Sunday, September 14, 2008

Funny/"Ha Ha" vs. Funny/Oppressive

My buddy C likes to distinguish between funny/"ha ha" and funny/"oppressive." People so often confuse the two. If I say, "There were two dozen clowns in a VW bug. It was so funny!" that's funny/"ha ha." If I say, "Isn't it funny how the TSA stopped bothering me after they realized that I'm white?" that's funny/oppressive. I might still laugh at it, but it's not laughing with joy. It's laughing so as not to be overwhelmed by the wrongness of it.

I thought of this today when I found myself drafting an email to a friend with the subject line "Want to hear a funny story about gender?" It was sort of funny/"ha ha," but the more I let myself vent about it, the more I realized it was also about an oppressive underlying situation.

The story is this: I recently wrote a book review for an academic journal. Today I got an email from the publisher asking me to do final proofs on it. That means, to go over it for any typos or other very minor edits that are needed before publication. The copy editor provided a list of "queries" for me to look at. Queries mark places where the editor saw a problem and wanted me to provide or approve a correction. This time I got very few queries - four to be exact.

The funny part is that two of the four queries concerned my pronoun! As usual, I used third-gender pronouns in my author bio. There are two pronouns in this three-sentence version of the bio, and the editor had marked both of them. The first query read "Change ze to he." The second read, "Change? ze to he?"

Oops! I explained briefly and referred the editor to my article in the same journal from a few years ago, which includes a lengthy footnote about third gender pronouns, for a similar reason.

So what kind of funny is it? Is it funny/"ha ha"? I have to admit, it is a little. I did laugh with a little bit of joy when I imagined the editor's confusion upon finding the second "ze" and having to doubt whether it was really a typo.

It's also funny/"really, people?" because it does not cease to be bizarre to me that I have to have outside citations to prove that third gender pronouns are legitimate. I actually use these words in conversation on a daily basis, and I am understood in my community when I do that. This has been true in my life for about 8 years. Still, they're not real to a mainstream publisher unless I can provide citations. I generally shy away from reading ethnographies of people like me - talk about funny/oppressive! - and literary references don't count for much unless you're writing about literature. So to my publisher, these words do not exist.

If that's bizarre, then I'm not even sure what the adjective would be for the fact that in this case I can legitimize my use of third gender pronouns for myself by citing ... me! The reference I provided the editor was an article on queer theory, which I wrote and this same journal published only two years ago.

And if any of you were wondering, this is a perfect example of why I'm not in a doctoral program right now. Academia, and perhaps academic writing in particular, seems to encourage those who are deeply engaged in it to give up the skill of noticing reality when it punches them in the nose without a citation - a skill which I prefer to retain.

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