The Swedish Hen Debate

I saw a sign on a newspaper stand today- ‘Are you provoked by hen?’. The hen that is being referred to is a new term of address that is gender neutral and that can be used to describe male or female. And this is why it’s provoking for some.

In Swedish, ‘han’ is he, and ‘hon’ is her. The term ‘hen’ is suggested to cover both. The pronoun was suggested in an article in 1994 – but actually it was initiated earlier than that. In 1966, it was introduced by journalist Rolf Dunås in a local newspaper in the town of Uppsala.

But why is it causing a storm now? In January this year, a children’s book called ‘Kivi and the monster dog’ was released. In the book, Kivi was referred to as ‘hen’. Was she a girl or was he a boy? The author deemed it unnecessary and the children readers didn’t mind. But parents, media, politicians and certain schools reacted strongly.

In another experiment,at a primary school in Stockholm, the teachers use the term ‘hen’ when talking about the children. The intention is to avoid pigeonholing children at an early age into a specific gender with everything that that brings with it. Again, mixed repsonses have been observed in the parents – some love it and othjers hate it.

In cultural studies, there is a dimension known as ‘Maculinity-Femininity’. This dimension refers to how clearly separated the gender roles are in a society. A Masculine society is a society where men do traditonal men’s things (work, fix the car, building, plumbing etc), and women do traditional women’s things (cook, clean, take care of children). A Feminine society is a society where these gender roles are less clear, where there is overlap between the sexes in terms of behaviours and expectations.

According to research, Sweden is the most ‘Feminine’ country in the world. So, it’s no surprise that there is a high awareness of gender neutrality and that it expresses itself in, for example, pronouns such as ‘hen’.

So, we may see ‘hen’ as a ridculous attempt to make everybody the same, or as a natural and logical progression of the Swedish belief in gender equality.

One thought on “The Swedish Hen Debate

  1. It's a bit like trying to solve issues with racism by making everyone the same shade of light brown, someone wrote on a blog. Couldn't agree more. It's almost as if we're meant to be ashamed of our gender these days. If I had kids, I'd refer to a son as "he" and a daughter as "she", because I don't think they should have to somehow hide their gender. I mean, pronouns aren't the problem anyway. If they're worried about pigeonholing, maybe the grown-ups should look at their own attitudes and address them, rather than forcing this on children who couldn't really care less.I can understand the use of "hen" instead of the cumbersome "han/hon" ("he/she"), but other than that … no. I'm not a hen, I'm a she, and I'm proud of that!

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