After reading this article on Sweden’s gender neutral pronoun ‘hen’ I will admit that I am torn on the idea of gender neutrality. I understand the desire to replace gender stereotypes in language, and in early children’s play to encourage gender equality and stop perpetuating a patriarchal system. And really the only way to affect change is to go to the beginning of the issue and make changes at the root (in children and in the language permeating society). I get it. However, I don’t know if the changes Sweden is attempting will succeed in washing out billions of years of gender stereotypical behaviour. Children may be encouraged to play gender neutral games, but when they go home at the end of the day, unless their fathers are cooking, cleaning and doing the laundry while their mothers are fixing the truck and watching sports, it is likely that gender stereotypes will prevail in society. The fact that the preschool teachers have to limit free play because it result in gender stereotypical play speaks to the fact that (at least for this generation of children) gender-specific activities are natural and accepted. [And besides as an early childhood educator, I feel a bit of a pang at the idea of forcing children to play in a way that I (as the authority figure) want them to and not letting them have free choice or free expression. There is a way to encourage non-gender-stereotypical play and have a positive environment for all genders without being oppressive.]
I think at the heart of the issue are some very big questions: What is gender? (answer found here?) Is gender an innate part of a person? Or is it constructed by society? It seems that Sweden is of the opinion that it is constructed by society, that if they make changes to the way their society reacts to gender, it will in essence change the definition of ‘male’ or ‘female’. But this is getting into some hot water. What about LGBT? If gender is constructed by society, are they essentially saying that people’s environments ’cause’ a person’s gender?… that environment impacts whether a person ‘becomes/is’ LGBT or not? I have always been encouraged to believe that an LGBT person is born with their gender identity… so the idea that environment leads to LGBT (although not entirely impossible) is a bit too conspiratorial to me.
The article raises the point that having ‘three’ genders in language would be too confusing for young minds to understand. I don’t know a lot about language studies, but I do know that there are languages that have three genders as part of their regular vocabulary. In my first two years of university I studied German, and as it turns out the language uses ‘den’, ‘der’ and ‘das’. Das being the neutral gender. For me this was extremely confusing, but I imagine that is because I am not a native German speaker. To the native German, using three genders would be second nature. My point being that the argument of adding a third gender being too confusing for the young generation learning Swedish is void, if consistently utilized, the third gender would very easily be adapted by the young language learners (it is likely that the issue of adapting to the change in language would actually occur among the older learners who have always used only two genders).
I don’t have issue with gender equality, in fact I do agree that much of our society is perpetuating a paternal hierarchy which in my opinion would be beneficial to change. However, I’m not entirely sold on the way that Sweden is going about this change. I have no issues with the use of the gender neutral noun, but I do find fault with forcing children to play a certain way. Although it is true that radical change may need to occur for society to ever shift from being paternal, I don’t agree with that change being limiting or oppressive to the developing generation. In fact, it seems a bit ironic that in order to reach a society less oppressive to the non-male individuals, there must be oppression in other areas to meet those goals.
Where do you stand?