Many times, a writer of fiction wants to give a character an Ambiguous Gender
. It might be because it's an important detail in the mystery or because the character is really in disguise and the writer doesn't want any potential crossdressing stigma. Or possibly they really are of a non-binary gender, and the author is trying to accurately represent their identity. The easy solution is to only have the character be directly addressed, but what happens if you need to have other characters talk about them?
Enter Gender Neutral Writing
. In English, this is when every attempt is made to avoid any use of the pronouns "he", "she", "him", "her", or any references to the gender identity of a character.
English ranks about middle in the difficulty of pulling this off, since most words in English do not need to be gender-specific, and even most nouns can be fairly flexible too. However the gendered pronouns are very ingrained into normal dialogue, especially when one is referring to other people, and there aren't too many alternatives ('they', 'their' and 'them', mostly), so it's painfully obvious when you are
trying to conceal gender (though there are some tricks that make it easier
), almost always enough to draw attention to itself. This may not be a bad thing if the whole point is that they are
a non-binary gender, since you will obviously be using their preferred pronoun. However, even if you have a binary character whose gender you are trying to conceal, there is no reason not to have characters who don't know use gender-neutral pronouns such as they/them or ze/hir. After all, the only way to get such things sounding less strange is to start using them more often.
And let's not forget the far more strongly-gendered languages (like Spanish or German) where pulling this off without looking or sounding 'fake' is next to impossible...
On the other hand, languages on the other end of the spectrum (such as Japanese) don't bother with pronouns much anyway, making it much easier and more natural to obscure a character's gender (which explains why localization teams have so much trouble with this issue in anime and video games).
This is most common in interactive fiction designed for players and avatars of any sex and gender. This generally shows up in games where the developers were too constrained (or, perhaps, too lazy) to have the game capable of modifying the dialogue to fit all genders, so they try to write for all. This leads to an AFGNCAAP
(although as that article mentions, they more often than not fail because they assume Most Gamers Are Male
). The Choose Your Own Adventure
genre makes heavy use of this, since they won't exactly split the book into volumes to accommodate everyone. Often, they get around this by either assuming a gender based on the genre of the book (e.g., a science fiction book would assume a male reader while a book that places the character as nobility in medieval Europe would assume a female reader) or by just creating a very generic character with a Purely Aesthetic Gender
. This is also the main reason Choose Your Own Adventure
books are written in the second person. It's not entirely rare for it to show up in other fiction, though.
See also Pronoun Trouble
, which is when translation issues cause the natural-looking gender neutrality to quickly break down when attempted in other languages.
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Anime and Manga
- For a story-within-a-story version, the protagonist of Yamaji Ebine's Indigo Blue is a (closeted lesbian) writer who has written a short story about a romantic/sexual interlude between two characters, one of whom is female, while the other's gender is unspecified. Apparently, pretty much everyone assumes the second character to be male (except for the woman who eventually becomes the writer's lover).
- Chris Claremont's Sovereign Seven had a character named Indigo, whose gender nobody could work out. This was another example that turned out to be gender-neutral.
- In With Strings Attached, the Baravadans never refer to an individual's sex via pronouns; all persons are “sars,” and gods are “godsars.” This is because rebirth is common (or at least it was when the Baravadans were actually having children), and how do you refer to a woman who is reborn in a boy's body? Also, the Dalns gods are sexless, so it would be inappropriate to assign gender to them.
- Notably, when referring to the individual noted above, George at first tries to remember to use “sar,” but gives up and refers to sar as “she” for the rest of the book. And when the four use gender-specific pronouns, one Baravadan notes how archaic their terminology is.
- Before Blaise Zabini from Harry Potter was established as male, there was fanfic with male!Blaise, female!Blaise, and either!Blaise, which avoided specifying.
- Edel, the Series Mascot of Puzzle Hunt Precure, is agender and written as such. This isn't true of all fairies (Nono, Miu's fairy, is a girl) and seems to be about as common for them as it is for humans.
- Done in The Dark Knight Rises when referring to "the child". This helps to conceal the fact that the story is about Talia Al'Ghul and not Bane.
- Every single character in Alien was written to be gender neutral, creating a lot of freedom in casting the film and setting the stage for one of the best-remembered action heroines in cinema history.
- Practically ubiquitous with the Choose Your Own Adventure genre of books, as mentioned above. With the exception of the recent rerelease, which tends to avoid showing you, illustrations tend to make it obvious what gender "you" are, as well as about what age. (In some of them, you were clearly an adult; in most, you were a kid.)
- Although the text often makes gender very vague or eliminates it. One example specified a character entering "the bathroom for the opposite sex" and gave a potential romantic interest a gender-neutral name.
- The Finnish language has no gendered pronouns, so writing gender-neutral text isn't hard. A good example is the novel Pimeästä maasta by the Finnish fantasy writer Maarit Verronen, where the protagonist has a made-up name and it's impossible to infer their gender from anything they do. It turns out the protagonist lives in another world where gender doesn't even exist the way it does in ours.
- Bone Dance by Emma Bull manages (in part by virtue of being written in the first person) to avoid mentioning the main character's gender for half the book. The character turns out to be genderless.
- The original Kino's Journey novels were written so as not to reveal the gender of the protagonist (until a certain point, anyway), although the English translations throw that entirely out the window since it's a lot harder to do in English.
- The Turbulent Term of Tyke Tiler manages to avoid mentioning the eponymous character's sex for the entire book while convincing us very cleverly that Tyke is a boy, until we see the principal call, "Get down from there, Theodora Tiler, you naughty girl!"
- As a fictional example, Bradley does a book report in There's a Boy in the Girls' Bathroom, and only realizes as he's writing the report that the narrator's name and gender are never mentioned.
- Heinlein's Tunnel in the Sky: Rod meets Jack, and doesn't realize her name is short for "Jacqueline" until someone else tells him she's a girl. Up until then there had been no explicit reference to Jack's gender.
- The novel Written on the Body by Jeanette Winterson is written in first person, which makes it easier for the reader not to notice that there are no explicit indicators as to the main character's gender.
- Fantasy author Marion Zimmer Bradley wrote "The Secret of the Blue Star", a Thieves' World story about the heroine Lythande (a female wizard in a world where wizards are always male), which is gender neutral until the last two paragraphs.
- Almost, but not quite. At one point Ms. Bradley slipped up and repeatedly referred to Lythande as a male.
Lythande drew from the folds of his robe a small pouch containing a quantity of sweet-smelling herbs, rolled them into a blue-grey leaf, and touched his ring to spark the roll alight. He drew on the smoke, which drifted up sweet and greyish.
- The four legal whodunnits by Sarah Caudwell (starting with Thus Was Adonis Murdered) are narrated by the legal scholar Dr Hilary Tamar, of undefined gender (and only a slightly unreliable narrator).
- This was done in Dragonlance for the Blue Dragon Highlord, who is later revealed to be Kitiara uth Matar, the half-sister of Caramon and Raistlin, and Tanis's former lover.
- Markus Zusak has said that he left the gender of Death, who narrates The Book Thief, open to interpretation. He also refrains from describing what Death looks like, though the character does say once that if the readers want to know, they can look into a mirror.
- In the Coldfire Trilogy, the Master of Lema, the first book's Big Bad, is a woman. This is revealed dramatically after the Master captures and tortures Villain Protagonist Gerald Tarrant — he's a vampire who preys almost entirely on young women, if given the choice so being at a woman's mercy is particularly galling for him.
- The Heyoka stories of the Whateley Universe, mainly because Heyoka's gender is not constant. Jamie Carson was born female. Her mutation made him mostly male. He has the power to absorb spirits to gain their powers, but he shapeshifts at the same time to look like the spirit figure. So he's been a very male part-bear guy, and an agendered snake-person, and a very female earth-mother figure with green hair, to name but three forms.
- Done very well by Vonda N. McIntyre with Merideth in Dreamsnake.
- Sam Berlant, a minor character in The Android's Dream by John Scalzi, never has a specified gender. Sam's partner is definitely male, but Sam could be any gender as long as Sam's sexuality involves being attracted to men.
- In the Honor Harrington series, the rule seems to be: When discussing non-specific people in the generic, use your own gender as the neutral pronoun. So women like Honor use "she", "her" and "hers", while men like White Haven use "he", "him" and "his".
- This character profile from Ronald Searle and Geoffrey Gorer's 1955 "Modern Types". The illustration is ambiguously gendered as well.
- Optimus Yarnspinner from the stories of Walter Moers once wrote a novel where he doesn't reveal whether the protagonist is male or female for several hundred pages. The answer BTW is: Neither nor - volterks are sexless.
- For the first few books of the Malloreon, David Eddings avoided using pronouns when writing about Zandramas. Once the heroes found out that Zandramas was actually a woman, he started using female pronouns.
- Played for comedy in 30 Rock. Jack sets Liz up on a blind date with "Thomas", not mentioning that the date's full name is Gretchen Thomas...
- An episode of How I Met Your Mother revolves around Marshall telling his friends anecdotes about a Crazy Awesome workmate of his; when it turns out she's a she, he reveals he carefully avoided specifying her gender so his wife wouldn't disapprove of his hanging around with her. All the Flashback clips show him only referring to her as "Jenkins", and never using any pronouns at all. Must have been difficult to carry on any kind of extended conversation like that...
Marshall: So he just starts randomly pointing to people, and goes, 'Him! Her! Her! Him! Him! ...Jenkins!'
Play By Post Games
- In the Dino Attack RPG, to reflect the ignorance of his characters, PeabodySam refrained from identifying Pterisa's gender. Amusingly, although PeabodySam struggled to play the trope straight, Brikman McStudz simply averted the trope by using "her" right off the bat.
- Some translations of The Bible, such as the New Century Version and Today's New International Version, use gender-neutral language throughout the whole text except in parts where the context specifically addresses a male or a female.
- In Third Edition, Dungeons & Dragons averted this by using gender pronouns but alternating which gender between sections. 4th Edition is pretty much entirely written in second person, using "you". Except for in the DM guide, where it alternates.
- Second Edition created the "Iconic Characters" to make things easier. If giving an example of a cleric doing something they could use Jozan the Cleric, a "he". If they were talking about a wizard they'd use Mialee, a "she". This edition also had a section explaining the use of the "he" pronoun as generic.
- All Flesh Must Be Eaten alternates between gender pronouns between chapters. When there are exceptions (for example, when a character type is almost always one gender or another and thus referring to them by the other gender pronoun would make no sense), it specifies.
- Invoked in the playbills for most all professional productions of the musical Chicago with the character Mary Sunshine, who's actually a guy. In addition to the Gender Neutral Writing for his bio, the person playing "her" will always be referred to with his first name shortened, for example D. Sabella or M. O'Haughey.
- Likewise, in the first production of the Broadway play M. Butterfly, the actor playing the disguised character Song Liling was credited as "BD Wong", although he had previously gone by "Bradd Wong". He got so much acclaim for the role that he's listed his name as "BD" ever since.
- MMORPGs with lazy designers frequently make use of this due to the character creation almost always allowing for male or female characters. Most, however, will at least have a cipher that can alternate between the gender pronouns when necessary.
- City of Heroes uses this exclusively... and looks pretty silly in places because of it. One particular example of dialogue is, "A foolish youngster called [insert player name here] tried to stop me, but it was no contest. The nuisance was easily dispatched. If I had only known what was in store, perhaps I would have hoped to lose." Who honestly talks like that?
- It's been straight up phased out in the recent updates. The Mission Architect gives the option of using gender-specific pronouns.
- In the Knights of the Old Republic comics by John Jackson Miller, everything about Darth Revan is written without specifying a gender. This was because the character eventually becomes the Player Character in the game, and since the game allowed you to select your gender and there was no official stance from Lucasfilm on the character's gender at the time, gender neutral writing was necessary in order to avoid contradicting future developments. Since then, Lucasfilm have specified an official gender for the character (male), avoiding further use of this.
- In the computer game Star Trek: Voyager: Elite Force, you can choose to play as a male or female. Either way, you are Ensign "Alex" Munro, with "Alex" short for either Alexander or Alexandria. Everyone addresses you as "Ensign", "Munro", or "Ensign Munro", so it works.
- This is done away with in the sequel, making Ensign Munro canonically male, in order to allow the game to have a romantic subplot without adding too many characters.
- During Jack's recruitment mission in Mass Effect 2, the writers were careful not to use any pronouns when referring to Jack (and they talk about Jack a lot) until The Reveal. It probably would have worked, too, if it weren't for the fact that she was featured in one of the trailers. Oops.
- The Pyro of Team Fortress 2 is intended to be ambiguously gendered, though a few people from Valve accidentally (or not) failed to do this once in an interview, and most of the player base now assumes that the Pyro is something.
- In post on the official TF2 blog, the phrase "when Pyro hears about this, she'll be inconsolable" popped up. It was quickly altered to "Pyro is going to be inconsolable now".
- This trope even shows up in "Meet the Pyro": the RED Heavy says Pyro is not a man, but a "thing/it" while according to the closed captions Scout says about the Pyro "He's not here, is she?"
- In the Interactive Fiction game Jigsaw, the gender of Black, a Well-Intentioned Extremist and the PC's intended Love Interest, is never mentioned, and neither is the PC's - though they do seem to be of opposite genders (or at least capable of passing as such).
- The Japanese manual of Metroid works with this, but the US translation deliberately positions Samus as a man.
- In Kingdom Hearts: 358/2 Days, almost nobody but Roxas refers to Xion by gender. This is understandable, since while Xion considers herself female, she's a memory construct who everyone sees differently based on their connection to Sora. Xigbar, for instance, sees Ven...who looks exactly like Roxas (Kudzu Plot ahoy).
- NiGHTS Journey of Dreams, in the English manual translations at least, never uses pronouns, always referring to NiGHTS as "NiGHTS".
- Used very frequently in the Pokémon games in both the main series and some of the spin-offs, typically by always referring to the characters in question by name. The Japanese text has no such issues, but certain sentences in the localizations such as "My kid is called MAY! MAY is a Pokemon Trainer! You should go see MAY!" are a little disconcerting.
- Also comes up in the text for The Sims 2's memory system, though in this case it's just the designers being too lazy to make alternate text strings. They didn't even bother with names, so you'll see phrases like "I like this Sim and they are great!"
- In Dungeon Crawl, the player doesn't even have a Purely Aesthetic Gender, and the gods are all canonically genderless as well. In both cases, gender neutral writing is used to discuss them instead.
- In Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney: Justice for All: everyone in court refers to Adrian Andrews this way while the assassin De Killer is listening to proceedings, because in one later testimony he refers to the (female) Adrian as 'him', thus revealing that he did not meet her in person.
- However, earlier, without being told, refers to his client's manager as a she without being told, most likely an oversight or having never heard the manager's actual name.
- One Fan Fic plays around with this, having Matt go into long and mildly explicit descriptions of what he'd like to do to her, leaving Shelly de Killer rather unnerved by his client's flagrant display of gay.
- Done to infuriating effect in Episode 7 of Umineko no Naku Koro ni: that damn narration won't tell us if Lion is a guy or a girl. It is done subtly enough that you will only notice after a while that something is off. It is also used in Yasu/Beatrice's flashback; since Yasu is later revealed to be an Alternate Self of Lion.
- Vaarsuvius of The Order of the Stick fame. Comic author Richard Burlew has so far been able to combine coherent verbosity and gender-neutral writing in a way that still keeps the readers guessing at Vaarsuvius's gender.
- Part of this is that characters in the strip itself rarely use gender-neutral terms to describe V, unless they're playing up V's androgyny. It's just that individual characters — who don't know V's gender any more than we do — are all over the map regarding which pronoun they use.
- And on this strip, his/her children refer to their parents as "Parent" and "Other Parent". This is a quirk of the fact that they are speaking elvish but under Translation Convention. A later comment makes this even more so as Vaarsuvius says the children are adopted, so V's spouse might not even be the opposite sex!
- Required whenever characters speak about Riley from Sire. S/he makes guessing his/her gender a little game. Some characters use Riley's name whenever referring to Riley. Some specifically gender her a female or him a male. Only Riley and Susan know for sure who is right. Susan, enjoying the game, avoids gender pronouns.
- In one Epic Tales story, Diana needs help from a friend to hack into CODIS. While talking about this friend both Diana and John keep referring to this friend with the word friend, rather then using 'he' or 'she'. It's so noticeable that it's obviously intentional.
- A slightly less obvious example is when it's mentioned that Diana is going out with someone named Alex. No gender is mentioned for Alex.
- RWBY uses the term "Huntsmen" and "Huntresses" instead of "Hunters".
- Parodied in Futurama: The Beast with a Billion Backs, in which the character the title refers to does not have a human gender and prefers to be referred to as "shklim" or "shkler" rather than him or her.