Sex, death and aliens: a feminist watches ‘Arrival’

Last week I saw Arrival, the recently-released film with Amy Adams as Louise Banks, a linguist recruited by the US military to decode the language of some non-humanoid aliens who have unexpectedly arrived on earth. I wasn’t expecting to love it; in fact, when I first heard about it I thought I’d probably give it a miss. For one thing, I’ve never been a great fan of the ‘aliens have landed’ genre; for another, I’d read that Arrival leans heavily on the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, a 20th century theory which says that your perceptions of reality are influenced—or in the strongest version of the theory, determined—by the characteristics of the language you speak.

People in my line of work tend to approach anything based on this premise with caution. Most linguists rejected the ‘strong’ version of the hypothesis long ago (though ‘weak’ versions continue to be debated), but that hasn’t prevented it from being endlessly recycled in popular culture, often in crassly simplistic ways. Some propositions based on it have been around forever, repeated so often they’ve passed into received wisdom (like the indestructible zombie fact about Eskimos having a lot of words for snow—they don’t, but even if they did, as Geoff Pullum says in his classic debunking piece ‘The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax’, why would that be any more significant than printers having a lot of words for fonts?) Others, testifying to its continuing vitality, have popped up more recently (remember the headline-making claim from 2013, that people save more if their language lacks a future tense?)

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis has also been of interest to feminists. In 1980 Dale Spender invoked it to support her thesis that women were oppressed by having to view the world through the lens of a ‘man made language’. And a few years later, as I explained in an earlier post, the feminist linguist and sci-fi writer Suzette Haden Elgin made it the premise of a series of novels, for which she also created an alternative ‘women’s language’.

Not all versions of the idea that idea that language determines thought are directly indebted to Sapir and Whorf. Another perennially popular source for it is George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four. (Orwell was a contemporary of Whorf, though it’s unclear if he knew Whorf’s writing). Though Arrival refers explicitly to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, in some ways it seemed closer to the Orwellian tradition. Specifically, it reminded me of a classic piece of feminist writing in that tradition: Carol Cohn’s 1987 article ‘Sex and death in the rational world of defense intellectuals’.

Cohn wrote this article after spending a year at what she refers to as ‘the Center’, an institution devoted to studying the technology and strategic use of nuclear weapons. (She memorably describes herself as ‘a feminist spy in the house of death’.) A critic of US defence policy, she hoped that spending time with ‘defence intellectuals’ would give her politically valuable insights into their thinking. But she gradually became aware of a paradox. To interact with the experts it was necessary to speak their language, since if you didn’t use their specialist terminology they dismissed you as ignorant and naïve. But as Cohn learnt the language she realised her attitudes had changed:

The more conversations I participated in using this language, the less frightened I was of nuclear war.

Why did learning the language have this effect?  Cohn’s answer is that ‘nukespeak’ is designed to make its users feel powerful and in control. By positioning them as knowledgeable, rational agents, planning and overseeing the use of weapons of mass destruction, it insulates them from the emotions they would feel if they identified with the mass of powerless victims.

The most obvious feature of nukespeak which enables it to do this job is abstraction: it’s full of acronyms and obscure nominalisations (like ‘escalation dominance’ and ‘strategic stability’) which are, as Cohn comments,

so bland that they never force the speaker or enable the listener to touch the realities of nuclear holocaust.

But it isn’t all about bland euphemisms. Another way in which users of nukespeak are induced to feel powerful is by imagining weapons as extensions of their masculinity. Cohn reports being both amazed and appalled by the extent to which explicitly sexual imagery pervaded the experts’ discourse:

Lectures were filled with discussion of vertical erector launchers, thrust-to-weight ratios, soft lay downs, deep penetration, and the comparative advantages of protracted versus spasm attacks—what one military adviser to the National Security Council has called “releasing 70 to 80 percent of our megatonnage in one orgasmic whump”.

Yet the same weapons could also be imagined as cute animals or harmless pets: one anti-ballistic missile system went by the acronym ‘BAMBI’, and on a tour of a nuclear submarine the visitors were asked if they wanted to ‘pat’ a missile.

Cohn was also struck by what the experts couldn’t talk about. The model that informed their strategic discussions had been developed mainly by mathematicians, and its internal logic excluded the human factors which would be likely to affect any real-world conflict. For instance, discussions of ‘limited nuclear war’ were conducted on the assumption that

Our rational actors would be free of emotional response to being attacked, free of political pressures from the populace, free from madness or despair or any of the myriad other factors that regularly affect human actions and decision making. They would act solely on the basis of a perfectly informed mathematical calculus of megatonnage.

Which brings me back to Arrival, and why it reminded me of Cohn’s article. What I saw in the film was the same opposition Cohn posits between militaristic ‘male’ values (rationality, dominance, destructiveness) and their ‘female’ opposites (emotion, co-operation, nurturance). In Arrival the female values ultimately defeat the male ones. Whether you think that makes it a feminist film will depend on what kind of feminist you are.

What I knew about Arrival before I saw it suggested it would be a feminist film in the more conventional Hollywood sense. It doesn’t pass the Bechdel test (which requires at least one scene where two named female characters discuss something other than a man), because there’s only one adult female character in it. But that character, Louise Banks, is the main protagonist, and her role in the story is defined by her intellectual and professional achievements. She isn’t just a man’s sidekick or his love interest. She’s smart and brave and she ends up saving the world.

But at a deeper level the narrative is structured by the stereotypical male/female opposition I mentioned earlier. Louise isn’t just a brilliant linguist who happens (like many real-life brilliant linguists) to be a woman. The logic of the film requires her to be a woman—Venus to the military establishment’s Mars. I said before that what defines her role is her profession, but in fact she is also identified, in the opening moments of the film, as a mother—one who (we are led to believe) has suffered the death of a beloved child. And this is not irrelevant. Her success in decoding the aliens’ language is shown to depend not only on her technical skills (which are alluded to more than they are displayed), but also and crucially on her feminine/maternal qualities of empathy, intuition and compassion.

These qualities are especially prominent in the scene where Louise makes her initial breakthrough. She manages to connect with the aliens, before she knows how to communicate with them, when she impulsively abandons the defensive posture required by military protocol, and instead makes herself vulnerable. Defying her orders, she removes her protective gear, walks up to the glass wall that separates the humans from the aliens, and presses her naked palm against the glass—a gesture which the aliens reciprocate, and then follow up by offering the first, all-important evidence of their writing system.

Later on, Louise will apply her emotional intelligence to defusing the threat of global war, which arises because of a conflict among rival human powers (China, Russia, the US and their various satellites) about how to deal with the aliens, and in particular, whether to use force against them. This part of the film is like a textbook illustration of Carol Cohn’s point about the practical irrelevance of defence strategists’ abstract models. The politicians and generals who must decide what to do are clearly not in control, and nor are they making rational decisions. As their terrified populations riot, loot and demand immediate action against the alien menace, these leaders stop trying to figure out whether the aliens are really a threat, shut down communications and focus solipsistically on their own political interests (apparently they reason that it’s better to blow up the world than give up your strategic advantage by sharing intel with your rivals).

As the crisis escalates, the rational, pragmatic army colonel in charge of the US military operation seems to accept that the world is heading for catastrophe. Louise, however—who by now is in touch not only with her own feelings, but also with the aliens’ minds (this is where the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis comes in: by learning the aliens’ language she has become able to cognize the way they do)—refuses to accept defeat. Disobeying orders one last time, she makes a phone call and averts disaster. (I won’t reveal how she does it, but her strategy is definitely from Venus.)

Louise isn’t exactly a ‘feminist spy in the house of death’, since she appears to have no political convictions of any kind. But she can be seen as a disruptive female force in a world whose rules are made by men, and in the context of the film as a whole I think she does symbolise the old idea that women are the creators and protectors of life, whereas men—or at least the powerful ones—are the bringers of death and destruction.

That was also, of course, an argument used by some feminist peace activists in the 1980s. It’s not my favourite feminist idea; but the popularity of Arrival suggests that, like the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, it still resonates. And when you look at what’s happening around the world today, perhaps that isn’t hard to understand.

The pronominal is political

‘Pronouns’, announced a writer on Mashable last year, ‘are a big deal—and rightfully so’. The writer wasn’t talking about pronouns in general, but specifically about English third person singular personal pronouns. And her point was even more specifically about the central role these pronouns play in the contemporary politics of gender identity. But today’s trans and genderqueer activists are not the first people to make pronouns a political issue. If we want to understand the present state of play, it’s useful to know something about the pronoun politics of the past.

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Third person singular personal pronouns have been a big deal for English-speaking feminists since the earliest organized campaigns for women’s legal and civil rights. In the 18th century, prescriptive grammarians had decreed that the masculine was ‘the worthier gender’, and that ‘he’ should be used in generic references to mixed-sex categories (‘when a child goes to school, he…’). The principle that ‘the masculine imports the feminine’ was written into British legislation by the 1850 Interpretation Act, and the same formula was subsequently adopted by many other institutions around the English-speaking world. In practice, though, ‘he’ did not always include ‘she’. When anti-feminists wanted to stop women from voting, running for office or entering the legal profession, it was not uncommon for them to argue that the law referred to voters or candidates or lawyers as ‘he’, and so rendered women ineligible.

What Wendy Martyna dubbed ‘he-man language’ was also an issue for feminists of the second wave. By the end of the 1960s generic masculine pronouns were no longer being used to deny women basic civil rights, but they were seen as part of the ideological apparatus which naturalized the treatment of men as the default humans, while women remained ‘the (second) sex’. Generic ‘he’ was not the only target of feminist campaigns against sexist language, but both the campaigners and their opponents accorded it particular symbolic significance. In 1971, a TV Guide writer complained about ‘women’s lib red-hots’ with their ‘nutty pronouns’.

The linguist Robin Lakoff thought this focus on pronouns was misguided. In her 1975 book Language and Woman’s Place, she argued that feminists should concentrate on other targets, because ‘an attempt to change pronominal usage will be futile’.

Certain aspects of language are available to the native speaker’s conscious analysis, and others are too common, too thoroughly mixed throughout the language, for the speaker to be aware each time he [sic] uses them. It is realistic to hope to change only those linguistic uses of which speakers themselves can be made aware, as they use them. One chooses, in speaking or writing, more or less consciously and purposefully among nouns, adjectives and verbs; one does not choose among pronouns in the same way.

Whereas nouns, adjectives and verbs are ‘open’ word classes—they contain a large number of items, and it’s always possible to add new ones—pronouns, like articles and prepositions, are a ‘closed’ class, containing a finite set of items which alternate in predictable ways. They aren’t what high school teachers call ‘vocabulary words’, they’re words with essentially grammatical functions. That’s why, as Lakoff says, they don’t prompt the same ‘conscious and purposeful’ deliberation as nouns, adjectives and verbs. A native English-speaker might ponder whether the adjective she wants is, say, ‘enormous’ or ‘gigantic’, but she won’t need to think about whether the article she wants is ‘a’ or ‘the’. Asking people to change their pronoun usage is asking them to restructure part of their internalized grammatical system. And Lakoff didn’t think that was a realistic demand.

She later came to believe that she had been unduly pessimistic. In an annotated edition of Language and Woman’s Place, published in 2004 to mark the book’s 40th anniversary, she wrote:

Today, the extant choices (like pluralization, passivization, ‘he or she’) are the norm: writers who choose the ‘neutral’ ‘he’ are the ones who have explaining to do. …We are apparently more flexible, and more well-intentioned, than I believed back then.

My own view is somewhere in between. I agree with the later Lakoff that consciously modifying your grammar is not impossible if the motivation is there, but I also think the earlier Lakoff was right to point out that there are limits. In fact, some evidence suggests that the system has been more resistant to change than her later comments imply.

The language historian Anne Curzan used COHA, a historical corpus of American English, to investigate the effect of non-sexist language campaigns on pronoun use in the late 20th century. She found that the use of ‘he or she’, rather than just ‘he’, increased sharply during the 1970s and continued to rise through the 1980s and early 1990s. But by the end of the century it had begun to decline again. As I’ve noted elsewhere, virtually all the university students I teach—the majority of them born in the 1990s—use the generic masculine unselfconsciously in their writing; they don’t seem to feel they have any ‘explaining to do’.

Even at its peak, the shift to ‘he or she’ was uneven. In the COHA data it was most pronounced in academic writing, and far less evident in writing for mass audiences, or in speech. But in those contexts there was another option: so-called singular—or as I’ll call it from now on, ‘epicene’—‘they’ (in relation to language, ‘epicene’ describes a form that refers to both sexes).

When the linguist Laura Paterson looked at third-person generic references in a sample of British newspapers, she found that the balance was roughly 56% ‘they’ to 44% ‘he’. But this isn’t most plausibly explained as the result of people changing their habits because of feminist objections to generic ‘he’. Though ‘they’ was stigmatised as ‘ungrammatical’ (and therefore avoided in the most formal writing), it was common in speech, and in less formal written genres, long before pronouns were a feminist issue. In some contexts—for instance, after words like ‘any’, ‘each’ and ‘every’—it’s clearly  favoured over ‘he’ and ‘she’, even when the reference is sex-specific, as in these examples from newspapers.

Like any girlfriend with someone they care about serving on the front line, her emotions were all over the place

For any woman, waiting to hear whether or not they have breast cancer is an extremely stressful and worrying time

These examples illustrate Lakoff’s original point that we don’t usually choose our pronouns consciously. ‘She’ would be considered more ‘correct’ in both these sentences, but our decisions aren’t based on the prescriptive rules we learnt at school, they’re based on principles we worked out during the process of first language acquisition. Laura Paterson examined interactions between young children and their adult caregivers to see what input children get while they’re acquiring the English personal pronoun system. She concluded that children analyse ‘they’ in much the same way they analyse ‘you’, as both a singular and a plural form.

The fact that it’s acquired naturally gives ‘they’ an advantage over all the other epicene pronouns that English-speakers have invented over the years. The linguist Dennis Baron maintains a list of these creations going back to the 19th century. He calls the list ‘The Word that Failed’, because none of the deliberately coined items that appear on it (for instance, ‘thon’, ‘ve’, ‘se’, ‘per’, ‘na’ and ‘heesh’) has ever been widely adopted.

In 2004, Robin Lakoff also remarked on the failure of invented epicenes:

The more florid suggestions have vanished, as I thought they would, without a trace. …I was right to suggest that neologisms like ‘ve’ and its colleagues would never survive.

But since she wrote those words, invented epicenes have returned, as part of a new campaign to change third person pronoun usage. The activists spearheading this new movement do not always acknowledge (and may not even know) the history of the forms they are trying to revive. Once again, though, I think it’s instructive—as well as interesting—to look back to some of the earlier feminist debates.

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It isn’t entirely fair to categorize all invented epicenes as ‘words that failed’, since in many cases they were not designed to be real-world competitors for ‘he’ and ‘she’. Rather they were literary devices, used in feminist speculative and utopian fiction. ‘Na’, for instance, comes from June Arnold’s lesbian separatist novel The Cook and the Carpenter (1973). ‘Per’ is the gender-neutral pronoun used in Mattapoisett, one of the alternative future societies visited by the protagonist of Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time (1976). In both these texts (and many more like them), invented pronouns were used to challenge both conventional ways of using language and conventional ways of thinking about gender.

One speculative fiction writer who wasn’t so keen on this strategy was Ursula Le Guin. In her 1969 novel The Left Hand of Darkness, Le Guin chose to refer to the ambisexual inhabitants of the planet Gethen as ‘he’, on the basis that ‘he’ was generic as well as masculine. Later she was persuaded by the feminist argument that ‘he’ was not a true generic: in a 1985 screen adaptation of her novel she substituted ‘a’, and in 1995, in a 25th anniversary edition, she added a version of the opening chapter rewritten with the pronoun ‘e’. But she remained ambivalent about invented pronouns, fearing that the repeated use of unfamiliar forms would ‘drive the reader mad’.

That fear also led Le Guin to reject ‘they’. As she told the linguist Anna Livia in the mid-1990s (Livia quoted their correspondence in her book about literary experiments with gendered language, Pronoun Envy),  ‘they’ might be familiar, but it was only natural-sounding when the reference was indefinite (e.g. ‘has anyone lost their phone?’); it was not a natural way to refer to a unique individual (e.g. ‘has Lee lost their phone?’)

But this is one aspect of pronoun usage that does appear to be changing. Facebook has permitted formulas like ‘Lee changed their profile picture’ for some years, and recently this use of ‘they’ has also been officially recognized by some older media institutions. At the end of 2015 the editor responsible for the Washington Post’s style guide noted that ‘they’ can be ‘useful in references to people who identify as neither male nor female’.

Which brings me back to the subject I began with—the place pronouns have come to occupy in the new politics of gender identity.

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Feminists objected to the use of ‘he’ to refer to people in general, which made women as a class invisible. The new politics of gender identity, by contrast, is concerned with the way pronouns are used in reference to specific individuals. As the writer I quoted earlier explains, pronouns are ‘a big deal’ because

They’re the definitive way we acknowledge and respect a person’s gender in everyday conversation.

The principle that underlies this assertion is that individuals have a right to be referred to with the pronouns which, in their own view, most appropriately reflect their gender identity. It should not be assumed that everyone is either ‘he’ or ‘she’: individuals who identify as trans, non-binary, agender or genderqueer may prefer an alternative, epicene form. ‘They’ is one of the available options, but sources which aim to document non-traditional pronoun use exhaustively, like this tumblr, list scores of other possibilities.

The acceptance of this principle has produced a new form of linguistic etiquette: announcing one’s ‘preferred pronouns’ and taking steps to ascertain the preferred pronouns of others. Some universities now invite students to register their pronouns: at Harvard around half the student body so far have availed themselves of this option (though only about 50 students out of 10,000 have specified a pronoun other than ‘he’ or ‘she’). And the New York City Human Rights Commission recently issued legal guidance which made clear that an employer or landlord who failed to use an employee or tenant’s preferred name, title and pronouns would be guilty of unlawful discrimination.

The use of preferred pronouns is often presented as a matter of basic courtesy, like using people’s actual names rather than just addressing everyone as ‘John’ or ‘Susan’. But this analogy points to a practical difficulty. If each individual is entitled to specify their own pronouns, pronouns in effect cease to be a closed class—a finite set of items which alternate in predictable ways—and become more like personal names, which have to be learnt individually. Even if the majority of non-traditional pronoun-users choose the same few forms (e.g. ‘ey’, ‘they’ and ‘ze’), it will still be necessary to memorize each person/pronoun pairing separately, because there is no rule we can use to predict an individual’s preference. That isn’t just a minor adjustment to the existing personal pronoun system. It’s a fundamental change in the way pronouns work.

Just to be clear, I’m not suggesting that English can’t accommodate a non-binary third-person singular pronoun. We know it can, because it already has one: ‘they’. The current extension of ‘they’ from indefinite/generic to specific reference is a logical development which has every chance of becoming embedded in mainstream usage, because it isn’t a huge leap from what most English-speakers already do. But the preferred pronoun principle, which requires speakers to use whatever forms a given individual specifies, is a different matter: it’s where the reservations expressed by Lakoff in 1975 become difficult to dismiss. Asking people to change their pronoun usage in a way that makes such significant demands on memory and attention will in most cases be asking too much. In other words, there’s a trade-off: if you want non-binary pronouns to become mainstream, you can’t also insist on the sovereignty of individual choice.

I’m aware that some people may find this view offensive, a denial of what they take to be the absolute right of every individual to define their own identity and have it recognized by others. But at the risk of offending those people further, I want to ask: is it actually true that pronouns are, or have to be, ‘the definitive way we acknowledge and respect a person’s gender’?

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It’s easy to see why monolingual English-speakers might think so. In modern English, third-person singular pronouns stand out as a rare case in which gender-marking is non-optional. But English is unusual in this respect. For speakers of most other languages, pronouns do not play a ‘definitive’ role in indexing (pointing to) a person’s gender.

In a large percentage of the world’s languages, pronouns play no role in gendering people at all, because there are no gendered pronouns equivalent to English ‘he’ and ‘she’. Rather there is a single epicene third-person pronoun referring to all humans (or sometimes, animate beings). Languages in this category include Finnish, Hungarian, Malay, spoken Mandarin, Persian, Swahili, Turkish and Yoruba. And they make clear that the social recognition of gender does not depend on the use of gender-specific pronouns. The absence of gendered pronouns has never prevented Finnish or Turkish speakers from acknowledging the existence of men and women, or from expressing identities as men and women. And there is nothing to prevent them from expressing other, less traditional gender identities.

The world’s languages also include a fairly large number that mark gender much more extensively than English does. In these languages, pronouns are not ‘the definitive way’ in which a person’s gender is acknowledged: a much more pervasive form of gender-marking is through inflections on nouns, adjectives, articles and in some cases verbs. Languages in this category include the Romance group (French, Spanish, Catalan, Portuguese, Italian, etc.), German, Slavic languages like Polish and Russian, and Semitic languages like Arabic and Hebrew.

Speakers of these languages can’t escape the gender binary just by adopting novel pronouns. In some of them it’s not too difficult to come up with an extra set of gender inflections (though that doesn’t mean it’s easy to get people to use them, since once again, this involves restructuring a system which native speakers use without conscious reflection). In Spanish, for instance, where the standard masculine and feminine inflectional endings are –o and –a, non-binary speakers have introduced parallel forms ending in –e. (There are also forms with –x, @ and other symbols, but these are either unpronounceable or not easy to deduce the pronunciation of, so they are more useful in writing than conversation.) But in other cases the adjustments required are complicated. In Slavic languages, for instance, past tense verbs are gender-marked, and nouns are marked for case as well as gender, which means you need several alternative word-endings rather than just one.

Another language where gender-marking is pervasive is Hebrew, and in this case there has been some research on the linguistic practices of genderqueer speakers. In interviews with the Israeli researcher Orit Bershtling, six of these speakers described their strategies for ‘queering Hebrew’. One of these was alternating between masculine and feminine forms for the same person in the same sentence (e.g., using a masculine subject noun with a feminine verb). Another was gender ‘doubling’, putting both masculine and feminine endings on the same word (like ‘transimot’, meaning ‘trans people’, where the word ‘trans’ is followed by two plural endings, the masculine –im and the feminine –ot). Alternatively, speakers could select forms which allowed them to avoid the issue. Sometimes, for instance, they would speak about their present activities in the future tense, because Hebrew first-person future tense forms, unlike their present tense equivalents, do not have to be marked for gender.

Bershtling was an outsider to the community she studied, and by her own account she found it extremely difficult to use the ‘noncustomary sex-marked forms’ her interviewees preferred. Some of their comments suggested that they did not find it easy themselves. They reported that it was hard for them to sustain a long conversation without making ‘errors’ (i.e., reverting to standard Hebrew gender-marking). They also acknowledged that certain strategies, like using the future tense to describe actions in the present, could cause the message to come out ‘a bit garbled’. Bershtling concluded that queering Hebrew

demands concentration and juggling, restricts self-expression and so produces silence. This silence stems from the impossible intersection between two linguistic functions: to express identity and to communicate with others.

Linguists don’t usually think of this as an ‘impossible intersection’. Language has always had the two functions Bershtling mentions, and people have generally found a workable balance between them. What’s unusual about the speakers in this study is the extent of their commitment to identity-expression, apparently at the expense of communication. But perhaps the two functions aren’t so much ‘intersecting’ as ‘intertwined’. The politics of gender identity is, in the political theorist Nancy Fraser’s terms, a ‘politics of recognition’: the central demand is that others should ‘acknowledge and respect [an individual’s] gender’. Using unconventional linguistic forms to express identity is, at the same time, a way of communicating your demand for recognition to other people. At least, that’s true if you speak Hebrew. If you speak English, the situation is rather different.

Unlike Hebrew, English requires gender-marking only on third person forms which do not express the identity of the speaker (people don’t generally talk about themselves in the third person). So, when an English-speaker says ‘my pronouns are X and Y’ or ‘I use the pronoun Z’, they aren’t really describing what they themselves do, they’re describing what they want other people to do. Which might sound a bit high-handed—until you ask yourself another question about the way pronouns work. How often, in face-to-face spoken interaction, do we use third person pronouns to refer to other participants?

I haven’t seen any proper research on this question, but recently I did try a small experiment, tracking the use of pronouns and personal names in a seminar group consisting of ten students and me. Overall, I found the most frequently-used pronouns were first person ‘I/we’ and second person ‘you’. As the person leading the discussion, I addressed individual students much more often than I referred to them. When I did refer to someone in the third person, I invariably used their name rather than a pronoun (e.g. ‘could we go back to what Ellie said?’), and then switched to ‘you’. I only used third-person pronouns when referring either to one of the academics whose research we were discussing, or to class-members who weren’t actually there (e.g. ‘we’re just waiting for Tom. Does anyone know if he’s coming?’)

I also analysed a small sample of extended, multi-contributor Facebook threads to see if there’s a similar pattern when interactions are conducted in writing rather than speech. I found that ‘you’ was much less common on Facebook, and personal names were used in a slightly different way (less to refer back to previous contributions and more to tag a particular person as the main addressee for a particular comment). But once again, all the third person pronouns I found referred to individuals who weren’t directly involved in the interaction. They included some journalists, a couple of dead philosophers, several former Eurovision song contest winners, one dog and two cats.

I don’t have enough evidence to know if this is typical of group interaction generally. But if it is, in fact, unusual to make third-person references to people who are part of the same conversation, that might suggest that the actual use of preferred pronouns is not a frequent-enough occurrence to function as ‘the definitive way we acknowledge and respect a person’s gender’. To me it seems possible that what actually does this job is the act of announcing what your pronouns are, and (in face-to-face contexts) having that announcement acknowledged by others. Like other social rituals in which people introduce themselves or greet one another, this isn’t just about exchanging information (in this case, about what pronouns people prefer and by extension how they define their gender identities). It’s a symbolic affirmation of the parties’ intention to conduct their subsequent dealings in good faith and with mutual respect.

If it’s the display of good faith that really matters, perhaps we don’t need to worry so much about the practical problems I mentioned earlier. And if we put the practicalities to one side, we can turn our attention to the politics. When we argue about pronouns, what, at a deeper level, is the argument really about?

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In the 21st century, the obvious answer to that question is ‘identity’. But there is usually more at stake in arguments about pronouns than just identity, especially if what you mean by that is the identities of individuals. I would say that the way personal pronouns are used both reflects, and gives concrete expression to, a community’s beliefs about personhood: what defines a person, what kinds or categories of people there are, and what status different kinds of people have in relation to one another. All of which, especially the last, are political questions. The problem first and second-wave feminists had with generic masculine pronouns was not about gender in the sense of identity, but about gender as an axis of power: the question was why ‘he’ outranked and subsumed ‘she’, and it mattered because that usage mirrored the actual social fact of women’s legal and political non-personhood.

Speculative fiction is an arena where writers can play with ideas about the politics of personhood, inviting us to reflect critically on our everyday assumptions by imagining alternative worlds. Feminists have often made gender the focus of these thought-experiments, asking questions like: what if women were the dominant sex-class? What if there were only one gender? What if there were no gender at all?  In most feminist utopias gender is less rather than more significant than it is in the non-fictional world: the invented pronouns are epicene forms like ‘na’ and ‘per’, which simply mark their referents as people.

Contemporary gender identity politics can be seen as doing something comparable, though the main arena for its thought-experiments is not fiction, but rather the online communities and social networks created by digital technology. And the ideas it explores are very different from the older feminist ones. Rather than imagining a world without gender, or one where gender is a less important aspect of personhood, what this kind of politics imagines is a world where gender is all-important and comes in infinite varieties. The pronouns are individualized rather than one-size-fits-all.

The conflict between these approaches to gender is a recurring theme in a recent work of science fiction, Ann Leckie’s novel Ancillary Justice (2013). And Leckie, like many of her predecessors, uses an unconventional pronoun-choice as a defamiliarising device. In this case, though, the unconventional pronoun is neither invented nor (for English-speakers) epicene. Rather, the novel’s narrator and main protagonist, Breq, uses ‘she’ as her default, neutral pronoun:

She was probably male, to judge from the angular mazelike patterns quilting her shirt. I wasn’t entirely certain. It wouldn’t have mattered, if I had been in Radch space. Radchaai don’t care much about gender, and the language they speak—my own first language—doesn’t mark gender in any way. The language we were speaking now did, and I could make trouble for myself if I used the wrong forms. It didn’t help that the cues meant to distinguish gender changed from place to place, sometimes radically, and rarely made much sense to me.

To Breq, the gender cues that other people treat as obvious are like an impenetrable secret code: where others see meaningful differences, she sees only similarities.

Males and females dressed, spoke, acted indistinguishably. And yet no one I’d met had ever hesitated, or guessed wrong. And they had invariably been offended when I did hesitate or guess wrong.

As a feminist of a certain kind (and vintage), I feel I have a lot in common with Breq. Like her, I understand gender as a set of externally-imposed and often arbitrary social norms. I don’t subscribe to the alternative model in which gender is an innate, essential and defining quality of individual persons.

That doesn’t mean I’m unwilling to use the pronouns an individual prefers. But I will do it as a matter of courtesy rather than conviction; and if I fail to do it, I’ll consider that an oversight rather than a crime. Pronouns may be a big deal, but they’re not a matter of life and death.