Lately, maybe over the past two or three years, the use of “guys” to refer to any group of people, no matter how gender-mixed, has become so ubiquitous, that there is virtually no escape.
1. My granddaughter calls us over to look at a caterpillar, “Guys, guys, look here. Guys!”
2. An older person chuckles benignly at a couple of colleagues, who are being irreverent, “You guys . . . “
3. The young feminists refer to each other as guys.
4. The dean sends an email when a group of 3 women and 1 man have received a grant, “You guys have done a great job.”
So, what’s a tired feminist who cut her teeth on the first women’s history course at BGSU, back in 1973, to do?
I can, in the interests of education and my own refusal to be silenced, something we are supposed to have learned not to allow (though it will not help my popularity), point out the problem of language to them. My 8-year-old Omni will try to correct, even if changing her words stops the flow of enthusiasm. The older person might respond with a little more edge and say, would you prefer “ladies”? Noo! Please not that! Are these my choices, then, to be a lady or a guy?
I reject both.
The young feminists will likely say, “It’s just a colloquialism,” “We’re reclaiming the word for ourselves,” or “‘gals’ doesn’t have the right tone, and calling each other ‘women’ just sounds presumptuous.”
The dean, depending on which one, will probably ignore the correction, chalking it up to “those politically correct feminists” who think changing a word here or there will actually change the way we think. The nicer ones will say, “thanks, good catch, I’ll do better,” and then then next time we might be “ladies and gentlemen” or “colleagues,” which I prefer, as it offers up the rather pleasant suggestion that we’re in this together, all at the same table.
If you go to google and type in “guys” and then search images, you will find a couple hundred pictures of muscle-rich young men. If you try “guys and gals,” you’ll find a lot of images of butts, some signage for hairdressers, some bands, and a motley crew of young folks with tie-dyed hair and tattoos. But perhaps we should not trust what google has to say.
What’s bothersome with our use of these male-identified words, at least for me, is that packing them around as if they’re not gendered ignores the history of words that were used and still are used to devalue women and keep them in their place. “Ladies” might passably refer to a bridge club of silver-haired matriarchs sitting around someone’s dining room table on a Thursday night (probably drinking tea, though perhaps something stronger, during the last hand). Historically, “ladies” has been supposed to be the female equivalent of “gentlemen,” though not really, in practice, given the depth of our ingrained sexism. For instance, a “gentleman’s agreement” is one built on trust and suggests a transaction of some sort, with some level of economic exchange, whereas a “ladies’ agreement” sounds like a secret code for letting each other know when a bit of lettuce is caught between one’s teeth.
“Ladies of the night” is a polite way of referring to prostitutes, and when a coach wants to get his all-male team revved up, he will likely say, “Come on, ladies, get out there, and give me 50.” Men calling other men girls or women (by any name) is another way of professing their social location as above women’s–it’s one of the best insults, second only to calling each other fags, perhaps (which is, of course, another way of degrading their “man”hood). When women call women men (or guys), it’s more like a compliment. “Way to go, dude!”
But back to “guys,” and why I cringe every time I’m called one or witness a group of strong women calling themselves “guys.” Alice Walker, in her collection of ruminations We Are the Ones We’ve Been Waiting For, comments on the increased use of “guys” for anyone, which I found gratifying, since if Walker doesn’t like it, my students might actually listen to me if I “correct” them while quoting her. Still, she doesn’t delve into it all that much. I think of “guys” as much like “man” to refer to all people. As Susan B. Anthony, in her speech after being arrested for trying to vote, argued about this business of language:
It is urged that the use of the masculine pronouns he, his and him in all the constitutions and laws, is proof that only men were meant to be included in their provisions. If you insist on this version of the letter of the law, we shall insist that you be consistent and accept the other horn of the dilemma, which would compel you to exempt women from taxation for the support of the government and from penalties for the violation of laws. There is no she or her or hers in the tax laws, and this is equally true of all the criminal laws.
In other words, you can’t say out of the one side of your mouth that “he/him/man/guys” refers to all human beings and out the other side that “he/him/man/guys” refers only to those determined to be male. What are we to do when we are told, “All guys go to the right. All girls go to the left”? I am “one of the guys,” so which side do I belong on? I am torn–some of my girlfriends are urging, “Here, here, come over here,” while others who are neither girls or boys or necessarily friends, are urging me over there.
Including women (and children, not to mention numerously other-gendered folks) in the terms of MAN and GUYS, is the best way to exalt men and devalue anyone else. “Man” and “guys” become the normed group to which others are included by virtue of the power of manguy to speak for all of us. It is their interests that determine the nature of the group, WE are just along, willing to be defined by people we are not, and by people who have historically seen it in their best interests to deny US the rights that were common sense and appropriately given to them. I reckon excluding women (and children, not to mention numerously other-gendered folks) from the terms of MAN and GUYS, is only going to happen when the manguys decide that the others don’t really merit inclusion–such as in the vote or property or inheritance or leadership or just plain-old everyday self-determination and expression. As long as we “act” like a guy, we’re welcome . . . once we don’t, their inclusive group is going to suddenly be exclusive, as when “man” meant in Anthony’s day both “men only (white, propertied)” as well as “men, women, and children.”
From here on out, I have decided to refer to any group of male and/or female human beings, at least if being casual is appropriate to the setting, as “gals.” While I would prefer to use “folks,” it does not go very far in making my point, which I’ve decided is the least I can do.