Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The gender agenda

A friend in her seventies tried this riddle on me recently. Perhaps you know it:
"A man and his son are involved in a road accident. They are taken to hospital. The doctor takes one look at the boy and cries out, "My son!" What's the explanation?"
I should probably have scratched my head for a few moments out of politeness (also, that medicated shampoo really isn't working) before saying, "What needs explaining? It's her son." Most people under fifty would say something similar, but this was a genuine riddle for my friend's generation, who grew up when professionals were always assumed to be male.

Terms such as 'woman doctor' and 'male nurse' were useful when some people had trouble imagining such things, but they are hardly necessary now and are rapidly falling out of fashion. The only such phrase that has any currency in the 21st Century is 'male prostitute', since this refers to an industry where the gender of the service provider will always be important to the customer and can crucially affect the nature of the service provided. 

Otherwise, the de-gendering of language has been moving apace, starting with the replacement of '-man' with '-person'. You can argue all you want that 'man' also means 'human person of either sex', but in English the word will always imply 'male person'. It's a pity that we don't have separate words like Latin did (homo as in hominid and vir as in virile), but we don't, and we just have to accept it.

But we shouldn't get over-zealous: the rather lovely song Homo Fugit Velut Umbra translates as 'Man flees like a shadow', and I challenge you to replace 'man' with something gender-neutral without robbing it of all its poetry. But then, art is allowed to break all the rules, or Randy Newman couldn't write a song from the point of view of a child-sex-murderer. But I digress.

Gender-neutral job titles risk mirroring the mealy-mouthed, euphemistic and wordy titles that seem designed to inflate the holder's apparent importance and confuse everyone else, as in person-centred transition facilitator or ambient replenishment controller. For me, whoever empties my bins will always be 'the dustman'. You can't call him (or her, though I've yet to see it) a 'dustperson', and "refuse collector" is a bit too wordy and too uncolloquial. Nor do I see any problem with 'steward' and 'stewardess' or 'waiter' and 'waitress'. There's no need for gender-distinct job titles, since they're exactly the same job, but what harm do they do?

I can't think of any political objection to 'chairperson', although it does lack warmth, which is probably why many people prefer 'chair'. Do we need to go any further? Decades ago, the general assumption was that women were less competent than men and so a recognisably female job title implied a lesser competence. You can't argue with feminists wanting to change that. But anything that replaces the expressiveness of language with long-winded phrases designed to purely to conceal something should be treated with caution. Is a heroine really less heroic than a hero? Is the dustman fooled into thinking his job is more glamorous because someone at the council has changed his job title?

It's not that big a deal nowadays. Generally, there's no need for job titles that specify a gender, but if they already exist and have survived into the 21st Century, perhaps they should be left alone. Good writers instinctively go for the most expressive terms they can. It's right that we've tackled words that misleadingly imply a gender (such as 'chairman'), but words that imply a gender without implying a value judgement (such as 'waiter') do no harm. 

The most misguided example of unsexing the language is the recent trend of actresses calling themselves 'actors'. Not only have they missed the boat by three decades, they seem to ignore the fact that the roles of actors and actresses are distinct. If I were directing Macbeth, I'd be looking for an actress to play Lady Macbeth, not an actor. A white man can play a black man (though it's understandably frowned upon nowadays) and vice versa: when I played King Duncan, Ross was black and nobody thought it odd to have a black nobleman in 11th Century Scotland. In theatre and film, the gender distinction is very clear: actors and actresses play different roles, unlike male and female doctors. If the prestige isn't the same, tinkering with the job title won't make an iota of difference.

If an actress insists on being called an actor, that suggests an unjustified inferiority complex. Helen Mirren calls herself an actress and it doesn't seem to have done her any harm. When "female actors" mount a serious campaign to abolish the Best Actress Oscar, I might take them a bit more seriously. 

And if you believe feminism has further to go, then micro-managing the language is no longer the main priority.

Moral: Language shouldn't be sexist, but nor should it be neutered.


  1. Speaking as an editor myself, I'd say there is a case for neutralising quite a few of the job titles you say aren't that worth bothering with changing.

    Thank goodness the ghastly "air hostess" has been consigned to oblivion but cabin crew is the common term now for staff on a plane, both as a team and individuals. I certainly wouldn't use stewardess when steward covers men and equally.

    In the US, the neutral "waitron" is common currency now for waiter/waitress - it's a contraction of waiter-on and is a pretty nifty term, in my view. I keep hoping it'll take root here - if we must have Americanisms invading our language they should at least be useful ones.

    I'm surprised you left out postman - many of them are women these days, of course, and the colloquial "postie" does the job well enough. I have to agree on dustman though, although I'm more likely to say binman. It is actually a job where you see very few women, even today.

    I'm with most female actors on actor - Helen Mirren can call herself what she likes but female actors are just that and most style guides reflect that now. I think you come slightly unstuck on different roles - what about pantomime, for example, where men take the role of the dame and women play the principal boy? And as for Macbeth, until as late as mid-Victorian times women didn't go on the stage so all roles were played by men. I'm teasing, of course, but it shows things are not always clear-cut.

  2. I half agree with you, Louise.

    Good point about postman. Grammar Girl suggests 'mail carrier', which is just the sort of cold, impersonal, technical title that nobody would use in ordinary speech. 'Postie' is much better.

    'Waitron' is horrible. It sounds like a robot.

    "Air hostess" sounds like a relic of the 50s, with all the sexist connotations of women as men's natural servants. Like you, I'm glad to see the back of it. The argument is bolstered by the fact that "air host" is plainly ridiculous.

    It's true that gender roles are swapped in pantomime, but you'll always want actors for the dames and an actress for the principal boy. Every role calls for either an actor or an actress, so why not keep the separate words? Yes, most style guides have abolished "actress". I think they're wrong.

    Applying that argument to writing, it's obvious that "authoress" has no place in modern English. I've never used it and never will.

  3. There's an all-female "Julius Caesar" at the Donmar. Did they advertise for "only female actors"? If so, the abolition of "actress" is pretty stupid.

  4. "Waitron" does sound like a robot. And I have absolutely no idea where Louise gets the idea that it is now "common currency" in the U.S. I've lived here all my 51 years and never heard it used once...precisely, no doubt, because it DOES sound like a robot. "Server" is the gender-neutral term we use. Definitely NOT "waitron"! (shudder)

    As for those folks who serve us on airlines, they've pretty much become "flight attendants." We also don't seem to be finding "mail carrier" all that cold and impersonal.

    We never had "dustmen" here--we had "garbagemen" and "trashmen"--so now we have "garbage collectors" and "trash collectors."

    And yes, there are many women in acting taking to call themselves "actors," but I doubt they will ever push for having "Best Actress" and "Best Supporting Actress" categories at awards shows eliminated because, indeed, it makes sense for roles that do require female casting to have separate awards from those requiring male casting. But I wouldn't be surprised if one day they were renamed "Best Actor--Female" and "Best Supporting Actor--Female" (with the current Best Actor/Best Supporting Actor categories correspondingly relabeled "Male").

  5. RE: Actor vs. actress - why don't we introduce acting human - male vs. acting human - female, and whom do we imagine as a hairdresser then? Must s/he be fe/male or just an "ordinary hairdresser"? I guess it's all pretty conventional, although not a native English speaker myself, I never saw the glory of being called a "chair" - female or male, yet as a human female myself, I think it goes beyond my own interest to verbally deprive myself of my own gender, if only to emulate with male mis-perceptions of some professions - I'd rather be an actress than an actor, where such distinction is made, although it might matter less if I was a hairdresser in the end..it almost reeks of inferiority-complex when women insist on assuming male "personae", if only linguistically speaking.. a scientist need not be male or female to conduct an experiment, but would Romeo not prefer Juliet to remain female or must we perhaps throw a potato-sack over both parts!?

  6. letter to the editor:

    it's MADNESS, i tell you! MADNESS!!

    as stated on www.thelessergender.com, every woman is subjugating herself by accepting a spouse or a significant other who is a man and who is superior to her in height. everywhere i look, it's tall man/short vagina. i don't understand how vaginas everywhere could not be ashamed of themselves, proclaiming gender-equality while adding insult to inferiority by publicly proclaiming their lesser states-of-being with each and every date-night that they partake in.


    heck, do it for the memory of all "strong women" who were murdered not by a weapon but by a strong(er) man.

    first came gender-based sporting events to keep the vaginas from competing with men (and from being a detriment to the team). then came gender-based requirements for acceptance into both the military and the police-force (making these forces look more like farces, where masculine competency is sacrificed for the politically-correct inclusion of members of the shorter/smaller/weaker gender whose physical competency pales in comparison to that of men). for crying out loud, coney island went and added a "womens' division" to their frankfurter-eating competition so that there could be such a thing as a female champion. AND, on top of everything else, there's the "do it HERself" workshop at the home depot (which, like "curves fitness," serves as a "mister rogers" type of "land of make believe" and caters to vaginas who are either too intimidated or too pious to function around a superior gender...ahem, make that "unjustifiably pious," just because there is no reason for feminists to feel that their gender can trump anything but a defenseless baby's head).

    as a way to battle the meek public-image of women that the aforementioned physical competitions contribute to, please IMPLORE all women to STOP LOOKING UP TO THEIR DATES. society must STOP seeing a man with a vagina on his arm if the man is taller than the vagina. women must be the tall ones in the relationship - if society got used to the concept of "short man/tall woman," then the concept of "the lesser gender" would not necessarily signify the female gender. granted, mens' broad shoulders would still point to a the existence of a stronger gender (as would their superior biceps, v-shaped backs, ripped chests and thick legs), but if every vagina would only date men who are shorter...well, i truly believe that the whole "masculine superiority" thing would slowly fade away.

    mr. dylan terreri, i
    dr. sheldon cooper, ii
    miss abingdon blazavich
    "When I'm hungry, I eat. When I'm thirsty, I drink. When I feel like saying something, I say it." - Madonna

  7. Re dustman/binman: a relative in Sydney had a Christmas card from the people who collect her rubbish, signed "your friendly neighbourhood garbologists".

    1. 'Garbologist' has a strange charm, but it does suggest that they study the garbage.