I once knew a celebrated speaker whose signature story involved a young woman behind the counter at a fast-food place. She handed him the ice-cream cone he had ordered, then asked – following the script she had been given – “Would you like a dessert to go with that?”
When I worked the incident into a piece I was writing for a client, a committed feminist objected. Why identify her as a woman? Did her gender really matter?
Not really, but if it really was a woman he encountered, why not include that detail? It helps readers get the full picture. If it had been a man (and men, too, sometimes follow scripts blindly), few would object to referring to him as “he.” If it was just a piece of fiction designed to drive home a point – “Think about what you’re saying before you say it” – what’s the harm? You could call the server “Pat” and let the reader decide whether it was Patrick or Patricia.
I think the feminist lady is probably more comfortable today. The distinctions between genders have become moderately blurred during the intervening 20 years, and to tell the truth, I sometimes have trouble telling the guys from the ladies. When I see a person at that certain well-known discount store and she’s sporting close-cropped hair, wearing loose-fitting clothes, or wearing clothes that are filled out a bit too amply, I often perceive a man wile Miss Peggy, walking beside me, perceives a woman.
Sometimes, a simple introduction will solve the mystery. If the name is Gerald, I assume it’s a man. If It’s Geraldine, I know it’s a woman. You can also assume that Paul is a man and Pauline or Paulette is a woman.
I have a great-grandchild named Charlie. She’s a cute little nipper. That’s right, SHE is a cutie pie.
I’m confident that after she has outgrown toddler’s clothes it will be easy to tell that Charlie Owens is a girl. Her mother is a striking blonde, and you have no trouble deciding whether she came from an X chromosome or an XY chromosome. Mama Katie will see that Charlie’s clothes take on a feminine look long before the physical evidence announces her gender.
There are women’s names that can be morphed into “Charlie.” “Charlene” comes to mind. So does “Charlotte.” But by the reasoning of my female critic of long ago, why should women be stuck with one category of names and men with another?
Why can we name men “Augustus” while women must be named “Augusta?” Why does “William” have to become “Wilhelmina” when the Y chromosome is absent?
I can foresee the time when cutting-edge couples will deem it retrograde to name their children along sexist lines. There’s enough precedent to open the way for either-sex names.
“Shirley” and “Beverly” were both masculine names in days of old. I have cousins whose grandfather was named Shirley, and he was a burly man with no hint of femininity. Shirley Temple tipped the scales in favor of the feminine Shirley.
Gene Tierney shared my given name, and I was surprised and delighted to learn that she was a lovely actress, unlike my other namesake, singing cowboy Gene Autry.
Many a ladylike person bears the name “Billie,” though it’s spelled with “ie” at the end instead of a “y.” Usually, too, the girls are called by a middle name as well: Billie Faye is definitely a girl, and “Billy” is more likely to be a boy, though I don’t recall meeting a girl name “Bill.” I once knew a some-time journalist named “Douglas,” and she was female.
Carol Burnette once portrayed “a boy named Fred” in the Broadway and TV movie versions of “Once Upon a Mattress.” But her full name was “Winnifred,” which is certifiably femine.
Johnny Cash got into an eye-gouging fight with his dad in the lyrics of “A Boy Named Sue.” His dad named him that so he would grow up tough, getting vengeance for cruel playground taunts.
So yeah, we’re going to see more girls named “Johnny” and “Pete” and “Douglas.”
But I suspect that, people being people, we’re going to find other ways of identifying strangers by gender.
You get a partial look at the future by wandering the aisles of that certain big discount store. Lately I’ve noticed that women tend to wear outer clothing cut so that it reveals the underwear beneath. If the outerwear doesn’t cover the bra straps, or is completely open on the sides and above the waist, you can generally be sure that, at this stage of fashion evolution, you’re looking at a woman.
These woman are probably following the lead of television performers, though it’s seldom hard to tell whether the characters on the small screen are men or women.
Way back in the ’50s, the women and girls liked to wear diaphanous blouses that allowed the boys and men to see their bras pretty clearly. But they were modest bras by today’s standards.
I look for this trend to return soon, with see-through tops and diaphanous bras as well, except for a set of pastie-like pads front and center. They’ll probably start with a flesh-colored lining that will gradually fade away as the look catches on.
I’m not saying I advocate this, but it does seem a logical development for fashion designers who want to reveal all while maintaining a pretense of modesty.
I’d rather go back to the old days, when men looked like men and women looked like women while displaying neither flesh nor undergarment. And when I receive a communication under the name of Gene, Bill, Pete or Luther, I’d like to be able to assume I’m hearing from a male. As for Charlie, hang on to the name, Sweetie Pie, but keep your shirt on.
Gene Owens is a retired newspaper editor and columnist who graduated from Graniteville High School and now lives in Anderson. Readers may email Gene Owens at WadesDixieco@aol.com or visit his website at www.wadesdixieco.com.