May 30, 2008
The trouble with pronouns is that they carry a lot of baggage: not just anatomical baggage, but gender baggage too.
It’s not always easy for a person to know, really know deep down inside, which pronoun to use. As to sex, which is a constant, not everybody’s genitals distinctly reflect one or the other. In some cases, what could be a penis turns out to be a clitoris.
An intersex person may have one set of genitals on the outside, but a contrary set of anatomy on the inside. Often at birth, “normalizing” surgery is performed to correct this naturally occurring phenomenon.
As to gender, it is sometimes difficult to stay within the relative guidelines for feminine and masculine of the particular era in which you live. A young boy who’s a crybaby, for instance, suffers terrible indignities at the hands of his less emotive peers. A young woman who exhibits ambition and active aggression is often labeled “bitch” or “witch” because she doesn’t fit the socially acceptable feminine ideal.
If you are born with or evolve to have confusion in either of these areas, pronouns become a problem. After all, there are only two bathroom options at school: his and hers. You must conform to one or the other.
A pronoun, simply put, is a part of speech that substitutes for nouns. “He” therefore substitutes for John Doe. But when you read “he” your mind automatically assumes several things about John Doe, even if you don’t know his proper name. You assume that Mr. Doe has a penis. You assume that he exhibits masculine traits. Historically, those traits are active ones, those that inspire motion or change.
Those small assumptions lead to larger assumptions. He might be a leader of some sort, a rule maker. He is probably strong and confident. He fights battles and woos women. John Doe has gone from “identity unknown” to “He, the Conqueror” in two letters flat.
Jane Doe is not always this lucky. She might be a maid or a seamstress. She is probably maternal and naïve. She makes cookies and her marital bed.
I exaggerate of course, but I do so to prove that “he” and “she” do not lie flat on the table. They spring to life with meaning. If everything were “it” we’d be safe. We wouldn’t have sex. We wouldn’t have gender. (This would be a safe world, albeit dull.)
The same thing happens with other words in the English language. “Witch,” for instance, is used exclusively – and relentlessly – to describe a she that is less than cordial. “Bitch” is similarly used.
You’d never hear an abrasive man referred to as a “warlock.” And “stud,” the word traditionally employed to identify a male dog, connotes the antithesis of “bitch” with regard to humans. Studs are generally thought of as pleasing men, accommodating men. Bitches are a nasty sort.
So when MSNBC talk show host Chris Matthews reportedly called Hillary Clinton “witchy” and labeled her laugh “the cackle,” he was unwittingly perpetuating a long-standing sex inequality. For him, she is “She Devil,” “Nurse Ratched” or “Madame Defarge.” “He _____?” “Nurse _____?” “Monsieur _____?”
Then CBS radio and MSNBC television personality Don Imus had also reportedly called Clinton the Devil in 2006: “that buck-toothed witch, Satan.” He said that Clinton is Bill Clinton’s “fat ugly wife, Satan.” Does that make you want to take a shower?
Tennessee Representative Steve Cohen, a Barack Obama supporter, likened Clinton to Glen Close’s character in Fatal Attraction, a crazed woman who refused to end an affair with a married man. Now aside from the obvious offense at comparing a Presidential candidate with a mentally unstable rabbit killer, this comment forces us to consider another topic entirely: whose fault was the sex? While Alex Forrest did result to, shall I say “drastic?” measures to get Dan Gallagher back into the sack, he was the married sexual partner. He had made the promise never to cheat. He had committed sins against his wife in the first place…and yes, Forrest was a raving lunatic. But I digress…
The fact of the matter is that even Fatal Attraction came down to the basic dilemma: whom do you trust? “He” or “she?” Somebody should ask the bunny. But can we trust it? What do we know about it from “it?”
And that’s the trouble with pronouns.