Is the next step for gender equality gender neutrality?
In 2012, Sweden introduced "hen" into its online National Encyclopedia as the gender-neutral replacement for han ("he") and hon ("she"). First originating with Swedish linguists in the mid-1960s, hen is believed to be heralding a new gender revolution, one in which equality means neutrality.
Perhaps it's no surprise that Sweden, which ranks fourth in the World Economic Forum's 2013 Global Gender Gap Report, has adopted this pronoun. The country's cultural history, steeped in aesthetic utilitarianism — Ikea, anyone? — lends itself to such an economical turn of phrase, one intended for both nuance and efficiency.
As Elisabeth Braw writes in a recent piece for Newsweek, "hen" has acquired mass appeal and popularity, not only in nurseries and primary schools, but also in the economic sector, where retailers "are joining the gender-neutrality trend" through their marketing and in-store promotions that avoid the use of gender-specific signage.
The U.K.'s Tesco, Sainsbury's, Morrisons and Boots are all listed as retailers that have jumped on the gender-neutral bandwagon. Braw explains, in outlining the global trend, that in England, "[t]he National Union of Teachers, for its part, has launched the Breaking the Mould initiative to address gender stereotypes in primary schools. Marks & Spencer has gone even further, making its toy labeling gender-neutral. The makers of the popular Nerf gun have, in turn, interpreted the trend their own way, launching a pink version for girls. In Norway, Canada and Australia activists are also calling for an end to boys' and girls' signage in toy shops."
At the same time, one might wonder how the popularization of this gender neutral pronoun will affect Sweden's baby-naming law, enacted in 1982, whereby the government regulates what a parent can name their child. "First names shall not be approved if they can cause offense or can be supposed to cause discomfort for the one using it," the law states, "or names which for some obvious reason are not suitable as a first name." If the rise of "hen" breaks social barriers, will the government rethink name restrictions based upon what they do and do not find offensive?
This politically progressive linguistic agenda envisions equality as neutrality and as a way to respect people who do not identify with either the male or female gender. As Nathalie Rothschild wrote for Slate, "The idea is that the government and society should tolerate no distinctions at all between the sexes. This means on the narrow level that society should show sensitivity to people who don't identify themselves as either male or female, including allowing any type of couple to marry."
But with the push for gender neutrality comes gender erasure, which makes us pause to question what is lost when egalitarianism trumps difference. Rothschild continues, "What many gender-neutral activists are after is a society that entirely erases traditional gender roles and stereotypes at even the most mundane levels."
One might contend that Sweden's utilitarian and seemingly progressive campaign for "hen," which is picking up support in other countries, promotes a form of "gender blindness" not theoretically distinct from what critics lambast in a "post-racial" discourse as "color blindness."
Is gender blindness a feminist goal?
Feminists need to question the desirability of gender blindness. What happens if and when a culture erases gender? Neutrality may result, but does equality naturally follow?
Proponents of Sweden's hen would say that it does. Lann Hornscheidt, a professor of gender studies and linguistics at the Humboldt University's Center for Transdisciplinary Gender Studies, told Newsweek, "The gender gap creates poverty among women. Initiatives like hen are all part of an effort to create a more just world."
But while Sweden's push seems to be garnering attention, it's important to remember that gender-neutral pronouns are, in fact, nothing new. There are hundreds of languages that include these pronouns. Anna Siewierska created a philological breakdown of the use of gender pronouns in languages around the world in a study for the World Atlas of Language Structures Online, all handily color-coded and placed on a global map.
Closer to home, Vancouver, Canada, made news this summer with its decision to introduce of "xe," "xem" and "xyr" into its schools to "better support transgender students." And some college students, at schools such as Wesleyan, have also adopted their own pronouns such as "ze," "zim" and their possessive, "hir."
These movements aren't as simple as changing a few letters and have, not surprisingly, encountered resistance, if only because juggling all those pronouns can prove difficult and linguistically unappealing. "More than 80 gender-neutral pronouns have been coined since 1850," professor Dennis Baron wrote in a New York Times op-ed published Friday, "first to correct the ungrammatical generic masculine, then to protest its sexism."
Ultimately, it seems unlikely that this type of institutionalized gender fluidity will be taking off any time soon in mainstream America. "Getting English speakers to use a pronoun that doesn't reflect a sex, or that inflects it beyond masculine and feminine, isn't easy," Baron said. But the conversations taking place in Sweden and elsewhere hint at an interesting future free — in whole or merely in part — from the world's more visible indicators of binary gender constructs.