By Gervais Hagerty Del Porto
Let’s talk about grammar. Before you flip the page thinking, “What’s spirited about grammar?” allow me to set the stage.
You’re outside with a neighborhood kid and you see an adorable labradoodle. You say, “Oh, isn’t he cute?”
A gnat buzzes in your ear, then lands on your thigh. Whack. There’s a smear of blood, but the itching is gone. “I got him!”
Unless proven — for example, the labradoodle’s pink pedicure looks better than yours — the animal is male. Always male.
When we assign a gender to that animal, we compose a little story with the male as the lead. The seeds of these tiny stories, scattered throughout history and our daily lives, grow into a monstrously lopsided view of the world, where males do all the doing. Since we don’t even bat an eyelash when most stories are male-driven, we accept this as the norm.
This narrative trickles down to everyday symbolism. Open your MacBook. See that guest user image? It is not a gender-neutral silhouette, it’s the outline of a man. Go to any public place and get in line. The symbols meant to represent all of us — think of that classic stiff figure with the circular head — have blocky shoulders, not child-bearing hips. Then you have to pee, so you look for a bathroom. You pass the men’s room, which looks exactly like the symbol that was supposed to represent everyone and head for the door with the skirt.
Grammar is another symbol that can marginalize or even erase the thought of a woman. Check out our state laws. According to Chapter 8 on offenses promoting civil disorder, “civil disorder” means a public disturbance involving acts of violence … to another person or his property.” Chapter 17 covers offenses against public policy. “It is unlawful for a person to misrepresent his identification to a law enforcement officer … .”
Am I encouraging you to damage property, masquerading as someone else? Depends … but my main purpose is to get you thinking about how insidious and omnipresent this male-dominated narrative is. Pretty dispiriting.
So how did it get this way, where we’re all sort of typecast into this male role? It starts early.
As a mother of two little kids, I read a lot of children’s books, and nearly every book is about some animal, usually male, doing something. Take a peek in your kid’s room. Open the pages and count the number for male versus female characters. Sure, there are some great books out there with female leads like “Olivia,” “Screamy Mimi” and “Madeline,” but when you look at all the books, you’ll find that by far the majority of characters are male.
Look at Dr. Seuss’ last book, published in 1990, which sold more than 10 million copies.
In the book, “Oh, The Places You’ll Go,”
the lead is a dude. It’s a he; it’s a beau.
Yet you received this book on your graduation
with absolutely no trepidation.
You identify with male characters, because it’s always been that way
But it’s high time for our guys to switch roles, I say!
Certainly, now, it wouldn’t hurt
for a man to experience a story in a “Skirt.”
You’d think we’ve moved on, but one recent study on best-selling kids’ books from 2017 found that male characters were twice as likely as female characters to have lead roles. Another study found that nearly 100 percent of “bad” characters were male. More than 70 percent of the non-human characters were male.
What can we do? Create a literary world that represents females equally. You can start by simply switching the pronouns as you read the book. Thing One and Thing Two could be sisters. What would the Cat in the Hat think about that? Next, curate your little one’s library. Intentionally add books with female leads and a healthy crop of female backups. While you’re at it, mix in minority figures as well. (Your Little Ms. won’t find her company on the Fortune 500 list unless she’s got a diverse boardroom, amirite?) Once your little one’s library is good to go, the next step is to tackle the inequalities outside your home.
So, what, you ask, “do we rewrite those state laws?”
“With what? That awfully cumbersome ‘he and she’ pairing?”[Text Wrapping Break]Sure. But if you do, consider switching the order of the pronouns half the time. Ladies first.
“What about ‘they’?”
If you’re a verbivore, using “they” as a singular pronoun can be as perplexing as the stubbornness of the gender pay gap. But like equal pay, there’s a simple solution. If we generally accept that “they” works as a gender-neutral catch-all term, then poof!, it’s official. In fact, The Associated Press recently added “they” as a singular, gender-neutral pronoun.
If “they” is not for you, there are still ways to infuse a female-driven narrative into our everyday lives. Do you work in marketing? Choose symbols and pictures where women do the action at least 50 percent of the time. Do you write a mommy blog? Refer to that adorable poop-machine as a “she” just as often. In conversation, put the female pronoun in front of the male one: “she and he,” “hers and his” “her and him.” Because if we don’t put women first, who will?
Then go outside. When you see a bird, call it a “she.” When a dolphin chuffs, blue fin slicing through the harbor, say, “Look at her. Isn’t she beautiful?” You don’t have to say “she” for every animal, but aim for 50 percent. And that gnat you swatted? Biting mosquitoes are always female. Represent!
This isn’t a new concept, but we are in a new era. If we begin writing our own narrative with the proper pronouns, perhaps we really can rewrite hisHERstory.
Gervais Hagerty Del Porto is a professor at The Citadel. She teaches leadership communications and is the director of The Patricia McArver Public Speaking Lab. Prior to working at The Citadel, Gervais wrote, reported and produced radio and television newscasts in the Carolinas. She holds a B.A. in psychology from Vanderbilt University and a master’s of business administration from The Citadel. She lives in Charleston with her husband and two daughters.