Monday, November 16, 2009

Gendered Language

Sometimes my grandmother used to tell me, "Act like a little lady," and it always rankled me. Even when I was four years old I didn't like the word "lady" and didn't want to be one. But it strikes me that I have an unusual aversion to unnecessarily gendered language.

I noticed right away that my new therapist tended to say things like, "You're clearly a very [adjective] woman," and that it rubbed me completely the wrong way, even though the adjectives were positive things like "intelligent" or "passionate." (I mentioned it and he seems to have stopped.)

I never say things like "when I was a little girl" -- it's always "kid" or "child." I don't think I ever refer to myself as a woman unless there are situations that clearly call for it ("I'm not sure how other women manage their facial hair").

I found myself saying the other day that Ed would probably not be a good partner for the type of person who prefers not to know certain things. I don't think Ed will ever date a man, so I'm not sure why the language is gender-neutral except that "the type of woman who prefers not to know certain things" seems slightly offensive to me, like it invokes a stereotype, while "type of person" does not.

I don't think it's only female gender that I tend not to specify. I would never say, "What were you like as a little boy?" instead of "kid." I wouldn't call someone a sensitive, smart, fair, or caring "man" instead of "person." (I would only use "man" if I intended a constrast, e.g., "You're a really maternal man," and even then I'd probably say "person" most of the time.)

I don't do this gender-neutrality on purpose, I don't think. I use common words like "waitress" and "actress" and "handyman." I certainly use pronounce like "he" and "she" in the normal way (though I'm also a fan of the unfairly-maligned singular "they").

I wonder if this is a function of my feminism (using the word in a very basic sense to incorporate the feminism I already had when I was 4 years old), something that is more accepted in my social environment, or a result of some personality trait.


Debbie said...

That's so weird. I also don't like those gendered examples you gave. I'd also rather say "female" than "woman." (One exception: I am willing to say "big boy" and "big girl.")

Now that you mention it, there are clearly some kinds of negative stereotypes going on in my head. Actually, I do like to use gendered words when I want to exaggerate the stereotype, like when I jokingly tell my boss, "Young man, you better watch your mouth."

Edward said...

It seems obvious, but not mentioned, that mentioning the gender of the person brings the stereotypes in a lot more clearly. "Intelligent person" just refers to the intelligence, whereas "intelligent woman" may or may not express "intelligent for a woman." I really enjoyed reading all your examples, and comparing the difference in reference to stereotype between the gendered version and the non-gendered version.

And I like they. I like it a lot better than he or she, which I will stoop to in a pinch.

Tam said...

Unfortunately I find I have to occasionally use "he or she" because of the widespread (erroneous, IMO) belief that singular they is grammatically incorrect.

Debbie said...

I contort my way into using plural "they"s. It's like a game--am I smart enough to figure out a way to use plurals in every situation? Almost. I also occasionally use "he or she," but fortunately not very often.