Gender-neutral language or gender-inclusive language is language that avoids bias towards a particular sex or social gender. In English, this includes use of nouns that are not gender-specific to refer to roles or professions, as well as avoidance of the pronouns he, him and his to refer to people of unknown or indeterminate gender.[https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gender-neutral_language
Everyone’s Talking About It
Everyone’s talking about gender-neutral language these days. We hear about it on the radio, see it splashed across newspapers and watch live debates about it on the television where overpaid presenters preach from their soapbox that the world has become too politically correct. But how easy is it to write a story or novel using gender-neutral language? And is it possible to avoid bias towards any particular sex or social gender? Gender-neutral writing means no names that would identify a character as male or female, no conventional titles or pronouns like he, she, his, hers and no job roles that specify a gender. Well, I’m about to find out if its possible because my local writing circle have set a challenge to write a piece without using any gender-specific words.
So I began to investigate this a little more and started to think about how I currently use gender-specific language within my writing. It got me thinking about assumptions that we make from character names, their jobs, their titles, common phrases we use (like one small step for man, one small step for mankind), and the use of pronouns.
But Does Gender-Neutral Language Matter in Novels?
One of the things that occurred to me is whether or not using gender-neutral language actually matters? Certainly, when we use a gender-specific word such as postman, it’s directing us to think of a man, even though men and women do that job. It occurred to me though, that when writing a story or novel, we want the story to be realistic and about real people. We’re creating characters and essentially these, on the whole, will be male or female so to a large extent, much of the language used will be gender-specific. As authors, we also do rely on the reader making certain assumptions and we proactively guide the reader to make those through the language we use.
So what about the practicalities of writing a novel using gender-neutral language? Well you could try writing some gender-neutral characters or characters that have an ambiguous gender into a novel or attempt to make a novel completely gender-neutral. It would certainly be a USP and differentiate your novel from others.
Secondary or minor characters where the reader needs to know less detail about them and they only appear momentarily also offer potential to remove gender from the equation. In the case of our example, we could use post person, then gender becomes less important and we don’t necessarily bring in our prejudices, bias or make assumptions.
If using gender-specific language is often helpful when creating characters, what’s its downside? Using gender-specific language means that we (the author and reader) make assumptions about the character which may or may not be correct. Additionally, gender- specific language may exclude some portions of our potential audience and /or alienate them. The other thing to consider is that whether intentional or not, we may offend segments of our audience. This may depend on the audience that you are targeting so if your story incorporates characters, real people or a storyline around mis-gendering, gender fluidity, androgyny, nonbinary, bigender or trigender, or using gender-neutral language adds to the mystery or plotline, then its important to be aware of and sensitive to these issues and the language used.
How to Use Gender-Neutral Language
When I began this topic, I felt daunted with the thought of not being able to use anything gender-specific. I’d never had to think about removing gender from a story. Now I realise that everything I usually write is completely gender-specific and how much that is ingrained within me. Once I got going, I realised, though, that with a little thought, it’s actually much easier to use gender-neutral language than it sounds. It turns out that in most cases, you can use the words, ‘they’, ‘their’ and ‘them’ in place of ‘he’, ‘she’, ‘his’ and ‘hers’ and even the word ‘you’ can be used in some cases. Reading back, it felt a bit clunky and uncomfortable at first but I realised that this was because it’s all so new and additionally, I wasn’t used to using these different pronouns. The more I used them, the easier it became.
Through researching this post, I also became aware that there are gender-neutral pronouns that have been added to today’s dictionary, Ze, Zir and hir. These can be used in the place of he and she. An example would be ze went to the shop. Those ideas are zirs. Ze wrote that book hirself. Having never used those before and not yet being commonplace in day to day language and writing, I didn’t use those for my piece but let’s face it, society and media is changing so fast that in ten years, they may be words used by all of us in day to day life. If you’re writing a piece aimed at a gender-fluid or non-binary audience, as examples, they would expect these pronouns to be used so again being sensitive to the audience is crucial.
Another way of remaining gender-neutral in our writing is to talk about people in general terms and refer towards them as human/humans, humankind, the human race, human beings, and person/people. Same with animals, you don’t have to label them with gender. They can be animal/ animals, beast/ beasts and creature/ creatures for example. The other thing that I realized regarding job titles, is that you can almost always substitute it with a gender-neutral job title. So instead of a spokesman or spokeswoman, you can have a spokesperson. Another example would be instead of using shop-girl, you could have a shop worker or shelf stacker and rather than having a policeman or stewardess, you would have a police officer or flight attendant. You could additionally argue that by removing gender- specific language, it forces you as the writer to become more creative and that the reader has to pay more attention and use more of their imagination rather than relying on automatic assumptions and bias.
In terms of people’s titles, like Mr, Mrs, and Ms, it’s normally relatively easy to leave them out. Again, there is a gender-neutral title that has been added to today’s dictionary, namely Mx.
In the case of the short story I created, using gender-neutral language didn’t seem to detract from the heart or execution of the story. The pace of a short story tends to be much quicker and therefore, I didn’t have time to expand on the characters in the same way that I would do for a longer story. This, I felt made it easier to remove gender from the writing. I also had to be more creative and think of a story where gender wasn’t crucial and where the story could be ‘genderless.’
In the end, I opted for a short story about a cleaner who goes to the same house on a set time each week. This particular day they arrive, clean the downstairs and only when they go upstairs find the whole family murdered in their beds. Slowly the cleaner realises, they’ve implicated them-self as they’ve touched and washed the bloody kitchen knife downstairs (which had been left in the washing up pile), their hand-prints are over all of the doors and they have used their key to gain entry (whoever has committed the murder didn’t leave any signs of break-in). I kept the references towards the key characters simple, ‘the cleaner’, ‘they’, ‘their’, ‘the family’ and ‘the parents’ etc.
Is a Gender-Neutral Novel Possible?
Clearly, there is definitely a place in the corporate world, marketing, media, blogging and more formal written pieces and documents to utilise gender-neutral language. After all, we all want there to be equality within the workplace and to get rid of all the old school assumptions about men and women, what they can achieve and what they are capable of.
Gender-neutral language is also beginning to appear more in novels and stories nowadays. I found that writing a short story using gender-neutral language was relatively easy. This exercise has also made me very much more aware of gender-specific language and its connotations. For sure, this will translate into my writing where feasible and appropriate.
The problem I’d anticipate with writing a completely gender-neutral novel is that the job of the author is to create characters with all sorts of sense and sensibilities. Part of the way that we build up a picture of the person is through their appearance, their sex, their background, trials and tribulations, obstacles they face (and their gender may contribute to these), their sexuality, their allure to the other sex, realistic dialogue they’d use and their job where gender may or may not be a factor. We also set the scene and sew the seeds so that the reader makes certain assumptions. That’s what we want them to do. A gender-neutral character would be a hard one to create and potentially to read. That’s not to say its impossible to do, just harder and the audience for this type of novel is also growing. You could argue that if you don’t include information about gender and assumptions can’t therefore be made, this only adds to the story because it forces the reader to use their own imagination to create a picture of the character. It depends on what side of the fence one is on and authors/readers personal preference ultimately.
The thing for me though is that fundamentally, as an author you want the reader to be able to empathize with your character. If you are a gender-neutral person, then you may appreciate and be able to empathize with a gender-neutral character. For the general population though who are only in the early stages of understanding this area, a gender-neutral character may be more of an alien concept and difficult to empathize with unless in the sci-fi/fantasy/futuristic genres, the gender-neutral character is some other-worldly or futuristic being or they purposefully have an ambiguous gender! (which, of course has been successfully done before and for some reason, in these genres gender-neutrality seems more believable and possible to us). Like I’ve said however, society is moving forward and who knows what elements of gender-neutral language will become ingrained in our psyche in the future. One thing is for sure, gender-neutral language is here to stay and needs to be on the author radar whether or not, they choose to incorporate it into their work at this time.
Now over to you! I’d love to hear your opinions on this topical debate. Feel free to add a comment below.
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