When you meet someone in the street in a French-speaking country, it is polite to address the person by saying “Bonjour Monsieur” or “Bonjour Madame”. This entails two things. Firstly, you need to identify whether it is a man or a woman. Secondly, if you don’t want to be impolite or to shock people with your creativity, you have little alternative to a binary choice. The dilemma exists in English too. However, English speakers do not generally address people met in the street in a way that assigns gender.
Another troubling gender aspect of the French language, seen from across the Channel, is the possessive pronoun (his/hers). In English the possessive pronoun takes the gender of the person being referred to. Saying “his skirt” clearly indicates a man is wearing the skirt. French is very different. Objects in French have a gender. And the possessive pronoun (son/sa) agrees with the gender of the object not the person it belongs to or who, in this case, is wearing it. A skirt in French is feminine (une jupe), so using a possessive pronoun to say a man is wearing a skirt will not indicate that the owner is masculine. That possessive pronouns take the gender attributed to the object rather than that of the person doing the ‘possessing’ clearly has a different impact on the way the world is perceived and understood.
Personal pronouns (he/she/it/they) are also problematic. In politically correct written French, if you don’t know the gender of the person you are talking about or if there are both men and women, then you have to write he/she (il/elle or ils/elles for the plural) instead of automatically giving preference to the male gender. This is made all the more difficult because the single ‘they’ for the third person plural in English exists in both masculine and feminine in French (ils/elles). Although the preference given to the male pronoun is perceived as a problem in English, the English-speaking world has not disfigured the language in an attempt to resolve the difficulty. Personally, I’d quite happily use the feminine form throughout as a way of redressing the balance. But that may simply be an expression of personal preference.
What is referred to above as ‘politically correct’ is in fact an effort to ensure gender ‘equality’ in written French. If the name of a profession, for example mechanic, is deemed to apply only to men, thus excluding women, you are required to use both the masculine and feminine form or indicate the two choices by a stuttering of odd suffixes tagged on to the word (mécanicien-ienne). The result is not only ugly, but extremely cumbersome. The legitimate feeling of exclusion that girls and women experience because of a preference for the masculine form, could be seen to be due to usage and not the word itself. For example, the word ‘mechanic’ potentially refers to a profession which either women or men could do. The problem occurs when society sees it as solely done by men and history weighs heavily in favour of such a gendered perception of work.
According to Ivan Illich’s book entitled Gender, there was a period, not so long ago, when many everyday objects and activities were associated with one or other of two distinct genders and that association was an integral part of the organisation of society. From that perspective, the current shortcomings of language may be seen as the turbulent passage from a society built around the distinction and separation between male and female to a society in which the gender divide remains dominant but gender is less rigidly defined in terms of specific roles and objects connoted as either male or female. There is also a much less strict separation between male and female allowing for a whole gamut of new possibilities, including the cohabitation of the two in one person. The inevitable inertia of language in adjusting to these transformations, anchored as it is in the slow-changing attitudes of society, is at the heart of the problems evoked here.
More about the Boy & Girl Saga
Boy & Girl – Twelve-year-old Peter secretly dresses as a girl. Imagine his delight when he finds himself in the head of a girl. Yet, despite his wild hopes, that girl is not him. She’s Kaitling, the daughter of a mage in a beleaguered world. Peter has his own problems when a vicious new girl at school threatens to reveal his girly ways. Becoming friends, Kaitlin and Peter join forces to do battle with those who oppose them.
In Search of Lost Girls – Dressed as a girl, Peter sets out in search of his soul-mate Kate who has been ripped from his arms and kidnapped. In his quest, he is hounded by fanatics bent on eliminating those who mess with gender. Meanwhile, Kate has been dumped in a nightmarish girls’ orphanage where she emerges as a decisive figure in the rescue of her fellow orphans. Will the two ever be together again?
We Girls – Retain his androgynous ambiguity or say goodbye to his girlish self, such is the existential choice that besets Peter. Circumstances, however, force both him and Kate to take up other challenges. By straddling the line between child and adult, between carefree creativity and weighty responsibility, between play and work, they find imaginative ways to confront far-reaching problems on which adults persistently turn a blind eye.
Colourful People – What happens when a boy who dresses as a girl, but has no wish to transition, is confronted with a boisterous crowd of transgender youth in a desperate search for a safe haven? The fierce will to be themselves despite the determined opposition of society is common to both the Lost Girls and the Colourful People. Not surprising then that they join forces and advance together. (Currently being written)