Wednesday, December 13. 2006
'Zie' and 'hir' have come into vogue in certain corners of the transgender community. The equivalent of 's/he' and 'him/her,' these gender-neutral pronouns are meant to free transgendered and gender-variant people from the tyranny of the sex/gender binary. The expectation, I suppose, is that once American society has overthrown the oppression of 'he' vs. 'she,' the Utopia of gender liberation will be achieved. I don't mean to burst anyone's genderqueer bubble, but it seems to me that the argument for the use of gender-neutral pronouns is a profoundly ahistorical one that is not informed by a close examination of how languages actually work.
I would point out that Chinese has a gender-neutral pronoun and has had one for thousands of years, and yet China has traditionally been among the most patriarchal societies on earth. A great civilization -- arguably the greatest continuous civilization in human history, China nonetheless has been and unfortunately remains a profoundly misogynist Confucian culture even after half a century of ostensibly gender-egalitarian Communist rule.
It was under the Southern Song dynasty (1127-1279 CE) that foot-binding came into vogue in south China. In fact, 'foot-binding' is a misnomer (rather like 'female circumcision' is a misnomer for what really is a form of female castration): the practice really amounted to foot-breaking, the bones of the feet broken and the front half of the foot forced backwards under the back half, causing excruciating pain in order to create the illusion of a tiny foot. So powerfully attractive to Chinese men (who often fetishized the 'bound' foot) was this practice that the mere unrapping of the binding cloth enveloping a woman's foot would produce an immediate erotic response from her male partner. 'Foot-binding' was also a very class-oppressive practice, as it was limited to women of the upper classes. Needless to say, permanently crippling a peasant woman would cripple the family farm, and so the peasant women who constituted the vast majority of women throughout Chinese history into the late twentieth century were spared this practice, but were nonetheless subject to ridicule by high-born men and women alike, as such 'big' (i.e., unbroken) feet were considered ugly and 'deformed' in their natural state.
But foot-binding is only one practice symptomatic of the larger issue of gender-bias in traditional Chinese society, in which a female child more generally was considered the property of her father until she married, when she became the property of her husband (and in practice, by her often autocratic mother-in-law). Since the People's Republic of China adopted its one-child policy, female infanticide has become widespread, and elective abortion is now used as a tool of sex-selection when the family has the resources to get a sonogram or amneocentesis to determine the sex of the fetus; a family without resources will simply take the newborn female child and throw her over a cliff or dump her in the river.
For thousands of years, the Chinese language has used only one pronoun ('ta') for 'him' and 'her' as well as 'he' and 'she.' In contrast, Korean is a very gendered language, but traditional Korean society was matrilineal (if not matriarchal), with property passing down through the mother's line. It was only in 1392 when the first king of the Yi dynasty imposed a neo-Confucian revolution from above, replacing the woman-centered Altaic culture of pre-Sinitic Korean society with a patriarchal Chinese structure in which a woman became the property of her husband. An imported patriarchal culture whose language had a single gender-neutral pronoun displaced an indigenous matrilineal culture with a highly gendered language.
One would be tempted to say that the proponents of 'zie' and 'hir' are woefully naive Eurocentrics whose perspective is very white and Western, but in fact, the 'theory' (if one could call it that) underlying the use of gender-neutral pronouns doesn't make sense even in the context of Western European cultures. All Indo-European languages are gendered to some extent, but English is actually one of the least gendered of them. In contrast with the Romance languages, which require a gendered article to proceed (or, in the case of Romanian, follow) all objects and entities, English uses gender-neutral definite ('the') and indefinite ('a') articles. In French, a butterfly is masculine ('un papillon'), but in Spanish ('una mariposa') and in Italian ('una farfalla'), it is feminine -- this, despite the fact that butterflies obviously come in two sexes. While a door is feminine in French ('une porte'), an armchair is masculine ('un fauteuil'), and the gendering of these inanimate objects seems odd to us anglophones. Ironically enough, when everything in a language is gendered, it has the odd effect of subtly diminishing the impact of the gendered pronoun.
This is not to suggest that there aren't controversies in European societies around the gender of articles and pronouns. I was living in Paris in April 1991 when Edith Cresson became the first woman to be named prime minister in the history of the French republic (there are those, of course, who maintain that the Marquise de Pompadour played that role under Louis XV, but her role in policymaking was unofficial and that was an entirely different set of circumstances), and a debate ensued whether the title -- which had always been 'monsieur le premier ministre' -- would have to be re-gendered as 'madame la premiere ministre.' It would seem odd if not downright bizarre for Edith Cresson to be addressed as 'monsieur' (which literally means 'my lord'). So in the end, the French settled on an awkward compromise in which Cresson would be addressed as 'madame le premier ministre.' Hence, the title of prime minister (and the definite article preceding it) was held to be gender-invariant, while the form of address ('monsieur' or 'madame') would vary with the gender of the office-holder.
Jonathan Buttall: The Blue Boy (c 1770)
Thomas Gainsborough (1727-88)
One might think that simply adding a neutral gender to a language would help resolve such social issues, as well as providing a category for inanimate objects that -- at least to our anglophonic minds -- do not seem particularly gendered (such as chairs and doors, pens and pencils, mountains and lakes, etc., etc.). But in fact, the cultures whose languages possess a neutral gender are not necessarily less gendered than those which do not. German and Romanian both have a neutral gender, but neither German nor Romanian society is notably gender-neutral. Oddly enough, while 'man' and 'boy' are both masculine (der Mann, der Junge) and woman is feminine (die Frau), 'girl' is neuter (das Mädchen); that hardly means that female children were treated in a gender-neutral fashion in traditional German society, which was nothing if not patriarchal.
Probably the best argument for gender-neutral pronouns is that there are some people who do not feel that they fit either gender and who may want to challenge the sex/gender binary that forces a choice of pronoun on them; that may be a particularly compelling case for those born intersexed (i.e., neither fully male nor female). But my response would be to suggest that gendered pronouns are so profoundly embedded in the English language (as well as other Indo-European languages) that 'zie' and 'hir' will never come into general use. One might object by pointing to the way in which 'Ms.' came into common usage in the 1970s, all but replacing 'Miss' and 'Mrs.' -- forms of address which now seem old-fashioned and even quaint to contemporary Americans in the early twenty-first century. In fact, something similar has happened in France and in Germany, where the terms 'mademoiselle' and 'Fräulein' were commonly used for unmarried women, no matter how old; nowadays, 'madame' and 'Frau' are used for adult womenregardless of marital status.
Sarah Barrett Moulton: Pinkie (1794)
Thomas Lawrence (1769-1830)
But personal pronouns operate at a level much deeper than forms of address (such as 'Mr' and 'Ms.' or 'monsieur' and 'madame'). And no matter how significantly US society is changing with regard to gender, I do not think that gendered pronouns such as 'zie' and 'hir' that have no relation to the culture will ever gain wide currency. It is certainly true that languages are always changing and evolving; but for a linguistic innovation to work, it must have some integral connection to the language and culture into which it is introduced; 'zie' and 'hir' have no such connection; on the contrary, they are too obviously artificial. Ironically enough for what is ostensibly a gender-neutral pronoun, 'zie' is pronounced just like 'sie' in German, which is the feminine pronoun 'she' (but also the formal pronoun for 'you'). Because 'hir' is a homophone of 'here,' its use inevitably provokes confusion to the anglophone listener. But to my mind, the biggest fault with 'zie' and 'hir' is that they unwittingly concretise the very sex/gender binary that they are intended to challenge. If, for example, only genderqueers were to use such gender-neutral pronouns for self-identification, they would unwittingly leave gendered pronouns to the heteronormative in society, in effect reifying the sex/gender binary by implicitly suggesting that 'he' and 'she' are the proper preserve of those with fixed a gender identity based on sex assigned at birth.
Ironically enough, then, the general use of gender-neutral pronouns could actually have an unintentially gender-conservative influence in public discourse. But in the real world, 'zie' and 'hir' will never gain wide currency even within the transgender community, because so many transgendered people want to claim gendered pronouns. At best, 'zie' and 'hir' will be used in written texts by a small number of genderqueer writers, in effect, ineffective markers of a futile resistance to the prevailing gender order.
That's the bad news for proponents of 'zie' and 'hir': these neologisms will never take off. But as we have seen in my sketchy little review of the use of gendered pronouns, a society that uses gender-neutral pronouns is not necessarily a gender-neutral society. The good news is that the use of gendered pronouns does not doom one to perpetual rearticulation of the sex/gender binary. Some -- including some crossdressers and drag queens, but also some genderqueers -- use gendered pronouns flexibly, switching back and forth between 'he' and 'she' just as they alternate between gender presentations. The flexible use of gendered pronouns is not at all new to the queer community; gay men have long used feminine pronouns to refer to themselves and others, sometimes in the spirit of camp, other times tochallenge the pretensions to heteronormativity of their gay brethren/sistren, as in, "Mary, who does she think she is?"
And such flexible use of pronouns, in my view, contributes to destabilizing the sex/gender binary precisely because it challenges the insistence on consistent gender presentation (and reference) and because it destabilizes the connection between anatomical sex and gendered pronoun. To my mind, strategic or even tactical pronoun gendering of self (where respectful and consonant with the self-identification of the individual) and others (where, as above, it challenges pretensions to heteronormativity) is a far more powerful technique for resisting the concretizing of sex and gender through the sex/gender binary than the hopelessly artificial use of pronouns that are not integral to the English language.
Each of us must decide on how we wish to gender our pronouns in self-reference and how we wish others to refer to us. But to those who like me are committed to real social change, I think the best -- because most realistic -- strategy is to disrupt the heteronormative narrative of the dominant culture by supporting those who claim a set of gendered pronouns even where those pronouns do not 'match' the anatomical sex and gender assigned to them at birth.
To the average American whose ideas about transgender are still largely influenced by the medical model of transsexuality, womanhood and feminine pronouns can only be claimed when one 'fully' transitions through SRS. I know at least a few male-to-female transsexuals who feel they cannot legitimately claim feminine pronouns -- or demand that gender-appropriate pronouns be used by others to refer to them -- until they have had sex reassignment surgery (SRS). But I see no contradiction between male sex and feminine gender identity. Conversely, manhood and masculine pronouns to them are thought by most to be the sole preserve of people with penises, not to put to fine point on it . For a male to claim 'she' and 'her' as pronouns of self-reference and to insist that others refer to her with feminine pronouns is (still) a radical act in most places and in most communities in the United States in 2007. I identify as a transgendered woman, and as I have said on many occasions, to the discomfiture of some transgendered as well as some non-transgendered people, I identify as a male-bodied woman. And so I claim my feminine pronouns with pride. I hope that those who call me family will say of me, "She's not heavy, she's my sister." I have no desire to have anyone say of me, "Zie isn't heavy, zie is my non-gendered sibling."
If the goal is to challenge and ultimately dismantle the sex/gender binary, 'zie' and 'hir' won't get us there; they don't work for me and they won't work for most people, even progressive people who are committed to social change. So I say, let's ditch these artificial and ineffective constructs and instead strategically deploy gendered pronouns to destabilize and dismantle the prevailing gender order.
Posted by Pauline Park at 23:16 | Comments (9) | Trackbacks (0) |
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i eat lettuce. my wife and my husband both eat lettuce. zey like lettuce. hir likes lettuce and so does zie.
#1 yum lettuce on 2006-12-14 14:29
I'm a little confused as to how you're using the g-n pronouns here -- I'd always heard them as "zie" and "zir" for s/he and the possessive/objective, respectively (or "hie," which always seemed awkward to me anyway, and "hir"). That's how I tend to use them too, when I bother to use them at all -- which is generally only when I'm unsure as to how the individual of whom I am speaking identifies.
But if we can't even decide how they're properly used of course they're not going to catch on! :p
i think you actually missed something in your thought about gender neutral pronouns, and your assumptions of it's ultimate goals. perhaps their use isn't for a gender revolution as you define it, but rather one as we ("new gendered/transgendered") people define it. perhaps it's simply a way of showing equal respect for those who are in the middle. instead of the purposeful, biggoted use of incorrect gender pronouns.while i agree that queering the use of pronouns (by queers) as you point out does a bit to disable gender, it is largely contained in a subculture, and has little chance of gaining currancy in the larger society. i disagree with you, that these words wil never take hold. i think they are in their infancy. in the 30's there was no transgended. before it was zhe is an "invert" but we have changed to see and recognize those who's gender has changed or in the process of changing. i think in the future gender will be very different from how we see it now, and i think the next generation may find creative expression in lives that are gender neutral, and at first it will be weird, and people will need to come "out" and it will become more and more common, as will pronouns that discribe those who understand or project themselves absent of gender. not all revolutions are the loud, it-happened-over-night ones. and not all revolutions are about completely dismantling what came before them. sometimes they simply strive to make room for those who had no room. or to create new freedoms. sometimes revolutions are personal, and take place when people who look themselves in the eye and understand that they are different than they've been taught. just like the queers before us did.
but on futher thought i would ammend my comments to say this:
i don't think that the linguistic queering of gender in the queer community really does much to disable gender, not just in the larger community, but even in the queer community.
using this essay about, of all things, postmodern evolutionary theory in 'The French Lieutenant's Woman.' by tony e. jackson, we find a slightly succinct synopsis of post modern critique-- which is perfect for looking at gender. understanding this, we discover that to truly disable gender requires more than the occasional, intentional queering.
"The elements of postmodern thinking that will be most relevant here revolve, as always, around the fundamental critique of metaphysical absolutes of all kinds, a metaphysical absolute being any representation [like gender] that is taken consciously or unconsciously as entirely self-contained, self-identical, self-present, and therefore outside the realm of culture, history, desire, and ideology.
In any case, whatever the particular realm in which the critique of metaphysical absolutes occurs, one common outcome is the discovery that absolutes of this kind always function as unconscious anchors for a certain kind of identity. So the critique typically involves two most general results: It reveals that a given absolute is in fact a construction of history, culture, and desire, and it reveals that the construction has been misrecognized as an absolute because a certain self or cultural or sexual identity depends on not seeing the construction as a construction."
in otherwords, we think of gender in this culure as being something entirely natural. but using a postmodern critique, we see that gender is false, constructed. carefully crafted to hide it's lies and seams. the seams-- what makes natural gender obviously false-- in this case are the transgendered, interesexed, and androgenous. when we use the tools that hide gender's artificiality (our gender specific pronouns), we reinforce it's lies, pushing the transgendered back into a usless bianary of male/female. creating and using words that force us to realize gender is not a binary, either or proposition, makes us look at the lies of a natural gender as just that, lies.
It's wild how a single word can jar your own sense of self. I always imagine I look one way but appear so differently in other people's pictures of me. In a weird sense, it also applies to how people respond to my gender.
I'm a gay asian man but often times, I'm perceived as female. I can be in a suit or a tank top, still, many address me as "Miss." Recently, I've been getting a lot of "Ms." My lines are showing! (gasp!)
My friend Drian, who's MTF, said that I'm a gay man trapped in a
transgender body. In fact, I'm Male-to-Male with Female overtones;
(biologically gay Male to-FTM transgender), which makes me
gender-fluid. (I tend not to use gender-queer to describe myself because I define that as crossing sexual persuasions.) Or am I the fulfilling another stereotype of a smooth, soft face Asian boy?
The point is; I never correct people when they mis-ID my gender. That's fine by me. I am as much she as I am he. How can I deny my mom or my dad's dna in me?
I agree with you. I don't find the need to invent vocabulary to
redefine gender - which shifts constantly anyway.
I will go a step further and say don't bother reclaiming language
either...(faggot, the n word, s/he.)
I'm debating whether or not my dog Marshmallow is truly female. I don't think dogs face the same gender issues we do but I may be species-prejudiced.
Bottom line, the perceived gender confusion is merely a gender realization. That she is not really she and he is not really he. And
words don't FULLY define who we are. And clothes don't make a man. At least, not my clothes.
Few notes on your Chinese gender reference. It's true, spoken Chinese, she/he/it sounds the same: "ta." And the Chinese don't attribute sex to inanimate objects or living creatures. But in writing, they are gender specific and human- vs. non-human- specific - meaning "he," "she," and "it" are three separate words. And certain Chinese characters can also be broken down to have feminine and masculine components. However, with the modernization and social and cultural cleansing in China, I may be wrong.
(I can't stand simplified Chinese. It's stripping the rich culture and
history of language.)
We just can't escape from gender classification! Perhasps if Noah rightly gendered the animals before taking them onto his ark, we wouldn't have so many extinct species.
I was a little confused about your opinion. I always thought Ze (or Zie) and hir is used not for those who went to "the other side" of their birth sex, but rather to be used to those who refused to be categorized in the binary.
For instance, I am a Japanese female-born individual. In Japanese, first person pronoun can tell a lot - sex, class, age, etc. I am completely uncomfortable with using first person pronoun specified as female. And it is the same discomfort as one who knows and has no doubt that I was born with femal anatomy, but also knows who has male part in me - not anatomically, mind you. I consider the self as gender-transcender.
The current society still lacks true diversity. That is why "transgender" can only mean, or at least perceive to mean, "going to the other side." There are, however, those who are out side of either gender and it is also included the terminology transgender, is my understanding.
Therefore, Pauline, your argument that Zie/hir would not get the community what it deserves is short-sighted and narrow.
#5 hiroko on 2006-12-21 21:00
Maybe I'm echoing what other people have said, but you and I have totally different ideas about the purpose of using zie/hir. I agree with you that gender-neutral pronouns aren't a good way to dismantle gender, that gendered language says little or nothing about sexism in the culture, all of that. But I don't think "zie" must or should be viewed as some kind of tool of activism. It's an option, one that some people want or need. Though you're right that using both pronouns is a better way to make a point about social contructs, there is no reason why a person's identity needs to make any point. Some of my friends who have found both she and he to be real misnomers have used zie instead. Some of them used this for a short while before coming to a more gendered conclusion, some of them have taken it on permanently. I don't think it matters whether zie is effective politically if it helps even a tiny minority make sense of themselves, of their place in the world.
Um, 他 and 她 look pretty different to me. One has a 'person' radical (him) and one has a 'woman' radical (her. Not necessarily a person, I guess). Both phonetics are the same 'ta' yes, and so is 'it': 它. A pedantic point perhaps, but then, the most elegant critical-theoretic arguments shouldn't have to depend on empirical evidence I suppose.
great post, totally agree, I've made a similar argument, but much less detailed at http://metaphysics-srs.blogspot.com/2007/01/gender-neutral-pronouns.html
By the way, how do you do the spam prevention thing?
Being a newbie I'm still trying to get the basic right.
You forgot to mention that in China they no longer have a gender-neutral pronoun in writing. Ever since the mid 20th century (not sure on exact date), "tā" is now written with three different characters, one for "he": 他, one for "she": 她, and one for "it": 它, even though they are in fact all the same word. Actually, there's two more characters for "ta" as well, one for use with animals and one for gods. The characters for ta-he and ta-she incorporate the characters for "man" and woman".
It's not about whether or not you feel comfortable using zie and zir/hir/zem (I've heard several versons of the accusative pronoun). It's about how the people who prefer to be referred to as zie feel when people call them he or she. A transgender person may not like the idea that everyone zie meets is assigning zir a set of social roles and rules that zie does not necessarily conform to. By asking people to refer to zir as 'zie', zie takes the power to define zeir(???) own gender and therefore role in society.
You refer to the pronoun 'zie' as an artificial and ineffective construct, as having no relation to culture. However, I've personally only ever heard it used by young people, usually under 25. And for such a recent coinage, it has great currency. It's used by lgbt communities and co-operatives all over California (where I live), and from what I understand the rest of the country. To me it seems remarkable that this word has spread as rapidly as it has. Pronouns are considered by linguists to be a "closed class" of words. New pronouns simply do not come into being very quickly, and it's even more rare for one to simply come into being fully formed. Consider the Spanish pronouns 'vosotros', 'nosotros' and 'Usted', all of which are fairy recent coinages, and all of which are ultimately contractions of two words, being 'vos+otros', 'nos+otros' and 'vuestra+merced', respectively. All of these words took centuries to catch on, but today are used by millions of people. By comparison, zie is a completely new word rather than a transparent contraction, and its usage therefore has to be explained to anyone who has not heard it before, at least until it becomes widespread enough that people begin to learn it in childhood just like their other pronouns. Given these additional difficulties that zie faces, it's astonishing to me that it's already spread so far.
Before you criticize any effort to speak with an egalitarian pronoun, consider how we've already changed. You mentioned the invention of 'Ms.' to be used instead of Mrs. and Miss, but you failed to mention the great impact this had on women, who were no longer defined by their marital status on every letter they wrote, every form they filled out, and so on. In addition to this, female professionals have benefitted from the use of gender-neutral titles for practically every job in the world, a shift that only began a generation ago but which today helps women to be judged based on their job rather than their gender. These transitions a NEW and only a few decades ago, many people said that they were destined to failure. To me it just goes to show how much we underestimate ourselves. Language is the most basic element of a culture. Clearly, it can adapt to changing culture extremely rapidly.
Given the holes in your argument regarding the inefficacy of zie and the idea of a grammatical third or neutral gender, I'm left to wonder if you are not simply discomforted by the idea of a third or neutral gender in society.
#9 true on 2011-08-15 18:23
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