Friday 21 Oct 2016

Sjef Frenken

“I went to a benefit concert last night,” said Jack. “Great show.”

I said, “tell me more,” which, if you know Jack, as you probably do by now, was a quite unnecessary encouragement. Actually I was just filling a conversational gap as Jack took a bite out of his souvlaki wrap.

Chomp, chomp …

”It was by ‘Babes for Breasts’, to raise money for breast cancer research. A truly entertaining evening. All five were excellent performers.” Jack mentioned their names, Ana Miura, Amanda Rheaume among them. Indeed, I would like to have gone, but since I’m virtually incommunicado with the outside world these days, I hadn’t heard or seen any of the promotional material.

Jack said: “Maybe they should have called themselves ‘Broads for Breasts’ – or Babes for Boobs’. Either way would be a better alliteration.”

I said “is there an equivalent group of performers for men – for testicular cancer, say?”

“Not that I know of,” replied Jack, “but if anyone is interested in forming one, I have a great name for the band: ‘Guys for Gonads’ To be more politically correct – less sexist – maybe they should call themselves ‘Talent for Titties.’ They had a male drummer. Actually you could also use ‘Talent for Testicles’ whether it was a male group or not.”

“Any name for a group working to end prostate cancer?” I asked.

Jack thought a moment and said “’Performers for Prostates’, maybe or ‘Players for Prostates’. Doesn’t have much of a ring, though,” he admitted. “I’ll have to check my Thesaurus.”

From there, it was an easy leap to a related topic, although I can’t remember exactly how we did it.

Jack knows that, as a minion of a government department that addressed the topic of sex-role stereotyping in the media, I was involved to some extent in that matter in the 1980s. Jack said it seemed a dead issue now.

I said “I know. After all that government and private industry effort to encourage advertisers and the media to use equivalent language, I still see and hear males referred to as ‘men’, and females as ‘ladies’. Surprisingly, it’s Giant Tiger’s weekly flyer that calls men men, and women women, not ladies.”

“What I find amazing,” said Jack, “is that men have come out of that exercise with more powerful language. I mean, you used to have an ‘actor’ and an ‘actress’’. Now men and women are both referred to as ‘actors’. It seems a step backwards.”

I said “I suppose the gender-neutral word would be “performer”, but that applies to performers of all kinds, not only actors and actresses. “’Stage performer’ is a bit cumbersome. And besides, musicians also perform on a stage. So, I guess, that hypothetical bewildered and PC-ignorant man-in-the-street, figures to hell with it all, and goes for the simple appellations he grew up with.”

“Frankly,” said Jack, “I don’t know why it is all that important not to distinguish men and women in whatever job they occupy.”

I said “it’s important to this extent that we don’t assume that certain jobs are the exclusive domain of one sex or the other. There are women pilots and women … firefighters …”

Jack interrupted: “I noticed that you hesitated when you came to firefighters. You were about to say firemen, right?”

I had to confess that he was right. It’s not as if I hadn’t been stumped before. Tailor – Seamstress. What would be the gender-neutral term? If not mailman and mailwoman, mailperson? Maildeliverer? It gets a little cumbersome. ‘Flight attendant’ is an easy substitute for steward-stewardess. But what about hangman? Executioner is too vague, and it certainly doesn’t have the literary impact of ‘hangman’. On the other hand ‘hangwoman’ or ‘hangperson’ leaves a lot to be desired too. On the other hand, we don’t have any of those around anymore, at least in Canada.”

Jack said “what about ‘taliswoman’, personholecover (sounds indecent), womenopause, persondate, Gerperson, unwomanagable…”

I said “actually, Jack, the only legitimate name in your list is ‘personholecover’, the ‘man-‘ in all the others does not come from ‘man’ in that sense. ‘Mandate’, for instance, has nothing to do with ‘man’”. Besides, what’s a gerperson?”

“It’s the neutral term for a person born in Germany,” said Jack.

I said “Funny how it’s OK to use ‘Frenchman,’ ‘Dutchman’ and ‘Englishman’, but ‘Chinaman’ is considered derogatory.”

“Yes,” said Jack, “the world is full of traps for the unwary.”

Do not, dear reader, let these wise words fall on deaf ears!

Sjef Frenken is a renaissance man: thinker, writer, translator and composer of much music. A main interest, he has many, is setting to music the poetry, written for children, during the Victorian and Edwardian eras. Nimble of mind, Sjef is a youthful retiree and a great-grandfather. Mostly he's a content man, which facilitates his relentless multi-media creativity.

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