Sunday, January 30, 2011

some thoughts on gender and language

Something I've been thinking about lately:

Of course, gender isn't really a simple binary.  But just in terms of language, there's no real feminine analogue to the word "guy."  Think about it:

"male" and "female"

"man" and "woman"

"boy" and "girl"

"guy" and... 

It seems like a little thing, but there are implications to this.  Because "guy" is used so often in American English, we end up needing a word that doesn't exist to refer to women-identified people in a playful, informal way.  And rather than round up to "woman," we round down to "girl."  Like "guys on the right, girls on the left" or "this party was all guys and just three girls."  Grown women are referred to by a word that is infantilizing or at least condescending.  All the time.

Similarly, most people address mixed gender groups like "hey guys," or "what do you guys think about..." and all that.  Because these kinds of English pronouns are gendered, there's no easy way to address mixed gender groups, unless you rearrange your sentence, something that takes some thought.  For most people, it's just easier to say "hey you guys" instead of "hey you all" or "hey everyone" or something that might be 10% more awkward syntactically.  Again, this has implications.  It implicitly says that the "default" for a human being is male, which is troubling.

In both instances, women (not to mention people who identify as anything other than male) get the short end of the stick; they're either made smaller or made invisible.  And this way of speaking is extremely normalized

Language is powerful.  While both of these examples may seem pretty innocent to many people, I do believe that they impact how our world functions.  And fixing them-- saying "woman" instead of "girl" and addressing mixed-gender groups by a non-gendered pronoun-- isn't really THAT difficult.  It's actually pretty easy.  It just takes some thought and intentionality.  I'm going to challenge myself to remember this.  Hopefully you will too. 

Any thoughts or disagreements or additions?


sara. said...

ladies. I will say, to a mixed gender group, "hey guys," or "hello ladies." however, this has yet to catch on in standard usage. I'll keep trying though.

Anonymous said...


wendy mukluk the genderless said...

i dunno.... guy is used for male type persons, but it is getting used more and more (at least in my little world) as any gender, "hey you guys", no matter if it's male female trans whatever, and i hope that continues. we need more inclusive/general words, besides "they" which can be awkward. i have addressed a group of women as "guys" and no one seemed to have a second thought about it.

what bugs me is all these things, paper and web forms where you only have the choice of "male" or "female" and not even an "other". i just answer at random while being really annoyed :-)

Guante said...

Good thoughts. There are definitely words that work, but I don't think there's one that's perfect, one that exactly matches the informality and usefulness of "guy." I think it's just best to avoid using gendered pronouns in general.

"Ladies" is probably the closest one. There might be some weird class stuff going on with that one, but that's looking pretty deeply into it.

"Gal" works too, but it just sounds super anachronistic to me. Same with "doll," though that one obviously has its own problems, haha.

mel said...

Hey Guante...long time, no blog comment on my part.

I have been talking about this quite a bit with friends lately, particularly fellow educators. Despite being conscious of the (dominant) gendered nature of "hey guys," I still say it ALL the time to mixed-gender groups. I was watching a video of myself teaching a few weeks ago and noticed how many times I said things like, "What do you guys think about that?" "Would you guys all move a bit closer to me?" etc.

When I try shifting to "y'all," students laugh at me (rightfully so?). I think "folks" or "everyone" are good alternatives: "What do folks think about that?" "Would everyone move a bit closer to me?"

For me (and perhaps for you), it's not so much about finding a "female equivalent" as it is to use language that doesn't reinforce the
"simple gender binary'; and the *bigger* challenge to me is bringing this consciousness into the conversation (be it w/peers or students). Simply changing the way I talk, without having a critical conversation about things like gender, sex, capitalism, yadda yadda yadda doesn't really make that much of an impact.

Guante said...

I hate the word "folks." But that's just my own bias-- it's a perfectly fine word to use. I just hear so many progressive people use it and it starts to sound like jargon, even though it isn't, haha.

I agree with everything else though, Mel. Thanks!

Elizabeth Sowden said...

One time, at debate camp, we discussed the guys vs. girls issue. The lecturer suggested that it is supposed to be "guys and gals" and in the context of "guys and girls" girl is a sexist diminutive of "gal". However, according to this handy resource, "gal" is just a different pronunciation of "girl". Therefore "gal" = "girl" and is not any sort of improvement. So, no help there, I guess.

The sad part is that many women have been conditioned to prefer to be called girl, because it implies that you're young and therefore still of value. Even my grandmother, who is 87, says she likes to be called girl...

Cole Sarar said...

Tone is more important to me than the words actually used. I refer to myself as a girl regularly, but I generally call other women "ladies". I seldom actually say "men" or "women". I don't really mind being called just about anything, it all depends on context and tone.

Sara V. said...

Taking the etymology analysis further, there's an
interesting dialogue between these terms even on that level:

"Girl" is from Middle English (1250–1300) and referred to child or young person, without inherent gendering. So perhaps a mixed group should really be referred to as "girls"...

"Guy," however, comes from Guy Fawkes, the infamous British "traitor," which then came to mean the effigies that are paraded through the streets and burned on Guy Fawkes day. Which then came to mean a bunch of dudes standing around. So "doll," unfortunately, seems to be the obvious female corollary.

And "lady" (pre-900) just means "loaf-kneader." Boo.

Nathan said...

Much like another commenter, I have noticed that I address groups of students as "guys". I almost always try to correct myself, often in that correction I say "you all" or "everyone" and every once in a while I drop a "guys and girls".

Students do pick up on the intent to not imply gender, which I think is good. How about "people"? "Did you people do your homework?"...maybe "everyone" is better.

At least it is nice to know I am not alone in my striving for a gender-neutral address.