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Bruce Jenner and the Pronoun Police

Bruce Jenner came out of the closet as a Republican this weekend. In less controversial news, he ponders mutilating his penis and sewing silicon bags into his chest.

Jenner insists that he’s a woman. Politeness demands that we indulge this delusion. Alas, politeness never demands. Here, compulsion disguises itself, like the decathlete does, as something at odds with its nature.

Immediately after witnessing the final act of a Shakespearean tragedy in a Massachusetts courtroom, sports fans rubberneck a Shakespearean comedy on primetime television, atop checkout-line tabloids, and in every other place where gawkers go for gossip. Whereas Aaron Hernandez played Iago to Odin Lloyd, Bruce Jenner plays Rosalind to Diane Sawyer. None dare call him Ganymede.

But a few brave souls, with Bruce Jenner’s imprimatur, retain such anachronisms as “he,” “his,” and “him” in reference to the former Wheaties pitchman.

MTV, fearing a pronoun backlash over its particular choice within the third-person singular, affixed this “editors note” to its piece on the decathlete: “While Bruce Jenner has stated that he identifies as a woman, we have used the male pronoun throughout this article in keeping with his current stated pronoun preference.”

Jenner’s 88-year-old mother’s supportive “I’m proud of him” comment, to name another example, elicited criticism not from skeptics of transsexuality but from transsexuals themselves. ESPN’s Christina (née Chris) Kahrl noted how Jenner’s octogenarian mom “got pretty much every anticipated gender pronoun wrong by using ‘he’ and ‘him.’” Kahrl, an accomplished baseball researcher, concedes that “a mother’s experience permits mistakes where other people may inevitably and deliberately aim to offend by not using the right pronoun.”

Third-person singular pronouns surely offer a more offensive option for Bruce Jenner than “he.” Those using it—“he” and not “it”—don’t generally aim to offend but rather seek to avoid offending common sense. Transsexuals, even ones who could not pass the Crocodile Dundee test, don’t see it that way. Nearly half of transsexuals report that co-workers “misuse” pronouns “repeatedly and on purpose.” No poll exists of the opinions of the co-workers on whether they believe their office mates “misuse” pronouns “repeatedly and on purpose” in reference to the guy in the next cubicle sporting Holly Golightly’s dress and Barney Fife’s adam’s apple. A man who pursues excessive plastic surgery to feminize his features isn’t a woman, after all. To paraphrase Austin Powers, he’s a man—albeit one like Michael Jackson, who projects an odd, altered appearance. Such speakers of “he” and “him” at least grant Jenner his humanity, something the carnival-barker media do not in staging its latest freak show.

Heretofore, no one has sought to correct, let alone scold, talkers referring to the muscular, 6’2’’ Olympian as bull rather than beauty. In 1976, the Associated Press honored him with its Male Athlete of the Year Award. He received a worst actor Golden Raspberry Award nomination in 1980 for his role in the Village People’s Can’t Stop the Music. In 1982, he posed on the cover of Playgirl. Starting in 1978 and concluding in 1997, Jenner fathered six kids.

The Olympic gold medalist told Diane Sawyer that in his head he exists as a woman. Fair enough. But the rest of us don’t live in his head. Can we be forgiven for seeing him as, and saying he is, a man? Or must we all take on the role of Phoebe picturing Ganymede in Rosalind (or vice versa in this stranger-than-fiction gender-bending fact)?

In Shakespeare’s As You Like It, Rosalind, as a matter of necessity, dresses as a man when exiled to the woods. In our As They Like It, zealots, as a matter of expediency, exile anyone to the woods who dares say that sex remains a matter for Mother Nature rather than humans to decide.

Rosalind confides in Celia her cross-dressing motives:

Were it not better,
Because that I am than more common tall
That I did suit me all points like a man?
A gallant curtle-axe upon my thigh,
A boar-spear in my hand; and—in my heart
Lie there what hidden woman’s fear there will—
We’ll have a swashing and a martial outside,
As many other mannish cowards have
That do outface it with their semblances.

In contrast, Bruce Jenner, who embodies male characteristics of strength as much as Rosalind embodies female characteristics of beauty, publicized his decision through the American Broadcasting Company.

“What I’m doing is going to do some good,” Jenner told Diane Sawyer. “And we’re gonna change the world.”

Here’s where Jenner’s cry for tolerance becomes a command for obedience. It moves beyond Jenner pursuing his own happiness by altering his body to Jenner demanding others act as a means toward his happiness rather than their own by altering reality. And it all starts with third-person singular pronouns.

As FiveThirtyEight.com maintains, “the use of preferred pronouns has been an important issue.” An acronym for the phenomenon, PGPs (preferred gender pronouns), even exists. When Private Bradley Manning informed the media of his “request that, starting today, you refer to me by my new name and use the feminine pronoun (except in official mail to the confinement facility),” Time, NBC, The New York Times, and other major media outlets quickly fell in line with his preference for “her,” even if the “confinement facility” remained a stubborn holdout.

Confusing matters further, Jenner referred to himself in the royal “we” in his ABC interview and Kate Bornstein, an author who calls himself a non conformist when it comes to the male/female dichotomy, demands others use the invented, gender-neutral “ze/hir” in reference to him. “Misgendering a person by using an incorrect pronoun is an act of disrespect,” he tells Buzzfeed. Respect.

All of this confuses as much as Orlando pretending Ganymede to be Rosalind when Rosalind pretends to be Ganymede.

One can still respect the freedom of individuals to surgically alter themselves without joining to undergo the collective lobotomy. If by “change the world” Jenner means encouraging the same journalists who celebrate him to let him be, then let’s change the world. Let’s recognize his humanity. Let’s live and let live and leave him alone. But as his forthcoming reality-television program suggests, Jenner does not intend to leave the public alone.

“This wide and universal theatre presents more woeful pageants than the scene/Wherein we play in,” the Duke informs in As You Like It. “All the world’s a stage,” the sage-fool Jaques responds. “And all the men and women merely players.”

In life, like Shakespeare, sometimes the men play women and the women men. But the audience can play along with the masquerade for only so long.

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