This rant is a little overdue and definitely longer than I meant for it to be, but what can I say, life is crazy. Also, for those of you who haven’t caught on, the little orange versions of the titles of these posts are actually links to the articles I’m discussing. I’m trying to find a better way to do that, but I think it involves setting up a website instead of using WordPress.
Preface: I might be an asshole.
It all started last week two weeks ago when [the incredibly cute] little Prince George’s sex was announced, and the gender studies majors on The Internet got all twitchy. Now, I agree with the sentiment that we know fuck-all about how little Georgy will view himself or his partners when he grows up. I do not, however, see a reason to YELL IN ALL CAPS ABOUT IT. I mean, he’s an [adorable] newborn; he’s probably got fewer thoughts on gender than a penguin, but you don’t see people scream-commenting on cute penguin pics that “HE MAY NOT IDENTIFY AS A BOY, YOU ASSHOLE!!!” (Do you? Seriously, do people do that?)
For starters, I get the family is famous and all, but I can’t get over the fact that Kate had just had this amazing, emotional, personal, and painful experience that she deigned to share with the world… so that it could yell at her for some combination of not having a girl (Yeah, pretty sure you have to blame Wills for that, folks.) and not being more of a feminist/gender-ist (or whatever). I am a feminist and damn proud of it, but I think being so petty as to critique the media’s use of “gender” in place of “sex,” which they often shy away from (stupid, agreed) yet obviously meant, is probably not gonna magically win the fight for gender equality. That the [precious widdle] baby happened to be male does not lessen the recent change to absolute primogeniture, which is pretty friggin’ progressive for a woman who’s been on the throne longer than some Baby Boomers have been alive. Also props on gay marriage, Your Majesty!
All this got me riled up enough that I started following links like these and it was downhill from there. For the record, I think Gawker made the right call, given that I as a reader would have had no clue what the hell “ou” means. IMHO, the Editor had a duty to make things clear for the audience and he upheld it by only striking out the female pronouns rather than replacing them entirely. But then, I don’t think that choosing a “preferred personal pronoun” other than those that describe the two flavors in which 99.9% of humans come is a valid life choice either. (Told you I might be an asshole.) A long debate among friends ensued in which I contended that I may be a terrible person, and I’m certainly not trying to reinforce stereotypical gender roles, but I just do not see the damn point of anything other than binary pronouns. Here are a few reasons why:
The idea of gender is kinda useless and it sucks. But at least “masculine” and “feminine” and their pronouns convey meaning, even if it’s subjective and in constant flux. Preferring a genderless or non-binary gendered pronoun does nothing to change gender roles as they currently stand.
A friend who’s much more versed in these subjects tried explaining to me that choosing not to identify with either male or female gender is supposed to keep the person using a weird pronoun from reinforcing gender roles while drawing attention to the fact that sexuality and gender are more complicated than English allows.
I am definitely willing to cede the language point and I totally agree that it’s stupid that we’re supposed to identify as one thing or the other even though our proximity to either pole varies depending on the situation, the individual in question, the social context, etc. But given that, with rare exception, you can still only be one sex, the other, or looking like one while feeling more like the other (which I have no problem switching pronouns for), why run away from that reality of human existence? I just don’t see how refusing to participate in the conversation is supposed to change it in any realistic way, whereas at least the binary is capable of morphing to reflect evolving social norms.
The 1960s were a time of rapid change and expansion of gender roles, but, to my knowledge, none of it depended on the use of non-gendered pronouns. These days, it’s increasingly okay for straight, self-described girls/women to chug beer and eat live goldfish and for straight, self-described men to talk about their feelings or plan a wedding. Sure, there are prissier girls and burlier men, but now there’s at least room for everything along the spectrum from prissy to fratty for gendered women, and from interior decorator to lumberjack for gendered men.
If you want to wear skirts as a phenotypic dude and in doing so, broaden what is acceptable clothing for males to wear, good! If you want to take lots of time off to be Mr. Mom like in Sweden, great! I think women generally get away with a broader range, so the examples are harder to find, but you get the idea. Grow that mustache, girl!
I honestly think that when gender-boundary pushers choose to identify using weird pronouns, they risk being written off as pretentious, unrelatable weirdos who cannot participate in any serious conversation about human experience and who are thus uninteresting to the masses whose minds they want to change.
And, yes, I concede that if gender roles become less and less defined, they may eventually be useless. In that case, sure, I guess we can call everyone an “ou” or a “zis” or whatever. You still don’t get to be a “they,” though unless you have a lot more limbs than the rest of us.
Gender might be a social construct, but sex is not (lookin’ at you, social scientists) and it does dictate certain differences in the majority of people.
This one really gets my goat. Equality between the sexes should not necessitate obfuscating all of the physical differences that statistically occur between them. I shouldn’t have to be a good longshoreman (longshore-person?) as a woman in order to be respected by men. I get to be a little emotionally unstable if I am suffering from rapid hormonal changes (though that is never a valid excuse for mistreating anyone, especially intentionally). Similarly, men are probably more prone to being ragey because testosterone’ll do that do you, but it is never an excuse for violence and shouldn’t go far toward justifying losing your temper either. Men will never give birth or breastfeed and they shouldn’t feel like lesser people or parents for it.
The boundaries between genders are blurry—and rightfully so. Hell, it’s not even true that all parts of life are gendered in all places (e.g. drinking wine or appreciating visual art in Chicago), let alone gendered the same way in different places. But that doesn’t mean that the two poles are invalid or useless because they are still attempts to describe the “average” experience. (Yes, yes, fraught, I know.) The boundaries of racial identity are also blurry and are becoming increasingly more so as interracial families are more accepted, but that doesn’t mean that I’ll believe you if you tell me that your race is “Nurple,” as distinct from all other races. And where you get to be mad that someone asked about your race because you don’t see what it has to do with anything, you get to be mad when someone questions whether your actions are gender-appropriate or refuses to use the [in-the-dictionary] pronouns that you have designated. But you still don’t, in my opinion, get to be other than one of these two genders (or, again, on your way from one to the other) because that is unrelatable and thus useless in any situation. You may as well tell me that you’re a Plutonian.
This is not to say that, since the lines we draw around race and gender are social constructs, I can tell you that any oppression you may have experienced as a result of those lines is also imaginary. Identifying as a woman matters because gender roles can still be problematic for the historically oppressed. Identifying as trans or being intersex matters because those individuals face far more oppression and discrimination than I could probably fathom. Ignoring the mostly binary experience of human gender, however, will fix nothing. Instead, we must continue the work of the feminists who’ve gone before us and expand gender roles by being real people who do relatable things and who stick up for the oppressed until they’re not oppressed anymore.
Forcing roles upon children is bad, yes. But being a boy isn’t a failing. Being a straight boy isn’t a failing. Being a straight boy who grows into a “man’s man,” as long as he also respects women, isn’t a failing.
Conversations about gender cannot be well-had without due consideration to masculinity. It irks me to no end that almost none of this outcry would have happened if Kate had had a female child, in spite of the fact that that child could have grown up to feel that she should have been born a he, in which case, I very much doubt that the turn to male pronouns would have been anything other than celebrated by The Internet. I’ve alluded before to my problem with those who are more interested in making everything a feminist fight or statement than they are with true equality. It applies here, too. How do we go about teaching our girls that they deserve respect because they are human if we so easily devalue males, as The Internet has already done to Prince George? (See: Sharon J. Dewitt’s comment.)
Obviously, at least some of the outrage—the most reasonable part of the outrage—is due to the fact that the little royal cutie pie didn’t get to grow up and choose; I get that. But parents force roles upon their children all the time, whether it be with regard to gender or vocation. It’s occasionally unfortunate, but I think that not naming a child until it is old enough to choose its gender and a moniker that corresponds (or intentionally doesn’t) is also ridiculous and an unnecessary amount of pressure to put on someone so young.
Life is hard for trans people and I’m honestly very sorry about that, but statistically speaking, they are a minority of the population, and refusing to name a child or use gendered pronouns when referring to him/her until you could uncover whether he/she/it were trans or otherwise “queer” (a term that even the LGBT-and-sometimes-Q community fights about) seems to me that it would probably cause a lot of identity problems that extend far beyond gender, especially since a lot of kids would have to suffer before it could become common practice.
Look, Internet, all I’m sayin’ is, don’t look at me when you end up with a Kindergartener who calls himself Froot Loops Funfetti Snot Pony and then spends the rest of his life in therapy, wondering why you let that happen.