Practicing Gender Neutrality

By: Bailey Kelley

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It’s been a year since Slate published this article about Sweden’s gender-neutral pronoun, hen, being added to the popular lexicon. Jezebel’s Lindy West wrote a succinct (and entertaining, as usual) response to the piece earlier this week, which I would like to expand upon.

First, I have to point out the condescending and derogatory tone of this piece. Ms. Rothschild makes no attempt to hide her disdain for these “activists,” not to mention her callous treatment of trans issues. She practically bemoans the consolidation of men’s and women’s bowling leagues and the legal right of parents to choose just “any” name for their children. Gender-neutral public restrooms, a politically charged (yet hardly radical) issue for trans individuals, is mentioned in passing, almost as an inconvenience for those of us who don’t have a problem choosing a gendered restroom.

But on to the actual content of the piece. Language is a political construction; how we talk about things dictates how we think about them. The suggestion that a linguistically practical idea has been perverted by “feminist activists” makes an impossible distinction. To turn a cliche on its head, the public is political, and there is nothing more public (or personal) than language. The “he/she” awkwardness only became a problem when it was suggested that only using “he” in sentence construction was a way of silencing and marginalizing female experience and existence. The fact that somebody had to develop a way of avoiding the admittedly awkard dual construction (which English has yet to deal with) is a political statement in and of itself. By adding hen to dictionaries and creating gender-conscious curriculum, Sweden has taken real political action toward these once-radical goals.

Schools absolutely should be the place for policies that actively address gender stereotypes and the opportunities that individuals are denied because of those stereotypes. Other socializing entities, whether family relationships, institutionalized distinctions, or mediated representations, will continue to provide traditional, patriarchal gender roles for our children to learn. If this is one part of society that can be effectively changed to chip away at some of those gender stereotypes, then it should be. It could even be argued that school is the most important place for gender roles to be erased to ensure that every child receive a stimulating, challenging, and personally rewarding education.

We are already “inte

rupt[ing] children’s discovery of gender and sexuality” (which, I have to point out, are two distinct and separate things – I thought we were only been talking about gender) through those outlets mentioned above. Providing gender-neutral toys or suggesting gender-neutral roleplaying games is at least as overt as decades of the Barbies-here-Hot Wheels-there method of directing children in play.

That being said, I don’t believe children should be “micromanaged by concerned adults” (although I’d be surprised if there were as much micromanaging going on as we are led to believe). Play should be organic to fulfill the needs of children. It is an essential part of understanding what it means to be a part of society and children will achieve that understanding with or without the interference of adults (but probably better without them). Secondly, maybe gender doesn’t necessarily have to go out the window, but the conflation of sex and gender is what needs to be dismantled. I believe femininity, or what society has defined as feminine, is beautiful and important. We should be empowering all boys and girls to embrace the positive aspects of masculinity and femininity within them, rather than trying to force them into gendered boxes.

Which is, essentially, what Sweden is trying to achieve. And I applaud their efforts. Patriarchy has been built up for thousands of years and it will take some new and different ways of thinking, and speaking, if we are going to tear it down anytime soon.

Note: This was published with the author’s permission from the site The Feminist Dialectic.  

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