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April 3, 2012

I had a strange dream recently – something about writing a book of music called “The Missing Hims”. It was about gender going unsung.

But it’s not just a dream. Our language is changing, slowly, quietly. When gender is referred to at all, male pronouns are being replaced by female pronouns.

The words, “him”, ‘his’ and ‘he’ are virtually evaporating from print and our spoken discourse. And no one is noticing or talking about it, which is creeping me out. It’s as if there’s an unspoken agreement to not see or speak about this.

For millennia we’ve used the male pronoun to denote both men and women. “He” meant “we”. Now, quietly, and only over the past 5 or 10 years or so, it’s become reversed and now “she” means “we”. But when a young boy in school reads a sentence like, “When a student succeeds, she should thank her teacher,” what does he unconsciously internalize?

“Ah!” One could argue, “Now you know how marginalized girls and women have felt all these years!” A good point. And we could say this current reversal of pronoun usage is tantamount to the culture paying a kind of gender-wide grammatical reparation for past imbalances.

But do two wrongs now make a right?

Full disclosure: I may be particularly sensitive and allergic to all this. I grew up in a female-dominated household where my mother had no idea what to do with a boy and probably was disappointed I was one to begin with. She tried her best to train me to not be, err, boy-sterous in any way. So I guess I have a nose attuned to any whiff of demasculinization blowing through the culture.

But at the same time, I’m noticing that many men are mutating along with the language, and no longer seem to see or refer to themselves primarily as men, but as people. It’s as if they see their maleness as something apart from, or not very important to, who they are.

Sometimes it gets ridiculous. Like when this new client of mine went through his first three sessions talking about how he’s discovering he’s more attractive to “people” than he thought, and how he’s trying to get close to “this person” but doesn’t know if “they’re” interested.

I thought, if he’s gay, he’ll let me know in time.

In the third session he finally mentions how he had sex with this person and really likes her.  He had not the slightest idea he had been keeping me in the dark about his sexuality, nor that it would even have mattered in the least if he had.  It’s as if he doesn’t think in terms of gender at all.

Problem is, if a man doesn’t see himself as a man first, it changes the sexual equation, as in: what exactly can he offer a woman that she can be attracted to? Last post I wrote about androgyny, but this is something else. This is gender neutrality, or a kind of neuter-ality.

If I speak these days to a male client – especially one under 40 who was born in this country — of his need to “grow as a man” his eyes glaze over and he looks at me like I’m some kind of anachronism. (Yet at the same time I often get women coming into my office complaining that their guys need to “man up”.)  Gender may not be all we are, but it’s still an important distinction, and especially if one is straight. One could point out that men and women are more alike than different. Well, so are cats and dogs, but if you relate to them the same way, you might be a little disappointed with the results you get.

I find myself perplexed and irritated by these maladaptions.  For men to primarily identify as people scares me. You mean we’re now supposed to bend and blend our gender into one generic personhood? This is what happens here in the land of assimilation. These days people arrive and identify as Russian and Pakistani and Asian or black and brown, and within a generation their children identify as Americans. This has been a blessing in many ways, of course. Especially when one considers the stereotyping and the bigotry and oppression that resulted from it. Now we’re (supposedly) all just equals. But that’s because that’s what the market place demands and profits from. It’s easier to sell to us if we’re all the same. 

But no one ever speaks of what gets lost in the ethnic cleansing: culture; roots; heritage; a link to the past. We all are supposed to pretend there’s no down side to the homogenization; no price we’re paying. So “American” no longer means White Anglo Saxon Protestant, or Black, Jewish or Italian — or male or female — it simply means one who produces and consumes.

But back to my main point.  It’s the guys who are in trouble here. The future is female, and the future is here. The women have each other, while we men are being divided and conquered by the marketplace, more separated than ever from each other, and being subsumed  by online pornography, ESPN, and 60-hour-a-week jobs, all while being consigned to our cars, bars and wars.

Further, if we see ourselves primarily as people, from where do we get our sexual charge – if we’re heterosexual, I mean? Hey, I may like that Shelley’s not into wearing pink all the time and that she looks good in jeans, but I get the most hot around her when she shows me her feminine core, and I suspect that, although she may appreciate my sensitivity and ability to express my feelings, she reacts instinctively to my masculine core, especially in bed. 

What I’m really trying to do here is start a conversation about these changes I perceive. Am I the only one who’s noticing them?

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Daniel Wininger permalink
    April 3, 2012 11:53 am

    What does it mean to be a man other than being a strong, righteous, upstanding human being who happens to be male? (This is not a rhetorical question.)

  2. Jeff Kelton permalink
    April 3, 2012 12:25 pm

    You might be on to something Charley but then again your sample for observation might be skewed. Here in the US military the old gender divide is still kicking – strongly! And it isn’t always good. Perhaps the military is the last bastion of old school machoism. I do feel you are right that shifts have taken place but I don’t feel it is that basic yet. Mainstream, mid-Western culture is still dominant. Just listen to country western music and even most of Pop is still touting all the heart ache of men-women relationships. The use of language to be more neutral does create the potential, though, for consciousness raising. However 10 years isn’t a long time and there will still be a lot of wrong turns – it took milleniums for women to loose their position in culture. I do find your discussion helpful since the main thing is to clarify what we are doing and not just slip into a default “New Age no think” position. Then again, the Australian Aboriginals may have the broadest insights. They’re way of thinking has been around 40,000 to 100,000 years. Within many off their tribal perspectives there is the belief that men are meant to transform themselves into women – literally!

  3. dave abramowitz permalink
    April 3, 2012 2:47 pm

    I think the cavemen had it right. and my friend, Isaac Penisovich agrees wid you, too. Nothing turns me on more than a woman working on her doily . . . especially if she’s naked with an expectant look in her eyes . . .

  4. Tresa permalink
    April 3, 2012 9:00 pm

    Using the pronoun, “she” encompasses both genders in one word, where using just “he” leaves out the females by “s” omission. “S/he” is ugly to look at and constantly saying “she or he” is overkill. When trying to be gender neutral by using “they/their/them,” we run into grammar problems, as there is no word to denote one gender neutral person.

    I’ve got kids just learning to read who ask questions about this. On one hand, I think it would be nice to settle on a new word that is precise and elegant to use, but if everything in life were figured out and perfect, what would we argue or think about, what would be left to fix or improve?

  5. April 4, 2012 2:35 am

    Charley, I think this is one of your most interesting posts because you are taking an unusual if not unique position on an issue that is wrapped up in political correctness and social taboo. (Though the analogy with multiculturalism may serve as a defense against liberal critics.) There was a recent cover story in Time magazine pointing out that women are become the primary breadwinners in American households. We are just starting to emerge from a long recession which effected men more than women. And the story of the decline of the “middle class” in the past thirty years is really the story of the decline of non-college educated, male, blue collar workers. Women have higher rates of college graduation and are more heavily represented in health care and education–the core industries of the growing service economy–while heavy manufacturing industries have declined. As someone who was the son of an old fashioned blue collar worker, I was in the 1980s a male feminist critic of our patriarchal culture. I still detest certain aspects of “masculinity” — especially violent, macho, or insensitive behavior. But two wrongs don’t make a right and in certain quarters (not perhaps the US military, which I know nothing about!) the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction.

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