The Pronoun Game
October 18, 2008

I love observing how people interact and particularly with my interest in the autism spectrum, I am utterly fascinated with the television show, Bones. Each one of the characters in the show has some kind of serious issue interacting with other people. Zach, first an intern/grad student of Dr. Brennan, is an obvious example of a character with high-functioning autism or Asperger's - a condition which very obviously meant he had troubles interacting with others. He is mystified by the emotional reactions and actions of others and tries to always live by logic. Dr. Brennan (Bones) herself seems to also be on the autism spectrum, although with her vast experience in field anthropology, she seems to comprehend people's emotional rollercoasters better than Zach - but, it's still from a very intellectual understanding rather than being a part of the whole messy act of being human. She often has conversations with FBI agent Booth where Booth attempts to explain emotions to her. Her best friend, Angela, also spends an inordinate amount of time explaining human reaction and foibles to her - often attempting to explain to Brennan why she herself is reacting a particular way.

Angela and Booth, however, aren't paragons of perfect human interaction either. They also have their very flawed and confused interactions. Angela has embraced the idea of being a "free spirit" and artist so much so that she often reacts primarily out of a stubborn desire to stay within the confines of her definition of "free spirit & artist." When she reacts illogically and emotionally, she does so without apology or, often, explanation. It is what it is. And, this eventually leads a character who often appears to be the most normal in her interactions into a rather stupid decision (to break up with Hodgins).
Naturally, she's somewhat the opposite of Brennan, creating a nice foil.

FBI agents are rarely known for their stellar social skills, so it's not surprising that Agent Booth also has his issues interacting with others although he does have a wonderful ability to read his suspects - an ability that usually confuses Brennan. Booth reads people's tells and body language when they're being questioned ... but he still finds it difficult to do the same with the people he knows.

While the show is technically a crime solver with a different twist from the CSI genre (since almost everyone in the show is a "squint," or scientist, instead of law enforcement), the real interest and drama of the show (not to mention comedy) is to look at how these people relate to each other - particularly how they screw up these interactions. In one episode, the murder Booth and Brennan are investigating involves "pony play." Apparently some people like to pretend they're horses for their sexual excitement. (Frankly, I could have lived my life without knowing that ... but there you are.) Booth is as startled and somewhat confused by this as I was ... Brennan, on the other hand, reacts as an anthropologist studying a new tribe. She explains in scientific terms to Booth what these people get out of it and why they do it - she looks like she understands - but she explains chunks of it in front of the pony play folk, which offends them. Booth understands why it offends them, but he's flabbergasted and somewhat judgmental about them - so he looks like he understands their reactions, but he also offends them in a different way.

In other words, they both understand a piece of the human relationships - but they're completely separate pieces and neither has the whole thing.

It's fascinating to watch.

My favourite social gaffe was when Brennan walked into an interrogation room with Booth to speak with a profoundly overweight character. She immediately said something to Booth about how people who are profoundly overweight often have a funky odour because they can sometimes get a fungus in between the folds of skin. Booth is horrified that Brennan would say such a thing where the character can hear. Brennan protests, "but it's true" as if that makes it okay. It's not that she is trying to hurt the character ... she just doesn't see scientific fact as causing emotional hurt. If it's true, then it shouldn't hurt. In fact, Brennan goes on to point out to the character the very real health problems caused by such a level of obesity and tells her that she should lose weight.

Of course the character is offended and Booth is horrified all over again, trying to get Brennan to STFU. Despite all of her knowledge of how people work from her anthropology studies ... Brennan is completely clueless to the reactions she causes. She looks like a complete ass in this scene, once again underscoring what I feel is the point of the show: how we interact.

So, knowing all of this about the show, I was somewhat surprised to read on Womanist Musings a reaction to one of the more recent episodes, "The He in the She." Since Brennan is a forensic anthropologist, she and her team at the Smithsonian are often called in to help solve murder cases where the remains are in a rather bad state. In this particular episode, we're confronted by either a grad student making a weird mistake or a very unusual set of remains. The new intern (to replace Zach, who is now incarcerated) declares that according to the bones on this set of remains, the person was male.

The team's boss, vetting the new guy as he does his examination, blinks at his declaration. She announces the body is female because "that," she points out, "is a vagina." He insists the bone structure is male.

They're both right.

The remains belong to someone who had been born male and then underwent sexual reassignment surgery to become female.

As the team begins to piece together the mystery, there's some amount of stumbling around the entire transsexual issue. Agent Booth in particular has a difficult time - not with the victim being trans - but with trying to settle on a pronoun. At one point in his fumbling, he begins to call the victim "it" causing Brennan to squawk about giving the victim some dignity. Booth spends a fair amount of time trying to fumble his way through his reasoning and why he's settled on "it" for now. The other characters are clearly irritated with him over this. At another point, he fumbles around and claims that they should always call "him" "her" because that's what "he ... she was when she died and she deserves some respect."

Now the author over at Womanist Musings has an excellent point - it's annoying as hell that when American television portrays a transsexual person, that person is either the comic relief or the victim of horrible tragedy, but never just another person, just another character. But, I remember not so long ago when that was true of all gay characters. Now, however, we're seeing more gay characters who are "just" characters - not there just for comic relief ... not there to show the terrible plight of the queer. (Where I disagree with the author is that the writers of the show were somehow disrespectful to the issue of transsexuals.)

That's pretty much the way it happens on American television. Bring in the marginalized as comic relief, bring them in to show the tragedy ... until the mainstream viewers get used to seeing that group ... and then they can be just characters like everyone else. It's annoying, I certainly agree.

But I think that Bones did this in a really interesting way. First of all, the show revolves around odd forensic mysteries - what's more unusual than a body with both male and female "tells"?? Secondly, you have scientists having to grapple with pronoun because it's got to be jarring to look at a male knee and say "she." It's not that they're being disrespectful or rude - they're reacting to the biological part in front of them at the moment when they speak.

And then, of course, you have the very Catholic Agent Booth trying to grapple with the facts he's getting from his squints ... and with the real confusion of speaking of the transsexual person's past. After all, the history of Patrick could be important to the death of Patricia and it is honestly confusing or difficult to switch between talking about Patrick as "he" when he was an evangelical minister ... and Patricia's ministry and her death.

The characters constantly have to flip back and forth between his history and her history as they put together the facts and clues in the case.

I think this very much mirrors the confusion that many people go through when they first meet someone who is transsexual. It's not that the writers or the characters of Bones were making fun of or somehow disrespecting transfolk as they were reflecting how we react. To me, that made the episode a really important and valuable one rather than one which somehow negated the dignity of transfolk - it attempted to bring the issue to an audience which might not know about it, or which might be rather hoping to avoid it. It was an episode to raise awareness and show us our human foibles and fumblings through the reactions of some wonderfully rendered and flawed characters.

Next time, I'll tell you about the first time I met someone who identified as transsexual ... and how I reacted.

Posted by Red Monkey at October 18, 2008 4:02 AM | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | Struggles | | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble |


Lisa Harney said:

While the media has a certain arc that it uses for presenting characters that are part of marginalized groups, this is precisely a reason to criticize the existence of that arc. Yes, it's true that they're presented as comic relief, villains, tragic victims, etc., but this does not place the pattern beyond criticism, nor is the pattern necessary for any marginalized group to eventually be normalized as normal in the media. It's just the way things get done, and appealing to the idea "this is how it's always been done" shouldn't ever carry any weight.

Red Monkey says: Actually, I'm not appealing to "it's always been done this way." Instead, I think that if a show does want to stay on the air long enough to discuss some real issues, they have to also meet their audience where the audience is. Confronting bigots head-on rarely works. Introducing characters over time, introducing issues over time - that does tend to work - hence that is "how it's always done." Not because it's tradition. Not because it's always been done this way. But because it's working to change hearts and minds. Key word there is that it works. Even when it's frustrating to have to take a longer, more circuitous route.

As for the pronoun thing - the best way to present this is to simply recognize that trans people have preferred pronouns. If you find someone who lives as a woman and has a woman's name, you should just use feminine pronouns. Most trans people I know (myself included) aren't comfortable with people referring to our pre-transition history with the wrong pronouns. It doesn't assert a basic truth about our lives, it asserts that we're other.

Red Monkey adds: I agree. Respect folk. It's real simple. However, it is still confusing when talking about pre-transition history particularly when speaking of something that is gender-specific. If I know the person, I'll use whatever pronoun that person prefers. If I don't know that person - well, I'm likely going to stumble. My m2f friend still refers to her previous self as "him," particularly when talking about his time in the special forces. And that's the only time I ever think of her with that pronoun.

And I don't care what they intended by writing yet another episode in which:

* Non-trans (cis) people insist on not knowing what the proper pronouns are, when the proper pronouns are pretty obvious

* A trans person exists solely as a corpse and a plot twist, and not as a human being

What's frustrating about this is the number of people I've met online who are both cis and are willing to explain to trans people why we're wrong to react to the show the way we have - that somehow we need a cis person's seal of approval in order to find problems in Bones' portrayal. Was Bones an improvement? Perhaps. Does that mean it was good? No. Does that mean it shouldn't be criticized? No.

Red Monkey says: First, I don't think the character was added solely as a plot point, but I'm sure we disagree here as well. What I find disturbing is your apparent assumption that "somehow we need a cis person's seal of approval in order to find problems in Bones' portrayal" and that I somehow think you're "wrong to react to the show the way" you have. I don't think you're *wrong* - I just disagree with you in that I think it was a nice step forward. It does SUCK that changing the public's mind takes so long and often requires a circuitous path. It is inherently wrong that it so often requires a softshoe. I guess I'm trying to look at the silver lining here in my personal thought that episodes like that begin to pave the way for something more normal.

The show doesn't, IMO, help with the confusion people experience dealing with trans people. It encourages the idea that people should be confused at all. It's a pretty privileged perspective that says that any cis person knows better than a trans person which pronouns are appropriate to use, for example, or that it's appropriate to talk about a woman with masculine pronouns just because you're talking about a particular part of her history. It's just simpler to be respectful, but I guess that requires cis people to take up less space than they prefer.

Red Monkey says: Obviously we respectfully disagree here on a fundamental issue - how the entertainment media "should" bring up sensitive or controversial issues. I'd rather wave a magic wand and make a lot of folk quit being bigots of many, many flavours. But I don't have that magic wand. I'd rather it didn't take a lot of frigging painful work to change some folks' minds. But it does. I'd rather that someone else do that work for me. But I can't take that chance and I won't stand by while some kind of coloured triangle is pinned on someone who disagrees with "the norm," whoever the hell they are.
I don't even know how to react to your last sentence ... I'm not sure if it's directed at me (in which case, you're quite misinformed or have misinterpreted my words) or the entertainment industry or just the world in general. But it does reiterate the one thing we both very, very much believe in: be respectful of each other.
October 19, 2008 3:58 PM


Lisa Harney said:

Many cis people like to assert that they're confused about trans people's preferred pronouns, which gives them an opportunity to misgender trans people repeatedly. Asking them to use the proper pronouns is asking them to stop taking up that particular bit of space, because trans people do happen to be standing there and need breathing room as well. That's what my point about taking up space was about. I was thinking of Amanda Baggs' analogy about how people are like water when I wrote it. That wasn't inreference to you.

I think the most respectful thing to do is use the proper pronouns, and if the individual differs, then deal with that on an individual basis.

I understand that it takes a lot of work to change people's minds, and some of that work is criticizing them for the way they get it wrong. And, yes, I don't think there's any particular requirement for letting them get it wrong until they get it right - the criticism itself is often a spur to get it right.

For example, I was involved in a lot of discussions about how gay men and lesbian women were portrayed in the media back in the 90s, and many (straight) people made the observation that other marginalized people have been through the same pattern, and that LGB people need to understand that there's a way things are supposed to work, and none of us really bought that explanation then - so as a lesbian, it was frustrating to see that same arc invoked in reference to LGB characterizations when I seem to think that a lot of the transformation in LGB characterizations came directly from protest and criticism of those offensive portrayals.

The character's transness in the Bones episode was as a plot point. Her situation is set up as the episode's title (He in the She), and is used to set up the perception conflict that is resolved by revealing that she "used to be a man." Yes, they built a story around it, including a son who accepted her as trans and her career as a minister, but the central point of the character was to have her transness be central to the mystery. And trans characters get played up this way so frequently, as deceivers who trick people into thinking they're "really women." While the character in the story wasn't played up as tricking people - nor was she killed for that reason, but her corpse was apparently tricking people. But, really, her death had nothing to do with being trans - it was due to being in a love triangle. So why center the episode on something that's not even relevant to her murder? Sensationalism?

And yeah, perhaps I'm reacting to multiple trans people saying "I couldn't watch this episode all the way through" and multiple cis people saying "I don't think it was that bad" when I made the "seal of approval" comment. I think when a television show airs something featuring a member of a particular group, and the people who are part of that group find it difficult or offensive or triggering to watch, then yeah, I find it problematic for someone who's not part of that group to say that it's not as bad as they think.

Was the treatment a nice step forward? Probably. Was it enough? I don't think so. Was it the best they could do? Almost certainly not. Do they have a responsibility to do the best they could? No, but it's deeply disappointing when they don't.

October 19, 2008 6:00 PM


Lisa Harney said:

Ack, sorry about essay length.

Red Monkey says: No sorries! I'm excited to have real discussion going on here. (And I'll reply to the long comment later on - I've got too much to do today and probably tomorrow to continue the conversation the way it needs to be continued.)
October 19, 2008 6:04 PM


Lisa Harney said:

I'll keep an eye on it, then.

BTW, the above is not aimed at you, but a reaction to discussions about the episode that I had before I came here.

October 20, 2008 4:45 AM


Nancy said:

I mostly call people what they prefer to be called. I do have a friend of twenty or more years, who transitioned five or six years ago. Thru him, I hung with lots of trans people, and I pretty much people what the liked to be called.

October 23, 2008 9:14 PM
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