Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Pronouncements of Gender, Identity

In gender matters, language matters. Last week in class we spoke, generally, about issues of gender and power. We examined the work of Catherine Mackinnon, the feminist thinker whose response to both character feminism and formal equality was a striking and resonant view of gender as a function of male-controlled power dynamics.

Same? Or different? To MacKinnon it was immaterial because to be woman was, in either instance, a comparison to and reflection of what it is to be man. MacKinnon wrote that her work did not advocate an approach or a platform for change. It intended to reveal deep-seated power imbalances, and how a woman's world, however fair and pleasurable it may be to any one woman, has forever been informed by the bare fact of being controlled by the men who have made it.

These gender-power imbalances, we all know, appear in key practical facets of everyday life -- in the workplace, in the home, and in politics, for example. They have structured our society, and, importantly, they can frame the choices and perspectives of new generations of women born into its limiting framework.

Gender-power imbalances are also reflected in language, our common human tool that can effect profound impact. When gender markers are used in language's many contexts, they often implicitly endorse deeply rooted assumptions about gender roles and positions. [Let us not forget that the Declaration of Independence still reads that "All men are created equal."] In symbolic and insidious ways, perpetuation of gender-marking can be society's (un)conscious way of perpetuating the very power imbalances that the likes of MacKinnon et al feel must be eradicated. To mark a woman by her gender can be to deny her personhood in favor of her sex.

This linguistic issue has been played out in key areas over the twentieth century. As discussed in a recent class blog post, here, "Ms." has had a strong showing in the marketplace of gender titles. Its goal was to question the power dynamic, and to decouple womanhood from marriagehood (to men). Likewise, "he" made the gradual and overdue shift to more gender-neutral options -- most commonly "(s)he," "he/she," or, to the chagrin of those with an eye for grammatical agreement, "their."

Of late, some in scholarly circles have taken it a step further by opting for the appealing "take that" option of the female-specific "she" in situations of gender neutrality (See, e.g.: Pruitt, Lisa). This is generally, although not always, received without incident (See, e.g.: Torts malcontents who leave her negative comments on the issue). There is even, I now learn, the option of "zi." And, as reported in the New York Times, a local school in Claremont, CA, recently changed its constitution to erase all gender-specific pronouns.

In one sense, gendered pronouns reflect the imbalances of the gender paradigm. Yet in another sense they can be used to limit the choices available within it. They also reveal that it is not just about language and power, but about the fluid and ever-evolving nature of gender identity. A recent story in the Times discussed some recent and encouraging additions to the gender pronouns -- online, in schools, and even on travel documents. Google+, the story tells us, created the option of declaring oneself as "male," female," or "other." Australia created on its passports a candid third identity option of "indeterminate."

They are Preferred Gender Pronouns (PGPs), and they reflect the younger generations' wish to take ownership over an identity divorced from their sexual functions. A man could choose "his" or "hers" or "theirs." To those adopting these PGPs, it is a way of exploding the paradigm. According to Ritch Savin-Williams, of Cornell University's Sex & Gender Lab, these youth are "fighting the idea that your equipment defines what it means for you to be a boy or girl. They are saying: ‘You don’t know me by looking at me. Assume nothing.'"

All of this is to say that if how we see each other is affected by how we name each other, and if gender naming perpetuates assumptions of difference and of power dynamics, then our world is better if we scramble the pronoun choices. It would reflect our diverse gender identity norms, and it would in fact create a more level and egalitarian playing field for generations to come.

Of course, doing away with "he" and "she," or "men" and "women" is not entirely practical. We live in a gendered world, and in fundamental ways we are often "men" or "women" as much as we are people. But to blast the choices wide open, so that gender identity inhaibits several growing and changing points in between the two, we invite greater forms of gender identity, and take quite a bit of air out of the he/she power dynamic in the process.

One more thing (and I'll keep it brief because this post has become a bit long in the word count): My girlfriend alerted me to a book she read several years ago, a chronicle of a young boy whose parents forced a complete sex change on him after a botched circumcision. At the age of a toddler, the boy underwent a comprehensive, invasive and extended trasnformation to a young girl. The doctor who persuaded the poor teenage parents to go through with it (now discredited and nowhere to be found) was hell-bent on proving his thesis that nurture completely trumped nature. Here was the ultimate test case. The thing is, throughout his childhood, the young child repeatedly threw away his girl's clothing, and would express his wish to be a boy. Nature was calling him.

It is a harrowing story, told poignantly here, in a later article following the subject's suicide as a young adult. It is also a tale of the unsafe reach of modern medicine. But it is as much a story of gender identity as it is about sex change and dangerous doctors. It would be misguided to draw from the story the conclusion that one should not mess with biological nature. To me, it echoes the need to allow our children to choose who they are, not what biology gave them, what a doctor prescribed for them, or what their parents, society, and yes, their pronouns, expect of them.


AMS said...


I'm glad you chose to write about this phenomenon.

During my undergraduate years, a wonderfully feminist friend chose to reject the pronoun "women" in favor of the word "womyn." The first time I saw the term, I assumed it was a typo. When the term appeared a second and third time in the same email, I realized her point. It is not necessary to define "wo-men" in reference to men. Instead, we can be womyn.

Apparently, based on a quick Wikipedia search , Old English referenced both men and women with the same pronoun. Wikipedia blames the patriarchal system for the shift from a universal term to one based on gender.

Xi takes the concept one step further. Now that I know the term, I hope it eventually becomes a mainstream English term. It would solve many of the pronoun dilemmas I've faced with LGBT friends and least until I can ask the person if if s/he has a pronoun preference. Based on my last sentence, "xi" might even make it easier to write a clean, gender neutral sentence.

KayZee said...

I second AMS's sentiment and I'm glad you wrote about the pronoun controversy. I too read the NYTimes article addressing young peoples' wishes to encourage anti-gender-specific pronouns. I found it particularly interesting perhaps because I am not entirely sure how I feel about the notion.

Although I fully support the movement away from gender specific roles, I wonder if at any point we'll do more harm to the feminist movement than good, when we try to mask our gender identities. I suppose, that if you subscribe to the notion that gender doesn't matter, then, it would be beneficial to create non-gender-specific categories. But, what of celebrating our role as women? Why not establish ourselves as a gender, not defined by roles and personality traits, but as a unique player?

The controversy over pronouns and names, as it pertains to the feminist movement, truly perplexes me. I think of the famous female authors who changed their names to be either gender neutral or to appear to be another gender (i.e., J.K. Rowling and George Eliot). For Mary Anne Evans to write under a male pen name in the 1800s because she didn't think her work would be taken seriously is depressing enough. But to think that one of the most successful female fiction writers in the world, had to pen her wildly successful book series under the initial "J.K." in the late 1990s, shocks me. It also upsets me. I believe in her case, I would have preferred that Joanne Rowling had signed her books by her real name, so that readers around the world would know that a brilliant woman created Harry Potter.

AMA said...

A much appreciated post! While I concede that I've had a very liberal (borderline radical) education, I'm still surprised by how desperately people cling to the gender binary. What exactly is it about gender-bending or the existence of an in-between gender that makes people so uncomfortable?

What I take away from this post is an important reminder of the power of language. Growing up in the 80's, it was always male pronouns for doctors and lawyers, and female pronouns for school teachers and nurses - this unquestionably sends a message! I am relieved that those stereotypical (and self-fulfilling?) gender roles are no longer acceptable in textbooks, but and I am so happy to hear that young people are taking a stand against the rigid binary and taking their gender identities into their own hands. While I feel that true gender liberation is still a ways away, it is certainly an improvement that we now have the vocabulary (and subsequent empowerment) with which to enter a discourse about gender. I remember hearing the term "gender queer" for the first time in college and feeling relieved that I had found a word to more accurately describe myself. I hope that as new vocabulary makes its way into the mainstream, empowerment will soon follow, and hopefully the gender binary will become a thing of the past because it is clear that there are too many people all around the world who do not conform to it.

Ringo1985 said...

I read the New York Times you refer to in your blog as well, shortly after we briefly discussed the use of gender pronouns in class.

The use of gender neutral terms such as "ze" can have a two-fold effect. Those who reject the rigid gender binary are given the opportunity to embrace a linguistic change that accepts those those who don't adhere to the strict male or female dichotomy. Such recognition of a gender neutral pronoun may be indicative of progression- that society as a whole is cognizant of the marginalizing effect of strict gendered terms. The more acceptance this terminology gains in common parlance, the more effective it will be towards replacing gender restrictive terms.

Conversely, the use of words such as "ze" and "hirs" could also isolate other segments of the general population who resist this language as too radical. This could further reinforce stereotypes about those who choose not to conform to the gender binary. Furthermore, may also wonder how resisting gender binaries assists those who simultaneously wish to reclaim their gender, rather than renounce it.

As someone who is relatively inexperienced in the field of gender politics, I think the use of nongendered pronouns is revolutionary and inspiring. I distinctly remember in high school my Leadership class had to vote for the formation of an LGBT group. Our teacher openly voiced his disdain for such a group by explaining that we should consider some of "us may be against this." Although my teacher never blatantly told the class he disapproved, his tone of voice and slighted remarks showed that he did not support an LGBT group on campus.

To think that now high school students are embracing gender neutral language to refer to themselves and peers is new ground for me, and a step towards acceptance that I never could have imagined when I was in high school. I believe that using gender neutral language can slowly help to dissolve the gender stereotypes that are all too prevalent in high school and other mainstream parts of society that may not think about issues such as this.

Caitlin said...

Great post! I actually learned a lot about the power of creating a gender-neutral pronoun from the Female Sexuality class I participated in in undergrad, colloquially called "FemSex." The class encourages the mostly women in its ranks to use the term "Zi" and "Hir" to describe romantic partners so that heteronormative assumptions can be broken over time.

FemSex is one of the greatest ways that I believe third-wave feminists are making an impact on young people today--I only wish it were a universally taught class, rather than one that only the most liberal and privileged universities--like Berkeley, Brown, Cornell, and Columbia, have picked up.