Gender Is Dead

Gender Is DeadWhen I saw this sign on the back of the scale at the farmer’s market stand, I said to the Happy Boy cashier, “I wish that were true.” They agreed with me.

I hope we’re moving that way, moving toward a world in which cultural ideas of gender and the insistence that everyone fit into a binary male/female society, one in which your cultural role and your gender are dictated by your birth biology (and in which anyone whose birth biology is not obvious is either forced into one or the other or treated as a freak), is considered a relic of uncivilized times. But we’re not there yet.

I crave a world of gender neutral pronouns and honorifics that can be used for everyone all the time. What I’d like to see is a reality in which gender didn’t infuse every conversation, no matter how minor. This will help us get to a point where we don’t make assumptions about what a person does or wants or can do based on their gender.

It will also allow politeness in circumstances where we don’t know a person’s gender. The current politeness of asking for preferred pronouns is a step in that direction, but if we had accepted neutral pronouns in use we could avoid insulting strangers.

I know my trans friends make an important point of being addressed by their gender. The key issue for them is that some people make a point of misgendering them on purpose, as an insult. That’s a related and equally important point.

I suspect the people who delight in misgendering people to insult them — who probably overlap to a large degree with those who call groups of men “ladies” or “girls” to imply that their performance is subpar — will not want to go along with gender-neutral pronouns and honorifics. One suspects they have no conception of themselves except as defined by a culturally imposed gender identity tied to their biology.

Too bad for them. The future is leaving them behind.

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Gender Is Dead — 15 Comments

  1. It’s going to be a long way to Tipperary on this one. Gender is tied into our language, and changing language is hard. (That’s why LeGuin’s novel LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS was so innovative.) And what of the languages like French or Spanish where gender is part of the grammar? I think the way to begin is with the law. At least you could make it illegal to discriminate on gender grounds. Once it’s financially and legally an even playing field, we could move on.

    • I disagree that changing language is hard. The use of Ms. and singular they are cases in point. You can’t impose the change, but if it starts happening, it will take over.

      And — speaking as a lawyer — I don’t think we’ll get a level playing field until we get changes in language and behavior. Changing laws only goes so far.

      • I disagree that changing language is hard. The use of Ms. and singular they are cases in point.

        Both of those have been around for centuries, though — they didn’t win acceptance overnight. Ms. has been in less regular use during that time, but it’s also easier to add a new title to your lexicon than to add a new pronoun; witness how little traction the various other gender-neutral pronouns (ze, xe, e, etc) have gotten against singular “they,” which has a head start.

  2. I think it’s telling that older languages such as Persian, Hebrew and Arabic don’t have gendered pronouns. This can be frustrating (God is He because culture, whereas Krishna notes that the Spirit Supreme is the Father of the Universe and even greater than the Father, the Mother of the Universe.:)

    It’s also humorous. My Persian friends often confuse “him” and “her” and correct each other constantly—or correct themselves with cheerful self-deprecation.

    The German language, of course, has more pronouns than you can shake a stick at, including gender-neutral ones. And, of course, a number of SF writers, our own dear Ursula among them, have coined neutral pronouns for their stories. The problem with coining words is that they often won’t “take” if they did not occur naturally.

    We can’t be referring to each other as “it” and I don’t mind being a “she” because it’s the pronoun I identify with, but it perhaps we could borrow a neutral from another language. English is, according to James D. Nicoll, the language that “has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary.”

    • I don’t think that has anything to do with the age of the language. Even Old Persian is no older than Latin, which has gendered pronouns — and Arabic and Hebrew gender their verbs instead of their pronouns, which hardly makes them exemplars for gender-neutral language.

    • I’m in favor of adopting gender neutral pronouns from other languages. I agree about “it”. And while I don’t mind being she — in part because I make a political statement by being who I am and being a woman — I’d still like to spend some time in a reality in which gender doesn’t come into the discussion.

    • German only has one more set than French, the problem is declension and formal or informal voice. Which English used to have.

      The maddening thing about German pronouns (and, often, French) is that the gender of the noun often has zip to do with ‘gender’ as English speakers understand it. So a little girl is an ‘it’ (Das Mädchen) whereas knife, fork, and spoon are male, female, and neuter (or neutral).

      So the notion of gender in these languages doesn’t map over that in English (and even English has some odd holdovers, for instance, ships and countries being ‘she’.)

      • Every time we’ve socialized with American ex-pats in Germany, the subject of discussion inevitably turns to the plethora of pronouns and Das Mädchen is the first example cited every time. 🙂 Followed closely by knife, fork and spoon.

        • No surprise there. These were the immediately graspable examples when I was helping high schoolers with their German homework, and they struggled with the concept.

          Older kids would enjoy the irony of the male and female words for bathing suit being the opposite gender. (Women’s Badeanzug being masculine, and men’s Badehose being feminine. It’s all on account of ‘Anzug’ or suit being m and Hose being f)

      • Grammatical gender isn’t human/biological/social/whatever gender, yeah. The Latin word for “manliness” is grammatically feminine. 🙂 It’s easier to see the split in languages where the grammatical gender categories are animate/inanimate, rather than something that seems to echo bodies and social gender roles.