Can the Term "Guys" Refer to Women and Girls?

Going out to eat with my father is always a tense affair. For the five or ten minutes it takes from the time the host or hostess seats us to the time our server comes to take our order, I sit quietly, feeling anxious and wondering how our waiter or waitress will greet us.

Will she say, "How are you all doing today?" Or, "What can I get you folks to drink?" If we're near our hometown in the rural Midwest, there is a good chance she'll say the latter, but, more often than not, we hear: "Hi, my name is Jamie, and I'll be taking care of you guys today. Our specials this afternoon are smoked salmon, parmesan-crusted tilapia ..."

"Excuse me," my dad cuts in, his eyes narrowing to a glare, "but I only see one guy here."

My stomach drops and I stare at the table in front of me, trying not to roll my eyes. The lecture never takes more than a minute, but it's still excruciating.

On rare occasion, a waiter or waitress will argue back, saying "guys" is a gender-neutral term. But, most of the time, he or she just stands very still, jaw dropped, looking stunned.

Because this exchange never leads to a thoughtful discussion of gender and language, I long ago dismissed it as one of my dad's quirks -- a one-person tirade to laugh at and let go of. Besides, one of my father's biggest heroes is Bill O'Reilly -- not exactly a portrait of feminist ideals.

Yet, for whatever reason, now that my dad and I live in different states and I see him only once or twice a year, I'm noticing how often men and women use the phrase "you guys" to refer to both sexes. It happens in restaurants, at council meetings -- even in grade-school classrooms.

And so, a voice in the back of my head is starting to say, Maybe he has a point. Maybe this isn't an arbitrary battle over an arbitrary word.

A cursory glance at blog postings shows that the use of the word "guys" is much more discussed and much more controversial than I had realized.

Giving credence to my dad's argument, dozens of postings read something like this: Try walking up to a group of men and women and saying, "Hey, girls, how's it going?" The reaction won't be positive. The men in the group probably won't find the feminine label amusing -- and certainly not arbitrary.

So why is the reverse acceptable? Why is "girls" gender-specific, but "guys" is not?

"Is it because men are not considered gendered, like white people do not consider themselves a race or European-Americans ethnic?" writes Farrah Ferriell, an instructor at the Women's Studies Program at Western Kentucky University. "I say yes ..."

A few posts down on the same site, Kathy Ferguson, a teacher from Hawaii, writes, "You know, I think I find myself in the "get a life" camp on these questions. ... '[Y]ou guys' [can be said] with affection. Words don't have inherent meanings, after all; they have the meanings that usage gives them, and are not necessarily stuck in past patriarchal contexts. I also find that I have many more important struggles in my classrooms than these."

Ferguson's point that words don't have inherent meanings is a good one. "He" could easily be a feminine pronoun and "she" a masculine word if we used them that way. However, "guys" is not a brand new term. And it's already gendered in many circumstances. "Guy" is masculine (e.g. That guy over there is really attractive). "The guys" is too (e.g. Will the guys in the room please stand up?). So, the distinction -- and the controversy -- seems to lie with the colloquial phrase, "you guys."

That distinction makes me curious to know how many people consciously think "you guys" is gender-neutral and how many are just so used to hearing and saying it that they don't even notice its prevalence. In my case, I had never consciously thought the term was gender-neutral; rather, I had just never carefully considered it until my dad brought it to my attention.

Even if the majority of people really have thought deeply about this issue and still maintain that "you guys" is gender-neutral, why are generic words always male? I have a hard time seeing any difference between "guys" and words like "mankind" or "Congressman." At one time, those words, too, were considered generic. But now we know they're not -- they're laden with meaning. They make women invisible by reinforcing the idea that men are the norm against which women are compared.

Why, then, would we want to risk repeating the same mistake? Especially when the solution is as simple as replacing "you guys" with "you all."

True, this issue is not as pressing as, say, the war in Iraq or homelessness in San Francisco. But that does not mean it is not legitimate. Just because there's a war in Iraq, does that mean that the divorce someone is going through is any less real or painful? That being fired suddenly feels great? That getting a traffic ticket sucks any less? Or perhaps a better example: Just because slapping a woman isn't as serious as raping her, does that mean we should ignore the former?

On its face, using the term "you guys" seems harmless enough -- gendered or not. But as the number of people who see it as gendered grows, so does the phrase's power to influence ideas about identity -- to perpetuate the subtle yet damaging belief that being male is more valuable than being female. And the consequences of that extend far beyond the momentary awkwardness of me having lunch with my dad.


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