Pronouns and Inannimate Objects: Signs of Social Conditioning 

Have you ever witnessed that magical moment when a guy is flaunting his car, expensive, classic, probably a fixer-up-erer, and he turns to his mates with a satisfied sigh and says “Yeah, she’s a beauty”.

Hit pause on that frame and rewind for me. “Yeah, SHE’S a beauty.”

And it’s not just cars. Ask any male what he thinks of his barbecue or his new fishing rod and you’ll hear it again. For some reason anything they can classify ‘beautiful’ gets tagged with a feminine pronoun.

I was thinking about this recently when it suddenly occurred to me that as  a female, I have a tendency, innately it seems, to affectionately refer to my most prized possessions as if they are male. Cups of tea, my watch, my computer. Once even my boobs.

And I have come to the slightly unscientific theory that this is reflective of the social conditioning I grew up surrounded by. As a woman the expectation is that I will grow up and find a male to attach myself to. So inherent is this desire to find the perfect guy, or in the case of the males, the perfect girl, we start to label things we perceive as perfect by the gender of which we are on the hunt for.

The exception of course would be objects with which one can sensibly connect either gender, such as a children’s toy. But again much of the desire to assign a gender to an object must stem from what society has conditioned us to believe is appropriate.

Take some European languages, French, German. They have genders for every inannimate object one might possess, from jeans to toasters. But these genders aren’t always accurate by Australian standards. The German word for skirt carries a masculine pronoun.

And that’s the difference. In English, the words don’t have that associated meaning until one places some kind of socially implied significance to it. Anything with four wheels that makes a guy proud will always be his girl and anything with a bit of grunt and leather interior will be her man.

I turn to Barthes’ study of semiotics, the idea that signifier and the signified are linked by the meaning we place upon it. Typically this is influenced by advertising, media, our conditioning throughout our lives. And his serves as a partial explanation. It tells us a little of why things may possess a gender, but that can be subjective. What is male to me might be female to another. So at the end of the day, what conclusion can we draw other than to assume it’s not our fault at all. It’s mother natures’.


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