Oprah says it. My yoga instructor says it. College students around the country say it. The cast of Friends says it, as do my own friends, over and over again. At least 10 to 20 times a day, I hear someone say “you guys” to refer to groups or pairs that include and in some cases consist entirely of women. I get e-mail all the time asking after my (female) partner and me: “How’s everything with you guys?” “What are you guys doing for the holidays?” In informal speech and writing, the phrase has become so common in American English that it’s completely invisible to many who use it. In response to my post on the topic, participants on wmst-l, a listserv for women’s studies teachers and scholars hosted by the University of Maryland, report that it’s not confined to young people, nor is it an altogether recent development (some of the participants’ older relatives used it in the ’50s and ’60s). Furthermore, the usage is beginning to spread to Canada, England, and Australia, largely through the influence of American television. (The full discussion has become part of the list’s public archives: research.umbc.edu/~korenman/wmst/guys.html.)
What’s the problem? people ask when I question this usage. The language has evolved, and now “guys” is gender neutral, they say. Even those who consider themselves feminists-who conscientiously choose “he or she” over “he”; use “flight attendant,” “chairperson,” and “restaurant server”; and avoid gender-specific language as much as possible-seem quite willing to accept “you guys” as if it were generic. But let’s do the math:One guy is clearly male; two or more guys are males. How does a word become gender neutral just by being plural? And then how do you explain something like Heyyouguys.com, “The Man’s Search Engine”? Can the same culture that says “it’s a guy thing” to refer to anything that women just don’t get about male behavior view a woman as one of the guys?
Current dictionaries, such as Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 10th edition, tell us that “guys” may be “used in plural to refer to the members of a group regardless of sex”; but then, we need to keep in mind that dictionaries are not apolitical. They record the state of language and reflect particular ways of seeing the world. (This same tome offers the word “wicked” as one synonym for “black.”) My 1979 ninth edition of Webster’s includes no reference to gender-free guys, an indication that “you guys” had not yet become a standard form of address.
In “The Ascent of Guy,” a 1999 article in American Speech, Steven J. Clancy writes, “Contrary to everything we might expect because of the pressures of ‘politically correct’ putative language reforms, a new generic noun is developing right before our eyes.” Although Clancy doesn’t take issue with the development (as you could probably guess from his disparaging tone on the whole idea of feminist language reform), his report ought to make us stop and think. During the same decades in which feminist critiques of generic uses of “man” and “he” led to widespread changes in usage-no mean feat-“you guys” became even more widely accepted as an informal and allegedly genderfree phrase. What Clancy concludes is that English contains a “cognitive framework in which strongly masculine words regularly show a development including specifically male meanings (man, he, guy) along with gender nonspecific forms…whereas in English, feminine words do not undergo such changes.” In practice, that is, terms signifying maleness have been more readily perceived as universal than those signifying femaleness. Or, to put it another way, if you call a group of men “you gals,” they’re not going to think you’re just celebrating our common humanity.
And this should trouble us. After all, haven’t we been largely pleased by the way the media has worked to adopt at least a semblance of nonsexist language? Newscasters and other public figures make an effort to avoid obviously gender-biased words, and major publications such as the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal do the same. In spite of vocal criticism from those who view such shifts as preposterous, genuine feminist language reform has gained some ground. But as is the case with all advances brought about by feminism and other progressive movements, we need to stay on top of things-or else we may wake up one day to find them gone. This seemingly innocent phrase may be operating like a computer virus, worming its way into our memory files and erasing our sense of why we worry about sexism in language to begin with.
Up until a couple of years ago, I used the phrase as much as anyone, and I never gave it a thought. “You guys” sounds casual, friendly, harmless. In Southern California, where I live, it’s positively ubiquitous. When two female friends told me one day that it bothered them to be called “you guys,” my wounded ego began an internal rant: I’m a literature and gender studies professor, I know about language, I spend much of my time teaching and writing against sexism, and here were people whose opinions I valued telling me that I was being patriarchal. Impossible!
And then I started listening. I listened first to my own defensive indignation. Clearly, my friends had touched a nerve. Deep down I knew that they were right: Calling women “guys” makes femaleness invisible. It says that man-as in a male person-is still the measure of all things.
Once I copped to being in the wrong, I started hearing the phrase with new ears. Suddenly it seemed bizarre to me when a speaker at an academic conference addressed a room full of women as “you guys”; when a man taking tickets from me and some friends told us all to enjoy the show, “you guys”; and on and on. It was as if these speakers were not really seeing what was before their eyes. I experienced a sense of erasure, of invisibility.
Alice Walker, a vocal opponent of this usage, recounts how she and filmmaker Pratibha Parmar toured the U.S. supporting the film Warrior Marks and were discouraged to find that in question-and-answer sessions audience members continually referred to them as “you guys.” “Each night, over and over, we told the women greeting us: We are not ‘guys.’ We are women. Many failed to get it. Others were amused. One woman amused us, she had so much difficulty not saying ‘you guys’ every two minutes, even after we’d complained” (from “Becoming What We’re Called,” in 1997’s Anything We Love Can Be Saved ).
Because it took me the better part of a year to eradicate this usage from my own speech, and after hearing friends-whom I’ve encouraged to follow suit-apologize when they slip back into it, I feel like I understand the problem from the inside out. Most of us are familiar with the idea of internalized oppression, the subtle process by which members of disenfranchised groups come to accept their own lesser status. We need to recognize that accepting “guys” as a label for girls and women is a particularly insidious example of that process.
Many people on wmst-l have offered alternatives, ranging from the Southern “y’all” or less regionally marked “you all,” to the Midwestern “yoonz” or “you-uns,” to the apparently unhip “people,” which is associated, it seems, with nerdy high school teachers and coaches. “Folks” received the most support as a truly gender-free option. Some suggested “gyns” as a playful feminist variant. A more radical solution might be to use a word like “gals” as generic and get men used to hearing themselves included in a female-specific term.
Although the majority of those who posted and wrote to me privately viewed the spread of “guys” as something to resist (with many noting how they sometimes regressed), others expressed hope that the phrase would indeed free itself from masculine connotations over time. One professor writes, almost wistfully, “I, for one, have always liked the formulation ‘you guys’ and whole-heartedly wish it were gender neutral. English could use a gender-neutral term to refer to a group of people (or even to individuals for that matter)…. I’ve had students (female) be offended when I’ve used ‘you guys’ to them, but I still like it for some reason.” I think many feminists who find “you guys” acceptable would similarly like to believe that it is indeed nonsexist. It’s a powerful phrase precisely because it seems so warm and cozy. But we ought to ask what we are protecting when we claim that “you guys” is no big deal.
Sherryl Kleinman, professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, has dedicated herself to eliminating the usage. She argues, in “Why Sexist Language Matters” (published in Center Line, the newsletter of the Orange County Rape Crisis Center), that male-based generics function as “reinforcers” of a “system in which ‘man’ in the abstract and men in the flesh are privileged over women.” With the help of two former students, Kleinman developed a small card to leave at establishments where “you guys” is spoken (it’s available to download at www.youall2.freeservers.com). The card succinctly explains what’s at stake in this usage and suggests alternatives. Kleinman reports that distributing the card has aroused some anger. After dining with a group of female friends and being called “you guys” several times by the server, Kleinman left the card along with a generous tip. The server followed the women out of the restaurant and berated them for what he perceived to be an insult. Christian Helms, who designed the card’s artwork, comments, “It’s interesting how something that is supposedly ‘no big deal’ seems to get people so worked up.”
Most of us have probably had the experience of pointing out some type of sexist expression or behavior to acquaintances and being accused of being “too sensitive” or “too pc” and told to “lighten up.” It’s certainly easier just to go along with things, to avoid making people uncomfortable, to accept what we think will do no harm. If you feel this way about “you guys,” you might want to consider Alice Walker’s view of the expression: “I see in its use some women’s obsequious need to be accepted, at any cost, even at the cost of erasing their own femaleness, and that of other women. Isn’t it at least ironic that after so many years of struggle for women’s liberation, women should end up calling themselves this?”
So open your ears and your mouth. Tell people that women and girls aren’t “guys.” Stop saying it yourself. Feminist language reform is an ongoing process that requires a supportive community of speakers. The more we raise our voices, the less likely it is that women and girls will be erased from speech.