Wednesday, July 21, 2010

I Now Pronouns You Gender-Neutral Anonymous Entity

Sometimes, small things are important.

According to Zak Smith, who helped edit it, Lamentations of the Flame Princess uses exclusively male pronouns when referring to an indefinite person. Since by far the most important point of Smith's post was "Hey, awesome independent game now available for preorder!" I didn't want to start a big conversation in the comments about this. There were some, enough for James Raggi to clarify his position (he saw downsides to all options and went with what was most comfortable to him) and I'm fine with that.

But I do want to talk about pronouns here.

It's some time in the late '80s. You just pulled the 2e D&D Player's Handbook off the shelf at... wherever the hell you bought RPGs in the late '80s. What spells can a player choose as a level 5 wizard? According to the book, he can pick from the following list. Is a fighter proficient with a greatsword? Yes, he is.

Now, several of the pictures are of women. Presumably, anyone playing the game could be female. Did the writers just assume no woman would play D&D? No. In the front of the book you'd actually find a disclaimer. I can't find the exact text, but the gist was: Centuries of use have "neutered" the male pronoun, so it's okay to use it exclusively.

So they felt the need to warn you: "Hey, we're going to assume you're male unless otherwise stated, because male is the new andro, except when it's still male." The premise that male pronouns have been "neutered" is demonstrably false the moment you find yourself needing a disclaimer to say so. [EDIT: I've removed a line here that could be misconstrued as comparing sexism and racism. That wasn't the intention: I think such comparisons are inevitably toxic because all forms of discrimination are equally foul, yet fundamentally different. Since I don't think the line was necessary to the argument, it was easier to cut it.]   

It obviously occurred to the writers that some people were going to be bothered by the it and those people were probably female. It's entirely likely, from the art direction and other clues, that the authors wanted these women to play. Otherwise, they wouldn't have run a disclaimer defending their position. What I don't understand is: Why was that so much easier than just saying "his or her"? Or alternating?

Why does it matter?

I write copy for a LGBTQ porn site, and part of my task is to look at the model's bio and use accurate gender identifiers in my writing. Sometimes that info isn't there, and I have to play it safe and use NO pronouns. If you try to guess, you will almost always be wrong. The difference between a transgendered man and a woman who is genderfucking but still identifies as female isn't something you can tell by site. Some models prefer neither pronoun - they want to be known as it, their or they ("it's not just genderfucked, it's grammar-fucked!"), or a modern "invented" neutral pronoun like ze and zir.

It may also sound like nitpicking political correctness* but to these people, it matters. They've struggled with their identity all their lives. Their government - supposedly the most democratic on Earth - denies them basic rights on a daily basis. A majority of their fellow citizens - in this "freest nation in the world" - mostly think they are perverted, insane or hellspawn that it is okay to murder. They've fought really, really fucking hard to claim their identity and when I have the ability to ensure they are referred to as who they are or in the very least not alienated because I found it easier to just assume a status quot? I'm damn hell going to give them that respect.

Likewise, when a woman reads "he" when a book refers to someone they may very well be, the message is clear even if unintentional. This book is not for you. It is for the norm, which is male - that is why we assume a being is male first unless specified otherwise. Thus it has been in medicine (at the cost of untold women's lives) and really every human endeavor for a very long time. You are not the norm. You are other. Put this book down.

Not the message you want to send when trying to diversify and expand your hobby.

It would actually be more accurate to assume an anonymous party to be female. Statistically it is more likely. Also, in the womb we all start out on the same trek - towards a female body. At a certain point those destined to be male develop a divergent anatomy, with some vestiges of the female left over (look down, boys. Notice anything pointy and pointless on your chest?). Plus we have centuries of use of the male pronoun to make up for.

Things have gotten better. That disclaimer was in 2e. Today, D&D 3e and 4e proudly use mixed pronouns, alternating between "he" and "she." They also catch flak for this in some quarters. Personally I think this is one of the better advancements of the game, besides getting rid of the seven million saving throws. The ire of a few trolls, and maybe a bit of extra effort when constructing a sentence, are small prices to pay to make people feel like you want them playing your game.

* "Political correctness" as a term was actually first used in the modern sense by the New Left to describe leaders who "talked the talk but didn't walk the walk," so to speak. Think "Racist Senator Pretends to Like Jazz." It was also used by feminists to describe the anti-pornography movement's attempts to appropriate their ideas for their own agenda to define and narrow female sexuality. It wasn't until the 90's that clueless right-wingers used the term, which more often than not was used as a pejorative against themselves, to label any attempt to actually care about the effect of your actions upon other human beings.

In other words, if you think calling me "politically correct" will invalidate my argument, fuck your grandpa.


  1. Definitely agree with you on this whole issue. The masculine third person is in no way neutered just like referring to all of a nation's people as men isn't neutered. Four years of an English major at a liberal arts college gets you thinking about this shit seriously. :)

    Personally, I like the alternating between male and female. It gives you the opportunity to present situations and such for both genders and although they're generally not as accommodating to the gender-neutral, it's at least a step in the right direction.

  2. I actually made the attempt in the first draft of the game to use no gender pronouns. People HATED it. And the acrobatic sentence structure required to do that made for laborious writing as well.

    Then I redid it with the "his or her." I don't like the way it looks, and it's my game, and so it's gone. I felt like I was adding an asterisk to every single reference. Alternating use is jarring when I read it and takes me out of what the text is trying to say, so I didn't even consider doing that.

    But I realize it is an issue, which is why I brought it up on page 1. There was thought put into the matter, and in the end I did what comes natural to me instead of guessing what would be most accepted by the majority of both the audience I hoped to get or the one I'd realistically get.

    If this is the thing I catch the most flak for, I'll be both a happy and an unhappy man. I certainly put enough little wind-ups in to try to drive people nuts (hey, I had to amuse myself somehow in the middle of the project... making a game is work! Why didn't anyone tell me this before?) but this wasn't one of them.

    I did try to keep the whole project from being a he-man boy's club thing, with the strong female imagery on the cover, two of the five players in the extended example of play are women, and there's a woman at the table in the illustration of people playing the game.

    There is one piece of interior art I'm going to catch hell for in this department, but there was a grand plan and intention to make it make sense in context... but layout was last-minute with not much time to think about it and the grand plan fell apart so now there's this naked woman in the corner of a page with no context. *sigh*

    ... and I also call my wife "dude" sometimes. "Hey, man...!" Drives her nuts.

    Interesting note: Finns don't have gender pronouns. There is no separate words for "him" or "her," or difference between "his" or "her." That would be great for general writing like game rules, but in practice I can't ever follow who anyone is talking about...!

  3. James,

    Thanks for stopping by!

    Yeah, like I said on Zak's blog, I don't think you're a terrible misogynist because of this - and I do appreciate that you put so much thought into it, even if I would have come to a different conclusion. I actually find it interesting you find "his or her" and alternating use jarring - it's never been that way for me (even when I wasn't deeply immersed in gender-queer culture). I am a bit younger - maybe it's a generational thing?

    I really dig the cover art (I noticed in a photo on your blog you've got the actual canvas?). As for layout and art stuff, if you need any help or advice later on you can drop me a line. I'm an illustrator and designer by trade, and I used to work laying out newspapers - putting together PDFs that don't suck very quickly was my whole life for a while.

    I'm guilty of saying "Hey, guys!" regardless of company, and calling women my own age "girls." Surprisingly few mind, but since I want to punch men that call me "boy" or "son" I shouldn't do the same to others.