Undoing Gender: New Experiments in Social Deconstruction

‘The emotional, sexual, and psychological stereotyping of females begins when the doctor says, “It’s a girl”,’ the American politician Shirley Chisholm once said. Exposed in this insight is the miraculous power of language; all that is required for something so fateful to be determined is not biological nature, not even social imposition, but, simply, speech. So seemingly simple is this mechanism, in fact, that some are doing their best to change it. It was revealed this week that a pre-school in Sweden has decided that the use of gender-specific pronouns such as ‘him’ (‘han’) and ‘her’ (‘hon’) is to be prohibited, in favour of gender-neutral terms, in an attempt to reduce the effects of linguistically determined gender-stereotyping.

The school, aptly name Egalia, is tackling an issue which has been firmly on the feminist agenda since Dale Spender’s influential book Man Made Language appeared in 1980. There Spender argued that, far from passively capturing the way that the world appears to us, language actively constructs the way that the world is. More specifically, the state of language, according to Spender, structures the world in a way that promotes males and inhibits females, whether by exclusion, alienation, control, or construction. The claim was supported by the famous studies in linguistics carried out by the American anthropologists Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf, whose extensive research on Native American languages led to the hypothesis that the structure of language restricts and determines our cognitive categories. It is hard to report an event in English without using the tense-marked words that the grammar requires, and it is hard to encode a fact in Hopi without marking its testimonial status, that is, whether it is first-hand knowledge, second-hand, third-hand, and so on, as required by the structure of the language. Importantly, it makes it hard to think outside of these limits, and, consequently, hard to behave outside of them. The way that we mark gender according to our grammatical structure is no different, an assumption which the new Egalia policy operates on. Continue reading “Undoing Gender: New Experiments in Social Deconstruction”

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