How to Avoid Gender Pronouns in Your Writing
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Yesterday I began working on my submission for the Feminist Utopia Project (deadline: July 15th) and now I have some serious heartache. My vision is to write a world that has moved beyond our current language heavily steeped in gender binary. But how the heck do I use new pronouns without completely confusing the reader?
The English language has cruelly regimented us by our biology into His or Her. She or He. Himeslf or Herself. But these pronouns do so very little to help us when discussing a person who does not identify with being biologically male or female, or neither. I would further argue that our current language forces us to put people in those boxes, making it even more difficult to change our society’s attitude toward those whose identity does not match their biology.
As a feminist, I also wish our existing pronouns allowed us room to NOT be so easily put in the feminine box. Yes, my biology is a woman. Culturally, I also identify as a woman. But I chafe under the restrictions, preconceived notions, and stereotypes that come with identifying as female.
Enter Alex Dally McFarlane’s recent article on Tor.com entitled “Post-Binary Gender in SF: ExcitoTech and Non-Binary Pronouns”. I love her declaration that:
We—you—need to learn better.
You need to learn not to be jolted out of the text by singular “they” as a personal pronoun (and its usage in sentences: “they are”/“they is,” etc). You need to learn familiarity with Spivak pronouns. You need to accept that there are more English-language pronouns than “she” and “he,” whether or not you’ve encountered them before.
Alex is absolutely right. My fear of new pronouns confusing the reader is a legitimate fear, but I like the idea that my story could help contribute to a normalization of their use. We are, after all, readers and writers of Science Fiction and Fantasy, are we not? These are genres dedicated to expanding ideas, minds, technology and the universe. Yes, it may make some readers uncomfortable. Yes, some may close the book and think “this story is not for me”. BUT some will cock their head to the side in confusion and curiosity, will keep reading, and will internalize the notion that “he” and “she” are not the end all be all of pronouns in our language.
By 10 pm last night I settled on using “xe, xyr, xyrs, xyrself, xem, and xey” in place of “he/she, his/her, his/hers, himself/herself, them, and they”. It definitely adds a new layer of interest to the story, and keeps my characters gender identity ambiguous. Because my idea of a feminist utopia is one where gender, biological or otherwise, has little bearing on how society treats that individual.
I recommend reading Alex’s article as well as checking out this guide on Write World entitled “Using Gender-Neutral Pronouns in Your Writing: Basics for Beginners”.