'Hey guys': Gender and the power of words

Three guys walked into a bar, a Jew, a Catholic and a Muslim. They ordered drinks. Which one ordered a Bloody Mary? Better yet, which one was named Mary?

What image did you conjure in your mind when you heard "three guys?" It's like the riddle about the father who rushes his son to the emergency room for surgery and the surgeon exclaims "I can't operate on this child, he's my son." Many people still envision a male doctor and can't immediately figure out the surgeon is the boy's mother. In the age of gender equality why do we insist "guys" is gender neutral? And it is not just my teenage children, but college students, friends and faculty alike.  Professors and professionals of all sorts say, "Hey guys" when they are referring to a mixed gender group, even to a group of all women! 

It was 1972 when the first Ms. Magazine was published, but the usage of Ms. wasn't accepted in the New York Times until 1986. It was the late 1980s when I learned in college not to use generic he and man to mean all people. For nearly fifty years we have been battling the use of male bias in our language. We have come to accept firefighters, mail carriers and chairpersons. I occasionally still get a student paper with only he instead of she or he, he/she or s/he or the grammatically incorrect yet still acceptable they. But walk into any cafeteria, dorm room, classroom or bar and you will still hear "Hey guys" used to refer to women, to mixed gender groups, to everyone.

So what's the big deal, we all know what we mean right? We can change the meaning of words, can't we? And what is the equivalent of guys? Gals? Who uses that anymore? It is awkward, old fashioned and weird. Nonetheless it is the gender equivalent of guys. Boys and girls, men and women, guys and gals. 

Words, as well as their ordering, are powerful. Women and men, girls and boys, gals and guys. My students tell me they can't say gals. Okay, use y'all, people, folks.  We have plenty of gender neutral terms. Why don't we use them? I believe patriarchy once again rears its ugly head. Yes, patriarchy. Our language reflects power structure in society. Insisting guys is generic; that everyone knows we do mean both girls and boys is a reflection of male bias in our language, of the phallocentrism in our everyday vernacular, and our culture. Patriarchy is not dead but is alive and well. My students tell me the biggest insult to boys is still to be called a girl or a sissy. They still use "douche" and "pussy" to insult their male friend's manhood. To not play a sport well is still to "play like a girl." So it isn't perhaps surprising that women don't want to be called girls either, or rather, gals. Guys is more powerful.

Part of the power of ideology is its ability to change, to shift, and to adjust in order to maintain its power. Ideologies are malleable and fluid. They are most powerful when they are taken for granted, normative and unquestioned beliefs that justify the existing social structures. Women are not equal, not yet. Women are not valued equally to men. We still only earn roughly 78 cents on a man's dollar, we are only 23 of the CEOs of the top fortune 500 companies, only 20 of the US senate. Girls still lag behind in math and STEM careers. It is still unclear if a woman could win the presidency of the United States. 

If we are mindless in our language we blindly perpetuate the status quo. When we continue to insist "guys" is really generic we are really articulating a preference for maleness over femaleness and reinforcing the preference for masculinity over femininity. The problem is not difference but unequal value. It is time to not only fight for gender neutral bathrooms and coed housing, for equal access to careers and equal pay, for gender neutral and equitable paternity leave and parenting rights, but for us to reflect in our language the full humanity of all people.

So, hey folks, let's clean up our language. 

Charlotte Kunkel

Charlotte Kunkel

Charlotte Kunkel has been a professor in the sociology department since 1995, focusing on the topics of gender, stratification and visual sociology. She also serves as the director of Luther's Women and Gender Studies program. Some of her course topics include Introduction to Sociology; Constructs of Race and Racialization; Social Psychology; and Seminar: Gender, Globalization, and Development. She is active in community anti-bias education and has been a long time volunteer for diversity education and the elimination of domestic violence. Her current research interests include the intersections of immigration and systems of race and gender stratification. Check out one of her current projects: The Stories webpage.

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  • October 3 2014 at 8:56 am
    T. S. O'Neill

    Really appreciated the article.  Similar issues encountered in the field of disabilities.  Language and Labels are so powerful.  Please continue to provide challenging and thought provoking ideas and themes concerning how we engage in a civil manner with one another.  Thank you, TS O'Neill '74