Dear President Trump,
It’s often hard to pivot away from the in-our-faces news of the day and turn to something that doesn’t feel so immediate or urgent, but a lot of the time the things that get neglected because of the urgent in-our-faces news are the very things that if left uncorrected will give rise to that much more sucky, attention grabbing crap. So I’m circling back to gender norms and highlighting a linguistic tic that’s almost universally shared in North America because as tiny as it might seem, I think it’s a crucial indicator of the massive amount of work we still need to do.
The linguistic tic I’ve been thinking about for a long time is the handy phrase “you guys” (or “hey guys” or “come on guys,” etc.). It’s the ubiquitous go to whether there is a male-identified person in the vicinity or not. Since waking up to this absurdity, I’ve tried hard to avoid using it as a catchall but I keep failing, sometimes saying to my dogs “come on you guys, let’s go” even though one of them is female or referring to a mixed or even all female-identified group with some variant of “you guys.” Arg. A woman at church said the other week that she’s banished the phrase from her lexicon (not exactly how she put it, but this was the gist) and I wish I had thought to ask her how she did it and whether she ever messes up.
This morning when I was considering whether to finally broach this topic with you, I was pushing myself by questioning whether it would be reasonable to use “you guys” when referring to a group solely comprised of male-identified people. I decided that while it would be technically correct and therefore not an overtly sexist way to reference them that it would still be far better to use something like “you all” or “y’all” since we really need to break up gendered referencing of anyone and we especially need to thwart the go-to male-focused gendered referencing we thoughtlessly default to. It would be a tiny thing in a way, but if I (or we!) can stop referring to any and all groups with “you guys” it would start tipping things in a healthier direction.
Actually, when I put this question to myself this morning and got back the answer I did, it took my breath away for a second because I realized how subversive it would be if some critical mass of us were to out loud, with language, refuse to give maleness primacy. To the extent that we all buy into maleness and stereotypical male ways as the reference against which everyone is measured, we stay stuck. Those of us who don’t conform to the mold, however we identify our gender, are in a damned if we do/damned if we don’t bind. We are judged too soft/weak/meek or too brash/abrasive/aggressive and can really never hit it quite right, as though there’s a correct way of being that we need to measure up to if we are to amount to anything.
I know some feminists in the 1970’s and 80’s thought that changing the spelling of ‘woman’ to get rid of the ‘man’ bit would make a difference, would make a dent in the patriarchy. It didn’t get much traction and as far as I can tell, it didn’t make much difference. So while I dearly wish we didn’t have to use words like ‘woman’ or ‘female’ and hope that someday we will have widely agreed upon alternatives, I think that doing away with “you guys” would be a tiny, but mighty step in the right direction. It would address and correct a ubiquitous linguistic error that erases half the population, and this would be no small feat.
May we all be safe to be ourselves.
May we be willing to actively let go of gender norms that keep us all stuck and many of us dangerously disempowered.
May we be willing to adopt healthy, inclusive language.
May we see that peace will elude us as long as we elevate traditionally male ways of being over all other ways of being.