“You taught me language; and my profit on’t
Is, I know how to curse.” – Shakespeare, The Tempest
I was nineteen the first time someone “misgendered” me. I was looking for a recording of Anne Sexton’s rock band (yes, she had a rock band and it was . . . not very good) and the reference librarian called me “sir.” She continued to call me “sir” and “young man” as I followed her through the stacks seeking the dead poet’s recording. I was skinnier then. I had short hair. I was wearing blue jeans and a flannel shirt (as one was wont in 1995). According to our culture’s norms, I probably looked a bit like a boy.
I wasn’t offended; on the contrary, I was kind of amused.
At the time, I was an undergrad minoring in Women’s Studies. (This was back before queer theory had diluted/polluted/unnecessarily complicated the discipline.) I already understood that gender was nothing more than a construct, so that this librarian thought I was a “sir” was no more an affront to my identity than . . . than . . . than cats are an affront to my dog’s sense of self.
As a woman, I’ve learned to both use language and to live “outside language.” I can’t live within it because, under patriarchal control, nearly every word is designed to diminish me – particularly pronouns: sHE, HEr. (I’ll not go into the etymology of pronouns, but I can assure you they were not crafted with women’s “feelings” in mind.)
Today, men who think they’re women, deem it a great atrocity, on par with acts of violence, when women with eyes and ears and minds call them by the pronouns their male ancestors created to name themselves: male, he, him.
Pronouns have become a political cause of utmost importance. Pronouns are now a thing we must take very seriously. And why? Because men’s egos get bruised when women don’t collude with their make-believe. And if you ever question my assertion that men control language, you need look no further than recent attacks on other radical feminists for calling males men, or . . . uh . . . RuPaul, for that matter. (Men also attack gay men of color when they misuse the language they’ve created.)
As a woman, I’ve never had the privilege of controlling language. Straight males who feel like women get to say “dyke” at will (after all, they DID create that term). Men, in general, whether or not they feel like ladies, are free to use the terms “bitch” and “cunt.” No one is stopping them. Why, just the other day, a charming young man called me a “fucking bitch” for attempting to cross the street when his motorcycle was in the middle of the intersection (though I’m a lady, according to law, I still have the right-of-way as a pedestrian in a crosswalk). There was no news outlet for me to call. It was just another day.
But misuse of pronouns is not an act of violence. Guess what, fellas? We women have learned to use the words you created for us!
Nor is it an “act of violence” when a man who “feels like a lady” makes cartoons depicting lesbians as predatory, calling gender nonconforming women “fat” and “ugly.” This is just a symptom of the patriarchal culture all women inhabit – men with a great deal of plastic surgery and silicone breasts get to call women who disagree with them, “ugly/scary/predatory butch lesbians”– and it’s packaged as activism. As women, we’ve learned how to process this, if not accept it.
On Friday, a rabid, admitted misogynist shot a bunch of women (and, yes, men). People are dead. THAT is an actual act of violence.
Today, the news is excusing his behavior by saying the male murderer was “sad” and “mentally ill.” Our sick, misogynistic culture will do everything and anything it can to redefine, repackage misogyny – we will not name it.
And when you tell women, when you tell society that a misogynistic sociopath was not a misogynist, but rather a “poor, depressed dude,” you are committing an act of psychological violence. We should not be made to pity that man.
I certainly don’t pity that man. I do, however, pity his victims. I do, however, pity women who have had to suffer men’s violence, men’s language, men’s definitions of their existence – and this includes men who “feel like women.”
I will not obey. I will not collude with men. I will name you as you have named me.
And in the words of the late George Harrison, “Wah-Wah”:
One thought on “On pronouns”
I don’t know how you find a relevant Shakespeare quote every time, but I’m really digging it.
Can you tell more about how “she/he” was “invented”? Or make a post about that?
I’m frustrated that pronouns have become the forefront of “feminism” these days. I always wanted to explain to the “queer community” on tumblr that misgendering someone isn’t an act of violence.