That’s what s/he said

A PRO’S VIEW: I’M PRO-GENDER-NEUTRAL PRONOUNS

pronounsAs a copy editor at USA TODAY, I was asked by our editor in chief last summer what I thought about the Pfc. Bradley/Chelsea Manning case.

Not so much what I thought about it, but whether I thought we should follow the lead of the Associated Press, which soon after Manning’s sentencing decided to start referring to Manning, a transgender who identifies as female but has not yet gone through any transitioning, as “she” and “her” instead of “he,” “his” and “him.”

This is what the USA TODAY style guide says about that:

transgender people

Transgender is an umbrella term that refers to people whose biological and gender identity or expression may not be the same. This can include preoperative, postoperative or non-operative transsexuals, female and male cross-dressers, drag queens or kings, female or male impersonators and intersex individuals.

If an individual prefers to be called transsexual, drag queen or king, intersex, etc., use that term.

When writing about a transgender person, use the name and personal pronouns that are consistent with the way the individual lives publicly.”

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Chelsea, meet Bradley. Bradley, Chelsea.

Therein lies the catch for Manning: “… the way the individual lives publicly.” For the crimes of espionage, theft and fraud for leaking classified documents to WikiLeaks, Manning is serving 35 years at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas — an all-male prison. And the Army has denied Manning’s request for hormone therapy. As far as dressing male or female goes — aren’t prison jumpsuits fairly unisex (Orange Is the New Black)?

Laverne Cox

Laverne Cox plays a transgender on TV (well … Netflix’ … in”Orange Is the New Black”), a role close to home.

If Manning has no opportunity to live publicly as a woman, how can we, the media (includes you), honor the request or apply an institutionalized style?

At the time, and on deadline no less, I suggested avoiding pronouns and writing around things — introducing the situation on first reference: “Pfc. Bradley Manning, who prefers to be known as Chelsea” then using only Manning on second reference. But that seems wimpy. The point of setting style is to be bold, even dictatorial. Besides, the name “Manning” leans male — unfortunate surname for a transgender woman.

And “writing around things,” I realize now, is the equivalent of sweeping things under the rug — precisely what society has done with pegs who don’t fit into precise holes. We ought to address this issue here and now. As much as human brains construct language, language can help to shape minds.

When the story broke in August, the media was vigorous in debating the issue, and many outlets took an immediate stand in allowing Manning to declare her own gender. We follow similar styles on name treatment: We strictly don’t use Jr. … well, that is, unless it’s required for clarity or a source insists, so it’s not so strict — and same with middle initials.

But if the media went around allowing anyone to declare which gender they identify with on a given day, without requiring precedent or proof, doesn’t that invite capriciousness and — horrors — inaccuracy?

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An earlier photo of Bradley Manning. Could s/he have been given a more virile name?

The issue comes down to who is making the determination and whether this might be an extreme example of self-determination vs. predetermination. In other words, do we trust our eyes to recognize and make judgments about sexual dimorphism? Or do we trust the source to make a judgment for themselves? (Note the use of the singular “they.”)

Maybe — brilliant — remove the act of judging entirely. Introduce a new, non-judgmental word.

In Sweden, gender-equality activists are working to get ahead of the transgender curve by proposing a third, gender-neutral pronoun. (Although “hen” wouldn’t work in this country — leans female, and sexist, at that.)

In Nepal, the census recognizes a third gender, but doesn’t name it.

Another wordpress blog examines many options, attempts to consolidate all reasonable suggestions for epicene pronouns and explores how to make this linguistic transformation happen. But a related Facebook page has only 40 members as of this posting.

Carmen_Carrera

Carmen Carrera, from that RuPaul drag show.

Look — people have been discussing this not just since last summer, but since the mid-19th century. What’s the big hang-up? As more transgenders do the talk-show circuit or become household names, such as Carmen Carrera and Laverne Cox (Orange Is the New Black), we realize: People are getting used to the idea. Let’s simplify the process with language.

Adopting new words and changing old patterns can feel daunting. So I’m not proposing inventing any new, weird-sounding pronouns, which would serve only to alienate. Rather, we could repurpose ones we already use and understand, just as body parts get transfigured.

Many men use the personal pronouns “she” and “her” to describe random inanimate objects, like ships and car engines. And oogenesistically speaking, we all start out as female. So let’s use “her” for both possessive pronouns and personal pronouns to describe gender, including those in the objective case. Men shouldn’t complain — they have been objectifying females for eons, plus “her” has the word “he” built in. This streamlines things significantly, eliminating not only “his” but also “him.” “Her” works both ways. You can even spell it he/r, kinda poetically aloof to sexism.

The new movie “Her” serves as my PR campaign. That tangle of 0’s and 1’s isn’t even human, yet a
man projects a gender — and much more — onto it.

Likewise, “she” will be the new “he.” I’d be willing to spell it “s/he” until it caught on and we abandoned the slash. Punctuation does add punch somehow.

Having lived so long with an androgynous name like Terry, I have enjoyed knowing that few can tell what I am by my writing alone. It has made for some interesting instant-messaging exchanges — they go from good-ol’-boy crass to suddenly polite and tender when my gender dawns on men.

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Joanne “Jo” Kathleen (fake middle name, borrowed from her grandmother) Rowling

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Pamela Lyndon Travers

In the patriarchal publishing world, I think both P.L. Travers (Mary Poppins) and J.K. Rowling (Harry Potter) tried to circumvent some sort of sexism by initially masking their gender — as if being female creates some drag on the sails of success. Is that where the term “drag” comes from? What’s it called when a woman “dresses as a man”? Normal, right?

The worlds both authors created spun on transformational magic — poof! We can change things with a flick of our hands.

My one regret in naming my daughters is that I didn’t bestow unisex names on them. But maybe boys’ and girls’ baby-name lists are taking care of this naturally, as dual-purpose names like Morgan, Andy, Alex and Sidney grow more popular. People can spell them however they choose, adding clues or not, branding their child from Day One with arbitrary name baggage.

So this campaign is my new baby.

Presenting … h/ers and s/hes. Poof! There s/he is.

Hers and Hers towels

Hers and Hers towels

RELATED LINKS

Where is “Sandy?” on the list of popular baby names? (mommytongue.com)

I've got this language thing down pat.

I’ve got this language thing down pat.

Do the Oscars need a new category?

Trivia question: What was the most recent category added to the Academy Awards lineup?

a) Visual Effects

b) Animated Feature

c) Sound Mixing

d) Music (Original Song)

e) Hairstyling and Makeup Design

f) Documentary Short

g) None of the above

If you guessed “a” — or anything else — I’ll tell you at the end of the post whether you’re right.

Meanwhile, having seen 41 Oscar contenders across 23 categories in just the past month, I bet you’re probably thinking that I’m thinking: SO relieved there are not more categories!

Au contraire. How fun it would be to add one more. Call it the Best Bookends award.

Bookends?! Fool, we’re talking movies, not books. With “bookends,” I’m referring to the titles, the credits and those rewarding parting shots after credits roll. Signature signoffs, which most moviegoers miss, are like bows in live theater. Characters often break character or rub some joke into the ground or, in the case of Hitchcock, which I just saw, satiate a viewer’s expectations with a shot of a corpulent Anthony Hopkins doing a classic Hitchcock silhouette against stage footlights.

Movie-editing programs are so widespread that anyone can now create “professional-looking” titles at home, so the pressure is on for studios to go further in defining “professional.” Titling companies — and not the kind you use to buy property — stand on their own these days, so why not reward their creativity with a tiny Oscar? OK, a mini-Oscar, like mini-Reese’s Cups.

Among the more interesting titling I’ve seen this year month:

Skyfall — This movie’s opening sequence should win, hands down. It’s groovy, psychedelic and feels like an animated short. When it was over, I already felt I had my money’s worth. But of course this was my first Bond movie. Friends tell me they ALL begin like this, that it wasn’t truly over-the-top. So, hmmm.

Amour — Hard to ignore the titles and credits for this intense Austrian film: stark white lettering on black background and completely silent. My fellow patrons dared not crunch their popcorn, let alone breathe. The titles proved engaging from the start, telling the audience: You are participating in this experience, supply your own soundtrack.

Life of Pi — During extended titles, we tour the zoo of Pi’s childhood — gorgeous, exotic creatures overlaid with graceful letter strokes until the last name gets chased away in a puff by a group of animals. Wish I could remember now which animals … some kind of fowl, I think, though not water fowl.

Django Unchained — I burst out laughing when the Quentin Tarantino movie changed locale and rather than fade in-out with a standard “Mississippi, 1858,” along came a slow, side-scrolling, screen-high, bright-yellow MISSISSIPPI in a goofy, frontiersy font.

Moonrise Kingdom — Credits were done in swirly, utterly unreadable fonts, tacky colors of pink and yellow, which moved too fast to decipher. I thought, “These poor folks aren’t getting their due!” then realized how well the titles fit the spirit of the film: When a 12-year-old girl runs away with her khaki scout, her suitcase is crammed with YA chick lit that she reads aloud to him at bedtime. It seems she designed these titles in her diary using gel pens.

moonrise-kingdom

These two sure looked a lot like Hermione and Harry Potter to me.

Zero Dark Thirty — I can’t remember what it said, but there was a comma missing and this copy editor SAW RED. They call this a journalism drama?! Get a better editor! I was in a foul mood and could hardly enjoy the first torture scene.

Among memorable parting shots:

Argo. Jimmy Carter’s comments about the declassified Argo operation are heard while a side-by-side, then-and-now, fact-vs.-fiction slide show plays. IDs of the actual rescued Americans appear beside screen grabs of the actors who played them, historical shots alongside counterfeit scenes.

Marvel’s The Avengers. After almost saving the world, my favorite character, Robert Downy Jr.’s Iron Man, expresses a craving for shawarma, an Arab meat dish. He tells his A-team, “There’s a shawarma joint two blocks from here, don’t know what it is, but I’ve always wanted to try it.” When the soundtrack play out and credits fade, find our heroes binging. And … scene!

I know there were more … blanking now. Gosh, does this mean I have to sit through them all again?

To make more room for my new category, we could try ending sexism and lump all the men, women, boys and girls into unisex “Lead Acting” and “Supporting Roles” categories. What drama to have Meryl Streep up against Daniel Day-Lewis. Ahem. Even NASCAR’s sexist barriers have been busted through by Sunday’s other main event: Danica Patrick’s inclusive triumph. Because, yeah, just for her to qualify makes her a winner.

OK, pure cheekiness about the new category, but here’s your reward for staying ’til the end: trivia answer is b) The Animated Feature category was added in 2001. Visual Effects has been around since 1939; Sound Mixing since 1930; Original Song, 1934; Hairstyling and Makeup, 1981 (it’s the most recent addition before Animated Feature –before that, it was Sound Editing, added in 1963); and the Documentary Short has been awarded since 1941.