Wednesday, July 21, 2010

To Boldly Go Unbiased!

Maybe it is because I'm a feminist, or because I've experienced decades of gender bias in the sciences, or because as a science songwriter, I work diligently to be gender sensitive and inclusive in my lyrics, I don't know why, but when I came across explicitly gender biased lyrics in a kid's science song yesterday, I got pissed and had to take action. Monty Harper is a children's science songwriter and performer who is doing good work in science outreach to kids in Oklahoma where he is based. I learned about him yesterday when I received an email he posted to a listserv of science songsters requesting financial support for a CD music project he is working on "Songs from the Science Frontiers" featuring his original songs about science research in Oklahoma. The project sounds worthy of support and I was even more impressed with his using the online funding service Kickstarter to try to fund the production costs. I was ready to click and fund, until I listened to the sample song, "Ain't it Beautiful, " a cute diddy about USDA scientists in Oklahoma trying to combat the Russian wheat aphid which is a major pest worldwide of wheat, barley, and other cereal crops. The gender bias was in the hook:

Ain't it beautiful; Ain't it clever
Ain't it just about the best news ever
How science feeds our global needs
When man and nature work together

Man and nature? Just hearing and seeing that antiquated generic gender biased word representing all humanity made my stomach turn. This is a new song. This song was not written in 1955 before civil rights or gender bias and equity issues became part of our common social knowledge. So I contacted Mr. Harper and told him I was interested in his project and possibly supporting it but that I had an issue with his gender biased lyrics and suggested that he change the lyrics to be more gender neutral. After all, girls and women are at least half of the global population and girls and women are severely underrepresented in the sciences, it seems like a no brainer to try to be as inclusive in educational lyrics as possible. Why not change the lyric to "When humans and nature work together" or use the term 'people' or 'we.' Mr. Harper was as resilient as the modified wheat grain. He replied:

Unfortunately our language has gender bias built into it. The word
"man" in "Ain't It Beautiful" is meant in the sense of "mankind." I
think most people get that....I'm not sure using the word equates to perpetuating a bias.

Well Mr Harper, scientific research would suggest otherwise. In a quick online search I found a study on gender bias in the english language which concluded:

This evidence demonstrates that the use of "generic" masculine and even other grammatically neutral terms in effect serves to exclude women from the English language. The resulting masculine bias in our language reflects and reinforces the pattern of male dominance in society.

We need to err on the side of perpetuating inclusion and not exclusion in education and especially in the sciences. In my opinion it is lame and sexist to continue to use such outdated and biased lyrics in a science song for kids! I can't support a project that perpetuates gender bias in any form. Look, even Star Trek the Next Generation changed the famous final frontier motto from:

" boldly go where no MAN has gone before."
" boldly go where no ONE has gone before."

Star Trek is so universally inclusive, "one" includes ALIENS!!!! We should aspire to be as inclusive with our species.

Mr. Harper, please modify your lyrics so they are gender neutral and inclusive so that all children can be inspired and included in the final frontier of science. That is a project I can and will support.


  1. Making the claim that "this is a familiar built-in bias in the language" is just a pathetic excuse for laziness. Great that you called him on it, Lynda!

  2. At last, someone who appreciates the great heights that personkind can achieve. One day, all humans, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, birds, insects, and inorganic matter will unite to fulfill the great prophesy of...STAR TREK!

    Lady, aren't there more important battles than this?

  3. Sir, many, many more battles. But how is that relevant?

    Science songwriting is my expertise and if you are going to ask me for money to produce your science song project, I'm going to give my 2 cents worth before I give more than that.

    And I'm practicing this blog thing! I'm liking it!

  4. I just HAVE to speak up in defense of songwriters and artists everywhere, and of Monty in particular...
    I know Monty Harper's work pretty well. I know him to be one of the most thoughtful, sensitive, caring and masterful songwriters for children. To accuse someone of something based on ONE WORD in ONE LYRIC is over-blown, over-reacting and unfair. He does not deserve what seems to be an attack on his social consciousness and his writing.
    As an award-winning professional songwriter myself for over 42 years I know how important great lyric writing is, AND how hard it is to say precisely what you mean in a limited time and rhythm frame with scanning, rhyme, etc. Especially as artists and writers who love and use language as our tools to communicate and express ourselves, we need to have artistic license to convey our meaning and emotions, using whatever words we deem best. We want to make elegant, useful lines that transcend "political correctness". That is not to say we can't hone our songs to make them better; a good songwriter is always open to improvement to make a song more "precise". But personally I think art trumps being perfectly PC if push came to shove.
    What an artist does NOT want to do is change their art to be in line with someone else's idea of what is correct, even if they might agree with that idea. If the song suffers by changing it, I say don't make the changes. Of course, if it IMPROVES it, then by all means.
    Monty used the word "man" NOT to be sexist, i.e. excluding all females. Knowing Monty I am sure he thought long and hard about the well-known phrase "man vs. nature" and wanted a twist on it. He needed a one-syllable word there for rhythm and scanning. "Human" or "people" would have been awkward and ruin the flow. Bad songwriting!
    You see, so many other factors other than considering "sexist" language go into writing a song. As a songwriter yourself you know this. Yes, we should all strive to make lyrics as positive and inclusive (if that should be the intention) as possible, but I believe a great songwriter serves the song before anything else.
    I object to "culture police." If you attempt to "censor" or change an artist's work because you feel it isn't PC enough, or if you won't buy an otherwise extremely worthy artist's work because of one word, then there is a whole lot of great art you will be depriving yourself of and I feel sorry for you. Artists should not have to create under that kind of "chilling" conditions. That kind of rigid extreme attitude is not helpful in moving this world forward.
    This kind of reminds me of what happened during China's Cultural Revolution where artists whose work did not "toe the line" with what was then deemed "political correctness" were persecuted, ostracized or worse. It resulted in REALLY BAD ART and at least one generation of artists lost. What NO ONE should do is blacklist an artist and smear a good name out of what might be well-meaning but extreme political fervor.
    Perhaps it would be a good thing to "lighten up" when it comes to judging other people's art, and to learn more about that person before jumping to conclusions about that person's intent and any resultant "harm" their art could possibly inflict on society. I think feminism would be better served if your indignation and fervor were directed at more serious injustices and infractions.
    So, if you are still reading this and are offended, don't help fund Monty's project. As for me, you have made me realize I need to give him as much money as I can afford because I believe Monty's work deserves to be heard by everyone!

  5. Patricia,

    Hey, I never ever said HE was biased i said the LYRIC was biased!!!
    no personal attack, no chinese cultural or feminazi attack.
    He seems like he is doing really great work. It may be a subtle point and I've asked many women today, how do you feel when you hear the word 'man' used to represent humanity and, hands down, they feel really icky about it.

    Did you look at the report I referenced? studies show that using 'man'
    to refer to humankind IS gender biased. Intentions aside, it is what it
    is, however whomever interprets it. I just wish that educational song lyrics, which I have been writing for decades, were not gender biased and more inclusive because words have power. When I write science song lyrics I have to use very complicated terms and you just make it work. It wouldn't ruin his song at all. I am confident he could make it work.

    But hey! He is lucky to have such a supportive fan!


  6. Monty has a LOT of supportive fans because he is an awesome dude--great songwriter, great performer, wonderful dad, and hardworking musician. Give a listen to his whole CD--half the scientists featured are women--check out the whole picture before you jump all over him for one word in one song. And guess what, he inadvertently phrased it exactly right--look at history, and tell me how many times women cut down old-growth redwood trees, etc. It IS man who needs to learn to work with nature. Please support Monty and his project, he does SO much great work, and is one of the most thoughtful, un-sexist men you will ever hope to find. Thank you.

  7. HOLD ON!
    "In my opinion it is lame and sexist to continue to use such outdated and biased lyrics in a science song for kids!"

    LAME? Do you have any idea how offensive THAT word is? You need to check your own language.


  8. Well I didn't put 'lame' in a song kids will listen to!
    The point is folks, these are songs for KIDS. I'm not judging Monty as a person or a songwriter! I'm only questioning this one lyric! Y'all act like I want to string him up! What is YOUR problem? I would have never said a thing about it if I didn't get a request begging for MONEY in my email box from him. If you are begging for money, you better be able to buck up to some criticism! I'm a potential funder! Why shouldn't it be acceptable to question the product? What is your friggin problem with that? Incredible! And as if I have any power beyond this meaningless blog! You guys area a HOOT! Bring it on! I'm loving this! Check out my songs and give me some criticism! I WELCOME it!

  9. I have to agree with Lynda here - some of my best friends, including ones who are primarily artists and some who are everyday activists - occasionally use language that they really should know better than to use. Here in Colorado, we have two relatively-progressive Democratic senate candidates running against each other, and their supporters are ripping each other apart with old-fashioned, predictable language. And I don't think I'm betraying the friendship of those campaign activists when I tell them their language is despicable.

    We don't need to employ politically-correct filters for all music and poetry, but we should take care when we use words that are very outmoded.