The Agony of Pronouns

I realized, today, that I take exception to a modern use of pronoun: the gender-neutral “they” and “them.”

I was reading Roses & Rot by Kat Howard, which is a pretty good read for those of us who dig fantasy. One of the complicating elements of the plot is the classic theme of not being able to discuss Faerie to the outside world. The characters fall into cleverly employing pronouns to get around the restriction. (Don’t worry; I haven’t given the story away.)

My issue with pronouns isn’t rooted in anything Kat Howard wrote; instead, I was shot back to my first encounter with a person using “them” instead of designating “her.” My nephew, a young teenager, was playing with my daughter, a very female three-year-old. In explaining part of their game to me, he said “they” wanted to put the dolls to sleep, so he helped “them” do so. I was disconcerted with his narrative at first, thinking, “Who the hell else was in the room? Or, is he speaking of himself and my daughter in third person, royalty-style?” On the heels of this, I realized he was employing the now politically correct “neutral pronoun” strategy, to not inadvertently insult myself or my three-year-old by assigning a gender “they” don’t choose.

As a writer, I’m turned off by this. “They” has a meaning, and it’s a good one: multiple people, or, yes, someone without a specified gender. But always, always, it’s important to be specific about my story, to tell you just who it’s about, because skimming along on the surface of a thing, telling you that a vague “they” is doing “something,” is the best way to make you feel like what you’re reading is the literary equivalent of tepid, gray, sugarless oatmeal.

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Who is “they,” anyway?

It’s a classic line. “They” are the invisible standard-holder, the legion that makes judgements and hold invisible, sinister strings of influence. “They” are who every hero worth his or her mettle wants to escape.

My daughter is a she. My son is he. I am she, my husband is he. Please, for the love of all that is human and identifiable and humanly connectable, don’t screw up our pronouns into unidentifiable gray mush. Mess with gender roles! God, yes! My female daughter shoots pretend guns at her brother, jumps tall obstacles, digs in dirt and then runs inside to put on her plastic crown and tattered mermaid costume! None of those things are inherently he or she activities. My son, the world’s most prolific builder of Lego vehicles, destroyer of all things delicate, gleeful enjoyer of tree climbing and general horsing around, puts plastic babies to sleep with his sister, and wears the occasional fluffy tutu.

Whatever you think about Caitlyn Jenner, however you may feel about how that person is a hero or an abomination, Bruce did not go through all that surgery, therapy and general effort to transform into “they.” He wanted to be she.

I don’t know why it’s a trend to despise categorization into gender roles. I think there are some people, especially young people, who are unsure of who they are, who don’t know whether it makes more sense for them to be he or she. And that’s difficult. But “they?” They is another way to render a human being less specific, more vague. Less human.

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