Ever Dundas: The Problems with Gender and Language

Article by Ever Dundas | 28 Apr 2017

In her debut novel Goblin, Ever Dundas takes on the preset gender narratives society imposes on us. Here she discusses the problems language throws up when writing gender neutral characters 

Sylvia Plath said: "If I were not in this body, where would I be – perhaps I am destined to be classified and qualified. But, oh, I cry out against it.” One of the main ways society classifies and qualifies is through gender. “Is it a boy or a girl?” is often the first thing we ask when a baby is born. Why does it matter? And why the word ‘it’? Is the baby not human until it’s gendered?

Goblin is a nine-year-old child, growing up in WWII London. Goblin wears their brother’s hand-me-downs, has shorn hair, and is often mistaken for a boy, but Goblin uses their identity as ‘goblin’ to eschew gender altogether; when people try to gender them they respond: “I’m not a boy/girl. I’m a goblin.” But why does their way out of gender constraints involve taking on the identity of a monstrous folktale creature?

Because language fails us. When Plath cried out against being classified and qualified it wasn’t simply her body she found wanting, it was society’s imposed constraints. Those constraints are tightened through language – English limits and controls by not providing the words for the existence of people who don’t fit the male/female binary. So much about gender is limiting, wasted potential, and violence; those who don’t conform are seen as ‘other’, as ‘monstrous’, as ‘it’. Without an easy reading of gender, we find it easy to dehumanise.

Influenced by Frankenstein, Goblin makes their very own monster. Again, Goblin suffers from language constraints: when someone describes Monsta as ‘it’, Goblin says, “Not an it, not a she, not a he. A Monsta.” As well as ‘it’, the universal ‘he’ is often used to describe someone of uncertain gender, which takes things further – not only does someone have to be gendered to be human, to be a man is to be fully human.

It’s disturbing how pervasive the universal ‘he’ is; I often found myself referring to Monsta as ‘he’, despite knowing Monsta isn’t gendered – why did I do this? Why did that feel more natural than ‘she’? We’re used to the universal ‘he’, but what happens when that’s turned on its head? In Ancillary Justice, Ann Leckie uses 'she' as the default pronoun, and it’s a shock; it takes time to accommodate. A friend’s book group considered this to be a flaw because it brought them out of the narrative (particularly instances such as ‘she was male’). I would argue this jarring effect highlights beautifully how problematic it is that we still often use 'he' as the default, as if it’s somehow neutral. Leckie’s language play is also world building – very much a part of the story she has created. If something shocks, jars, confuses us, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a failure of the narrative. 

What happens when we can’t read gender at all? In John Scalzi’s Lock In I fell into the default ‘he’ trap again. The protagonist is a detective called Chris, who I immediately assumed was a man. It wasn’t until a conversation with a friend that I realised we’re not given any information in the entire book as to the protagonist’s gender. I found this fascinating and worrying: unless told otherwise, my default is ‘white male’. I had the audacity to think I was immune to such bias, but this sci-fi thriller made me realise that no matter how ‘aware’ we are, we’re still shaped by the norms of our society. These norms are toxic, so in turn we must shape society right back.

If you don’t fit into the male/female binary, what language do you have to assert your existence? While we have words like non-binary, agender, genderqueer, trans, non-cis, there’s still the problem of pronouns and prefixes. While ‘Ms’ made the journey into accepted usage (and the gender-neutral honorific ‘Mx’ is following suit), and the internet has the power to get new words (such as ‘selfie’ and ‘squee’) in the dictionary, there’s hope for a gender neutral pronoun to enter everyday use.

The question is, which one? Does it have to be one? Or can we have several, each person choosing that which suits them? While there are other gender neutral pronouns out there (e.g. ‘Ne’, ‘Ve’, ‘Ze’, ‘Xe’) many trans and gender fluid people have embraced the singular ‘they’ (much to the chagrin of some grammar pedants) and it’s gradually gaining acceptance (it’s a Facebook option, and the American Dialect Society voted singular ‘they’ as their 2015 word of the year).

The issue of gender-neutral pronouns goes beyond identity politics, as non-human animals or creatures like Monsta require gender-neutral pronouns but can’t be subsumed into language such as ‘genderqueer’. There’s also instances where a person’s gender shouldn’t matter, but they don’t necessarily self-identify as genderqueer or non-binary.

Novels, short stories, biographies, creative non-fiction, poetry, plays, screenplays – all writing is perfect for experimenting with gender neutral pronouns. Language isn’t static and politically neutral, and stories are powerful; they shape our lives, and they can shake up our lives when used creatively to show how problematic established ‘universal’ norms are. Writers should be free to try, play, experiment, and even fail. I’m going to enjoy the challenge to play and subvert, and I hope you’ll join me on the journey.

Recommended reading: Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie, Lock In by John Scalzi, The Sunlight Pilgrims by Jenni Fagan, The Passion of New Eve by Angela Carter.

Goblin, published on 18 May via Freight Books, RRP £9.99