Gender and Mispronouning A Person


Tim Noble and Sue Webster HE/SHE (installation view) 2003 Modern Art, London

My cohort is split into two camps: genderqueer studies and sex education studies. I told a friend about this and she said, “I know which one you’re in. Genderqueer. And I know your new genderqueer pronoun: itsamacalit.”

I laughed. I thought it was hysterical. Hours later I started to feel guilty for laughing about her pronoun joke.

Years in politically correct academia instill a sense of seriousness when it comes to things like gender politics. But the more I think about it, the more I do want to make jokes and laugh. If I can’t have a sense of humor about this stuff then I am lost and doomed to be one of those dreary, nagging people who are so PC they’re conservative.

I understand the importance of pronouns. I get the ubiquitousness of the dichotomous gender system. I also get the human need to categorize our world.

Most languages revolve around gender in one way or  another. Some languages stress the importance of the gender of the addressee or the  gender you address (Thai, Arabic) while other romantic languages focus on the gender of the inanimate world (German, Spanish). The way we treat gender in a language can shape the details we see in the world.

Here’s a common english language example of the gender effect in language. We use the word easy as a simple descriptor with pronouns.

It is easy.

He is easy.

She is easy.

No doubt a different image popped into your head for each pronoun. A few little letters go a long way to construct our world. Gender pronouns are especially important.

But the human experience of gender is complex. We construct tiny little normative boxes that few people completely fit into. Some people don’t fit in at all, something I have always wondered about with trans individuals. If our culture was not so crazy about maleness and femaleness would that many trans people seek to pass? Is the internal experience entirely male or entirely female? I have no idea.

Some people try to deal with these constraints by shunning he and she entirely. When I was 16 I lived on the streets and frequented a LGBT youth drop in center. My friends had a dry erase board at the center where they could write their pronouns. I found it confusing at the time, but I figured whatever my friends wanted to be called, I would call them that.

But now I see people become so defensive over their pronouns, like self-righteous vegans hell bent on making the world understand that their path is the only path. All others are jerks. Many of my students have expressed anxieties of mis-pronouning someone. My answer is to relax and apologize if they accidentally offend someone with the incorrect pronoun. Sometimes it’s hard to tell what someone wants to be called.

I understand the point of creating new pronouns to subvert gender but maybe focus on the conversations that this subversion can spark.  I highly doubt that any culture will eliminate gender notions from their language. But bending and questioning the bounds of gender is a goal I can get behind. Just don’t get all huffy when someone else doesn’t get it or makes a joke about pronouns. If you do, I will just refer to everything as a Marklar in front of you [VIDEO].

One thought on “Gender and Mispronouning A Person”

  1. I often opt to use “one”, “oneself” if I don’t want the audience to focus on gender stereotypes.
    I think this gives the audience a freedom to replace that “one” with whoever they choose.

    As in “In order for one to cloak one’s own identity….” the down side is that it sounds detached.

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