actions speak louder than words: my argument against gender-neutral language

In case you missed my last post, I took a few moments to proclaim my love of leading; I also addressed my gender and encouraged them to learn to lead as well.

I didn’t think much of it at the time, but my use of gender-specific pronouns in this article was apparently disquieting to many people. It was first brought to my attention when a friend began his comment with the following:

For the purposes of this post, you’re kind of assuming that woman are naturally going to be (or start off as) followers. I found that a bit jarring.

Was I just chastised for sexism in a post where I encourage women to learn to lead?

When I brought this scenario up to a few friends, I received mixed responses: while some agreed that my use of gendered language was appropriate in the context of the post, others agreed with the commenter. Another friend in particular (also male) said that “gendered language in any context is sexist,” and he encouraged me to change the language in my post, as well as all future posts.

My counterarguments are as follow:

  1. It is a fact that more women follow, and more men lead. Whether this norm has come about through sexism is not the point, but it is true.
  2. In using gender-specific language when speaking about dance, I am not confining women to one role, but acknowledging that the vast majority of women follow.
  3. I actively encourage dancing both roles in Lindy Hop, both on this blog and in person. My actions should, I hope, speak louder than my word choice.
  4. As the author of this post, it is my right to choose the language I use. While I aim to be inclusive, I do not believe that gender neutral language is always appropriate.

I realize that there is a current trend in Lindy Hop, and especially in the Lindy Blogosphere and in classes, to use gender neutral language in an effort to halt sexism our community. But – and here I’m going to meet a lot of resistance, I know – I think the Lindy Hop community is one of the least sexist communities around.

I acknowledge that sexism exists in our community to a degree. There are a bajillion posts out there indirectly and directly discussing sexism in our community. Moreover, though we generally talk about sexism against women in Lindy Hop, men often get the short end of the sexism stick due to gender imbalance. And those posts barely scratch the surface.

However, there are communities with bigger problems with sexism in the world. Think about the Ballroom and Latin dance communities, where the hyper-sexualization of females is the norm. Think about sexism in business and politics and throughout the world, where women have to fight for a modicum of equality. There’s even extreme sexism against men, which many people fail to recognize.

Now come back to the Lindy Hop Community and watch the following video, where two well-known and well-respected male dancers make finals in the Strictly Comp at ILHC – and, they absolutely killed it. Would you see this in many other dance communities? And LOOK at that sugar-push variation at 4:18!

In my opinion, Lindy Hop is one of the most respectful and pro-equality communities I know of, and I’m proud to be part of this group of people. Moreover, I think the failure to recognize our overall success in encouraging equality does our community a grave disservice.

If you don’t agree with me, I understand – many people feel very strongly about women’s (and men’s) rights, whereas I have always been a bit of a reluctant feminist. But if you really want to change the nature of our community, then consider this:

Whether or not gender inequality is a problem in the Lindy Hop community, sexism will not be solved by using gender neutral language.

Consider this: when a teacher uses generalized language to address a problem everyone in the class is having, the majority of people will assume the teacher is addressing someone else. When someone addresses the room in a general way, we as human beings mentally exclude ourselves from the group. (Be honest: you’re probably doing it right now.)

The same is true of using gender neutral language. When we eliminate gender from the conversation:

  1. Most people won’t ever notice.
  2. Those who do notice will generally observe the situation from a third-person-distant perspective, assuming they’ve never encouraged sexism through language.
  3. Most people who are sexist won’t notice because they associate the words “lead” with men and “follow” with women, no matter which language you use. It is, in fact, more jarring to those people to encourage specific genders to dance outside of the “normal” role.

I once took an entire workshop as a lead where my class was lead-heavy. It would have helped if I had switched to being a follow, but I had no desire to, and neither the teachers nor students ever asked me to do so. While the teachers continued to address leads as men all weekend, I never felt excluded for my gender, because no one ever discouraged me from dancing the role I chose. I could have chosen to make a huge deal of it, but instead, I chose to focus on learning to lead better. In fact, in a sea of male leads, I am more proud not to be called out in class as the only female lead because it alludes that I am recognized for my leading capabilities regardless of my gender.

Of course, if you ever feel pressured by a teacher or fellow dancer to dance in your “gender-normal” role rather than the role you choose, let me know – and I’ll have a word with that person.

If you see sexism in your community, I strongly encourage you to address that issue – but asking for gender neutral language is the least effective way to encourage equality. You will be far more effective if you teach as a female lead and a male follow (regardless of how you encourage your students to dance), or if you make finals in a highly-competitive national-level competition. You will do more for your community if you host an ambidancetrous workshop (look here for helpful tips on how to make the class structure work), put on a gender-bender competition, or even directly encourage up-and-coming men and women to try both roles in dancing.

If you encourage everyone to dance both roles, that’s great. But you’re far more likely to be effective if you directly encourage women to lead and men to follow. It’s stronger language, and it speaks to the real issue you’re trying to address.

***

In conclusion: I will not apologize for using gender-specific language in my writing (when appropriate), and I have no intentions to change my writing style in the future.

However, I will continue to be the best female lead I can be. I hope to teach gender-bender workshops in the future and host gender-bender dance competitions. When a girl tells me how great a lead I am, (I will blush, and then) I will encourage her to learn to do the same, because it’s a blast.

Actions speak louder than words, and I have no interest in sitting passively behind my words.

If you disagree with my word choice, I understand – but I hope you will continue to read my posts for the content I put forward. Let’s dance soon – and you can pick who leads!

Leading is awesome! Ladies should learn!Edit: This post was edited 01/29/2015 to reflect changing views on sexism in the Lindy Hop community. Notably, it acknowledges that sexism is a serious problem. My beliefs that gender-neutral language will not solve the problem, however, stands.

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  One thought on “actions speak louder than words: my argument against gender-neutral language

  1. beth
    25 September 2013 at 2:13 am

    This is your blog, so obviously you get to choose the language you use, but I think that actively turning a blind eye to the role that language use plays in our community (and any other community) is at best choosing ignorance, and at worst harmful to the people it does affect. Choosing our language IS an action, and using gender neutral roles in classes is only difficult in the sense that it requires people to think about what they’re saying, and I have yet to hear anyone take a gender-neutral class complain about it, but there are plenty of people who actively appreciate being referred to by their role rather than by their gender, or NOT their gender if they’re choosing the non-standard role.

    I have taken workshop classes where I was actively discouraged from leading. I have taken classes where not only did the instructors use gendered pronouns the entire time in spite of being asked not to due to people working in their non-gendered roles, but they taught all of their classes in the context of male sexuality as a dominating force and female sexuality as a submissive background piece. It was the most uncomfortable workshop I’ve ever been to, and this was a Lindy Hop workshop, and I ended up sitting over half of it out. These are international instructors, and I wasn’t the only person in the classes who was displeased, and they didn’t care. So yeah, I think that sexism in the Lindy Hop community is a problem, and that language matters in making people comfortable enough to stick around. Is changing the language going to be the straw that eliminates sexism? No, but it’s sure a step in the right direction and it doesn’t cause any harm.

    • 25 September 2013 at 6:06 am

      Thanks for the input, Beth! The challenge with this post is that I my thoughts are constantly evolving the more I speak to friends and colleagues.

      I am not trying to turn a blind eye to the role language plays in talking about dance – but I think there is a difference between using gendered pronouns to talk about leads and follows vs. speaking about lead and follow roles in a sexist way. I wasn’t in that workshop, but it seems that those teachers demonstrated sexist attitudes which became apparent through their descriptions of dance roles and their disregard for their students. I find their attitude towards dance roles to be sexist, and their treatment of the discomfort experienced by students to be disrespectful.

      At the same time, there is a trend to say that the use of gendered pronouns is inherently sexist – whereas I personally see pronouns as an easier way to refer back to a person or group of people who sometimes happen to be of a particular gender. To change language for fear it is propagating sexism is to treat the symptom, not the problem.

      I agree that no one has ever felt uncomfortable because gender-neutral language was used, especially in a classroom setting – but it’s also a teacher’s choice. At the same time, if a teacher consciously chooses to use gender-specific language, he or she should be able to explain their choice intelligently and respectfully.

  2. 25 September 2013 at 9:19 pm

    The primary reason why I try not to call leaders he‘s and followers she‘s is because… it’s inaccurate.

    What is leading and what is following? I’ve spent some time thinking about it. As far as I can tell, leaders are the ones who initiate most of the movements that two partners will embark upon. Followers respond to those, following through on them (or sometimes not), and adding other movements and ideas of their own.

    Given the current cultural discussion of gender and dance roles, I thought it would be helpful to ask myself the next question: What do the activities of leading and following have to do with possession of a Y chromosome? Nothing, as far as I can tell. Any person can initiate movements for another person to respond to. Any person can respond to movements that have been led to them. So the primary reason I watch my he’s and she’s when I’m talking about dancing is because… I’m not talking about he’s and she’s. I’m talking about movement-initiators and movement-responders.

    Now lay this over top of a context where people sometimes feel pressured to be either a movement-initiator or a movement-responder. Where new dancers find it difficult to choose to be a movement-initiator if most people who look like them have made… the other choice. Shouldn’t they feel like they can freely choose whichever part they want? This makes me want to be even more accurate with my language, because I wouldn’t want people to feel pigeonholed when they make, what should be, a free choice.

    That’s my reasoning on that. For the record, I also hate it when I’m referred to as a “she” in class. I’m a he, and a movement-responder. Why would I want to be called anything different?

    • 26 September 2013 at 6:17 am

      Thanks again for the response, Tim!

      I agree with you: not all followers are female, and not all followers are male – we must recognize that anyone can lead and follow, regardless of gender. I believe that is an end goal we can agree on.

      Personally, I don’t see the use of gendered pronouns as offensive because I consciously recognize that I am still included. No one is saying only men can lead, and no one is discouraging me from dancing in that role; many teachers are just referring to the majority, and I’m okay with that. In fact, I kind of like slipping in “unnoticed” – but that’s a personal preference that not everyone shares.

      However, using the “normal” speech has other benefits in class (some of which are being discussed on my Facebook comment thread). I won’t pretend I can explain it as well as they have, but I will say that using gender-neutral pronouns can actually subtly exacerbate the discomfort surrounding gender in a classroom situation. In other words, emphasizing neutrality can actually make some people more stressed, even if they can’t pinpoint why. While some people recognize and appreciate it, others will stop focusing on class and start focusing on why gender is so taboo.

      In addition, I believe people in general react positively to language they can understand without thinking too much – and this allows them to learn more easily. To drastically change the way we refer to leaders and followers (such as “movement-initiator” and “movement-responder”) makes the content more difficult to absorb – even if it’s with the good intentions of being gender-neutral. When people get confused, they start thinking more about why they’re confused and less about the actual material being taught, and that’s not the purpose of class.

      I think as we move towards a community which encourages gender equivalence, then gender-neutral language will evolve over time – but forcing gender-neutral language is an ineffective place to put our energy.

      Finally, while this post talks a lot about gender-neutral language, there’s a bigger picture. There are other ways to encourage gender equivalence without focusing on gender-neutral language – such as being a quality example of a man who dances both roles, as I’m pretty sure you are. In that respect, I think you are doing far more to support gender equivalence in your community.

  3. 26 September 2013 at 5:15 pm

    There’s at least one great instance to purposefully use gender when talking about partner dancing: When trying to understand sexism. I actually find that using “lead” and “follow” distracts from the fact that these are largely men and women we are talking about. We are not abstract roles; we are real people who identify with real genders. A friend just messaged me on Facebook about a teacher she had who told follows to “turn their brains off.” Imagine if that teacher had acknowledged that she was actually teaching WOMEN to turn their brains off. The sexism just jumps out at you then.

    When you abstract us to “leads” and “follows” it can very easily cover up the sexism of our expectations and teaching methods.

    Anyhow, I personally try to be gender-neutral in actions/expectations first and in my explicit word usage second. Both ways it’s hard. My socialization is strong.

    • 27 September 2013 at 4:42 am

      I think that’s a great example of when gender-neutral language (and instructions that aren’t well thought-out) can potentially do more harm than we realize.

      The gender associations with the words “lead” and “follow” are so strong that even when we intentionally avoid gender references, the people reading and / or listening don’t notice and continue to exist with a gendered bias. In that sense, gender-equality is more easily encouraged when we specifically point highlight men and women in roles not normally associated with their respective gender.

      It’s definitely hard, and I think it’s important for anyone who publicly represents Lindy Hop (teachers, bloggers, organizers) to carefully consider language and be able to explain his or her language choices clearly and with respect.

  4. 26 September 2013 at 5:40 pm

    Rather than coming to a conclusion about whether gender-neutral terminology for the roles of dance are sexist or feminist or counter-sexist or counter-feminist… Why not ask the women who lead and the men who follow how they feel about the gender-neutral terms?

    I’m a guy. I’ve followed but mostly lead. I prefer gender neutral language to gender-specific when talking about dancing and its roles. I also prefer actions that encourage men to be either and women to be either. Hell, there’s always a chance that the woman you’re encouraging to lead is a post-op trans woman who’s been made to lead before you met her and now just wants to follow for a change. Gender assumptions can hurt all over.

    But my short response is do both: ask men if they’ve tried following and to try it if they haven’t. ask women the converse. AND use gender-neutral language in instructive or discussion settings.

    • 27 September 2013 at 4:53 am

      In that instance, I’d have to say that I’m a girl, and I prefer to follow – but I am impartial towards gender neutral language in a classroom setting. In fact, if it allows the teacher to focus more on the material being covered, I’d rather the teacher use the language he or she is most comfortable with – even if that’s 90% curse words.

      I think in an ideal world, gender neutral language would be the norm, especially in a classroom setting – because in an ideal world, we’d be considerate of everyone, no matter their age / height / weight / gender / race / favorite TV show / etc. Still, I think we have to recognize that such an idyllic view is hard to achieve just by acknowledging that gender neutral language is more respectful.

      I do think, however, that gender neutral language will evolve as more men and women the role they choose, rather than the role their gender is often associated with. Maybe not in this lifetime, but it’ll happen.

  5. Rachel Pitner
    27 September 2013 at 8:53 pm

    Cari,

    I agree with you. I honestly don’t think that there is any benefit in ignoring someone’s gender. In fact, I have had a teacher highlight common issues that female leads often face, and I found that to be quite helpful. Just because you use gender neutral language does not mean that you are actually treating each sex equally. Using gender neutral language can be like having a giant elephant in the room, and it can cause you to miss key points. Like a guy walks into a room and says that he is looking for his friend Dr. L. Upon being asked what Dr. L looks like, the guy says, “Well, Dr. L is tall and a little bit on the bigger-ish side, but but tall… Yeah, tall…” Dr. L turns out to be the giant African elephant in the next room.

    Sometimes, I think that people get too obsessed with ignoring the physical differences as well as other differences that they wind up missing out on the actual person. I’m aware that this may not be a common ideation of the human condition because lots of people focus on the differences, but what I’m saying is that you should acknowledge the differences but not let them be all that you see. These differences do help to form a bit of who were are and ignoring them can be a disservice. In my beginner Swing class, I give tips to my tall people and my short people because I have seen some of the challenges that they may face. I know that the gender issue is not exactly the same, but I don’t think that it is right to ignore a part of a person; acknowledge it, and move on.

    On another note, be solid in who you are and your purpose. If you think that a teacher is ignoring you, then ask for feedback. If people doubt your abilities as a female filling a leadership role, then dominate the situation, and make them eat crow. You can’t change how other people react, but you can change how you react to their behavior. You can earn the respect that you want, but you will have to work for it.

    Now, for the most part I do use the terms leads and follows when I teach. It just works for me. But seriously, all of you knew what Cari meant in her previous article. She was not pigeonholing any gender into a specific role, and if you found what she wrote to be offensive, then you may be a little over sensitive. Think about it. I’m just saying that you most likely have made it a bigger issue than what it needed to be. Think about what people are actually saying, and stop getting hung up on syntax.

    Cari, keep on writing how you want, and do it well (as I know you will). 😉

    • 28 September 2013 at 9:24 pm

      I think you make a lot of great points about how talking about our differences (tall, short, male, female, etc.) can actually help us be better dancers – not everyone’s built the same, and while I haven’t been in the other gender’s shoes, I’m sure that leading as a female is quite different from leading as a male. When we acknowledge the differences and give advice on how to dance in either scenario, we can actually be more inclusive than when we ignore gender. Thanks for the comment, Rachel!

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