S/he’s Not Heavy, Zie’s My Non-Gendered Sibling: Why Gender-Neutral Pronouns Don’t Work for Me
By Pauline Park
‘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.
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.
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.