Don't call me lady!
The language of gender … and why it matters
I remember registering the sudden ubiquity of a slogan-embossed T-shirt last year – I’m sure you noticed it, too. It didn’t proliferate because it revolutionised the garment; the shirt itself was just a standard-bearer, a modest, polycotton medium for a message. It read: THE FUTURE IS FEMALE.Every retailer under the sun reacted with celerity to replicate it; various celebrities wore various iterations of it. And I understood the T-shirt’s purpose, and I celebrated its intentions: it flaunted a staunch refusal to yield to despair, mid-Trump, post-Brexit; it facilitated a linguistic act of defiance in the midst of what, in many places, feels like a regressive swing to the far right that doesn’t bode well for womxn.
But there is a problem with this T-shirt; and, as you might have intuited, I’m only using the poor T-shirt as an exemplar. The terrible irony of its viral catchphrase was that, in appealing to one, frankly archaic idea of feminism, it semantically violated another.The problem is FEMALE. The problem is the evolving language of gender, and our frequent failure to adopt (or adapt to) it.
It’s a problem that haunts me constantly, every time I write something even remotely connected to misogyny or queerness. Writing about people and their bodies in a manner that is both inclusive and accessible has become a challenge because, more often than not, the old words cannot be estranged from the binaries they represent. Writing is, after all, fundamentally just a primitive act of signification; and if a word no longer evokes the subject(s) it’s meant to reference, then it’s impotent – or, worse, exclusionary.It’s common knowledge that the ways in which people understand and express gender are evolving. The relentless work of trans* activists and their allies – as well as some of the popular ideologies emerging from contemporary feminism – are constantly disrupting the notion that gender is a static, anatomically determined quality, and the fruit of their labour is evident in pockets.People are increasingly familiar, if not entirely comfortable, with the notion that gender and sex are discrete categories; and the ongoing visibility of figures such as Laverne Cox and Caitlin Jenner has categorically left a mark on our collective consciousness.
It has become common practice at liberal universities for educators to ascertain their students’ “preferred” pronouns; Facebook now acknowledges 71 different gender orientations; and the American Dialect Society chose the gender-neutral singular “They” as the word of the year in 2015. But, in the mainstream at least, our diction is lagging behind.
In an age in which one of the pre-eminent objectives of feminism is the holistic enfranchisement of trans* people, using a word like FEMALE is sadly counterintuitive.
The word is laden with a legacy of medically sanctioned essentialism. It is one of the two somatic designations that are typically assigned at birth, in spite of the fact that bodies sometimes defy this bifurcation (the I in LGBTQI is for Intersex). FEMALE reifies the notion that femininity and masculinity are irreconcilable opposites; and, perhaps most significantly, it is a word we continue to conflate with “woman”, in spite of the fact that our anatomies aren’t always analogous to our genders.I know that, superficially, it seems ridiculous to want to eschew words like “female” in feminist discourse. In part, our deference to the word is a hangover from an earlier era of feminist activism, which worked to destigmatise cisgender women’s bodies. I am keenly aware that the oft-parodied feminism of bra-burning and long leg hair – of which the aforementioned T-short is a relic – was essential to the project of cisgender women’s liberation. But that feminism is no longer compatible with reality, and neither are many of its linguistic correlatives.The issue, which I encounter in my writing, is that when you refer to “women”, or to “females”, it’s really not clear anymore who you’re addressing. Are you referring to anybody who identifies as a woman, cis- and trans- alike? Do you mean people who were assigned “female” at birth, and therefore trans men and non-binary people by extension? Or are you still referring only to cisgender women and the experiences particular to them, in a manner that is (perhaps unintentionally) trans-exclusionary? If, for example, you describe menstruation as a “female” issue, you effectively efface the reality that some trans men have periods, too.If you regard yourself as a feminist, and you’re eager to enact your principles, then it bears reflecting on the fact that the words we’ve had to work with won’t do anymore: unless we add a caveat each time we use one, we symbolically erase or invalidate the existence of people who identify outside the gender binary. This shouldn’t be a problem, because alternative terms and honorifics already exist to replace them. There’s Mx (in lieu of Mr or Ms or Mrs); there’s the singular ‘thFey’ in lieu of him or her, there’s ‘womxn’ or ‘womyn’… people are constantly experimenting with hybrids, and a simple Google search will summon thousands of variations. These terms make space for trans* people in our idiom: the “x” negates the binary construction of man/woman; it replaces artificial finitude with the possibility of something unknown, something irreducible to an “or”.Nevertheless, by and large, we’re at a syntactic stalemate.
People have a serious resistance to the emergence of this nomenclature; even self-described radical feminists routinely find themselves trying to staunch this flux, citing the edicts of grammar, or the demands of consistency, as the bases of their antipathy. And please don’t misunderstand me: I’m hardly too evolved to feel uncomfortable. These changes challenge a mythos that is integral to the way we’ve understood ourselves thus far. We’ve been conditioned to accept the dialectical opposition BOYS/GIRLS’ in much the same way that we do NIGHT/DAY: with a sense of inevitability. Then a new kind of ambiguity threatens to intrude, and we quake at the existential disorder this portends.But language is not a static system. It should – and largely does, of its own accord – evolve in harmony with the dynamic worlds it encompasses. We’re at the wheel, in other words: language does inform our perception of the world, but our usage is driving the composition of language.That T-shirt should have said: THE FUTURE IS FEMINIST. I really hope it will be.