Gender Neutrality – putting the cart before the horse?

When it comes to sexist language (words like “mankind” spring to mind), women can be erased by the gendered language which assumes masculinity to be the default.  This is more than simple nitpicking, this type of language can construct broad and sweeping ideas about our gendered understanding of the world.  Second wave feminists fought for gender equality in our jobs and roles and language (and suffered the backlash for it.  “Political correctness” became a ridiculous joke.)

Language is a tricky and problematic issue.  It shapes our understanding of the world, pushes us into agreed upon boxes, allows us to communicate.  These are not necessarily bad things.  But language can be damaging and hurtful.  It can erase people’s experiences, it can push them to the margins, it can create expectations and stereotypes – schemas – that may be false and harmful.

Bitch contributor Audrey Bilger wrote a piece, The Common Guy, where she addressed the issue of the term “guy” as being theoretically gender neutral (hint, it’s not.)  Her piece illustrates an important point, which is the problem of ‘gender-neutral’ language which actually serves to erase women.  Again.

This issue is at the front of my mind for a couple reasons.  First, because I read Bilger’s excellent article in my recent acquisition, Bitchfest: Ten Years of Cultural Criticism from the Pages of Bitch Magazine (buy it, read it, love it.)  Second, because I have been reading a lot about violence against women, and read an article about ‘husband abuse’, and how the gender-neutral language being used to describe violence between intimate partners serves to cover up the fact that the vast majority of violence is directed at women by men.  (I am not, and the author was not, disregarding or minimizing the experiences of abused men by calling attention to the fact that women are still the significantly more at-risk group.)  And third, because while working on this project I have been flirting with the post-modern idea of shifting and fluid identity, and that idea seems to lend itself naturally to adopting gender-neutral language in as many situations as possible.

So I have these two thoughts – about the article and about the domestic violence issue – and they fit.  They line up.  Yes, gender neutral, or ‘gender neutral’, language can be damaging.  But then I have this other thought that just clamors off to the side, that wants to adopt entirely neutral language because I don’t believe in the binary!  I don’t believe in these fixed definitions of gender!  I don’t believe in any category of ‘woman’ that is somehow essential and exclusive!

The process of bringing these two conflicting views into alignment is treacherous.  What do I have to give up?  What do I have to betray, to make these fit?

I think the answer is actually fairly simple, though (maybe?)  In order to adopt gender neutral language in all situations, true gender equality must come first.  There may not be any essential and solid category of ‘woman’, but there are a whole damn lot of people out there who get smacked with that label and treated as a cohesive group, and that group is still being oppressed.  Before we can advance, genders bent and sexes blurred, into the postmodern utopia (cue the choirs) we have to deal with the issues we still have in front of us.  Those issues include significant gender inequality, significant discrimination against people who express an alternative sexuality or gender identity, significant racial discrimination, and the list goes on!  Maybe it doesn’t matter whether there is or isn’t an essential category of ‘woman’ in some instances.  Maybe we just have to deal with getting to equality before we can deal with all the individual, fluid identities.

But writing this, I know that it isn’t that simple.  We can’t return to an essentialist view simply because we’re not fully past it yet.  I doubt that backtracking is the answer.  So, I will attempt to stop using the ‘gender neutral’ (but not) term guys, and I will work on being aware of how issues of oppression can be erased by unintentional language.  But I still don’t believe in any essential categories, and I think that’s okay.  We can take a cue from Helene Cixous, and just live with a little ambiguity and contradiction.

~ by Gloom Fairy on April 15, 2010.

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