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Commentary: Pronouns

Cathy Null

The first time I heard a person introduce themselves and include their pronouns was on the Peabody award winning show Ramy, a 2019 Hulu television comedy-drama series. It's a very good show and I recommend it highly. It's a contemporary Egyptian immigrant family story set in New Jersey.

Ramy’s mother introduces herself to a visitor in their home and says something like, “My name is Maysa Hassan and my pronouns are she/her.” In the show Maysa had recently become an Uber driver because there wasn’t much to do at home, she was bored and she could earn some money. So I thought, "Oh this is something she heard as an Uber driver.” The series writers are making her a quaint second language learner. I laughed at her innocence and didn’t think too much more about it. By the way the actress that plays Ramy’s mother plays Marcia Roy on Succession. A VERY different role.

More recently I heard one of the main characters, a young Indigenous teen, on Hulu’s Reservation Dogs which is an Indigenous American teen comedy-drama series introduce herself and include her pronouns. The series was released in August, 2021. So the joke was on me. You hear people include their pronouns in introductions more and more. I am a retired 70+ year old woman and my world seems to have shrunk considerably. I was curious and intrigued by this new-to-me custom. Why are we announcing our “pronouns” to those we are just meeting. So here is what I have figured out by asking younger friends and doing a tiny bit of reading.

Languages change. Language is fluid. It changes according to our culture. Every year we add new words and in the case of announcing our pronouns, language changes to accommodate shifts in the culture. Right now….in the early part of the 21st century, many people understand that gender and sexuality are no longer clear cut…no longer just male/female. Gay men and lesbian women have taught us we can no longer assume that a man’s spouse is his wife or a woman’s spouse is her husband. It is not just a female/male world. Transgendered people have helped us to understand it is not a binary world. There are people who love and find sexual partners of the same sex. There are people who feel and think as one gender but are burdened with the sexual organs of the other gender. And the world is just coming around to the idea that all these combinations and changes are equal…there is no one system for labeling people on the basis of sex.

So as two younger friends of mine said when I asked how often they introduce themselves and include their pronouns, they do it to make the other new-to-them person comfortable. They want the new acquaintance to know they understand the possibilities of life and offer the new acquaintance the chance to declare theirs. And guess what! So does Instagram. I am not an Instagram user but apparently you can choose your pronouns to appear with your name. You can choose she/her, he/him, they/their.

I am no authority on any of these changes in our language but I now see the “fairness” of this option to announce your pronouns when in a group of people you don’t know. It reminds me of the early 80s and many years before that actually when the English language made some revelations about patriarchal sexist language. The English language was male centered and male dominated. It was a revelation to me to read Dale Spender’s book Man Made Language. There was a time when it was actor or actress, waiter or waitress. There was the mailman, the postman, the fireman, the chairman, and the ultimate, God was he. Language has changed and now we have actors, waitstaff, mail carriers, fire fighters, and God is no longer “he” in most church doctrine and hymnals.

So now one more change. Waitstaff and firefighters can introduce themselves and say their pronouns. As a courtesy to others, when in a group of people you don’t know, say your pronouns. My name is Cathy Null and my pronouns are she/her.

Cathy Null is retired from the College of Fine Arts and Communication at Western Illinois University.

The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of the university or Tri States Public Radio.

Diverse viewpoints are welcomed and encouraged.