You Guys, Feminists Aren’t Supposed to Say ‘You Guys’
But I say it. And a lot of other things
Ialways thought the catchphrase “HEY, YOU GUUUYS!” was originally fromThe Goonies. But apparently, it’s a reference to the 1971 PBS children’s program The Electric Company. I was a titch too young to have caught either of these in real time, but like many kids, I grew up with an ancient VHS tape containing back-to-back, taped-off-of-TV recordings of The Goonies and Flight of the Navigator.
From this early exercise in psychedelic kids TV programming to its present iteration, the phrase “you guys” has had quite a journey. Most recently, there’s a perfectly chill, very reasonable feminist movement endorsed by people I respect arguing for women to no longer call one another “guys” at all. And for the life of me, I cannot get on board.
Did you know this was a thing? I’ve been talking about the battle over this phrase exclusively with hardcore rhetorical criticism nerds for years, but it’s only recently become a debate you can read about on Bustle or hear referenced on a hilarious sitcom. I feel like the argument is pretty self-explanatory but just to summarize it quickly: Some feel that making “you guys” the indiscriminate, universal greeting for all humans is low-key sexist because it emphasizes the culturally established notion that male is the standard.
There’s also the added possibility that a trans woman could hear this phrase and be particularly troubled by being referred to, basically, as male. Thus only adding to the pain caused by male being considered the standard. Because if male is the standard, then it does follow that female is somehow non-standard. This is why it’s socially acceptable to walk up to a group containing both men and women and say, “Hey, guys,” but it is not standard to walk up and say, “Hey, ladies” or “Hey, girls” or whatever. (Though a few heroes like Jonathan Van Ness are doing their part to change this.)
Words do more than simply communicate their prescribed dictionary meanings.
Alice Walker goes so far as to say that when one woman calls another by a male-gendered name, it points to a basic fear of being female. And I’m not dismissing this assertion. There is absolutely a pervasive undercurrent of subconscious misogyny in American culture — a fact I’ve acknowledged in plenty of my own writing.
You know the kind of thing I’m talking about; it’s perfectly socially acceptable for a woman to wear trousers because it makes her more like a man, something society still unconsciously considers to be (wince) an improvement. But it’s dramatically less acceptable for a man to wear a skirt because this makes him more like a woman — and what could possibly be more degrading than to be more like a woman?
So yes, I get what Walker is talking about. But I also think it’s possible for two or more truths to exist simultaneously in this morass of extrapolation and abstraction that serves as the road map through our culture’s social-psyche. And for me, there are other truths about gendered language that are no less relevant than the claim of female-phobia.
The sticking point for me is that words do more than simply communicate their prescribed dictionary meanings. Words come packed with associations and histories, with connotations, moods, and tones. For example, in a discussion about race, it can be neutral to use the word “black.” This does not mean that, therefore, it’s also neutral to use the word “yellow” simply because both words correlate a racial background to a crayon color. That’s because the meaning of a word doesn’t depend merely on its literal definition but on the way it has been used throughout history. “Black” has largely been used as a relatively unbiased shorthand for an American of enslaved African heritage. “Yellow” has almost exclusively been used as a dehumanizing slur for an American of Asian heritage. That’s just how it is. Language doesn’t evolve in straight lines.
While it’s true that the origin of the word “guy” is indeed gendered masculine in the human sense, not just the grammatical sense, it’s also true that — because of the longstanding subjugation of women — so are most words.
Similarly, when it comes to gender, there are subtle but purposeful differences in word choice. If I’m using figurative speech to describe the cocksure, self-reliant way I tend to follow investigative leads, I might say, “I’m a bit of a cowboy when it comes to research.” I would not say that I’m a bit of a cowgirlwhen it comes to research because that doesn’t conjure the same image of self-assured independence. When I’m talking about the rowdy but cooperative way I work with my family to rebuild the wall in our kitchen, then I might say, “Hey, I’m a home renovation cowgirl.”
These are great examples because 1) even though there are different connotations for cowboy (resourceful, laconic, loner) and cowgirl (resourceful, raucous, cooperative) they’re equal in terms of cultural value, and 2) they’re both so very, very dorky that you can be assured they’re taken from my actual life.
These connotations are probably rooted in fiction, but my point is that I’m not going to accept the arbitrary idea that I cannot identify with one of these two literary concepts because the concept itself is supposed to have a gender and I’m only supposed to relate to the one that matches my gender. That is freaking asinine.
Likewise when I put on a plaid shirt and muse that I always wanted to be a lumberjack. Or when I beat my family to the top of a hill and claim the title “king of the mountain.” Or when I fantasize about producing and starring in a shitty comedy called Chairman of the Board about a surfer who inherits a Fortune 500 company — even though I have never surfed and apparently Carrot Top stole my idea in 1998. I certainly don’t need to rework the famous turn of phrase that makes the existing title totally genius and call myself the chairwoman of the board, as if leaving it as-is will somehow confuse everyone.
Don’t get me wrong, my allusive language isn’t strictly masculine by a longshot. My babble is just as full of “queen,” “goddess,” and “aviatrix,” not to mention “weirdo,” “genius,” and “BAMF.” Sometimes, if it happens to be what I’m feeling, I modify a masculine term to be feminine. When a friend needs a ride, I’ve been known to volunteer as a wheelwoman rather than wheelman. (It’s a mafia term for a getaway driver. God, I’m exhausting to be around.)
My point is that words, whether they’re masculine, feminine, or neutral, convey a wealth of feeling and narrative from which I refuse to be excluded. My BFF doesn’t receive a coronation when I call her “queen,” and the U.N. doesn’t recognize my authority over a pile of dirt when I win king of the mountain, so why should the gender component of these words be considered any less abstract than everything else about them?
Which brings us back to “guys.” This problem might not exist in the first place if English had a built-in gender-neutral pronoun — so that every other goddamn sentence didn’t call such strict attention to gender — or if English had grammatical gender and we were more accustomed to seeing the gendered component of a word as random and incidental with no relationship whatsoever to the human concept of gender. While it’s true that the origin of the word “guy” is indeed gendered masculine in the human sense, not just the grammatical sense, it’s also true that — because of the longstanding subjugation of women — so are most words.
Are we succumbing to internalized misogyny when we don’t call a woman doctor a doctress? Or a woman author an authoress? How about getting promoted to office administratrix or taking the bar exam and becoming a mediatrix? While some of these words do sound pretty cool rolling off the tongue, the reason we don’t use them anymore is because at some point, women stopped tolerating the notion that our spoken language must be packed full of conventions erected specifically to set us apart.
Focus on achieving a society in which notions of gender don’t have the power to enforce limitations on people in the first place.
Are you following me here? On the one hand, “guys” is a male term, male is the standard, and, thus, taking on the term means taking on maleness. But on the other hand, what’s heretofore categorized most “standard” words as male in the first place is their exclusivity. No women allowed — you need special terms for women! By transcending and finally destroying that exclusivity — making these words and concepts open to both men and women — the words cease to be masculine at all. They join in the rolling bumrush our whole culture is enjoying toward a far more neutral center.
I think that despite living in a hellscape of misogyny, women on the whole actually have unfathomable resilience when it comes to loving rather than fearing our own femininity. Internalized misogyny is definitely a thing, but it can also be the hammer that makes everything look like a nail. I’ve noticed that when women co-opt previously masculine language, we don’t use it to replace the feminine language we already use; we just expand our vocabularies to include both. I’m sure that in the years to come, I’ll be bummed out by some of the developments in our linguistic evolution, mourning some equivalent of the fact that teen daughters don’t greet their friends with “Hey, girls!” like they used to. But I just don’t find this to be the act of self-negation that some do.
Instead of policing women for refusing to be held hostage by the misogynistic origins of gendered language, maybe we should focus on achieving a society in which notions of gender don’t have the power to enforce limitations on people in the first place. Because the group who really struggle with a paralyzing, conditioned fear of being feminine are men. We wouldn’t even be having this conversation about women using male gendered words if men used female gendered words. It goes right back to women in slacks vs. men in dresses.
Using language to erase that particular manifestation of misogyny is trickier. In the long term, I think this rigid fear will soften as society slowly moves toward actual equity — not just in language, but in everything. In the meantime though, if you want to start addressing groups of men with “Hey, girls!” you have my full support. I’m kind of a wise guy.