Making Categories, Breaking Categories

Making Categories, Breaking Categories

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Not long ago, I attended a conference at Radcliffe on “Ways With Words: Exploring Language and Gender.” The first, and perhaps most salient, thing to note is that this conference was packed…


Not long ago, I attended a conference at Radcliffe on “Ways With Words: Exploring Language and Gender.” The first, and perhaps most salient, thing to note is that this conference was packed. Cis men, cis women, trans men, trans women, gay people, straight people, old and young and in between — in between ages, genders, sexualities, you name it. Granted, this is academe, and we’re always eager to discuss the political dimensions of the new. But I was surprised at the breadth of interest in the topic — and I soon discovered that we mean very different things when we even name a topic something like “Language and Gender.”

For instance, the conference kicked off with a smart, funny stand-up routine by the comedian Aparna Nancheria, who used visuals to demonstrate some of the absurd ways in which we try to communicate in social situations across lines of gender and age: essentially, a 21st-century version of men being from Mars and women from Venus, with a touch of moms being from Earth.

This theme resurfaced later in the conference, when Big Data experts weighed in. Lyle Ungar, for instance, of the University of Pennsylvania, is compiling statistics from 70,000 volunteer Facebook users who self-identify as male or female. The language they use, available as a set of interesting visuals on Ungar’s project website, dispels a number of myths while preserving others. To the question “Do women talk more than men?,” the answer from this study is an unequivocal no. The social-media chattiness of both sexes is roughly equal. To the question “Are men more assertive than women?,” the answer is also no, with a diagram showing widely scattered differences and a weak slope pointing toward more assertiveness on the part of women. On the other hand, as perhaps expected, women use more “warm” words than men, while men’s idiom is more “hostile.” The bubbles showing words that appear most frequently drew rueful laughs from the audience.

That’s the male/female language discussion. Meanwhile, a parallel discussion weaving through most of the conference focused on all those terms that blur gender identity. The 51 gender categories available on Facebook. Native American conceptions of (and language for) transitional identities. The political dimensions of trying to fit gender-neutral pronouns (ze, hir, and the like) into contemporary discourse. The keynote speaker, Janet Mock, a cultural commentator (and trans woman), referred to a common conception of LGBT advocates as being “white cisgender gay men” and questioned the value of “passing” for trans people, noting in an aside that passing is “an active verb.” (I admit, I did not quite understand the relevance of that grammatical point.) Her main point — that when we speak of binary genders and heterosexuality, we are contending that “this is the normal, and everything else will be labeled as different” — encapsulated the concern of those who saw the topic “Language and Gender” as being about breaking down traditional ideas of gender entirely.

Is there any shared ground between these two discussions? Rebecca Bigler, of the University of Texas at Austin, whose research focuses on children, noted that “humans are inherent categorizers, but we can change their bases for categorization.” Relying on the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, she proposes that “gendered language causes sexist thought.” Studying preschool and kindergarten classrooms, she found that even such simple greetings as “Good morning, boys and girls!” could begin a domino effect that ended with young children’s responses to the question of who gets to be president (boys, because girls are “too stupid” or because “boys hate girls” and will never vote for them). By encouraging the idea that “there are no such things as girl things and boy things,” she and her group hope to reduce both binary thinking and sexism. But as a questioner pointed out, two dissimilar goals seem apparent — the establishment of nongendered speech (e.g., addressing the U.S. president merely as “President” and not “Mr. President” or “Ms. President”) and the affirming of alternative categories.

Still, for me, Bigler’s investigation framed the issue in the most material way. I remember learning, years ago, that most children’s books with anthropomorphized animal characters referred to the characters as female only when they were mothers or were causing trouble. (Winnie the Pooh and Jan Brett’s version of The Mitten are telling examples.) I immediately began changing the genders of random characters when I read such books aloud to my preschool boys. The first time I did so, they immediately stopped me to ask, “Why’s it a girl?”

“It just is,” I said.

“But why?”

“Why not?” I said. “Half the world is girls.”

“OK,” they said, and after that, the gender-switching became easier.

But driving home from the conference, I wondered about my claim that half the world is girls. Binary again, I suppose. This is a conversation that has a long way to go.

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