels that there is something both binding and unifying that connects black people despite their differing circumstances. I find this similar to the way that essentialists believe women are connected; simply because they are women. However, in Passing, as we continue to read, it becomes obvious how very different all of the women actually are because of their individual circumstances. The constructivist view on feminism argues that gender and roles associated with femininity are performative acts done to create or construct what it means to be a woman. Being a man is just as much of a performance in gender studies, but feminism obviously attempts to focus on the elements of womanhood. I digress. Beyond this, the constructivist view argues that the idea of a manly man exists only as a system of differentiation from the opposing sex. Mega macho manly men are mega manly macho men because they seek to differentiate themselves from what they have been taught is feminine. Constructivist critiques attempt to show how the roles in gender are created to serve different goals. I tend to buy into the constructivist view on feminist study because I don’t see how ignoring the things that make people individuals can be a positive thing. It doesn’t seem to jive with any culture not represented as the norm. For example, I think that living in Antebellum America was probably not a good time for all women, but I definitely feel that a female slave would talk differently about it than an upper class white woman. Go constructivism.


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The Student Theorist: An Open Handbook of Collective College Theory Copyright © 2018 by Ethan Dorval is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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