Existentialism and Gender Identity

Existentialism is a theory that emphasizes the importance of free will and determining your own fate. A fate that is not determined by social constructs such as family, love, religion, and gender. Existentialists believe that society should not restrict an individual’s life or actions and that these restrictions inhibit free will and the development of that person’s potential.

When it comes gender, society usually puts emphasis on the MALE/female binary. We are socialized through our families, our education, and the media to believe that certain characteristics make up these two genders. This binary that is forced upon us in not an accurate representation of our community as gender is a spectrum and not everyone’s gender identity matches with their birth sex.

However, how a woman looks and acts is drilled into our brains since birth. Society sets standards. If you meet them or rebel against them is theoretically your own choice. Rebelling against society’s standards is easier said than done. With our constant exposure to the portrayal of gender whether through the people we interact with the movies we watch, at some point both working to fit the stereotype and working to defy it, our choice is not purely our own.

As a young woman, I have debated this choice. Do I stray from the mold? Is it even my choice?

From a young age, I identified as a “tom-boy”, which is the six-year-old versions of refusing stereotypical gender roles. I would not let an article of pink clothing touch my body, because it was too “girly”. Later, I choose to reclaim this “femininity”. I wore pink. I did my make-up. I thought it was my choice to reclaim these “feminine” habits. However, through the view point of existentialism, this choice was not free will. It was heavily influenced by society and its archaic gender roles.

6 thoughts on “Existentialism and Gender Identity

  1. Willa S

    I think that gender is definitely one of the most interesting aspects of existentialism. It’s so hard to know whether your choices are reclaiming your femininity, like you said, or just letting the social construct control you. It’s such a difficult line. Am I dressing up in a feminine way because I think it’s fun? Or am I enforcing harmful beauty standards and furthering the reach of gender stereotypes. Gender is fuzzy, and I think that any deviance from the norm should be accepted, but also, any embrace of the classic stereotypes isn’t inherently bad.


  2. Zoe H

    This is something I struggle with a lot, and I begin to doubt my validity as an independently thinking feminist. I reclaimed my femininity in such an extreme way, but I didn’t think about it consciously. I just started doing what felt and enjoyable, and I know that is perceived as extremely feminine. But at the same time I don’t really know what feminine means anymore in today’s society. It is a trap, because if I defy femininity and hate it – am I also conforming by taking on masculine characteristics to be taken more seriously? I also feel like I can either think of free will and feminism as something deliberate and intellectual or I can just exist and have feelings and do what I want – so it is hard when my attitude regarding these things fluctuate.


  3. Sara S

    I had not really applied this theme in the story to my own life, and I think it’s very interesting. Muersault doesn’t build his life around social norms. Like you said, he is an existentialist. There are obvious consequences he pays for living his life this way. For example, he has to go to jail. Although jail is probably not ideal for most, he doesn’t find it as a consequence because it is what it is. Does this mean not conforming to society results in punishment? Will stepping out of gender norms have consequences? I think you bring up a great point and something that needs to be talked about.


  4. I agree. I sometimes feel there is no way to truly exist outside of traditional gender roles as long as we are forced to describe and categorize things as “feminine” or “not feminine,” “masculine” or “not masculine.” Since every aspect of society, from what we wear to how we act, is put in either the “feminine” or “masculine” box, and since we are trained from birth to recognize these boxes, it’s hard to approach anything from a completely gender neutral stance. Whether we then align with or subvert these boxes, it feels like we aren’t really exercising free will.


  5. Jasmine W

    It always seems to me that existentialism is a lose-lose situation. On the one hand, if you choose to accept the absurd and reclaim your individuality, you risk being ridiculed and shunned or worse. On the other, if you choose to remain subservient to the mold provided by society, you cannot be happy knowing that the real you is out there.


  6. Thanks all — Estelle especially at the start — for presenting the existentialist challenge in very real, personal terms. And it’s clear you don’t have to be so dramatically existentialist as Meursault to feel the pressure of society and its social constructions.


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