OUR CULTURAL CONVERSATION around gender and identity is moving faster than a tweet. We live at a time when the grammatical binary of “him” and “her” seems to many like a form of captivity—when the pronoun itself is a cultural battleground, and when questions of gender identity are affecting the language of social media, journalism, fiction, art, and personal exchanges.
“Ze,” “hir,” “xe,” and other attempts to give English a gender-neutral pronoun may soon come to an inbox near you. “What’s your pronoun?” may soon be the way to greet a new acquaintance.
Plainly, it was time for a conference at the Radcliffe Institute to explore a complicated issue at the heart of self-identification. “The evolution of both language and gender happens constantly,” said Lizabeth Cohen, a historian and the Institute’s dean, as the conference opened. “It’s happening now.”
“Ways with Words: Exploring Language and Gender,” held on March 3 and 4, invited actors, artists, cultural and literary critics, anthropologists, big-data experts, business owners, and at least one particle physicist to reflect on what is happening.
With an audience of nearly 400 and online viewers from as far away as Turkey, experts pondered the English pronoun and the language’s seeming preference for the binary in all things gender. (Meanwhile, Facebook lists 56 gender-identification choices.) Conference experts considered how transgender issues add layers of complexity as the English language copes with proliferating terms of identity. They considered comedy as a neutral zone for such fraught discussions and laughter as an antidote. They pondered big data and explored how advertising and politics are slow to acknowledge gender equality.
Riffing on Language
Some of the experts concluded that technology may hold the key to revealing ourselves, whatever gender we are, as equally fascinating and free. It may “expand our sense of the available options,” said the University of Pennsylvania’s Kathleen Hall Jamieson.
A gathering of experts on language and gender may not have the immediate public policy relevance of recent Radcliffe conferences on gender and violence or health disparities, reflected the event organizer (and particle physicist) John Huth, a faculty codirector of the Institute’s science program and the Donner Professor of Science at Harvard. But, he added, language has great power and consequence “everywhere we look today” as our culture struggles with gender identity.
In her remarks, Cohen remembered David Bowie, who had just died, as “a bold, knowing, charismatic creature neither male nor female.” She cited a New York Times search for gender-neutral pronouns and noted that in January the American Dialect Society had chosen the singular “they” as its 2015 Word of the Year. Even the desire for a gender-neutral pronoun, she added, can be traced to Chaucer and Shakespeare.
The great Bard made an appearance in the event’s first hours, on a Thursday night, with a taste of Shakespeare rap: during “Plays with Words: Comedy, Language, and Gender,” ImprovBoston supplied some on-the-fly fake Shakespeare. But the seven players mostly riffed on what had been said only minutes before during a panel discussion moderated by the WBUR journalist Robin Young, cohost of NPR’s Here & Now.
Glenda Carpio, a Harvard professor of English and of African and African American studies, observed that comedy is a good way to get at serious things like gendered language. “People gather to ritualize all kinds of oppression,” she said. The comedian Aparna Nancherla spoofed a TED talk and pondered deadpan the fate of language in the age of texting, tweeting (she has 84,000 followers), and dating sites.
Carpio said that a woman’s performance of language and the physicality of her speech can lead to criticism. (Think of Hillary Clinton’s being called out for “aggressive”—that is, manlike—debate answers.) Vocal fry came up too: its critics sometimes seem antifeminist. Belaboring the way women and girls talk “is a way of holding people down or silencing them,” said Nancherla.
Pronouns like “him” and “her” have the same suppressive effect, critics say—an idea that got an airing in the panel “Beyond Binaries.” The moderator, trans advocate, and Harvard professor of English Stephen Burt asked, “What is your pronoun?” Unusual not long ago, the question has sharp personal relevance to many people now. “Some of us have two names,” said Burt. “I’m Stephanie today.”
Rebecca Bigler, a University of Texas psychologist, called for language reform, arguing that 25 years of scholarship shows that “gendered language causes sexist thought” and that it “reifies a genderbinary view.” By age three, Bigler added, children have already acquired “rigid ideas” about gender hierarchies.
The anthropologist Wesley Thomas, a professor of Diné cultural studies at Navajo Technical University, added a Native American perspective in which pronouns are not an issue and “two-spirit” gender identities are considered normal. Many tribes acknowledge five basic genders, he said. (Thomas allowed that there may be more.) “Gender supersedes your sexual identity,” he said. “What you do as a man or a woman is more important than your biological makeup.”
The author, poet, and theater artist Bear Bergman, a trans man who prefers the pronouns “ze” and “hir,” snapped the conversation back to the “heteronormative and binary” pronouns of American English. “Trans and nonbinary people,” Bergman said, have been in place for millennia, yet alternative pronouns have emerged only in the past 75 years. There will be no language-wide solution soon, said Bergman, perhaps because this “is too important and too exciting to rush.”
Meanwhile, “Just call me my name—call me my pronouns,” said the trans woman, author, and cultural commentator Janet Mock in her keynote conversation with Moya Bailey, a Northeastern University postdoctoral fellow. There is an assumption simmering beneath the surface of the gender-language debate “that trans people are passing as something we are not,” said Mock. “I’m not passing as anything. I’m being. Being myself.”
Gender Out in the World
A lot of people are being themselves, said experts on the “Big Data” panel. Lyle Ungar has Facebook posts from 70,000 people and 10 billion tweets to prove it—social media artifacts he is mining as a University of Pennsylvania professor of computer and information science. Men and women communicate differently, he said, but such observations are overweighted.” In the Internet age, our sense of gender may be flattening and blending.
The Fordham University ethnographer Alice E. Marwick acknowledges the socially important “conversation” that social media engenders. But she also sees “cybermobs” reinforcing forms of gender oppression, “sexist and misogynist language” being normalized, and hashtags speeding gender backlash. She anticipates that some women may soon escape to gender-segregated online enclaves. The solution, said Marwick, is to “speak out against sexist language when you see it.”
On the “Public Discourse” panel, the advertising pioneer Mary Mills, who directs strategic intelligence for Saatchi & Saatchi, said that marketers are trying to listen to culture, be authentic, and target experiences instead of genders. They are not influencing gender much—yet, she said—and for now, firms in Europe and Asia are better at listening to gender currents than those in North America.
In the political arena, women are 53 percent of US voters but hold only 25 percent of state offices and 19 percent of seats in Congress. In the struggle for political parity, “language plays a role,” said Christine Matthews, the president and cofounder of Bellwether Research & Consulting. For one thing, she said, “social media can be brutal, opening fast-moving launch points for sexist words and complaints about “loud” female voices or (in the case of Hillary Clinton) an unseemly “cackle,” which to others is just a hearty laugh.
What to do? Midway through the conference, an education graduate student stood, asking for advice. Bear Bergman suggested, “Be somebody flexible with your language.”
Corydon Ireland is a freelance writer.