With Special Guest: Author Adrien Sdao
Waiting somewhat patiently at the information desk in my local Barnes & Noble a few months ago, I was accosted by a paperback displayed on a small table nearby. It literally grabbed my attention and has held it for quite some time. The book had a matte black cover with the words ManUp (with no spacing) in large letters on the front. “Man” was in white, “Up” in yellow, and a cross was standing proudly at the top of the U. The subtitle: Becoming a Godly Man in an Ungodly World—workbook included.
So many images and judgements packed into those 9 words. (I’m counting ManUp as one.)
Just 9 words. Wielding a world of power.
I wondered who would be drawn to such a book? The pull is certainly there—the title is extremely provocative—but what kind of person would be hoping to find himself within those pages?
Man Up? Godly Man?
What exactly is a “Godly Man?” I wondered. And who gave the author the authority to claim to know the answer and possess the ability to guide men in that direction (whatever that direction may be).
I saw that book in June, right before Father’s Day—a lifetime ago in our rapidly changing social and political environment. But it has stayed with me. Its message feels even more powerful today.
Man Up. It’s a phrase that people use all the time, without giving it much thought. But we are entering a new time when it comes to what flies between men and women, boys and girls. Maybe we need to take a closer look at our words, question our language. And I have a few questions about “Man Up”:
- Since when has “man” become a verb?
- What does “Manning Up” really mean?
- What does “Manning Up” look like?
Can’t you just hear the judgements screaming out in that phrase—judgments about a “right” way to be a “man,” the “suck it up” attitude, the shaming of feelings, the bullying tone?
And what about the subtle, but powerful, messages about the inferiority of women?
Many words we use on a regular basis are shaming—particularly to women. Think about these “feminine” adjectives: “Bitchy,” “Catty,” “Hysterical,” “Emotional”—and even the seemingly innocuous “Blond!”
What do these words say about us as a society? And when we use them ourselves, what do they say about us?
Gender-biased Language—What Is It?
Gender-biased language includes all words and expressions that only reference one gender when discussing a concept that includes all people. “Mankind” is a perfect example. “Human” is another. How many such words can you think of?
“Man-made,” “workman’s compensation,” “man-hours,” for example.
How about the words “woman” and “women”? (Some people prefer this spelling: womyn.)
The English language is particularly biased to favor men. We can see this is not only in specific words but also in our grammatical rules (which are changing—thank goodness)! Not too long ago, using masculine words was the “proper” way to refer to a person when we were unsure of his or her gender. Students were instructed to use male pronouns (he, him, his, himself) when the subject’s gender was unspecified, or when the subject included both males and females: “Each student is responsible for his own homework,” is a good example.
What’s the Big Deal?
While most of us don’t consciously favor men (and exclude everyone else) in our language, the words we choose do make a difference. Language reflects culture, societal values, and norms. And, it influences the way we think. Gender-biased words have an effect on how we value things in the world—including people.
(If you are interested in more of the science about the connection between gendered language and thought, you might want to check out Steven B. Jackson’s article in Psychology Today https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/culture-conscious/201209/masculine-or-feminine-and-why-it-matters.)
Words in the Workplace
Gender-biased words can impact how we think about jobs and, in turn, affect employment opportunities. Words like “mailman,” “policeman,” and “fireman,” for example, bring male images to mind; would you want your granddaughter to think there’s no place for her fighting fires? Maybe—it’s dangerous work, and you might want her to choose a safer path. But would you feel the same way about your grandson? If not, why not?
Just food for thought.
Next, let’s consider the word “chairman.” I don’t think any of us would want any woman we loved to miss out on the chance to break through the glass ceiling—given that’s her goal. But have any of us ever been blocked from climbing another rung on the professional ladder because we are women? Don’t we all know someone who has? Gender-biased language may have something to do with this!
Consider this riddle (It’s an old one, but if you’ve seen it, it’s worth revisiting):
A father and son get in a car crash and are rushed to the hospital. The father dies. The boy is taken to the operating room and the surgeon says, “I can’t operate on this boy, because he’s my son.”
How is this possible?
Answer: The surgeon is the boy’s mother!
Were you stumped? If you were, you’re in good company. It turns out that 78% of self-described feminists in a study conducted at BU were not able to solve this riddle; even they did not imagine that the surgeon could have been a woman (or that the surgeon could have been the boy’s gay, second father).
Have you ever caught yourselves describing a physician you know as a “female doctor?” If not, I bet that you’ve heard the expression. Have you ever stopped to question it? Do people feel the need to describe physicians as a “male” doctors? I don’t think so. It’s clearly understood.
What about the terms “male nurse” or “working mother”? Does anyone ever say “working father”???
Let’s talk sex.
While things are certainly beginning to change linguistically in the work world, sex and sex roles are a whole different linguistic animal. When it comes to the language of sex, gender differences, biases, and judgments still thrive.
Here’s one example I saw in the study “Sexism in Language” by Professor Xiaolan Lei, published in the Journal of Language and Linguistics. What comes to mind when you think of the expression “man on the street?” Success? Knowledge? Switch “man” to “woman on the street” and many people would take a 180 shift—to prostitute.
Hmm … I rest my case.
Here’s another interesting linguistic sex gem: According to Professor Lei, North American English has no fewer than 220 words for a sexually promiscuous woman, but only twenty for sexually promiscuous men! (I have reached out to Professor Lei for the list—I am wracking my brain to come up with the words—and if he sends it to me, I will pass it along.)
All Gender-Referenced Language is Biased
So, we’ve explored the male/female thing, but implicit in this very discussion is a deeper bias. Why do so many of us think solely in terms of male/female? Haven’t we learned that gender is more fluid than that? When we use any gendered terms, we are excluding/discounting/rendering invisible all those who identify as non-binary or agender. I, for one, don’t want to be guilty of discounting anybody—any body!!!
Remember the grammar example I used above—how students were instructed to use the male pronoun “he” when referring to a person whose gender was unspecified? Well, lots of us—me included—used to think we were being progressive by instead saying “he or she” or switching it up (sometimes using “he” at other times “she”). Guess what, my friends—that “progressive” approach is not gender neutral! But if we use the pronoun “they,” we will cover everyone—and isn’t that what we’re aiming for?
I have to admit that this language shift felt awkward at first for this English teacher. “They,” in my mind, had always represented more than one. But then I realized that that is exactly the point. We want to create the space for more than one—for every-one—so “they” it is and will be!
(For an interesting and informative discussion on gender neutral language—especially pronouns—check this out: https://lifehacker.com/how-to-use-gender-neutral-pronouns-1821239054. There are many other helpful guides online as well.)
What Does This Have to Do Rediscovery?
Our world is in the midst of great change—in technology and in social norms. Most of us grew up without ever questioning language. There were rules, and we knew them. There were good words and bad words; words we said when we were with our parents and others we saved for our friends. We may have cherished language and sentences in the literature we read (Yes! Kids and adolescents read books back in the day!) But the connections of language to thought, of language to belief systems, and of language to opportunity—and discrimination—were just not on our radar. Now that we have greater awareness, we are faced the freedom—and responsibility—of choice.
How will we express ourselves? Which words will we choose?
I am offering up this challenge: take note of the gendered words you use.
Keep a list of those as well as any gender-neutral words you consciously choose as alternatives. Reflect on how the different words make you feel.
Little conscious shifts in language can be empowering—to you and to others around you.
Was a time that language/gender or other “identifying” label created a barrier for you?
LAST BUT CERTAINLY NOT LEAST
I have asked my dear friend—and co-MFA student Adri—to collaborate with me on this post. Adri is a beautiful writer and a trans person. They have generously shared the piece “you erase my nonbinary identity when.” The piece has two parts, each with a short introduction, each from Adri’s perspective at a different stage of their life.
Please read, learn, enjoy. And check out Adri’s other published work: http://lunchticket.org/author/adrien-sdao/
December 4th, 2011 – I was living on campus at UC Irvine, and I’d finally come to realize that I couldn’t cure my gender dysphoria by ignoring it. I joined a support group on campus for trans people. I gained not only friends, but also a more nuanced understanding of gender. I thought back to my childhood feelings, to my interactions with my family and with strangers, to the war with my body that had begun at puberty and never ended. I knew I needed some solution that would stop my periods, change my voice, and bring my true face into the world. I knew I was not a girl, but I also knew I would never be a man. I came to understand my gender as nonbinary (neither male nor female), and more specifically, agender (without gender entirely). These terms are more than just words. They are a way to communicate who I’ve always been with a society that is just beginning to understand these things are even possible. In December 2011, I was six months shy of beginning testosterone. I was frustrated with the world around me and its unshakeable focus on the binary gender system, so I wrote this list.
you erase my nonbinary identity when
you say “boys and girls”
you say “men and women”
you say “ladies and gentlemen”
you say “sir” or “ma’am/miss”
you label bathrooms/locker rooms “men” and “women”
you label clothing as “boys/men” and “girls/women”
you segregate housing by sex
you split the class into male groups and female groups
you say “it would be easier for me to call you ‘he’ than ‘they'”
you assume my pronouns are “she” and “her”
you suggest that I take T to become more ambiguous-looking
you assume I’m going to take steps to transition at all
you hold doors open for me (esp. if you force me to step through first)
you assume I cannot assist with physical labor of any sort
you talk to me about your period as if I am another girl
you talk to me about anything as if I am another girl
you categorize me as “FtM” or “transmasculine” or a “transman”
you tell me I would look better with long hair
you call me “pretty,” “handsome,” or any other adjective with a gendered connotation
you assume that because I am quiet that I am demure
you won’t use certain language around me (curse words, words seen as crude or unfit for use around women)
you compare me to women physically, emotionally, or mentally
you compare me to men physically, emotionally, or mentally
you assume things about my sexuality
you assume things about my sexual past
you label products I have to use “feminine” (“feminine hygiene products”)
you assume I want to look like or be perceived as a male
you assume I want to distance myself from all things female
you think that I can’t be trans because I like to paint my nails, because I don’t bind every day, because I giggle, because I don’t try to “pass,” because my mannerisms seem “female” or “feminine”
you think I should give up the label of “sister” (a label I embrace because of the importance my siblings, especially my seven-year-old sister, place on it)
you think my hobbies are “girly” or “feminine” (I like to crochet and sew)
you assume I should know how to cook (I burn water trying to boil it)
you assume I am delicate or dainty in body or mind
you call me “female-bodied” (this is a nonbinary body)
you assume I ever had to come out (I have never actually come out as nonbinary but everybody in my family and circle of friends know)
you have an “M” box and an “F” box but no “other” box
you say “gender” when you mean “sex”
you say “women” when you mean “females”
you assume that me in drag would be me dressed as a male
you assume that me in drag would be me dressed as a female
you assume that I dislike wearing dresses
you think my fears are “girly” (I dislike insects, car wrecks, and horror movies)
you call me a “tomboy”
you call me a “dyke” or “butch” or “lesbian”
you tell me to choose one or the other
June 1st, 2018 – Six years on testosterone has brought about all my desired changes. My dysphoria has morphed into a tamer, more tolerable beast. I’m not planning for any surgeries, though that could change in the future. I’m still nonbinary and agender. I still like to crochet, and I’m still scared of bugs. Now, I’m more likely to be called “sir” than “miss,” though it doesn’t feel like an improvement. These days, though, I’m far more likely to be seen for what I am—not she, not he, but they.
you erase my nonbinary identity when
you say “man” and “woman” are opposites
you make generalizations about men and women
you make generalizations about trans people
you misgender trans people you don’t like
you misgender trans people who haven’t yet medically transitioned
you misgender trans people who will never medically transition at all
you intentionally misgender any person, trans or cis, for any reason
you assume my gender does not change over time
you assume I plan to have surgery
you think my transition is incomplete
you think my transition is complete
you think I will take T for the rest of my life
you think I will live as a boy for the rest of my life
you talk to me or about me as if I am a man
you talk to me about women as if there are no women present
you attempt to validate me as a man
you call me “handsome” or a “gentleman”
you call me “man” or “bro”
you attempt to validate me as a gay man
you call me “gurl” or “hooker”
you assume I am either straight or gay (I’m bi)
you assume my pronouns are “he” and “him”
you continue to call me “he” and “him” after being told my pronouns are “they” and “them”
you think my pronouns are “preferred” (they’re mandatory)
you look at me in disgust
you say “I don’t understand why you have breasts”
you tell me I need a haircut
you laugh when I wear a dress
you say my gender presentation confuses you
you validate my nonbinary identity when
you use gender-neutral terms for me
you brainstorm new gender-neutral terms with me
you use my mandatory pronouns when I’m not around
you ask if certain gendered words are ok (brother is great, never bro)
you replace the “unisex” stick man and woman bathroom sign with an “all gender” sign
you scope out or accompany me into a gendered bathroom
you seek out gender-neutral bathrooms when we’re together
you compliment my jewelry
you compliment my clothes
you compliment my eyes
you compliment my work
you talk to me as if I am a person, not a gender
Adrien Sdao writes young adult fiction and works in a children’s bookstore in Los Angeles. They are an MFA candidate at Antioch University, Los Angeles, and they are the lead editor for the Young Adult genre at Lunch Ticket. They live in North Hollywood with their cat, Shelly.
Thanks for reading, everyone!!
See you next Monday!
P.S. The very name of this blog was inspired to push back at gender-biased language. Why menopause, for goodness sake? I did my research, and I am pleased to report that both our monthly blood flow (menstruation) and the cessation of such were not named with the masculine in mind. The “men” in menstruation and menopause come from the Greek root “mene,” which means “month.” The Greek “pausen” actually translates to stop, or halt, not pause as we think of it, which makes sense too, as in menopause we are not pausing our menstrual cycles but are kissing them good-bye!