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Trigger words

November 14, 2022

It seems I am a terrible person. Before anything else, let me say this: I believe, completely believe, that everyone has the right to be who they are, love whom they wish and behave (as long as this causes no deliberate physical or mental harm to another) exactly as they please. This apparently is not enough.

Let me explain. In the opening scene of Cinderella, Prince Charming is presented with “suitable” candidates to become his bride. In the original script there were three: Princess Gladys, who is obviously a very old lady, Princess Pauline, who is clearly (as the Prince points out to his aide) a man and a third princess whose name I don’t remember who is only about eight years old. Child brides? Oh, no, no, no. I ditched her immediately, but kept the other two. 

Princess Pauline makes two very brief appearances and, not surprisingly, it wasn’t easy to find anyone willing to put in the  rehearsal time for such a small role. For a while I had someone – Dave, a local tattoo artist, himself bearded, long haired and heavily tattooed, who everyone (including him) agreed would look hilarious is a sleeveless gold ballgown. I was having trouble recruiting anyone to design the set panels and when Dave stepped forward and showed me some drawings, I decided the sets were more important than filling this small role. Whilst looking for someone else who might be willing to join us as Pauline, one of the other actors, Tom, who plays the baron, filled in and really was quite hilarious in the role. I asked him if he’d be willing to double up and he happily agreed. All good. 

Until yesterday when we had our first fully costumed rehearsal. That’s when Cinderella came up to me and voiced her concern that Princess Pauline’s representation could be seen as transphobic. A man dressed as a woman. The character has been in the script from the beginning. Why was this only just being raised as a concern? Apparently it was seeing the gold dress and the wig. Apparently the show already presents some problems insofar as the ugly stepsisters are being played (as they always are or should be in a panto) by men and thus a personal pronoun challenge. I summoned two of the stage managers (one of whom I know is more cautious about this sort of thing than I seem to be) over to join the conversation. Now hear is wear I confess I think the presentation of Pauline is hilarious. It’s a panto, for god’s sake. It’s not meant to be politically correct. Here it came again – another reference to personal pronouns. I couldn’t stop myself. I pointed at her and said, “Please don’t ever say that sentence to me again.” And a moment later I walked away from the discussion, into the kitchen to wash some cups and have a brief respite to prevent my head exploding. When I went back a minute or so later, I motioned to Tom to join us and explained the concern to him. Bless him, he offered up an immediate solution. Turns out he owns two kilts. I checked with Cinderella. Men wear kilts, right? So it’s okay for Pauline to be in a kilt? Yes, that was okay. Problem solved. 

Well, costume problem solved. That doesn’t mean a bit of soul searching might not be a good idea. Should I have foreseen that the presentation of Pauline could and no doubt would be perceived by some as transphobic? On reflection, yes, perhaps I should have. Does the fact that right up until yesterday afternoon I thought the sight of first Dave, then Tom in that dress and wig was hilarious make me transphobic? I sincerely hope not. I think it just means that I’ve failed to look properly at whether or not things I thought were hilarious fifty years ago ever really were. 

What got me yesterday was just how badly the repetition of the words “personal pronouns” triggered a reaction in me, how much this made me want to scream. I’ve been struggling with this one for a while.

Five years ago I wrote“Okay, I admit it: I am a language and grammar pedant – and mighty proud to be so. ‘They’ is the English language word you use to refer to multiple people. It is notthe word you use to refer to an individual. I’m sorry if I’m causing offence to anyone, but as far as I’m concerned dem’s de rules. End of.

“That said, I am exceedingly happy to embrace and use new words, which are regularly introduced into the language.

“Back in the 1970s, when women rebelled against forms of address reflective of marital status, a new form of address was invented: Ms. I immediately and enthusiastically adopted its usage. As far as I’m concerned being identified by my marital status is deeply offensive. So I absolutely understand and support the insistence of trans individuals that being referred to by gender-specific personal pronouns is unacceptable to them.

“For some time the idea was floated of introducing a new personal pronoun, ‘ze’ (or ‘zie’), into the language. Oxford, Harvard and many other academic institutions are happy to accept this as a chosen pronoun. At the risk of seeming flippant, I think this proposed pronoun and its variations zir and zirs sound pretty damn zippy.”

Yeah, that does seem flippant, but, dinosaur that I am, I stick by the essence of what I wrote then. It still strikes me that there is a solution as obvious as Tom’s kilt to this problem. Yes, there are a lot of people who will be every bit as resistance to ze as they were to Ms, but these are people who are resistant to anything that isn’t Leave It To Beaver. 

Or perhaps I am just unwoke. 

From → Blog

  1. Except “they” has been used in the singular in English for a very very long time.

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