I am not a man…
After a long day at work, the 9–5er started up the car and began the slow commute home, the anticipation of heavy traffic and static on the radio adding yet another storm cloud to the day.
What did you picture when you read this? Did you picture a tired human resource manager trudging home in a beat up sedan? Did you picture a grumpy CEO loosening his tie as he turned the ignition? No? Well let me ask you this instead.
Did you picture a man?
I often write towards a female persona, but not always. Despite the fact that I will sometimes take a gender neutral slant to my characterizations, the overall impression will still be male to my readers. When I confess it’s a female voice they’re often puzzled having assumed it was a man’s, and I feel the need to ask them why that is.
For show, of course. I already know why. One of the most prominent memories I have from college is from a sociolinguistic course in gender and language where we discussed in depth the linguistic tendency towards male-coded prototypical language — a genderless narrator is often imagined to be male despite the lack of gendering.
With the understanding that your opinion is currently biased, thanks to me, try to wipe your brain for a moment. Read the following list of personas and write down whether you picture a male or female:
Waiter Police Doctor Teacher Murderer Nurse Scientist Librarian Lawyer Parent
Who did you picture when you read those words? Did you picture a male when you read ‘doctor’? Did you read ‘nurse’ and think of a woman? Why? Why are we inclined to think like this, especially when we aren’t given any prompting to?
Unfortunately, the answer to this question is long and complicated and, best of all, debated! I’m not going to delve too far into that right now though. What I want to do is challenge you to rethink the way you imagine new experiences, new people, and new ideas.
When I write, I steer myself away from writing in the masculine. If I use a male pronoun, I change it to “she” in editing. My poetry is a reflection of my experiences, my ideas, and my dreams, and I am a woman. One day I realized it bothered me that this expression of myself automatically, without thought or reason, translated as male — as if my female experiences, in order to reflect my humanity, had to undergo this conversion to become relatable.
As of now, genderless does not mean genderless. It means male. As much as we’re pushing to change this, linguistically our human prototype is male. It doesn’t matter that I’m not male, unless I explicitly state a gender my voice is at risk of being stripped of its feminine identity. I will be read as male; consequently, if I express a gender there comes with it an expectation that gender carries meaning. It is a conscious choice and therefore must be a central focus.
This goes back to my readers who are surprised when I refer to God as ‘She’ or reveal that a macabre Lovecraftian entity was once a woman. Their femininity is unwittingly profound, and I worry that their character can’t find profundity beyond that.
Isn’t the saying, “I am woman hear me roar”? What if I don’t want to roar? What if I just want to share my ideas over coffee, what if I want to whisper to myself, what if I just want to talk?
I firmly believe that our semantic default should not be male. I believe we should try harder to diversify ourselves as readers, and make our reading experiences richer by gendering, or leaving genderless, texts in a way that don’t type cast their voices. It’s one thing to read a voice as male because there’s reason to, it’s another thing to do it because you’re linguistically biased.