In the latest episode of The Dirty Word, a series from Wifey that explores sex and language, host Amanda Montell talks about gendered language and gender neutrality. She challenges two guests to a battle of pronoun usage: Say hello to the Gender-Neutral Pronoun Drinking Game! Armed with grapefruit vodka and a Swedish gender-neutral pronoun, the participants discover that staying away from gender in language is harder than you’d think.
Gendered language is pervasive in English. Our singular pronouns (he/she) are gendered (except for the awkward “one” and “it”), meaning that to refer to someone in even the simplest terms can require us to assign gender. Lots of other words similarly reinforce the gender binary: Husband/Wife, Boyfriend/Girlfriend, Man/Woman, King/Queen, Actor/Actress, and on and on and on. For people who, for whatever reason, don’t want to have to constantly identify themselves within this binary, gendered language can be a real problem.
As Montell points out, some people have tried to create gender-neutral pronouns for English, like “xe,” “hir,” and “they” (used as a singular pronoun), but these words have not entered into wide use (so far, at least). In 2015, Sweden introduced a gender-neutral pronoun to the Swedish dictionary: “Hen,” an alternative to “han” (he) and “hon” (she).
In the video, Montell brings in comedian Gaby Dunn and Jessie Kahnweiler of the webseries The Skinny to try their hands at a gender-neutral drinking game. Montell gives them a stack of cards with names of celebrities on them, and Dunn and Kahnweiler have to try to describe the celebs without using any kind of gendered language. When they make a mistake they have to drink. Easy, right? Maybe not. They soon discover that the best strategy for avoiding gendered pronouns is to give up on using complete sentences altogether and instead just say words and titles associated with the celeb. (Hilariously, all that Kahnweiler has to do to get Dunn to guess “Björk” is say “Iceland” and wave her arms around.)
Watch the whole game below:
Images: YouTube (3)