Friday, March 31, 2017

When Reading Are You Genre-Neutral?

The word genre is most commonly associated with literature—as in literary genre. Its root is, ultimately, the Latin genus. That word means (per Online Etymology Dictionary) “race, stock, family; kind, rank, order; species, sex.” So it is a kind of something. So far as novels are concerned, historical, romance, and detective are all different in kind. Genre-neutrality (not that I’ve ever seen that phrase used) thus means a total indifference to differences in literature. Poetry is equal to fiction.

But what about another word, gender? Well, it so happens that gender comes from Old French gendre, a variant of genre. It meant the same thing as genre and, pronounced, had the same sort of sound. That sound? Well, take the word jaundice. Forget about the dice part and pronounce the jaun; then add a fain r-sound. “Jaunre”. Both versions of genre have roughly the same sound; in gendre, the r is a little more audible. The meaning of the word in both cases is still the same, thus kind, category, type, or sex.

In English, with the tailing re changed to er—thus making the d clearly audible—the word has become almost exclusive a description of a person’s sex, not necessarily or exclusively in the physiological sense but also or predominantly in its sociological or cultural sense (gender roles, gender identity).

I’m not genre-neutral, to be sure. And as for gender-neutrality, I believe that the striving for total equality can go too far. The inspiration for this post was a note from my old friend Phil Cavanaugh which reminded me that, like him, I too have had a vague sense of unease when seeing that word—or not seeing it—on questionnaires when invited to indicate whether I am an M or an F.

A byproduct of the research I conducted to see what gender means was the discovery that in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and elsewhere the word hijra is in common use to mean a third sex—thus transgender persons who were born but do not feel male. The word—and it has endless variants—goes back to antiquity. It looks as if we here, in the West, are just starting to make peace with the recognition that ambiguity is part even of the sexual experience. The Wikipedia article on the hijra is here and well worth reading.

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