If words and expressions that imply that women are inferior to men are constantly used, that assumption of inferiority tends to become part of our mindset. Hence the need to adjust our language when our ideas evolve. Language is a powerful tool: poets and propagandists know this – as indeed do victims of discrimination.”
UNESCO (1987). Guidelines on Gender-Neutral Language (pg. 2)
In the early 1970′s, feminist language reformers and univerities began promoting a gender-neutral style of academic writing that would eliminate the generic use of masculine pronouns, such as ‘he,’ and ‘man.’ This movement began because the exclusive use of masculine pronouns is seen as a way to render women invisible, and as a way to promote maleness as being the norm. Unfortunately, while there are English pronouns that are gender neutered- such as it, its, and it’s- there are no gender neutral English pronouns. As a result, using gender neutral language can often present a challenge to the writer. In fact the writers of Dungeons & Dragons have resorted to at least three different methods that deal with the issue of gendered pronouns in a way that is respectful of female gamers. Each of these methods have had varying degrees of success, some more success than others. The purpose of this article is to examine the pros and cons of these three methods, and to suggest some alternative methods that could be used for Fourth Edition.
He or She
One of the earliest examples of gender neutral language in writing was the use of both masculine and feminine pronouns as the generic. In fact, this is the method that was used in the First Edition Player’s Handbook. In many situations, where a generic pronoun is needed, the writers have chosen to use ‘he or she,’ ‘him or her,’ and ‘himself or herself.’
Of course, as anyone who has tried this method can attest to, the use of masculine and feminine pronouns as the generic can lead to some very awkwardly worded sentences and/or paragraphs. The first paragraph, from the section entitled ‘Establishing Your Character’ on page 34 of the Player’s Handbook is a perfect example of this.
“[After determining your character's abilities, race, class, alignment, and hit points] you must name him or her… name a next of kin as heir to the possessions of the character if he or she should meet an untimely death… [and have your character] acquaint himself or herself with the territory.”1
Another issue with this method is that, while both the masculine and feminine pronouns are represented, the masculine pronoun always comes first, suggesting that maleness always has first priority. While some writers, in other fields have chosen to occasionally reverse the order of these pronouns, the writers of the First Edition Player’s Handbook chose not to do this. While this by itself doesn’t necessarily suggest that the writers were trying to actively exclude women from the game, when taken in combination with other writings from the First Edition Player’s Handbook (see my blog entry entitled “-1 Str, +1 Cha”), suggests that there was at least an unconscious intent to do so.
A Controversial Note
When Second Edition came out, a decision was made to drop the use of gender neutral language altogether in favor of using the male pronoun exclusively. Foreseeing the possibility that some gamers might object to this, a note was then added to the introductory chapter.
“The male pronoun (he, him, his) is used exclusively throughout the AD&D game rules. We hope this won’t be construed by anyone to be an attempt to exclude females from the game or imply their exclusion. Centuries of use have neutered the male pronoun. In written material it is clear, concise, and familiar. Nothing else is.”2
Setting aside, for the moment, the unfortunate choice of words “We hope that this won’t be construed by anyone as an attempt to exclude females,” as opposed to “This isn’t an attempt to exclude females,” what particularly interests me about this statement is the picture directly underneath it. Here we have a picture of a male barbarian, standing alone on a hillside, a subconscious nod to the active exclusion of women that was, in fact occurring within the game. If this artwork doesn’t convince you, then consider that out of 49 pieces of artwork in the Second Edition Player’s Handbook- artwork that depicts a total of 106 humanoids with identifiable gender, and which includes the front cover- there are only six female characters represented. Out of these six, only four are PCs, only two are shown actively defending themselves, and none of them are depicted on the front cover, or in the chapters on selecting player character races and classes. Meanwhile, out of all the text using example PCs to describe a particular rules concept, I could only find one that includes a female PC. So, while the disclaimer quoted above may ‘hope’ that the active exclusion of the feminine pronoun won’t be construed as an attempt to exclude females from the game, the fact that is coupled with a lack of artwork depicting women, and a lack of female characters used as examples in the text, suggests that there was, at least, an unconscious attempt to exclude women from the game.
When Third Edition came out, the writers of the Player’s Handbook decided to take a completely novel approach to the issue of gendered pronouns. Instead of trying to get around them, the writers embraced them by creating “iconic” characters, some of which were male, and some of which were female. These iconic characters then served as representatives of the various classes listed in the Player’s Handbook, both in terms of examples, and in terms of gendered pronouns. For example, the cleric is represented by a male, iconic character, named Jozan, while the druid is represented by a female, iconic character, named Vadania. Whenever the text refers to clerics, the writers use masculine pronouns, and every time the text refers to a druid, the writers use feminine pronouns. This decision also seems to have had an effect on the artwork, since there is a much higher percentage of female characters represented throughout the Player’s Handbook.3
Unfortunately, while this highly original idea has certainly had an enormously beneficial effect on the game, it is not without its faults. Out of eleven classes, only five of the iconics are female characters, and while this fact may be explained by the fact that there are an odd number of classes presented, what can’t be explained quite so easily is the fact that there are thirteen pieces of artwork presented for the classes, and only five of them depict females. Also, it should be noted that while there is a fairly balanced representation of male and female characters amongst the classes, there is also some evidence of gendered stereotyping in the selection of the iconics for certain classes. For example, there is a commonly held belief that female gamers typically prefer playing clerics, druids, rogues, and wizards.4 Out of these four classes, three of them are represented by female iconics. So while there have certainly been some strides in the inclusion of female players, it seems that there are still some hurdles left to clear before true gender neutrality is achieved.
Alternative Methods for Dealing with Gendered Pronouns
There are actually several methods for dealing with gendered pronouns in written language, and with the upcoming release of Fourth Edition, an opportunity to examine these alternative methods has arrived.
One method for dealing with gendered pronouns is to introduce gender neutral, singular pronouns into the English language. An example that is commonly used in conversation, is to use plural pronouns in the singular (Example: “A druid gains the ability to turn themself into any Small or Medium animal).5 Another method, that was made famous by the mathematician, Michael Spivak,is to drop the ‘th’ from gender neutral, plural pronouns, such as ‘they,’ to be used as gender neutral, singular pronouns (Example: “A druid gains the ability to turn emself into any Small or Medium animal).6 Unfortunately, these particular methods remain controversial, and have not seen widespread use in writing.
Another method for dealing with gendered pronouns is to rephrase sentences so that they can take advantage of more gender neutral language. For example, by pluralizing the subject in a sentence, the writer can take advantage of gender neutral, plural pronouns that already exist (Example: “Druids gain the ability to turn themselves into any Small or Medium animal). For a more exhaustive treatise on the subject of rephrasing sentences so that they are more gender neutral, take a look at the book, “Guidelines on Gender Neutral Language.”
1. Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Player’s Handbook – First Edition (1978). Lake Geneva, WI: TSR Games.
2. Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Player’s Handbook – Second Edition (1995). Lake Geneva, WI: TSR Games.
3. The Player’s Handbook – Core Rulebook 3.5 (2003). Renton, WA: Wizards of the Coast, Inc.
4. Women and Fourth Edition
5. The Great Pronoun Debate
6. Spivak Pronoun