Sunday, November 16, 2014

In Defense of Gendered Pronouns

In some circles, gendered pronouns have fallen out of fashion. Oh, the debate rages on about exactly *how* to replace them - use a hybrid word, like s/he? use the grammatically-incorrect plural pronoun to replace the singular (“I admired their shoes”)? create an entirely new word? - but, the feeling goes, asserting gender through a pronoun is somehow déclassé.

As best as I can tell, this trend is based on two concerns: one, the very modern concept that gender identity is fluid, and thus no one pronoun necessarily captures an individual’s essence; and two, gender carries with it assumptions about a person that may be unwarranted in any particular situation. Fair enough.

Yet the solution is not to blur or even erase gender lines. First of all, it’s a little silly. Whether describing a real or a fictional person, gender is an important and obvious identifying characteristic. Fine, a small fraction of the population feels that its outward sexual characteristics do not accurately reflect its true gender, but let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Second, vive la difference. Men and women don’t just look different, or have different equipment for use in the bedroom; they often behave differently, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse, but in a world that claims to celebrate diversity it’s peculiar to attempt to quash gender differences. I’m reminded of the Ursula K. Le Guin novel The Lathe of Heaven, in which the protagonist’s mental powers allow him to reshape reality, so he tries to use that power to benefit humanity. By eliminating race, however, he finds that he no longer has a connection with the woman he loves. Whoops.

This is not to say that emphasizing gender is always appropriate. After the Hobby Lobby Supreme Court decision, some commentators observed that the male justices voted one way and the female justices the other way, suggesting that gender overrode judicial wisdom. This was an ugly slur toward all the justices and such sentiments should never have passed editorial muster. But the solution to such things is not to eliminate mentions of gender, but to gently correct these misguided souls.

Long live gendered pronouns!


Kirasha Urqhart said...

I find it interesting that in the fight to gain an equality between genders, so many seem to feel the answer is to erase them all together. Perhaps it has to do with the idea that seems popular now where "equal to" is erroneously used to mean "the same as"? I see this a lot in fandom communities, where writers change the gender of the character, usually changing a man into a woman, without taking into account how that difference in gender would have affected who that person is at a fundamental level. It's not as simple as saying 'now he's a woman, but otherwise every aspect of his personality is exactly the same.'

Rhianon Jameson said...

I agree completely. I was listening to the "Audio Guide to Babylon 5" podcast, and one of the hosts commented that it was great that such-and-such a character was female because the character just as easily could have been male. Well, isn't that a wee bit of a writing problem? (In fairness, that's one of my many weaknesses as a writer - the male characters sound like women in trousers and the female characters sound like guys in skirts.)

And your observation - that "equal to" is often erroneously equated to "the same as" - is spot-on.