Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Let Me Tell You a Little (Her)Story

Today, while doing the reading for my British poetry class, I was reading an essay by Meena Alexander, titled "The Poetics of Dislocation." I found the work to be fascinating, and intend on using it for my final paper for the course, but I was irked when I came across this sentence (And, as it occurred rather early on in the essay, I am actually quite surprised that I continued to read it...) :

"The new American poet thinks in many tongues, all of which flow into the English she uses: a language that blossoms for her."

What I dislike about this sentence, of course, is the pronouns "she" and "her" used in a general, impersonal fashion. To put it quite simply, that is just not how things are done, and it looks wrong. It feels wrong. My whole body jolts when I come across it in print. Now, I am a feminist. Let me make that clear. I do what I want. What infuriates me about such a usage is that language as a space is gendered in through the use of "she" or "her," and I adamantly argue that the use of the masculine pronoun is non-gendered in that context. Not only is it contrary to the forms and conventions of language to use the feminine pronoun in such as context, but I find it specifically sexist when one does so.

Because what lies implicitly in asserting the femininity of the non-gendered pronoun is that one agrees that language is a traditionally masculine space. I do not feel the need to claim a feminine space with language, but what I do feel the need to do is reclaim that space as gender neutral. Because it is.

Language isn't a masculine space and women don't need to make a space for themselves within it. The space is already there, because it is gender neutral. I suppose that a large part of my problem with such a usage of the feminine pronoun is that when women change the conventions of language to make it "woman's space" they look, to put it frankly, like fools. It represents a rebellion against conventional language in a way that signals nothing more than a perverse and onerous stubbornness. And I say that, not because it is stubborn for women to assert themselves, but because there is no reason to assert a feminine space in an already non-gendered one.

And that is just...superfluous. And ignorant. And self-defeating, as well.

Let's assume, for a moment, that the general "he" also signifies a white person, in addition to a male, and that language is considered a white masculine space

Do we then say "The new American poet thinks in many tongues, all of which flow into the English she, the Black woman, uses: a language that blossoms for her, a Black woman" ?

My point is that merely because the arenas of literature and thought have traditionally been male (and white, for that matter. Because let's be honest here.) does not mean that language as a rhetorical space is one that is masculine, or is one that needs to be reclaimed by the female voice. Herstory sounds just as stupid as placing the modifier "African-American" before each appearance of the word "person," in order to create a racially neutral space within a language.


Ardith said...

This is interesting, and I'm sure it would find some traction in the courses I'm in right now. Perhaps even in the Women Studies course I plan on taking next quarter (didn't think that would ever happen, did you?).

But anyway, doll, it's late, I'm hungry, and there's a mosquito eater flying circles around the room. I gotta go.

Chelsea said...

Look at you with your grad school posts. Also, I agree - I am totally rubbed the wrong way by this use of "she."

Scar said...

I almost revolted against this post...but you had me at the end. Valid point.