five short poems about “what if people call themselves toasters now”










In the vast majority of cases where I use the words ‘men’, ‘male’, ‘women’, or ‘female’, it would make way less sense to be saying it as “person who definitely has [genitalia]”, instead of “person who occupies this social role”. Maybe “person who has this appearance” is a relevant aspect? But mostly because that points to “person who will be perceived as having this social role”.

I mean, “man” and “woman” are among the most frequently used words in the English language. Are people really talking about who they’re attracted to that frequently? I know I’m not. I’m talking about people who tend to like W, do X, participate in groups of Y, be perceived as responsible for Z, etc.

(And does that make me a stereotyping asshole? Maybe. However, it’s often a useful category to generalise over. Gender Roles: They’re (Currently) A Thing.)

If you were to taboo my speech and replace all instances of “women” with “people with vaginas”, you would actually make my statements less accurate, because while “people with vaginas” very much overlaps with the category I care about, it is not the same category.

I am actually one of those people who says “people assigned female at birth” or “AFABs” when talking about the relevant population, because I need to point at this group so infrequently that it isn’t much of a cost to me. I talk about genitals, like, twice a week; I talk about social roles ten times a day.

I don’t understand what it means to say gender is just about social role.

Imagine some cis-female CEO who’s very dominant, very aggressive, married to a man whose husband is the homemaker in their relationship, who hates cooking, who wears her hair short, and who otherwise fits most male stereotypes but very few female stereotypes. If it helps to have a particular figure in mind, we can picture Hillary Clinton, whose situation isn’t quite this extreme but who seems like a good example of a dominant, not very “girly” woman sucessfully taking on a role (presidential candidate) that’s traditionally very male.

Yet I have never felt the slightest temptation to refer Hillary as “male” or describe her with the pronoun “he”. If somebody else did so, I would assume they were trying to be insulting or shame her for gender nonconformity – it wouldn’t even enter my mind that they were just trying to describe her gender based on her social role.  And I can’t think of anything at all Hillary could change about her social role – getting elected president, becoming a lesbian, becoming a pro wrestler – that would make me start thinking of her as male, short of her actually announcing she was transgender.

So if we don’t feel even the tiniest urge to refer to a
maximally-male-social-role-having person as male if they’re biologically
female (outside the context of a self-declared gender transition), why should we think that our words and pronouns about gender are referring to social roles?

(Also: we can imagine a maximally male-social-role-conforming male – let’s say Hulk Hogan – choosing to identify as female, perhaps without changing her behavior one bit (eg continuing to have sexual attraction toward women, continuing to be a loud aggressive wrestler). In this case, I think I would respect her transition anyway, and I would expect most other people in the set of people who respect the idea of transition at all to do the same)

You are definitely misinterpreting what is meant by “social role” up there. When hillary clinton identifies as and has been sorted by society as a woman, so when she runs for president, she is put in the role of “female presidential candidate”, People ask whether she’ll do the white house gardening, shes accused of playing the woman card, etc.  This is all to do with being in the category of “female” and virtually nothing to do with her genitals, as much as people like to equate the two.

But then you’re turning social role into something other people do to you.

It seems we agree that there are some stereotypically female behaviors, like doing gardening. I’m saying (hypothetically) that Hillary does not have any of these behaviors. You’re saying “but society might expect her to have these behaviors anyway”, which I agree is true. But in that case, my social role isn’t about me, but about others.

Suppose an AFAB in a transphobic community transitioned to male, but none of his friends accepted or believed that. They would still make jokes about whether he would do the gardening and so on, just like they make such jokes about Hillary now. So it sounds like by your theory, that person would still have a female gender role, and so “really be” female, and so we should not respect their transition.

I think it might be better to say that transitioning is requesting to be placed into a different gender role; that is, that person would be asking members of his community not to expect him to garden (even though in this example the members of the community are not honoring that request).

But I think even this would be wrong. If you ask Hillary “what gender are you?”, I am sure she would say “woman”, but that doesn’t mean she is positively requesting that we believe she is a stereotypical woman or likes to garden. As such, if (within the context of transitioning) gender is a request for a gender role, then that’s much different from the sense in which we think of gender outside the context of transitioning.

This is why I am saying that right now almost everyone uses gendered words to mean biology, that any theory of transgender that doesn’t accidentally make Hillary male or prevent a sufficiently gender-conforming person from transitioning has to be based on self-identification, and that part of such a theory would be a request that we use gender terms differently than the way we’re using them right now (or the way we use other words like “toaster”). I think such a request would be justified, but I don’t think it makes sense outside an understanding that that’s what’s being done.

This confusion as to what people are talking about when they say “woman” is an interesting language quirk. I think @sinesalvatorem (may I call you Alison?) is right that when people say “Hillary Clinton is a woman” there is no way that they actually care about her chromosomes or whether they’d find her an attractive sexual partner. But @slatestarscratchpad (may I call you Scott?) is also right that it’s not predicated on conforming to social roles: Hillary Clinton would not be any less of a woman if she failed to uphold certain social stereotypes of femininity. 

So if people don’t care about either the social or the biological aspect when talking about “women” – what do they care about, and how come they mention it so much? My guess is that it has to do with “linguistic gender” – just the way that certain languages have evolved to categorize nouns. Not all languages work like that, and it makes me wonder how the problem presents itself in more gendered languages, and especially in less gendered ones like Georgian.

As far as I remember, PIE had an animate/inanimate distinction that was as linguistically salient as linguistic gender. I don’t know if any extant language has that (you can see some vestiges of this in Russian, but it’s not that pronounced). In that language, a person claiming to be inanimate would be the equivalent of transgender in ours. Note that claiming to be a toaster wouldn’t be, because that is a claim about functional ability. 

Looking at it as questions of linguistic gender answers the question of what properties of a person matter when they’re saying “she is a woman” – in most cases they are just talking about the linguistic properties of the person, because that’s what English forces them to do. That’s neither their social role nor their biological makeup. This doesn’t answer the question of who “women’s bathrooms” are for, of course, but I think it’s enough to explain why I think the “what if people call themselves toasters now” complaint is silly: when someone says they are a woman, they are not making a claim as to what they are able to do, or what their social roles are or anything like that. It’s just a linguistic device. Claiming to be a toaster is not actually the same thing.

Talking about this in terms of linguistic gender does explain why people say the words ‘man’ and ‘woman’ so often – and why they rarely seem to be referring to any specific facts about the people so termed. I’m not sure whether this is the explanation, but boosting for interest.

You can call me Alison, yes. Anyone can.

Background: The Danish language does not use linguistic masculine/feminine but instead uses (no-gender/neutrum) and (multi gender/common gender).

For comparison, in German, “The Cat” and “The Hound” use two different translations of “The,” namely Die Katze and Der Hund.

In Danish, both would use the same translation, “en,” (Katten, Hunden) because they’re both living/moving things and therefore both multigender.

And in Danish, despite the lack of a male/female linguistically split gender, it would be considered really weird to stop calling HRC “she” if she did more male-coded things.

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