46 Today on Maury: Billie Jean…essentialist or constructivist?

Joshua Bartsch

In 1982, Michael Jackson unveiled his sixth solo album entitled Thriller and the second song on the now highly celebrated album, had the world “hee-eeh”-ing to a funk-tastic and bass bumping story–one which told of an interaction between Jackson and a woman named Billie Jean whilst dancing at a club. Now over thirty years later, let us look back and apply the basic principles behind essentialist and constructivist feminism’s in order to shed light upon past social and gendered norms and attempt to answer the long-awaited question that no one ever asked, was Billie Jean an essentialist or constructivist?


Firstly, we will briefly define the differences between essentialism and constructivism. According to Rivkin and Ryan,

“two perspectives began to form, one constructivist or accepting of the idea that gender is made by culture in history, the other essentialist, more inclined to the idea that gender reflects a natural difference between men and women that is as much psychological, even linguistic, as it is biological” (766-767).

Let us first look at the pre-chorus as we examples supporting both theories.

“People always told me be careful of what you do
And don’t go around breaking young girls’ hearts
And mother always told me be careful of who you love
And be careful of what you do ’cause the lie becomes the truth”

Jackson paints a vivid picture of what morally is not acceptable for this time, which is to “go around breaking young girl’s hearts.” This sentence supports constructivism, which was heavily influenced by Marxism, thus arguing that the “…signs of a good female nature were in fact attributes assigned in capitalist culture to make them better domestic laborers, better angels in the house” (Rivkin and Ryan 768). As our female character, Billie Jean is a single mother trying to inform Jackson that her son is actually his, thus introducing her struggle to her duties within the domestic labor realm in the absence of a father.

Essentialist’s would observe Jacksons reaction towards Billie Jean, “Billie Jean is not my lover/ She’s just a girl who claims that I am the one/ But the kid is not my son,” as quite common because of how “men must abstract themselves from the material world as they separate from mothers in order to acquire a license to enter the patriarchate” (Rivkin and Ryan 767). Later in the song, we are given evidence to support Billie’s claim of Jacksons involvement regarding the fatherhood of her son; this could be seen as the reason why Jackson “separated” away from his mother’s wisdom of being “careful of who you love” merely to have a one-night stand.

I conclude by arguing that Billie Jean would have agreed with the essentialist feminism because of how “men (Jackson) think in terms of rights when confronted with ethical issues (paternity testing), while women think in terms of responsibilities to others (Jackson fulfilling his role as father) (Rivkin and Ryan 767).



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

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