Opinion: Thailand’s Disney+ misgendering controversy points to limitation of language

Not everyone identifies as male or female. As views on gender evolve and people find their voice, those whose identities do not fit into a rigid female/male categorization have begun to find their voice and tell their stories.

For many, being called by the wrong pronoun is like being by a different name.

There has been recent controversy over misgendering in the Thai dubbed version of Disney’s The Owl House show which is showing on the Disney+ streaming service.

Thais have flagged the voice actor Avi Roque, who voices the nonbinary character Raine Whispers in the English language version of the show.

They worried that the pronouns “Phom” and “Nai”, which are masculine pronouns, were being used to identify a non-binary character instead of “They/Them.”

It is a controversy that points to flaws within current naming systems, issues with translating sensitive topics, as well as the limitations of language.

While there are only seven types of pronouns in English, Thai pronouns differs by age, gender, the relationship between the first, the second and/or the third person, which can create ambiguity or misunderstanding.

In casual conversation and informal speech, “Rao” and “Kao” can refer to plural antecedents of any gender, whereas it’s inappropriate to use when talking to adults.

The fact of the matter is, it is difficult to switch (or translate directly from English) a pronoun when many factors come into consideration including to whom one is speaking to.

Linguistic intricacies in Thai, one can argue, therefore reinforces the seniority culture, exacerbates some conflict, instills social hierarchy, patriarchy and inequality.

(For a more comprehensive breakdown read here)

For example, there are only a couple of appropriate pronouns you can use with adults which are “Noo”, “Phom”, “Dichan” However, these pronouns reinforces gender identity into either female or male only. 

One can’t help but feel a little sympathetic to The Owl House’s translators.

“Khun” is gender neutral and can be used as a second-person pronoun followed by given names, nicknames,  status terms (title nouns) to address all genders. But the most important question is, what is the best pronoun for the first person to identify themselves?

More US universities are making it easier for students to choose their own pronouns by registering their preferred pronouns in computer systems following the University of Vermont’s example.

University of California, Santa Cruz states “You can’t always know what someone’s gender pronoun is by looking at them. When someone is referred to with the wrong pronoun, it can make them feel disrespected, invalidated, dismissed, alienated, or hurt.”

Perhaps it is time Thailand followed suit and found ways to be sensitive to a person’s preference both in terms of official recognition but also by fostering the evolution of language.

Although gender pronouns do matter, language is equally important. Language rules do not change, but it can evolve and adapt to the needs of the users.

Language can be confusing. But evolving language to the times and to the culture can help make it less so.

Image courtesy of Disney+


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