Gender-neutral pronouns: or, how I learned to stop worrying and love the “ze”

I’ve been resisting “made-up” gender-neutral pronouns for at least a decade. My argument has always been the same: they’re ugly, they sound super-awkward, and they’re unnecessary. At first I said “he” is a perfectly acceptable gender-neutral pronoun, because I was young and ignorant of many things. Then I said that “they” is fine, as it has a long history of use as a gender-neutral singular. I still say that, actually, but I’ve come to accept that it may not be the best choice, especially for an individual who prefers not to use gender-specific pronouns. It might be grammatically correct, but it still feels slightly depersonalized. The plural connotation has a semantic impact, and it makes it feel less like you’re talking about a single, unique individual. So there’s that.

At the same time, my resistance to the alternative pronouns has been weakening. First of all, in the circles I know they seem to be standardizing: most people I read who use gender-neutral pronouns use the ze/hir system (sometimes zie). That means that what sounds awkward and clunky to me may well sound natural to a new generation. I’m all for the evolution of language, even if it leaves me behind. I wish that people had standardized around the “ey/em/eir” system, because I think it sounds the best, but as long as people standardize on something I’ll be happy.

More importantly, though, I’ve realized how using “ze” instead of “they” or something else that feels more natural draws attention to the fact that we’re using a gender-neutral pronoun. Sometimes that’s not what you want, but a lot of the time it is. My brain, like (I’m betting) a lot of yours, still has a habit of considering male the “default” gender, so that if someone says, “The person next to me on the plane ate their lunch really loudly” I’m usually imagining a man. (A white man, natch. Around 35 years old. That’s what a default human being looks like in my brain.) Whereas, if the story is, “The person next to me on the plane ate zeir lunch really loudly” the unfamiliar word jolts my brain into awareness that this person could be any gender. (Now if only we had a quick and easy linguistic convention that could do the same for race and age!)

I guess my point is, “they” doesn’t necessarily work much better than “he” for combatting the standard programming that male is the default. “Ze,” on the other hand, does. And I care more about changing gender-related assumptions and preconceptions than I do about making language conform to my aesthetic likings.

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Your hosts discuss The Avengers, mostly from a writerly view but with a brief detour to consider who is the most bangable

I loved The Avengers. So did most everyone else, apparently, but not everyone else is a fiction geek and really nobody of my acquaintance was prepared to exhaustively discuss the exquisite three-act structure. So when Lane texted me several days ago saying, “We need to gchat about all the writerly things Avengers did right,” I wept a little for joy and reminded myself to double-thank my parents for providing me with such an awesome sibling. And because I think there may be other human beings somewhere in the world who think this is as fun as we do, I’m posting our chat, slightly edited for clarity and brevity, for the world’s enjoyment.

(Notes at the bottom, because I realize we talk in shorthand a lot and skip over discussing some stuff because we know we both know exactly what we mean.)

—-
Lane: So, Avengers!
9:30 PM
me: Yes!

Lane: So much brilliance! Where do you want to begin?

me: Flawless three-act structure?*

Lane: Indeed. And one of my favorite little points; they brought in the second act clusterfuck with almost nothing but dialog.

me: Yeah 🙂

Lane: I have decided that the malignment of dialog as boring is one of the great injustices of film critique.

me: Indeed
It’s only boring when it’s not accomplishing anything

Lane: Right. Or when it is, but nobody is saying anything that couldn’t be said by a dozen other characters in a dozen other movies.

me: That’s a Loki strength though… a lot of his awesome is accomplished through talking

Lane: I’ve decided the awesome thing about dialog is that it has the ability to be far more unique than action (as in fight sequences).
Fight sequences are pretty much just “break the stuff or try to prevent stuff from being broken until the right configuration of stuff is broken/not broken for the plot to continue.”
Dialog, on the other hand, can be unique to each pairing of characters and their specific, immediate circumstance, in terms of what it accomplishes and how.

me: Yeah. Occasionally fights are really artistic and revealing and stuff… probably more often than I realize, actually… but I’m not sure they can ever hit the semantic richness of actual words

Lane: Case in point, Bruce Banner and Tony Stark being awesome together.

me: Ooh, yes. Which brings me to another awesome thing: the way all the superheroes foiled each other in completely different ways
(foiled in the literary sense)**

Lane: Right, I figured.
And yes, that was brilliant.
Every pair had some interesting comparison/contrast going on.
I have a particular fondness for the moment where Cap interrupts Thor to point out that he got the flying monkey reference. :-)***

me: Especially the four Combat Guys (as opposed to the two Spy Kids)
yes 🙂

Lane: Combat Guys and Spy Kids. I don’t think I’ve heard that one before. 🙂

me: Pretty sure I just made it up
Also, I want a Black Widow/Hawkeye movie soooo bad

Lane: Yes!
I love how they got their connection across with so little, and without going the cheap “they are together/unambiguously in love” route.

me: Yeah
And can we now talk about the Black Widow/Loki scene?

Lane: Yes please!

me: And how awesomely it was set up (and yet still surprised me) by the beginning of the movie?

Lane: Yeah, I really wasn’t sure whether she was going to play him or be played.

me: And how genius it was to use a totally emotionally manipulative infodump about her relationship with Hawkeye as an in-plot emotional manipulation?

Lane: That was fantastic, yes.
And all the more so because she wasn’t really using it to pull Loki’s heartstrings, she was using it to make him think he could manipulate her.

me: And that she fooled ME while she was fooling the super-clever villain, thereby not weakening him

Lane: And then the fact that she got what she wanted strengthened her character, but by getting it too late the plot still got its second act clusterfuck.

me: Yup.

Lane: Which really makes the whole thing an extended exposition sequence, but we are learning so much in such an interesting way I really don’t mind.

me: In an interesting way, and with live stakes****

Lane: Yeah.
She’s a great example of a well-maintained action girl.*****
And I like how she has a lot of tricks in her bag, as opposed to just badassery or just seductive guile.

me: Yup

Lane: I think by badassery I specifically meant fighting prowess.
Can I bring up Loki as a supervillain now?

me: Yes!

Lane: Ok, so when we first meet him, he’s your basic megalomaniac. Then we get his scene with Thor, and suddenly we see him through Thor’s eyes, as a troubled little brother.
For the rest of the film, those two images interweave.
At the end, he gets a very odd sort of comeuppance. No death, no justice by human hands. Just a well deserved smackdown by the Hulk, and then it’s off to get a talking to by Daddy.
You would think that would be unsatisfying, but it was, because he’s really just a rebellious little boy, but on a godlike level. So its feels appropriate that he just gets humiliation and sent back to his parents, because A. he’s so far beyond our level we can’t really handle him and B. he doesn’t feel like an absolute monster, but someone who needs whatever the Asgardian equivalent of a spanking and a time out is.
Or at least that’s how it felt to me.

me: Yeah, I agree
and his whupping by Hulk gave us an on-screen version of it, as well as the “sent home to Daddy” story line
That was such a perfect moment

Lane: It really was.
And then, on the flip side, you had the heroes spending the first two thirds of the movie being torn down and having their flaws and failings emphasized, so when they pulled together and did their hero bit it was really, deeply satisfying.

me: Yup
Which is HOW YOU FUCKING PULL OFF A GREAT THREE-ACT HERO MOVIE
Sorry
But I’m so tired of seeing that done wrong, or half-assedly

Lane: No, no, I concur completely.
The Thor movie was a great example of the same thing being tried, but done half-assed.
I love how you had both the heroes and villain deconstructed and reconstructed in complementary ways.

me: Oh, talking of emotional manipulation that was in-story emotional manipulation, I was really relieved that the bloody Captain America cards were a plant

Lane: Yeah. That was a nice touch.
Speaking of which, Agent Coulson’s whole story was a thing of beauty.

me: Yes! Shortly before he died, I was thinking, “This guy is, like, insanely likeable. And ACTUALLY likeable, not just ‘the filmmakers intend him to be likeable'”
Clearly his purpose in the story was to be someone everybody liked a lot, which would have been really obnoxious if “everybody” hadn’t included “the audience”

Lane: Right.
I actually got a whole new theory of writing characters from him, which is basically an offshoot of the halo effect. Have you heard of that?

me: Yes, but explain it as you mean it

Lane: So, the halo effect is that when you like something, you tend to like things associated with it. In this case, its characters benefiting from their scenes.

me: ohhh!!! Yes, it makes sense

Lane: If a scene is well written and enjoyable, you tend to enjoy the characters in it.

me: I thought you were going to say something about if a character you like likes someone, you will too, which is demonstrably NOT true
but yes, you’re totally right about scenes
Having him involved in that adorable Pepper/Stark dynamic won my heart in a big way
But I didn’t really make the connection

Lane: And then another part of what makes him great is that there is something interesting about a man in black type being an incredibly ordinary person.
He’s geeky, but not stereotype geeky. He’s got a life outside his job, that doesn’t always go perfectly. He’s competent, but not hyper skilled. You get enough of him to put together someone who is a true audience surrogate.

me: Yeah. And he has some wins and some loses, in terms of scoring off other characters in dialogue

Lane: And then in the second act clusterfuck aftermath, when he actually steps into the role of audience surrogate, its perfect, because although he’s saying what we are all thinking, they seem natural to him, because of the way we already relate to him.

me: sigh yes

Lane: I loved how, for just a moment, his character was almost woven out of the story, his commentary was so appropriate, but then that was used in the story so seamlessly. It was meta, but unobtrusively so.

me: Yeah

Lane: sigh He was brilliant.

me: Indeed.

Lane: Oh, and a detail that I noticed later on. The character who makes the heroic sacrifice is the one you would least expect to. He doesn’t do it for any reason except that it needed to be done and he was the one best suited to the job.

me: Yup
Although that was pretty required for his character arc
Oh wait
You meant Coulson
I thought you were talking about Iron Man for a second

Lane: I was talking about Iron Man.

me: Oh
Heh 🙂

Lane: Interesting, it applies twice.

me: Ok, so the character who made the ACTUAL sacrifice was Coulson, and everything you said applies to him
Then Iron Man did it again… which, as I mention, was pretty much required by his character arc

Lane: Right.
He had the arciest arc of them all.

me: But it was set up clean, not contrivedy

Lane: Yeah. Actually, I felt more like his arc followed the natural progression of the plot, than that the plot was orchestrating his arc. I felt like any of them could have made the choice and had an arc written to that, he just happened to be the best for the job.
Which, as you say, made it feel clean, not contrived.
They all grew, in subtle ways.

me: Yes
I was just about to suggest that we move on to individual arcs

Lane: Sure!

me: Captain America is the only one of the previous films I’ve seen
And this one follows really nicely on it

Lane: Yeah. I’ve seen that one too.

me: The character deals with a lot of the same sense of displacement and being used by other people
But, he’s sort of used to it by now (the being used part, at least)
Am I remembering correctly? Did another character basically appoint him Team Leader for the final sequence of Avengers?

Lane: I know he was pretty much doing the organizing. I don’t know if he stepped into that role spontaneously, or somebody handed that role to him.
Clearly I need to see it again. 🙂

me: Hm. Clearly I need to watch it again
Hey!

Lane: Jinx

me: I vaguely remember someone saying “You, do the organizing!”
but I could be making that up
Anyway. He is The Captain. Trustworthy and iconic, the person people listen to.
When he goes off to attack Loki solo, he’s still trying to be an independent hero
By the end, he embraces his The Captain role.
He’s out of his time, has no personal connections in this world, therefore he is the ideal leader, with no individual concerns

Lane: Oooh, yeah!
I hadn’t made that connection, but that’s really good.

me: Although in a third movie, ideally, we’d see him stretching that arc and becoming connected again

Lane: Yes, that would be nice.
And this time, it would be a connection to his team members, and so it would still be appropriate for Team Leader.

me: Right
So, Thor. I haven’t seen his movie.

Lane: I have.
Obviously, this one follows up on his story pretty closely.
Basically, Thor and Loki are sons and, presumably, both potential heirs to the throne of Asgard. Thor is chosen, but he foolishly starts a war with the Frost Giants and is banished. At the same time, Loki finds out he is actually an adopted Frost Giant, and could never have inherited the throne because of that.
Its interesting, because at the start Thor is arrogant and violent, and Loki kind of has a point about how unfair it is that Thor gets more favor.
But as Thor has to deal with the consequences of his actions, and Loki lets his disappointment eat him up, they switch places. Thor becomes more of a classic hero and Loki becomes the arrogant, violent one.
Sadly the execution wasn’t all that great, but you can see how this continues that arc.

me: Yeah

Lane: Loki goes full-fledged supervillain, and Thor proves his growth by helping to defend Earth. And at the same time, he feels some valid guilt for Loki being the way he is at this point in time.
So I guess Thor is relatively static in this movie, which is not necessarily bad.

me: Yeah, he is… you can’t have THAT many dynamic characters

Lane: A well written static character can be a good foil for the more dynamic ones.

me: But he definitely shifted from a me-and-my-world focus to a team-focus, which paralleled the overall story of the film

Lane: Yes. That was nice.

me: And he was pretty.

Lane: FUCK YES
Confession; I hadn’t seen the original Thor movie when I watched Avengers. I downloaded it afterwards because pretty.

me: Quick detour for Biggest Hottie discussion?

Lane: Yes

me: I think the one I’d most like to share special time with is Hawkeye
With Thor coming in as a second
and an acknowledgement that clearly, the best personal match for me would be Bruce Banner
(who, incidentally, is the superhero my husband most resembles)

Lane: Yeah, I can see that.
For me, Thor wins all categories. For realistic best match, Cap comes in second. For just plain physical hotness, its a three way second place tie between Cap, Hawkeye and Tony.

me: Tony Stark is dead sexy, but it’s the kind of sexy that I acknowledge intellectually rather than feel in my nethers

Lane: Interesting.

me: Also, I’d totally make out with Black Widow, but I’d be intimidated to get naked with her, and dating would be right out

Lane: Heh. I was wondering about that. Ok, we should finish up the character arcs. I do need to get to sleep.

me: Right-o
We did Tony already
Banner. Mmm, Banner.

Lane: I haven’t seen his movie.

me: Me neither

Lane: Well then.

me: but his arc was small and pretty well summed up in “That’s my secret. I’m always angry.”
Living with Shaun gave me a pretty immediate visceral understanding of that arc

Lane: Yeah?

me: Basically, if you try to fight and hide and pretend you’re not that person, it will break out uncontrollably and you will hurt people you care about
If you own it and use it, you can manage it.

Lane: Oooh, yeah. I like it.

me: And you can also give well-deserved spankings to foxy otherworld godlings

Lane: Tangent; I really love how Tony was the one who understood him the best, and was the one who believed he would come back.

me: Yeah

Lane: Heh, indeed.

me: Their interaction was really awesome
We said this already, but the way the characters played off each other added SO much

Lane: So very much so.
It was like having this mega character, made of all the bestness of all of them.

me: 🙂
Weirdly, that’s exactly what the movie was about
and, ya know, named for

Lane: Precisely.
My only complaint is that the mega character was not shirtless often enough. >:-)

me: True story

Lane: Well, that seems like as good a note as any to end on.

me: Indeedy

—-
*Three-act structure: This is the most common of movie plot structures, and it’s common because it’s extremely effective. In brief, you have an overall plot, which may or may not be what the characters think it is. The story is divided into three acts: each act is its own mini-story, and the conclusion of it advances the overall plot in an important way (often by making the final goal seem that much more unreachable.) The Avengers‘ three-act structure was so pretty!… so pretty I want to be teaching a course on fiction writing right now so I can use it as an example. In brief, here’s the breakdown:

Overall plot: The formation of the Avengers as a cohesive team. (An example of how the overarching plot may not be what the characters think it is. The characters think it’s about defeating Loki or getting back the tesseract. That’s what’s motivating them, but that’s not the heart of the story.)
Act 1: Recruitment. It’s about the gathering of the Avengers into the same physical space, the kickass hovercraft station[edit: wintermute informs me that this is called the Helicarrier… sweet!] that reminded me of the Doctor Who Series 3 finale. A lot of the gathering process is straightforward, with Frost[edit: I mean Fury. It was really late by this point, y’all] calling in people until they show up. It’s complicated by the fact that some of them run off to fight Loki prematurely (although necessarily), thereby highlighting the weaknesses of all four Combat Guys and setting up their arcs. Also thereby bringing Loki onto the space station with them and setting up the major tension of Act 2. As often happens, Act 1 ends on a mostly positive note, with a major goal having been accomplished, but lots of uncertainty and danger ahead.
Act 2: Disjunction. While five out of the six Avengers are now present, they are anything but a cohesive team. Each is preoccupied with their own concerns and issues, and these are dramatized by interactions between characters. The weaknesses that most of them revealed in the Act 1 climax (Black Widow revealed hers when she was recruiting Banner) are further fleshed out and given opportunity to do damage. In the end those weaknesses, helped by the supervillain’s machinations, result in total disaster for the team and all its goals. Not only have they lost their super hovery cloud station, but they are once again scattered and the supervillain has everything he wants. It’s basically essential, in a good three-act plot, that Act 2 end badly for the heroes. (Unless the story is a tragedy, in which case Act 2 should have the protagonist on top of the world. It’s all about the contrast.) There are a few glimmers of hope, though: Hawkeye is with the team, even though we’ve lost Thor and Banner, and Captain America and Iron Man have both advanced their arcs.
Act 3: Victory. From the devastation of the Act 2 climax, our heroes rise, pull themselves together, and kick serious ass. It’s pretty blatant, as the Avengers, given a name and purpose, function as a team to defeat lots of shiny evil things. It’s actually quite obvious and formulaic, but here’s the thing: most action movies do not effectively pull off this obvious formula. And it’s not because they’re doing something different and original: it’s because they’re sloppy with their storytelling. Storytelling formulas exist because they work, they’re effective and compelling, and if you’re going to buck one, you’d better be a genius. Most action movie scripts are either non-genius departures from the formula, or (the majority by far) lazy attempts that seem to assume that formula obliviates the need for craft. It doesn’t. The Avengers used a time-honored formula and did it skillfully, and it makes this fiction nerd want to weep with joy.

**I’m sure you all remember “foils” from your high school English class: a character that serves to highlight another’s qualities by contrast. Sometimes one of these characters is the main character and the other a sidekick, like Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. Other times they’re more or less co-equals, like Mulder and Scully. The awesome thing about Avengers was the way every one of the heroes serves as a foil for every one of the others, at least among the four Combat Guys. (And there’s some really cool power/control dimensions in the Black Widow/Hulk contrast.) If you don’t believe me, I’ll write another post spelling it all out. (As you might have guessed, this is not one of those things you have to twist my arm hard to do.)

***I totally forgot to mention, but I think it was awesome, that Joss Whedon made the line “You’re not wrong” hilarious in this movie. He also made it hilarious once on Buffy the Vampire Slayer (points if you remember when) and I have a vague recollection of it appearing another time in his work. When a writer re-uses a line or word a ton it gets annoying, but appearing two or three times over a couple of decades and multiple franchises just makes it endearing.

****This is a pretty simple one. “Live stakes” means that, from both the character and the audience point of view, what’s going on onscreen may still impact the outcome. In actual fact the outcome may already be on its inevitable trajectory (as it is in this case), but for both the characters acting and the audience watching, what’s going on has the potential to change the course of action.

*****We didn’t get around to this one either, but I’m sure Lane would agree that Maria Hill was a much-appreciated female character alongside Natasha Romanoff. It’s still a man’s man’s man’s man’s world, but I was happy to see even one single female character who was entirely defined by being good at her job and not by any personal relationships.