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

  1. I used to find this incredibly awkward, but that’s because I was against it for some reason. The other day I used zie in a conversation without thinking about it and figured that this was progress!

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  2. This is the problem:

    Please don’t take this as criticism – I really like your blog, your observations, and willingness to to honestly examine what’s going on. (Plus you make some really sound points!) This is just my own observation, and I would enjoy hearing your thoughts on this.

    “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”

    I’m a middle-aged man of European descent (you know, “The Man”…he who is to blame for all of our woes), yet I don’t make this assumption that when the word “person” is used it means “a man”. To me it’s *not* automatically a man being referenced. It’s interesting that as a woman you assume it’s a man! (I’m left wondering about that assumption – wish we had some good research on what most people assume, and how that’s distributed across gender).

    This is one of the problems I see: frequently those who are promoting a “new paradigm” are often the one’s with the actual paradigm issue – it’s in *their* mind, not the minds of those whom they are trying to impress the need for change!

    Also, change needs to be organic – not induced or forced. People will always resist changes that are introduced with an agenda, as it feels unnatural. Suffrage, Equal Opportunity, etc, occurred because those who controlled the vote (men) saw the validity of equality (after all, they have mothers and sisters who were affected). But this attempt to “de-gender” the English language is incongruent with reality, as human life, society and world isn’t gender-neutral.

    That said, from a structure standpoint, gender-neutral pronouns do make sense, I just don’t see how introducing them can be accomplished.

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  3. Crap – I edited and screwed up my post.

    My opening line (“This is the problem:”) should appear after my disclaimer, and just before the quote (“My brain, like (I’m betting)”…)

    Oops.

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