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Gender Biased Words

We live in a world where political correctness has become a bit of a nuisance. We don’t want to offend, and yet it seems as though there is always someone who will take offense at even the most innocent utterances or phrases when none was intended.

The Chicago Manual of Style takes the stance of removing gender from writing whenever possible as long as it doesn’t make the end product cumbersome. What this means is we don’t employ the use of “he/she” when writing. But seriously, how often have you encountered a work of fiction that used “he or she” in place of he, she, or them? Nothing comes to mind because it is cumbersome to use both gender designations. Can you image if every author used “waiter or waitress,” “actor or actress,” “steward or stewardess,” and so on?

What we do see in fiction is the use of gender biased words. Modern day convention would dictate that we use the non-gender specific alternatives of server, performer, attendant, police officer, firefighter, letter carrier, administrative assistant, etc. This makes sense to a point, and I will explain why.

When I first encountered these issues, I went with the politically correct version. But after a time, I realized that what I say out loud doesn’t always match what I’m thinking in my head. I may call my food server a server, but in my head that person is still a waitress or waiter. At first, I thought this was a product of the generation in which I grew up, so I took a very unscientific poll and asked my children what terms they used in their minds—not out loud. I got a mixed bag. My children called food servers waiters or waitresses, administrative assistant was a secretary, the letter carrier was a mailman regardless of gender, an airline attendant was the airline lady (ha-ha), and performers were actors or actresses. But they also used the PC terms police officer and firefighter. I understand these last two PC terms because it is something children are exposed to repeatedly in school—the rest, not so much.

Another factor to consider when writing is the era during which a story takes place. If the story is written before political correctness, don’t infuse the story with PC terms. There’s nothing more trite than a story set in the Old West in which the characters are politically correct or the protagonist is extremely concerned for the individual rights of a minority when the prevailing attitude at the time would not have been the case. It simply would have been extremely dangerous for the protagonist to have such modern sensibilities, and it insults the intellect of your readers.

So where does that leave us? Ask yourself if it is part of a character’s modus operandi to say waitress or fireman. If it is, then use it. If your character is more likely to be politically correct, then go that route. But remember, a character can use the political correct term in spoken dialogue and still revert to the gender biased version in the narrative. To be honest, that’s exactly what I do in real life. I may call a food server a server out loud, but they will always be a waiter or waitress in the recesses of my brain. So use your best judgment and define how your characters would view it. Just be consistent within the individual personality of each character.


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