On Genderless Animals, Genderless Pronouns

An English major at Princeton, who is blogging hir work on animal representation in Tony Morrison’s Beloved, recently wrote a post called Butler and Genderless Animals. This insightful post hints at an account of modern subversive language regarding gender for non-conforming humans. The blogger writes,

The lack of a gender-neutral pronoun, not only creates a binary for human gender, but also forces most animals into the “it” category, which creates an animate/inanimate confusion.

Gender is a tricky thing, and many people try to creatively subvert gendered language by creating gender-neutral pronouns or mixing up gendered pronouns. I have even heard of people who prefer to be called “it” since it is gender-neutral. Rather than seeing “it” as a reference to something inanimate, they see the pronoun as subversive. After all, not all languages even have gendered pronouns, so what is so important about that? There are some animals, including some humans, who don’t even have a clear biological sex on the binary. And humans assign the socially constructed concepts of masculinity and femininity to other species, resulting, for example, in neuticles to reassure male dog-owners that neutered dogs don’t become emasculated and lose their “self-esteem.”

In Joan Dunayer’s Animal Equality, she implores readers to refer to animals by gendered pronouns even when they cannot determine the sex. Typically, oppressed groups get pulled into “equality” by becoming more like the oppressor rather than the oppressor group becoming more like the oppressed, i.e. it is acceptable to society for women to wear pants, but not for men to wear dresses. While Joan makes a noble effort, to which I do not object, I think it would be even better if a gender-neutral pronoun came into common usage in reference to humans. That way we wouldn’t have to choose between male/female or animate/inanimate, but we also wouldn’t necessarily scrap the gender pronouns altogether.

We usually don’t know the biological sex of animals other than humans when we just see them in passing or read about them in the news. So there’s no choice but to write s/he or just pick one randomly if we are insisting on gendered pronouns. I think that is a major reason why we have relegated other animals to “it.” Joan Dunayer suggests that if we do not know the animal’s sex we can just randomly pick “he” or “she,” but linguistically there’s still a dilemma created by the binary.


~ by Louëlla on December 25, 2009.

3 Responses to “On Genderless Animals, Genderless Pronouns”

  1. In Animal Equality, Joan Dunayer suggests that in addition to “she” or “he”, advocates may also use “he/she”, “she/he”, “she, he” , “he, she”, and “they.” She said she commonly uses “they” to refer to an individual nonhuman animal of unknown gender. I do the same.

  2. Hey, Brandon. Thanks for clarifying! I should’ve had the book with me when I wrote this article, but I don’t own a copy. A reminder to me to re-research things I reference. I am going to edit the post later.

  3. Thank you for the post. The topic – and resulting ardent impulse to encourage gender-neutral terms in the English language – is what prompted me to create this Facebook Page.

    I am fortunate to have discovered your post and will be delighted to share it.

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