Student guest post: Respect your subjects — and their pronouns

Students in JOMC 457, Advanced Editing, are writing guests posts for this blog this semester. This is the fourth of those posts. Mary Alta Feddeman is a senior journalism major at UNC-Chapel Hill with minors in women’s and gender studies and creative writing. She is from Chapel Hill, and she is interested in alternative education rooted in youth empowerment and sustainable food production, particularly in underserved communities. She likes writing essays and articles about queer politics, media representation, mental health and intersectional feminism. She also writes poetry and bikes a lot.

Recently, the mainstream entertainment media has become completely preoccupied with the gender identity of Bruce Jenner, the former Olympian and ex-spouse of Kris Kardashian, matriarch of the Kardashian clan. (Note: I will be using “they” as the pronoun referring to Jenner, but more on that later.)

As Janet Mock explained on her MSNBC show “So Popular,” the mainstream media’s coverage of Jenner’s transition—eventually confirmed by their family members—has been horrendous. Here’s a brief but representative list of Jenner-related headlines from some mainstream news outlets:

  • “Bruce Jenner To Reveal New Name As A Woman — See What He’s Been Considering” (Inquistr)
  • “Bruce Jenner confirms he’s taking hormones to look more like a woman” (The Washington Times)
  • “Transitioning from male to female: Bruce Jenner, ‘He is finally happy.'”(People)
  • “The Transition of Bruce Jenner: A Shock to Some, Visible to All” (The New York Times)

All of these are problematic, as are the stories they headline, for several reasons. First of all, the voyeuristic lens through which these publications are scrutinizing not just the life of Jenner, but the deeply personal aspects of so many lives, is insulting and needs to significantly calm down. Second, the boiling down of someone’s gender identity to hormone use, body parts and surgery is reductive, and not at all the narrative that does justice to the complex and whole lives of trans people.

But what I’m concerned with in this particular piece is the misgendering of Jenner, by way of their pronouns. These articles all use the pronoun “he,” as do the articles of every other publication that I came across in my extensive Googling. Mock explained on her show: “Pronouns may not seem like a big deal, but to trans people, they are yet another minefield to navigate in our gender binary-obsessed culture.”

Jenner’s transition has now been confirmed by their family members, but Jenner has not yet spoken to the media directly about their transition, their pronouns, or whether they wish to be called by a different name — despite what many of these publications would lead readers to believe. It’s rumored that Jenner’s interview with Diane Sawyer about their transition will be broadcast in the coming weeks, but until then, we do not have Jenner to rely on for answers.

So, what’s the respectful — and correct — thing to do as editors? Become more flexible with our adhesion to style guides in this particular category and use “they” pronouns until Jenner has personally made a statement on the matter. Referring to Jenner with “he” pronouns is not only blatantly rude to the subject of these articles. It is also, now, fundamentally incorrect.

Janet Mock and I agree on this subject, and it’s surprising to me that more publications did not consult with members of trans or queer communities before writing these pieces, in addition to consulting their stylebooks.

Mock summed up her response beautifully, saying, “What I don’t understand about the Jenner story is this: The media is making every effort to proclaim that Jenner is living as a woman. However, the media refuses to call Jenner ‘she’ or even ‘they.’ If we’re going to report on Jenner’s identity as a woman, we should be vigilant in ensuring we use gender-inclusive language, starting with ‘they’ until Jenner — the only source that actually matters — tells us otherwise.”