Man oh Man! Niagara “Barrelman” Misses an Opportunity

Logo for the Niagara Falls Barrelman Triathlon 2014. Image credit: http://niagarafallstriathlon.com/news/
Logo for the Niagara Falls Barrelman Triathlon 2014.
Image credit: http://niagarafallstriathlon.com/news/

Last year, the Niagara Triathlon ran afoul of strict legal rules surrounding the word “iron” and the numbers “70.3” by calling itself  a “Half Ironman.” “Ironman” and “Ironman 70.3” are tightly guarded trademark names, the most recognized race name in triathlon. As Niagara, and this year Welland, have found out, you can’t just use these as generic designations.

And so Niagara held a contest.  This sounds like an exciting way to get a new name. You invite people to participate and generate some buzz, all the while getting submissions so you have a whole array of possibilities to choose from.

And the winner is … drum roll please…

The Niagara Barrelman.  Yes, really.

This clearly picks up on the history of daredevils going over Niagara Falls in a barrel.

What bothers me most about this name is the missed opportunity to get away from a name that contains the word “man”. I get that the first “Ironman” was way back in the late 70s when people didn’t give much thought to things like the gendered impact of language.  Back then, it was pretty normal to think that there were legitimate generic, gender neutral uses of things like “man” and pronouns like “he,” “his”, and “him.”

But we’ve come a long way since then, baby.  In 1986, the American Philosophical Association acted on the growing body of research that suggested that in fact there is no generic use of these terms.  The APA published a set of “Guidelines for the Use of Non-Sexist Language” and the guidelines were adopted by the memberships of all three of its regional divisions.

From the Guidelines:

The generic use of ‘man’ and ‘he’ (and ‘his’, ‘him’, ‘himself’) is commonly considered gender-neutral. The case against the generic use of these terms does not rest on rare instances in which they refer ambiguously to ‘male’ or ‘human being’. Rather, every occurrence of their generic use is problematic.

First, Janice Moulton persuasively argues, in “The Myth of the Neutral ‘Man'” (in Vetterling-Braggin, 1981, pp. 100-115; revised from Vetterling-Braggin, et al, 1977, pp. 124-37), that ‘he’ and ‘man’ used generically are really not gender-neutral terms at all. (‘Person’ and ‘human’ are genuinely gender-neutral.) As evidence, Moulton offers many examples of statements in which ‘man’ and ‘he’ unambiguously refer to all humanity, rather than to males alone, yet are false, funny, or insulting. For example, “Some men are female” is irredeemably odd, while “Some human beings are female” is fine. Similarly, “Each applicant is to list the name of his husband or wife” is odd; and even using “his spouse” disquiets more than using “his or her spouse.”

Second, empirical evidence supports Moulton’s claim that <span “=”” italic;”=””>regardless of the author’s intention the generic ‘man’ is not interpreted gender neutrally.2 Casey Miller and Kate Swift (1976) cite a study in which college students chose pictures to illustrate chapters of a sociology textbook. Those with chapters entitled “Society,” “Industrial Life,” and “Political Behavior” tended to select pictures of both females and males. However, when the same chapters were named “Social Man,” “Industrial Man,” and “Political Man,” students of both sexes tended to select pictures of males only. With some chapters the differences [between the two groups] reached magnitudes of 30 to 40 percent. The authors concluded, “This is rather convincing evidence that when you use the word man generically, people do tend to think male, and tend not to think female” (Miller and Swift, 1976, p. 21). This study also finds that the generic ‘man’ leaves out more than women: “As the image of capitalist, playboy, and hard hat are called forth by the word ‘man’, so is the other side of the coin called forth by ‘behavior’ or ‘life’–women, children, minorities, dissent and protest” (Miller and Swift, 1976, p. 23).

Third, using the generic ‘he’ and ‘man’ is problematic because it often leads us to omit the distinctive elements of female experience and behavior. For example, a sentence beginning, “If a student is conscientious, he is probably a good . . . ,” will likely be ended with “son”–even though “good son,” “good daughter,” and “good child” connote different things. If the sentence had begun, “A conscientious student is probably a good . . . ,” a likely finale would be “son or daughter” or “child.”

In sum, there are convincing reasons, both empirical and conceptual, for avoiding the generic ‘he’ and ‘man’ and for specifically including females. Hence, it is inadequate to state in an opening footnote that, for the remainder of the letter, article or book, ‘he’ shall stand for ‘he or she’ and ‘man’ for all humanity. What authors intend is not the issue. Good intentions not carried through are not good enough.

Not that I expect everyone to be familiar with the APA guidelines, of course. But the point is that was almost 30 years ago.  The idea of non-sexist or inclusive language has become quite mainstream.  So it’s kind of shocking to me that the people in charge of selecting a new name for the Niagara Triathlon would completely overlook the gendered implications of a name like “Barrelman.”

This is not to say, of course, that it is an event for which only men may register.  Nevertheless, a more inclusive name that sounds less dated would have been most welcome.

Welland did much better. They launched their renamed event this summer: The Rose City Triathlon.  Nice and gender neutral. Nothing exclusive about it.  Now was that so difficult?

Last time I posted about the gendered implications of language was when I wrote about “Why Putting Ladies on the Locker Room Door Does a Disservice to Women.”  That post resulted in the biggest hate-on this blog has ever seen.  So I have no doubt that there will be many naysayers who think that if we are worrying about silly things like “Barrelman,” feminism’s work has surely been done!

But language is a powerful, powerful tool that contains and perpetuates all sorts of embedded attitudes and assumptions.  Insisting that there are no alternatives to “man” words when we are attempting to create an inclusive opportunity where everyone is welcome, regardless of gender (as I assume the Barrelman organizers, in good faith, wish to do), is just bad practice.

And here’s something for history books:  On October 24, 1901 Annie Edson Taylor went over the falls in a barrel. She was mostly unharmed, but exited the barrel bleeding. I don’t think we’d call her a “barrelman,” would we?