I promised my friend and veteran, David, that I would write this article six months ago, and I’m ashamed to say that it slipped off my radar until now.
The details of how we got on the topic are a bit hazy to me, but I think the conversation was struck while drinking with the Royal Manticoran Navy (the fanclub for the amazing Honor Harrington series). David asked if, in the books, they ever referred to Captain Harrington (a woman) as “sir” because he couldn’t remember.The answer was a chorus of “I don’t think so”s.
I mentioned that would be cool if they did, and that was one of my favorite things about science fiction because it felt like it turned the whole gender stereotype of “sir” versus “ma’am” on its head. I thought it was more respectful to be rid of the gender dichotomy altogether.
“Yeah, but it’s not gender neutral,” David pointed out. “Also, it’s very disrespectful.”
“Well,” I conceded, “I mean, it’s sort of worrying that we think ‘sir’ is more respectful than ‘ma’am’.”
David shook his head, and set his drink down. “No. I mean, there is already a gender neutral term to show respect.”
As I said, the details are hazy, but I’m fairly sure I cocked my head to left like a dog. For the life of me, I couldn’t figure out what he meant.
The rest of the Royal Manticoron Navy (which I would say was about 50% vets and their partners) nodded their heads sagely.
“Their rank,” David explained. “Their rank is gender neutral, and it’s far more respectful than saying ‘sir’.”
And that’s when I realized that Battlestar Galactica was wrong. Calling everybody “sir” may have seemed like the right way to address gender equality in a show with probably the strongest and most nuanced female cast to hit science fiction since Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Babylon 5, but the truth is that the best way to respect anyone as a person is to address them by their rank.
In case you’re wondering, Star Trek is a frequent offender of using “sir” and “ma’am”. This is largely because there is a division between non-com and enlisted officers, which is an odd and archaic holdover from a classist past (our present). But that, my friends, is a controversial post for another time (or really, next week).
So listen up science fiction writers! If you want to write a story with a bit more hopeful future where men and women are indeed treated equally, you may want to consider getting rid of “sir” and “ma’am” from your dialogue altogether, and start address the individuals by their rank.