There was a Bark post earlier this week discussing the difference between a woman poet and a woman’s poet. The post as well as the comments had some interesting things to say about gender identity—particularly female gender identity—and writing. That, coupled with a commercial I heard for Nexium, made me aware of the majority use of male pronouns where the person in question is indefinite (“If anyone comes in, tell him we’re in the back”), or in academia, when you’re referring to a non-physical entity such as ‘the reader’ rather than saying “he or she,” which can get cluttered on the page. The general advice is to simply pick one and stick with it…yet it usually ends up being masculine (“The reader understands himself more when coupled with My Little Pony and Australian rugby.”)
For the Nexium commercial, if you’re unable to watch it, a violinist is running to make her concert on time but her doctor is on stage, playing the violin…badly. The line to which I’m referring is, “You wouldn’t want your doctor doing your job, so why are you doing hers?” Yes, the doctor in the commercial is female, but I wasn’t paying attention to the TV when I became aware of it. All I heard was the use of a feminine pronoun and I perked up, surprised. The fact is that we do live in a male-dominated society and most commercials, unless they are specifically geared toward/for women, use a masculine pronoun. The next time you watch a lot of daytime television—which should be in a week, am I right, MFAers?—pay attention and see what happens. More often than not when unsure of the gender about whom I speak (or to be more neutral), I say “they” or “them” in the singular form, but this has normally been considered incorrect. My question is, why? If they/them is grammatically incorrect (though some people believe it shouldn’t be), why haven’t we created a pronoun that is gender-neutral to fix these issues?
I have a lawyer friend who edits law books for a big textbook company. Several years ago, I was able to help her out for about seven hours on a Saturday at the University of Texas at Austin, where she’d gone to law school, since their library had more than what she could find in Houston. On that particular day, we compared two versions of a book manuscript: I read aloud word for word, including punctuation, and she made sure it was correct on her copy. When I came to an example given, I noticed there was “she” instead of the generic “he” and asked about it. My friend said that the judge whose textbook this “belonged” to preferred to use the feminine pronoun as he felt it was more inclusive. Interesting. I was on board with that, and frankly, as a young female, it felt a bit empowering. Yes, I remember thinking, you’re damn right you’re gonna use ‘she.’
However, when the edits got to upper management, they vetoed the feminine pronoun with the reasoning that it was “too obvious” compared to most textbooks, which use the masculine. My friend tried to convince them on the grounds that it was the way the judge wanted it, and that he’d have to approve it, but management said they’d make sure the judge was okay with it. Turns out, he was.
All the generic pronouns were changed to masculine over the course of several weeks, undoing a lot of the progress my friend had already made in proofreading. Imagine if we could agree on the singular they/them, or if we could come up with a pronoun that is gender-neutral. I for one would use it often, because let’s face it—unless gender is a factor in using the male pronoun (you can’t say “Have your loved one get her prostate exam out of the way early”), the identity of the unnamed, faceless, stick figure that is a prop for a person in text has no gender anyway. Grammar Girl says to rewrite the sentence so you don’t have to use a gender at all, which makes sense, but sometimes it’s unavoidable. So my question is—what do you use when you absolutely cannot get around using a gendered pronoun? Do you consider “he” and “him” to be not necessarily masculine but neutral, as some do? Or do you throw grammar into the pool with its clothes on and go with a singular they/them?