Pronouns are for Other People
I had a good friend recently ask me about my pronouns. And, interestingly, they are the first person in my life ever to do so. But my answer to the question is complicated.
Because what is a pronoun? It’s a word that substitutes for a noun, and a personal pronoun is associated with a grammatical person, as in, first, second, or third.
First person is easy.
I was agender before I even knew that was a word.
I was assigned female at birth. I was socialized as a girl, as a woman. I never particularly identified with things associated with femininity, but I never identified with masculinity either. My favorite toys weren’t dolls or trucks, but animals. And like every kid, I liked dinosaurs to the point where I said I wanted to be a paleontologist.
My parents never forced me into particularly gendered interests. I was never told I couldn’t do something because I was a girl. At the same time, I was never told I had to do something because I was a girl. No one ever told me to be more ladylike. Gender roles weren’t emphasized to me by my family in ways that I can remember.
I liked reading and music and basketball and movies. I had friends who were girls and boys. And these things are still true as I’ve gotten older.
If you look at my brain and the way I process information, I’m more “rational” than “emotional.” I’m not particularly nurturing. I like talking about ideas more than I like talking about people. And these are things unfairly associated with men.
There was a meme going around a few years ago where you were supposed to pick the three fictional characters that you were most like, and I chose Daria, Nick Miller, and Sherlock Holmes. Everyone else I saw do the meme stuck to characters that were the same gender as them, but I didn’t even think about it.
It was only as I got older when I realized that my gender mattered to other people, that it prevents me from feeling like I have bodily autonomy. That some of my interests are “weird.” I studied philosophy, one of the most male-dominated academic fields, and I was told in graduate school that I would never get a job except maybe as a department’s token feminist philosopher.
One thing I have most in common with other women is being unfairly treated, unwantedly hit on, talked over, never taken seriously, made to do secretarial tasks at jobs where I was not in a secretarial position. I’ve often wondered how my life would be different were I man.
But I know I’m not transgender. I don’t feel like I’m in the wrong body exactly.
I’d prefer being in a sexless body. I’d prefer being a brain in a vat.
I’m not genderfluid. I don’t move on a spectrum I feel like I’m not on in the first place.
When I’m alone, I don’t feel gendered. I don’t think of myself as a woman.
I’m just me, I am I, the first person.
Second person is rightfully impossible.
The ideas of masculinity and femininity are bogus, and we all know this even as we cling to them, because they’re so easy to disprove by the existence of people who don’t fit into them the way they “should.” And femininity doesn’t even really exist on its own; it is essentially just the negation of masculinity. Women are always a lack.
Biological sex exists on a spectrum and is based on far more indicators than the outward appearance of genitals or the ability to give birth. There are chromosomal factors that determine sex but with multiple variations that don’t neatly fit into male and female. There are corresponding hormones with variations in levels. But though the amount of certain hormones has been found to affect behavior, none of this means that there are strictly two genders that correspond neatly onto strictly two sexes.
You, the second person, are somewhere on these spectrums.
You exist in a culture that has its own gender norms. You have your own psychology and set of experiences that no one else has access to. You know if you don’t fit into the role you’ve been given or the body you were born with.
But you usually have to choose one or the other.
Social practices have worked to take biological averages and use them to reinforce a social gender binary. Our current form of capitalism has run with the notion of pink and blue as a way for parents to broadcast their child’s gender to the world before the child is even born. Capitalism loves rigid distinctions, because categories can easily be marketed to.
And so gender is a pink tax as girls and women pay more for clothing and shampoo. Gender is a category used to establish social hierarchy and is found at the heart of a toxic rape culture that allows one half of the population to feel justified in dominating over the other half, often in domestic settings. We’ve legitimated violence against anyone who doesn’t fit into two gender categories because of some statistical biological tendencies.
This binary is so important to people and important to our social practices that we all fit into one box or the other. Are you an M or an F? You get asked this in strange places like buying a plane ticket, registering for university classes, or getting a library card, as if it could possibly matter.
I don’t know how anyone else experiences gender, I don’t know you, the second person, but I know you were forced to adhere to a gender in one way or another.
And if you fit, if your psychology and biology and social expectations all line up neatly into one end of the spectrum or the other, then you might not understand how and why not all of us do.
Third person is the problem.
When I’m with a few members of my family and a few close friends, I can sometimes just be me. I like to think that people who know me just see me and not a gender, but I’ll never really know if they do. I tend not to think about people’s genders, because I’m far more interested in a person’s ideas than anything else about them.
But people who know me always use “she” and “her” for me without hesitation.
The world assumes I’m a woman.
My body falls easily into the generic notion of human female. I have hips and breasts. I also keep my hair long so I can pull it off my face and because it’s easier to cut it myself when it’s longer — a decade-old habit from being too poor to afford a haircut. I could hide under baggier clothes, and sometimes I do. If I’m being honest, I dress, generally, like a teenage boy. Sneakers and jeans and graphic t-shirts and flannel and hoodies.
But I’m still always she, her, miss, ma’am.
A stranger meeting me for the first time will see “woman” first and will automatically make assumptions about me without conscious thought. They will evaluate my body in terms of whatever the cultural ideal is and in doing so sum up my worth.
This also often means I will be automatically dismissed, not listened to, not believed, not liked, by both men and women, because we have been socialized to have automatic biases against women. It will be expected that I be “nice.”
There is significant research that shows men don’t believe women, women are generally seen as more untrustworthy than men, and men simply don’t believe that gender biases exist, even when provided empirical evidence to the contrary.
Other people need the categories, need the pronouns, need the shortcuts, because it makes life easier when you don’t have to think about why someone else might be different from you and what that means. Even our brains seek patterns and fill them in without conscious thought. Disruptions in the patterns make the brain work harder and use more energy, which is something none of our bodies like to do. Some anthropologists have suggested we simply have a natural tendency to think in binaries.
And all of this is why my answer to my friend was that I don’t really care about pronouns. I don’t feel strongly as a “she,” I’m just used to it. I certainly don’t feel like a “he.” I’m fine with “they,” but I feel like that is reserved for people who are non-binary but still have an identity.
I appreciate non-binary people who insist on “they.” I hope that by their insistence, they can normalize the use of “they” as a singular pronoun, because it should be. There should be language available for people who do not fit into the binaries, and it should be just as automatic in the third person and just as patterned into our speech as “he” and “she.”
But I just don’t feel non-binary or fluid.
I feel like nothing.
The thing about third-person pronouns is that they aren’t for you. These pronouns exist for other people to use to talk about you. And it doesn’t matter what I say or do or insist on, people are going to gender me as a woman anyway because of how I look, because of how they were socialized, because of how I have been shaped by the world around me and all the social structures I was born into.
I’m a statistical anomaly. An agender, aromantic, asexual person who resents being a biological entity and resents being in a society that won’t recognize any of these things about me anyway.
Getting accurate pronouns in a language that doesn’t think I exist isn’t a battle I can fight. Because getting my pronouns accurate doesn’t matter to anyone except maybe the friend who asked me the question in the first place.
To everyone else I’m “she.”