The New York Times published an article about television in Southeast Asia last week, and referenced non-gendered actor Asia Kate Dillon, one of the stars of the show Billions.
The piece pointed out that Singapore is a frequent censor of Western entertainment—but unfortunately, the Times did a little scrubbing of its own in the piece. The paper, which prides itself on being fashion forward with social justice causes, referred to Dillon as a “she,” even though the appropriate pronoun for a non-binary individual is “they.”
“They” prefer to be referred to in non-gendered language, and “they” were very clear about that when “they” received that MTV movie award for “their” courage.
The accident, and it was clearly an accident, appears to have broken the emotional back of the New York Times editorial board, which published a thousand-word article in Thursday’s paper apologizing to Dillon for the cultural misstep. It also pledged immediate changes to the editorial policies that were so careless in letting this slip through the cracks.
Public editor Liz Spayd explained that “vague guidelines” that are decidedly behind the times led to the “misstep.” “The Times guidelines don’t offer a simple yes or no to the question of whether “they” or some other nonstandard pronoun is acceptable in its pages.”
The paper typically avoids “they” because Times readers are easily confused, the masthead editor goes on to explain. Also, he says, “they” used as a pronoun is not considered grammatically correct, and it toys with sentence structure and reader comfort.
But, the masthead editor goes on, journalists can always clear it through their editors if they know the person will be offended if a non-binary pronoun isn’t used, or simply avoid using the pronoun altogether by referring to the person by name. They aren’t written guidelines, the Times acknowledges.
In light of the recent push for non-binary gender recognition, though, the excuse seems hopelessly backwards. How hasn’t the Times been able to adapt to the changing world, especially over what they claim is “a subject of immense importance?”
After all, the Associated Press has already updated their guidelines, and even Heat Street knows to check on preferred pronouns, even if we’re just making fun of someone.
Sadly, Spayd comes to no conclusions, just that the Times is very sorry and will try harder the next time they reference an individual who has decided they are not at either end of the gender spectrum.