Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Hey, "you [sic] guys"

OK, I have dropped everything to respond to Quinn's post...

I think "you guys" is in fact sexist. Although I have been known to use it, I consciously try not to for the very reason this woman you mention is offended by it: it is gender exclusive. (I think my use of it has been a backlash against "ya'll"). Nonetheless, I have personally railed against this turn of phrase (and also, don't call me "man" or "dude").

Anyway, a "guy" is a man/boy. The opposite is "gal" for woman/girl. Therefore, using it to mean both is as troublesome as the generic "he". As always, these masculine-posing- as-neutral words become obviously problematic when you reverse the gender. No group including men will appreciate being referred to as "you gals". No group including men will not complain if a speaker refers to the group as "womankind". No group including men will silently accept that "she" actually refers to everyone.

That aside, plenty of words are covertly sexist, and I think we need to at least be aware of these secret slights against women that pervade our language nearly unnoticed. On the, I think, more obvious side are words like "fireman", "mailman", "policeman"; less obvious are words like "waitress", "actress", "stewardess". These are easily fixed: "firefighter", "mail-carrier", "police officer", "server", "actor", "flight attendant". Even more covert are words like "widow", "whore", "prostitute" and even "doctor" and "lawyer". These are problematic but don't have to be: the problem is due to people who feel the need to qualify them with gender marks or even assume a gender based on the word itself. For instance a "widow", a "whore", and a "prostitute" are always assumed to be women, so when we mean these words to refer to men we have to mark them: "widower", "man-whore", "male prostitute". Similarly, "doctor" and "lawyer" are assumed to refer to men: thus we have "female doctor" and "female lawyer".

Interestingly, words that primarily refer to women, and must be modified to refer to men, are words with negative connotations or words for occupations that are socially (or morally) rejected or marginalized. Many words that must be marked female in order to refer to women are words for high-power, high-income, well-respected professions.

Many people (mostly men) balk at these language problems; I often hear that even talking about this is just "splitting hairs" or is only a problem because of "political correctness". In my classroom, I can enforce proper usage (and Standard American English prescriptively avoids sexism). I point out that no one in a college classroom would hand in a paper with racist words, so it shouldn't be such a stretch to edit papers to avoid sexism. Equating to racism usually stops detractors in their tracks. On at least one occasion, I've had to point out the obvious to a student: that he as a white man in this country can ignore racism and sexism, or claim they no longer exist, because he is not immediately affected by them. He does not feel excluded when a generic "he" refers to all people because he is a "he".

This point really affected my current class when one of the men asked what we should do about older texts that use sexist language, such as the Declaration of Independence. He opened the door for an important object lesson in sexism and racism in language. When the text says "We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal...", who, I asked the class, is made equal. One woman said "men". I asked the men to raise their hands. Then I asked them to lower their hands if they did not own their own homes because to have voting rights, for instance, one had to be a property holding man. All but two hands dropped: one white man and one black man remained. I said to the black man, "sorry, you were still considered property when this document was written." He dropped his hand. So out of twenty-five people, only one is created equal according to this text. Only one white, property-holding man can count himself included.

Words are shifty and slippery: they don't mean what we think they mean for all people. When words are used to exclude they are problematic, but words can exclude without the speaker intending for them to. Therefore, the responsibility falls to the speaker to speak carefully and precisely. I my classroom, I can require proper speech, but in the wide world of patriarchy, I have to speak against sexist language when I can, model proper usage when I can't, and otherwise hope for the best that people will be kind to others for the sake of being kind, or, if nothing else, so as to not gain a reputation for being an inconsiderate jerk.

We are making strides in educating people on the power of language (not to mention images) to shape reality for women and racial minorities. The more we, as Quinn says, "adopt a gender neutral tone," the more we can expect to see change in the ways in which people speak and think about the humanity of other people. This gender-neutrality is farther reaching than just the pronouns. They are a good first step into changing the way language is (mis)used to the detriment of the majority of the population.

Thanks for bringing this up, Quinn. This is one of my favorite discussion topics. As for questioning your sensitivity, I think that you are sensitive enough to recognize the problems inherent in language, otherwise you wouldn't bother with the "gender neutral tone" and you wouldn't even worry about "guys" possibly being an issue. So, no, I don't think you are insensitive, maybe just not as informed on language problems as you could be. Now that I've said may piece, you have no excuse, mister! ;) Seriously, it's hard to change the ways we speak, but the more we do it the easier it gets. I sometimes still say "you guys" even though I don't want to--it just slips out. But I can acknowledge that its a problem, and I can work to correct it. (And I can beat into my students that sexist language is wrong, wrong, wrong).

I wonder if "guys" never crossed your mind as sexist because you are a "guy" or because it is so pervasive in our culture to refer to all people as "guys". There's a great site (American Heritage Book of English Usage) that describes American English as it is used (not prescribes how it should be), and even it shows the distinction between the singular guy = boy and the plural guys = people. The fact that the singular is gendered even in common usage means that the recognition by the culture that the plural is also gendered is not far behind. Not to mention the fact that no one will ever say "gals" to mean people.

It's not a made-up problem; it's a problem that is more and more frequently making itself known in the collective language choices of the culture.


Quinn said...

Kate said - "There's a great site (American Heritage Book of English Usage) that describes American English as it is used (not prescribes how it should be), and even it shows the distinction between the singular guy = boy and the plural guys = people."

The linguistics classes I took in college all urged us to look at prescriptive grammar as inferior to descriptive. The professors argued that it was how words were actually used that mattered. Do you disagree, or should we be enforcing old rules that are clearly outdated? I don't see much of a difference between insisting that we define words the way they were originally defined and insisting that we use the same rules of grammar now as were used 50 years ago.

Kate said...

I believe prescriptive grammar is helpful in writing classes, but the language only evolves through descriptive analysis. Therefore, if we begin to use language differently, descriptive linguists will take note and a shift will be inevitable.

Consequently, feminist language problems are not "old rules that are clearly outdated." If anything, the generic "he" et al are the outdated ones.

My concern is that women are marginalized by masculine-posing-as -neutral language. I do not prescribe that anyone change anything. I simply point out the problems and let educated people sort out their own language for themselves. I do hope, however, that, without a forceful ban on sexist usage, educated people realize the problems inherent in linguistic sexism and a change does occur. Linguistic change is a sign that cultural change is happening.

(Consequently, American Heritage is a descriptivist site, as I noted when I linked to it).

Quinn said...

Not to reopen this can o' worms, but in order to clarify:

I too agree that the generic "he" is outdated, and feminist language problems are not. I simply question whether "guys" is the same sort of issue as the generic "he", but I think I've made that clear (as your response to my position is also clear and understandable... even if I remain unconvinced).

Now I'll be taking a break from this particular topic for awhile.

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