Singular They is Old, Singular They is New

(The Linguistic One stretches, blows the dust off this blog that has been sitting idle while we all deal with Life Things, and dives in to writing).

In the last few years, English pronouns have become a hot topic of discussion and controversy, mainly because they constitute the central linguistic battleground on which English-speakers play out debates about the nature of sex and gender. I thought I had written about this more than once on here before, but it turns out I touched on it only once (here, in relation to the claims of authority expressed by Canadian Academia’s own He-Who-Shall-Not-Be Named). The main focus of The Great Pronoun Controversy is what is conventionally called “singular they”, although novel pronouns (like ze, xie, or others) also come up sometimes. There is now an abundance of good writing available, both in accessible blog posts or news stories and in books and academic articles — to highlight just a few, check out the work of sociocultural linguist Lal Zimman (here for academic stuff, here for some blogging), as well as the fantastic work of my new colleague Lee Airton on the blog “They is my Pronoun” or in their book “Gender: Your Guide”, discussed here.

We are hitting another round of public discussion of “singular they” right now, as the Merriam-Webster dictionary has declared it to be the “word of the year” (for announcement, see here). This comes on the heels of the fairly significant announcement a few months ago that the American Psychological Association style guide (heavily used across several academic disciplines) will include, in its 7th edition, the instruction to use “singular they” in cases where a) the gender of the individual being discussed is unknown or not specified or b) the gender of the individual being discussed is known to be neither male nor female. The APA decision in particular makes an important move toward changing the material manifestation of gender representation in print, since style guides constitute, in some contexts, formal rule books — in academic or journalistic writing, you may be able to argue for some wiggle room, but the default will be for copy-editors and other reviewers to “correct” your word choices.

Pronoun_badgesAs noted above, there are any number of experts on the use of Singular They that could tell you more about the pragmatics, psycholinguistic acquisition, and politics of this pronoun (in addition to the scholars above, see for example, information about this conference on the topic from last summer, or Twitter accounts of scholars @kirbyconrod, @VerbingNouns, and @lexicondk). What I want to add here is really about the discourse around singular they, in particular, around the “Word of the Year” declaration. In addition to folks who have really rigid ideas about how both gender and language work or should work, I see some mild pushback on these types of announcements from people who totally support the use of singular they, but who dismiss the idea that anything new is happening here. People who point out this oldness and commonness are profoundly well-intentioned and supportive of the rights of gender non-conforming people (they may even be trans or non-binary themselves), but I think they are missing something that does matter about this pronoun, and in doing so, are appealing to a view of language that is worth pushing against.

In a certain sense, it is accurate to say that “singular they” is old – there are attested uses of it, referring to unknown individuals or hypothetical people (e.g. “If someone comes to my door to sell me cookies, I will give them all my money”) going back hundreds of years. There are even fun examples of people arguing against it literally while they are using it (for example “If a student submits a paper using ‘they’ as a singular pronoun, they are going to lose grades for grammatical incorrectness”), and it is hard to resist the schadenfreude involved in pointing out this apparent hypocrisy. But Merriam-Webster — and the American Dialect Society, who declared ‘they’ its Word of the Year in 2015 — are not hopelessly out of touch in recognizing this pronoun as as a significant word that highlights an important social change. The use of singular they to apply to named/known, non-binary individuals is definitely new, and its rise is directly connected to an increasingly prominent understanding of gender/sex in non-binary terms. This is a point I want to emphasize for a couple of reasons – first, in rooting the claim to its “correctness” in an argument that “singular they is old”, it opens to door to those who can object to your point by noting (accurately) that this way of using it is new. If your point is that we should be okay with the grammaticality of singular they because we have been, in a certain form, for centuries, that is one type of linguistic battle you may choose to fight; if your point is that we can and should affirm non-binary gender identities through the recognition of “they” are a personal and specific pronoun, relying on an appeal to its longstanding grammatical presence is weak. Don’t get me wrong – I am not debating or contesting the grammaticality of non-binary, specific, singular they. I’m just saying a) it is actually a new thing, b) that’s actually great, because it shows that our language can change to accommodate our new social understandings of fundamental things like gender. Grammatical correctness does not accumulate with age.

The second reason I want to emphasize it is that I think sometimes this “singular they is old” and “everyone uses singular they” point is somewhat dismissive of the challenge of learning to apply this pronoun. A lot of the really great scholarly work around singular they right now is looking at people’s ability to acquire the pronoun and to learn to use it appropriately. Airton’s entire blog (linked above) proceeds from the recognition that this is a thing that has to be learned for most people, and that addressing that process and effort compassionately and supportively is an important part of bringing about the necessary social change. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this change is easiest to make for people who are themselves trans, non-binary, or genderqueer, who have been thinking about gender in complex and life-altering ways for essentially their entire lives, or for people are situated in communities in which they encounter a lot of gender non-conforming individuals, who therefore get a lot of opportunities to use these pronouns. I do think people outside these groups – in other words, cis, straight people who don’t necessarily engage much with queer communities – need to put in the time to learn how to do this right. It matters. Using the wrong pronouns for people hurts them (see for example this discussion of the related practice of “deadnaming” trans people), and denies their gender identities. Language is a central battleground in this particular story because it is through language that we express our acceptance or denial of the reality of who a person is. These expressions are about real changes to how we, as a society, talk about gender, and that means it’s worth taking the time to learn even (or perhaps especially) if it’s hard and confusing for you. It’s one thing to criticize pedantic dinosaurs for refusing to even entertain the grammaticality of singular they in any form, but quite another, I think, to suggest that there’s nothing to see here.

The grammaticality of “singular they” doesn’t depend on its presence in dictionaries or style guides or on appeals to its age in the English language, but in this case, the dictionary is right to highlight it – trans and non-binary people are becoming much more visible, and we as a broader society are learning new ways to talk about gender as a result. This pronoun is a radical thing, and it has come to mainstream public attention and use really quite quickly. Recognizing its newness is not to dismiss it – instead, it is to highlight its importance and to push forward with making it more present.

 

Student Guest Post: Play Ball, But Stay on Your Own Team!: Language and Gender Differences in Athletics

Editor: This is a guest post by Ash, a student from Dr. Shulist’s Language, Gender, and Sexuality class, on the many ways that the idea of binary gender affects the world of sports. Ash is a science major who was taking this course mainly for fun, and we love this example of how to use anthropological tools to think through topics that surround us literally constantly. 

The gender binary has been, throughout history, rigorously upheld in the field of athletics. Presently, we still have strict divisions between men’s and women’s leagues, and more often there are now recurring issues with transgender athletes being put into either category regardless of their gender under the guise of a fear of unfair advantage (Gleaves & Lehrbach 2016) . In ancient times, women were excluded from participating in large events and athletic activity altogether, but more modern times are where the league division by gender has emerged. The only “co-ed” teams appear in non-serious, recreation-type leagues. Even non-contact sports such as curling have leagues divided by binary gender within the upper ranks. In the latest winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea, the long standing statistic of more male athletes to female athletes persisted, despite female athletes in teams such as the USA obtaining more medals than their male counterparts. Even when discussing gender in athletics and critiquing its use of binary here, it is nearly impossible to avoid separating men’s from women’s athletics.

This brings us to the obvious question of: Why? Why are sports inherently viewed and treated as more male dominated and suited? Likely it is the common association of physical strength with masculinity, whereas we have seen in class what “feminine power” is portrayed as on Google images. This fractal recursivity whereby masculinity is strong and femininity is inherently weak, among other negative traits, contributes to this. There is also related and specific language difference used when describing each group’s athletics and athletes in disappointing trends over the years, and this language surrounding athletics continues to uphold the gender differential within the community. Examples of this include women’s sports as being marked, whereas men’s categories are left unmarked (ex: “hockey” implies men’s hockey but “women’s hockey” must be denoted as such), and occasionally the female leagues are not called “women’s” leagues but rather, unfortunately, “ladies” (ex: Wimbledon Ladies Singles). Men’s leagues and teams, in my experience, are not called “gentlemen’s”. Even the athletes themselves are often marked as female, including at times when it’s not entirely relevant or necessary (ex: woman golfer).

This relates to our class lecture on men and masculinities where we discussed athletics and associated spaces (such as locker rooms and “man caves”) as creating sites of toxic, male-only culture. These hyper-masculine spaces simultaneously prohibit women’s presence yet demand that they exist in the periphery simultaneously for sexual experiences and heterosexual indexing (Kiesling 2005). In the male-only spheres, misogyny is able to flourish as masculinity can reach an un-compromised and un-rivalled peak. An example of this is Donald Trump’s infamous “locker room banter” comment whereby he insinuates that conversations about sexual harassment and misogyny are appropriate in male-only spaces such as gendered locker rooms. This “old boys club” mentality contributes to the underlying parts of rape culture that are pervasive in society but often less detectable and thus more likely to be ignored or dismissed, as, for example, just “locker room banter”. Even when changing clothes in preparation for the sport at hand, the binary precedent is already being set.

More specific examples of language upholding toxic gender binaries can be seen abundantly in the hockey community. Only the men’s leagues (as with most professional sports) are considered popular and profitable. The highest league in the sport, the NHL, is not specifically men-only yet a single female athlete has only ever played one game. Furthermore, within the broader hockey community, it is a culture of high masculinity with that same pushing of all femininity, women included, into the periphery. Specifically, female players and fans alike are required to understand the vast lingo and jargon associated within the hockey community and culture, yet they are not permitted to use or access it themselves. Furthermore, there is a very limited and particular pool from which male players may choose to form romantic relationships, and that group does not overlap with their female hockey playing counterparts. It is also assumed and reinforced that male hockey players are not homosexual, despite movements such as the NHL’s “Hockey is for Everyone” campaign. There are explicitly drawn lines between the two binary genders within hockey culture, and each has very obvious and laid out roles and rules. When sports are so heavily divided by gender, these rigid systems within are able to emerge, and language further enables it to do so.

Language upholding this rigidity also extends to the differences among interviews between male and female athletes. Many female athletes have taken issue with being asked questions that they felt were extremely inappropriate given the contexts. For example, being asked about their “ultimate date”, why they aren’t smiling, which male athletes they “like”, and general comments and questions about their attire. Generally it is reported that male athletes are not asked questions of these unrelated natures. The hashtag #CoverTheAthlete made a point of imploring journalists to ask consistent types of questions regardless of the gender of athlete they were interviewing⁹.  A video in support of the #CoverTheAthlete movement highlighted the baffling inappropriateness in the difference in the line of questioning between athletes genders by having multiple journalists ask some of the most outlandish but actual questions that have been asked of professional female athletes to their male counterparts.

Sexism in sports is nothing new, but I used this opportunity to explore the ways in which language and league divisions within athletics perpetuates it. It is commonly assumed that athletics require division by gender at all due to perceived differences in strength and skill whereby women are understood as the lesser, despite several sports, leagues, and statistics debunking this¹¹. From the initial gender division, we see right away that this causes negative implications for transgender athletes. From there we see how highly segregated leagues can create hyper-masculine spaces resulting in unbalanced sports cultures including justifiable “locker room banter” and exclusionary attitudes and expectations. Lastly, and even more language focused, we examined the differences in interview questions between male and female athletes wherein the women were asked remarkably inappropriate and unrelated questions compared to the men: When the lines of questioning were reversed as seen in the #CoverTheAthlete video, the male athletes were less than impressed. Unfortunately, athletics and surrounding culture embodies many more categories and examples of sexism and gender differences than what was mentioned here, such as outstanding differences in pay. It remains a highly divided area and progress within it is slow. It is hard to say what the next 100 years of professional sports will look like: Will gender divisions between leagues be demolished? Will transgender athletes not be a controversial issue of feigned unfairness? Will the #CoverTheAthlete campaign and similar movements lessen the amount of absurd questions that female athletes receive from journalists? Will sports stop being a site of hyper-masculinity due to gender division causing rampantly created and perpetuated sexism?

The ball is in our court.

 

Bibliography

  1. Gleaves, John, & Lehrbach, Tim. “Beyond Fairness: the Ethics of Inclusion for Transgender and Intersex Athletes”, Journal of the Philosophy of Sport, 43:2, 311-326. 2016.
  2. Kiesling, Scott Fabius. “Homosocial desire in mens talk: Balancing and re-Creating cultural discourses of masculinity.” Language in Society, vol. 34, no. 05, Dec. 2005.

Gender Role “Reversal” Requires Revision

Photographer-Eli-Rezkallah-reverses-the-roles-in-the-sexist-pubs-of-the-60s-and-the-result-is-very-interesting-5a5f135dab6da__700

Recreated ad by artist Eli Rezcalla

I’ll admit that my first response to these vintage sexist ads where the photographer, Eli Rezcalla, “reversed” the gender roles was “lol :D”. By “simply” switching the genders of the subjects, Rezcalla was easily able to show how these ads, much like many today, reinforce sexist gender roles. Now I’m always a fan of calling out the patriarchy and sexism, however, as I scrolled down through the images my initial feeling of glee was overwhelmingly replaced by feelings of grossness. Why? Because with many of the ads selected, for both the original and the reversal, toxic heteronormativity is represented and reinforced. So what do I mean by heteronormativity and what about it is toxic? Well as is well described here and here, heteronormativity packages ideas like there are only two genders representing two sexes, that members of these two sexes/genders are heterosexual, that this heterosexuality must be strictly monogamous, and that sex serves for reproductive purposes only and then argues that these are the only “normal” or “natural” ways to be human. This is toxic because it has serious consequences for individuals who aren’t heteronormative simply and importantly because it invalidates their existence. Clearly it’s not just ads that represent toxic heteronormativity; this article is a good discussion of toxic monogamy in F.R.I.E.N.D.S. because yes, heteronormativity dictates not just who we have sex with but what kind of sex we can/cannot have, how many partners we can/cannot have, and what is/is not acceptable in relationships in terms of jealousy, commitment, competition, and communication including whether or not you can have other kinds of relationships like friendships (*coughs* “But we were on a break!”*coughs* smdh). So really heteronormativity is toxic for everyone including heterosexuals and cisgender individuals.

I was also bothered by the choice to represent domestic violence. As several commenters noted on the “if your husband/wife ever finds out” ad – it’s not o.k. or funny to hit your partner. Listen I get that spanking can be a very exciting and healthy part of a consensual relationship (especially if it IS being used as “punishment”) BUT there’s nothing about that particular ad that reads as consensual (and no it’s not representing BDSM and I am also tired of that being misrepresented in media too!). And I won’t accept “but it’s supposed to be funny” as a counter-argument because no, domestic and/or sexual violence are never funny. The broader use of domestic and/or sexual violence in advertising is a problem that only serves to promote misogyny and sexism.  I know that challenging all of the problems represented by the “everyday sexism” of these ads wasn’t the point of the project but simply “reversing” the players only serves to reinforce other toxic aspects of heteronormativity.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thoughts on a Pink Princess Party: Gender & Children

princess-emojis

Sometimes being a parent influences my teaching and other times it is my parenting that is influenced by my being an anthropologist, a scientist, a teacher. I no longer know how to keep these roles separate, and indeed am not so uncomfortable when I fail to separate them.

We learn the appropriate ways of thinking and feelings behaving in our society through the process of enculturation. Similarly, socialization is the learning process for the skills we need to successfully interact in our social groups. Teaching gender as a social construct means that anthropologists recognize that socialization and enculturation teach us how we must behave as a gendered individual AND how to recognize other behaviours as gendered within a cultural context. This means that while we are assigned a gender at birth, we must learn what that means.

My husband and I assigned our kid a female gender at birth on the basis of their assigned sex at birth. We gave our kid a name that is identified as female within our culture. However, recognizing that the identities we are assigned at birth do not always “match” our personal identities as we grow and learn, we wanted to ensure our kid was exposed to diverse experiences, objects, and points of reference. Basically we wanted our kid to know that “female” does not necessarily mean sparkly, pink, princesses or other gender stereotypes. So books were purchased showing people in diverse rolls, with skin colours and hair textures and facial features and clothing etc. that are different from those represented in our household. Toys were selected without attention to which aisle in the store they came from. Cars, dinosaurs, dolls, balls, blocks, and costumes all had/have a place in our home. Awesomeness was defined based on personal interests. And it turns out that the last point is an important one.

See my daughter is a sparkly, pink, princess who is obsessed with all things Disney, and she wanted nothing more than a princess party for her fourth birthday. So that’s what she got – an over-the-top princess party. Now this post isn’t to brag about how great of a parent I am because that is far from the truth. It certainly does make clear the privilege I have on so many levels, because that I am privileged is the truth. What inspired this post is one of the things I saw in planning the party – I rented a princess.

It turns out that this is actually a thing (which will not surprise some of you with littles). You can rent an actor to come in full costume and character inspired by those, more often than not, belonging to the very large Disney universe to perform at your child’s party. There are several different companies in our city and each offer different takes on characters (to avoid copyright lawsuits) and packages. Unsurprisingly the more you spend, typically the more “stuff” that’s included in your package. I looked at the companies that focused on Princess Parties but some also had superhero or other characters available as part of their offerings.

What was extremely interesting to me was how the companies addressed gender.

Most companies clearly focused on stereotypes around not just princesses but females in western culture. Activities offered as parts of the packages included make overs, tea parties, and princess etiquette lessons. Some companies would note that other activities could be offered for boys in attendance but these mostly seemed to just include references to dress up items for knights and/or pirates. However some companies are trending towards a more gender inclusive approach.

While clearly a gendered term and while the actors who attend as princesses are female (they are meant to represent specific, beloved, and obsessed over characters), “princess” need not be defined nor represented exclusively as female. Several images used on promotional products for the company we went with show all children participating in various gender neutral activities such as face painting, crafting, singing, and dancing. Our princess painted the faces of any kid in attendance who wanted to have their face painted (I really appreciated the language of consent that was used “Would you like your face painted? May I touch your face?” btw) and offered two choices (shell or fish) based on her character’s world. The craft was for a crown or reindeer antlers because she “recently met a reindeer that another princess has and he was so cute [she] thought reindeer antlers would be perfect for our cold winter day”. She sang a song from “her” movie and read a story about “her” life. Only my daughter was referred to as “princess” because it was her birthday, all other kids were simply “friends”. So the “princess party” was themed to the character but not explicitly to a gender. Further it was inclusive in that the options were participation/non-participation based rather than female/male.

To wrap this up, my experiences with planning the perfect pink princess party as a parent and as an anthropologist reinforced the growing awareness that gender is a cultural construct. At the party I saw kids playing with a character that represented something important and meaningful to them – a princess who my kid described as friendly, fun, silly, kind, and who had a lovely voice. My kid saw qualities they liked, they aspire to embodied in that princess. I can’t find fault with my kid wanting to celebrate her birthday in a way that we might interpret as gendered but which she saw as simply “awesome”.

p.s. I  am also a little biased because I think one princess in particular is very awesome…

princess-kt

Note: I didn’t get compensated for this post. It is really hard to talk about princesses without mentioning Disney because let’s be real, they’ve locked the whole princess thing down!