Sweden, it would seem, is doing its darndest to abolish the idea of gender. Their latest effort comes with the introduction of a new gender-netural pronoun, called "hen." But while some see it as a huge victory in the struggle to achieve gender equality, others see it as yet another imposition brought on by the political correctness police.
There's no doubt that Sweden is a rock star when it comes to this sort of stuff. Two years ago the World Economic Forum designated Sweden as the most gender-equal country in the world. It boasts the highest proportion of working women in the world and allow for 480-day parental leaves — of which 60 days are reserved for dads.
And in an effort to work towards yet even greater levels of gender equality, Sweden now wants to do it through the channel of linguistic gender-neutrality. A good number of forward-looking Swedes have determined that government and society should no longer recognize any legal distinctions between the sexes. To that end, they have officially introduced the new gender-neutral pronoun, "hen," to the vernacular. To make it all the more official, they added it to the country's National Encylopedia and defined it as a "proposed gender-neutral personal pronoun instead of he [han in Swedish] and she [hon]."
Swedes figure that the introduction of a gender-neutral pronoun will allow people to avoid having to identify themselves with a particular gender; it will also allow speakers to be sensitive to those people who choose to not have their gender identified. More conceptually, it can be seen as a refinement of the language, an added level of linguistic sophistication. Authors can now refer to a character without having to reveal their gender (whereas in English we tend to use the awkward "they" in its place).
Critics claim that such terminology will only confuse children. The suggestion that there is a "third" gender, they argue, can only disrupt the natural development of their own gender identities. Other critics complain that gender-neutrality is a social hallucination and a bizarre denial of the fact that humans are a gendered species.
While Sweden is certainly a world-leader in this regard, it can been seen as part of a wider global trend toward the achievement of a "genderless" society, or what some call a postgendered society. It can also be interpreted as the ongoing evolution and refinement of language. Words need to change in order to suit ever-shifting normative values and interpersonal sensitivities. We tend to no longer refer to unmarried women as "Miss", for example, nor do we talk about "salesmen", instead referring to "salespersons".
Science fiction fans will of course recall similar attempts to change the language of gender, particularly in those futurist worlds that feature postgendered or uniquely gendered characters. Greg Egan, in his hard SF classic Diaspora, borrowed Keri Hulme's gender-neutral pronouns "ve", "vis", and "ver" to help his uploaded sexless characters get their language right. And in the collaborative Orion's Arm universe, pronouns such as "e", "em", and "eir" are commonly used to avoid confusion in a world featuring not just genetically-altered humans, aliens, and artificial lifeforms, but also characters with other possible genders beyond just male and female.
So yes, you've got it right. Science fiction is always one step ahead of everybody else. Even the Swedes.
Via. Top image via Leklust catalog, Sweden.