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In Avengers: Endgame, during the scene where Tony and Steve lose the Tesseract to Loki and now they improvise and travel back to 1970, Tony accidentally meets Howard and they start some small-talk in the lift.

During which they say to each other:

Tony: I have a girl.
Howard: A girl would be good.

Throughout this exchange we see that Howard is quite nervous about being a father.

When Steve Rogers (Captain America) gathers the extra Pym particles and signals to Tony that it's time to go, the following conversation occurs:

Howard: Smart guy (talking about Tony's dad)
Tony: He did his best
Howard: The kid’s gonna be here and there's nothing I wouldn't do for him.

So did Howard know he's having a boy?

37

He did not know:

Tony: I have a little girl.

Howard: A girl would be nice. Less of a chance she'd turn out exactly like me.

[...]

Tony: So, where are you at with names?

Howard: Well, if it's a boy, my wife likes Almanzo.

So I guess he's just using he as a somewhat neutral pronoun.

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    It might also be worth noting that 'em is a common North American shorthand for them, which is a common gender-neutral pronoun (even in the singular, at least colloquially). It may be that the script says 'em and not him, as both sound extremely similar, and so it becomes there's nothing I wouldn't do for 'em. – Daevin May 10 at 17:45
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    @Daevin: That's relatively recent, though. For example, according to Wikipedia, he was preponderant for gender-neutral until a push for they started around 1980. – Matthieu M. May 10 at 18:17
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    @MatthieuM. Although the singular pronoun "they" has actually been around since the 14th century. (It began to fall out of use in the 19th, though, and by the 20th century was not really used for the object.) – wizzwizz4 May 10 at 18:21
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    In the early 1970's when this was set, it was standard to use a male pronoun in neutral situations. Arguing for another choice was at first a very radical notion, and I don't even remember hearing it personally until the late 70's. Even saying "he or she" back then would get you looks (like you're wasting the listener's time with unimportant technicalities). – T.E.D. May 10 at 20:24
  • This cross-site question backups this answer, which I think should be the accepted one. – gsamaras May 11 at 12:33
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Howard and his wife don't know, as evidenced by his line "if it's a boy, my wife thinks Almanzo". Furthermore, while I don't know if it's the only way to determine a baby's sex, medical ultrasounds weren't that common by the early 70s, so they might even not have had a way to know.

Why did he use the masculine then? Couple of things to consider:

  • Tony and him just talked about the "boy" possibility. Using "him" is in the flow of things;
  • while he doesn't seem to have a preference, Howard might just be expecting it's a boy, having a feeling or something;
  • "him" isn't that uncommon to refer to a person of unknown gender, although the English language does have a gender-neutral pronoun (they). Unsure how largely it was used by the 70s though.
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    I definitely think it's the third bullet point. "They" as a singular gender-neutral pronoun seems to be becoming more widespread – DJMcMayhem May 10 at 17:39
  • Although as @DJMcMayhem "they" is becoming more widespread as a singular pronoun, the scene was set in the 70s, where I assume "he" was still more common as a neutral singular pronoun – Stephen S May 10 at 19:20
  • @StephenS Yes, I was trying to convey that same point. – DJMcMayhem May 10 at 19:55
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    Speaking as one who remembers the 1970s, the use of "they" as a singular was at best still considered ungrammatical. While the gender-bias inherent in the English language was a subject of active complaint, very little progress had yet occurred towards rectifying it. Masculine forms were still used almost exclusively for gender-neutral references. Despite what some people might claim, it was understood by everyone when the pronouns were to be interpreted as gender-neutral (but even if unintended, it was a biased practice). Thus "One small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind." – Paul Sinclair May 11 at 20:06
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He/Him/His etc... are typically used in English as both a masculine pronoun and a gender unknown pronoun (could refer to either a "he" or a "she"). While this is slowly falling out of practice now--they has become more common. He has historically (1970s, 1980s, 1990s, 2000s) been the way to refer to a singular gender unknown person.

Neuter pronouns it/its etc... are typically used in English to refer to something that cannot have a gender, a bucket, chair, etc... And are never used to refer to a person that can have a gender (even eunuchs are not referred to as it/its/etc...) As this is considered rude.

This was done in both writing and speech. It is now more politically correct to use he/she (she/he?) or they, with they being more politically correct as it does not assume the number of possible genders.

So they (the movie makers) used the correct terminology for the time that they (Iron Man & Captain America) were in to refer to a person of whose gender has yet to be determined.

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