Pro-nouns and Pro-gress

A while back I was part of a virtual panel for Chicago Worldcon 2022. The panel was called ‘More than Sex-bots and Slaves’ and focussed on the treatment of synthetic organisms in popular media. As we were talking I brought up the idea of using android and alien characters as a stepping-stone for the introduction of neo-pronouns into the public consciousness, to which the moderator immediately clarified ‘but that’s not how we see you.’ I understand that clarification, and there wasn’t time on the panel to expand on a point which might easily be misinterpreted in its intent, but it does make good grounds for a blog article, so, here goes.

Image Courtesy of She-Ra and the Princesses of Power – DreamWorks/Mattel

Firstly, it’s my belief that theScience-Fiction Community is one of the most forward-thinking and inclusive groups of fandoms there is. But even here, we see toxicity, we see bigotry and push-back against inclusivity, especially when people perceive inclusion as a threat to ‘their’ canon. Take the recent negativity around She-Hulk or The Rings of Power or the live-action The Little Mermaid. Bottom-of-the-barrel sexism and racism, and we haven’t even gotten into LGBTQ+rep territory. So, it seems that there is a ‘need’ and science fiction and fantasy are, very simply, the best place to ‘plant the seed’ (I’m a cis man, and even I’m staggered that I still have to use that kind of grass roots terminology and approach).

So what is ‘Normalising?’

Simply put, it’s exposing someone to a subject until it’s common enough that it becomes familiar or normal. When faced with profound change, it’s unfortunate, but the impulse among the majority is not to embrace it. A change to the status quo is something to resist, especially if it effects our day-to-day lives. It’s pretty complicated, many people who recoil at the use of non-binary pronouns didn’t bat an eyelid over the withdrawal of the right to peaceful protest. It’s nonsensical, but I guess that they feel the chances of having something to protest about is much less than the chances of them running into someone who prefers to be addressed ‘they/them’, and I can’t tell you why it angers or scares them, but it does. Still, by introducing characters in fiction who use ‘They/Them’, ‘Zhee/Zher’, ‘Xe/Xim’ or any of the neo-pronouns, we’re softening the impact.

But why do these characters have to be aliens/robots? What does that say about your opinion of non-binary people? Does it mean that we see all non-binary people as aliens or robots? Of course not. It says a whole lot more about my opinion of the people who are resistant to treating other human beings with care and compassion. If a person is going to rage-quit because they don’t agree with a character in Doctor Who being a woman, or being queer, then they won’t finish a book where a human character is non-binary… but they *might* if that character isn’t human. That’s the point where it becomes non-threatening to their worldview and (much as I hate tip-toeing around bigotry) that’s the point where education starts. Confronting bigotry directly can just be pouring petrol on the flames, but slow and steady exposure might erode it’s
foundations. One of my major influences in my writing is Sir Terry Pratchett, who beautifully introduced the idea of a change in pronouns through the lense of fantasy species – namely the Dwarf character of Cherry/Cheri Littlebottom.

It is the place of speculative fiction to go there and ask ‘What if?’ and, by asking that question, challenge the world we know. Apparently ‘we’ know that ‘they’ and ‘them’ are plural terms, but they’re not. They’ve been used as singular since the 14th century. And language isn’t a fixed, static thing either. It changes and evolves, The Darling Buds of May (1991/1993), David Jason as Pa Larkin, was responsible for the addition of the word ‘perfick’ to the Oxford dictionary. The September 2022 update of the Oxford English Dictionary reported the addition of 650 new words, senses and sub-entries (since the June update).

Another push-back against representation of neo-pronouns in literature is the idea that using ‘They/Them’ as pronouns ‘confuses the reader’, as it becomes unclear who is speaking. I’m not going to pass judgment on the wider industry view but, in my opinion, it’s not elementary level language that makes a book ‘easy to read’. It’s a combination of language, context, sentence structure, rhythm and pacing. A badly constructed sentence will be hard to read no matter the level of language used, it’s more a matter of putting the work in to get the flow than just dumbing down the words.

Suffice to say that, we have enough cis, het, white fiction, and the rise of LGBTQ+ stories and stories by authors from diverse ethnic backgrounds is something to be celebrated, something to immerse yourself in and something to be supported whole-heartedly and there are clear signs of progress. Thor: Ragnarok grossed $112 million in China, Thor: Love and Thunder didn’t make it past the countries censors because Disney wouldn’t pull the LGBTQ+ content. If Disney can choose rep over profit, surely something’s going right. We had to have Korra and Asami to prove to the money-men that there was demand for Catradora.


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