doctor

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Before I start in on today's entry, I have a little snippet of story for you to read:

I walked down the hospital corridor away from my room. One of the doctors I didn't know well--Dr. Karlson, I think--called out, "Jason, wait!"

I turned around, glaring.

The doctor took out a stethoscope. "Before you leave, I have to check your heart one more time."

I sighed. "Can't I just get out of here?"

"No, Jason. I'm sorry, but there are certain rules we have to follow."

Now: what gender is Dr. Karlson?

It should be obvious that the doctor's gender is unspecified in this little snippet. But something weird often happens when I read the word "doctor":

Not only do I assume that the doctor is male (which a lot of people, at least in the US, do), but I often think that the doctor was explicitly identified as male.

And then a paragraph or a page later, the author drops a pronoun and we discover that the doctor is female. And I say to myself, wait, the author explicitly said the doctor was male, this is not just me being sexist, it was right there in the story. And then I go back and look, and in fact it wasn't right there in the story; it was just me being sexist. Or gender-normative or something.

It's not that I don't believe in female doctors. I probably know more female medical doctors than male medical doctors; I've certainly gone to as many female doctors as male ones; it doesn't bother or upset or surprise me to encounter a woman who's a doctor. And if a story I'm reading clearly identifies a doctor as female upfront, that seems perfectly normal.

It's just that when I see the word "doctor" without any other markers, somehow my brain develops the idea that I've been explicitly told that the doctor is male. It's kind of bewildering, and remarkably (and unfortunately) consistent.

There are other professions that I have a strong gender assumptions for, of course. But I don't generally go so far in fabricating evidence about those.

Delany once referred to the assumptions we make about generic and otherwise undescribed people as the "unmarked state": in the absence of any markers giving us information to the contrary, we tend to assume certain things about people when they're mentioned to us. The unmarked state for a story's narrator (for a lot of us white American readers) tends to be white, heterosexual, upper-middle-class, etc. Probably male, too, although sometimes the unmarked gender for the narrator is the same as the gender of the author, or the assumed gender of the author if you can't tell from the author's name.

For me, the unmarked "nurse" is female; the unmarked "guard" is male. Certainly the unmarked "programmer" or "software engineer" or "computer scientist" is male. And there are plenty of others.

But I don't think my assumption is ever quite so strong with other words as with the word "doctor."