UNRAVELING THE KNOT

ALLAN G. JOHNSON'S BLOG

Women Are Not Guys

When a society is organized around the idea that one group of people is inherently better than another, it goes without saying that injustice and unnecessary suffering will be the main result, with patriarchy and male privilege being the oldest living example. Gender inequality is everywhere, from who cleans the house and takes care of the kids to politics, work, religion, and science, to the epidemic of men’s violence against women in the military and everywhere else.

I’ve been paying attention to this for a long time, and have noticed some strange things about how it works. Perhaps the strangest is how systems of privilege manage to keep going while at the same time being based on complete fictions about who we are.

Men are not better than women and never have been. Take almost any human capability and map it across all kinds of social situations and what you will find is that distributions for women and men overlap so much that differences among men and among women are far greater than differences between the two. But still most people hold to the idea that men and women are fundamentally and inherently different, with men being superior.

I can see how this would happen with all the cultural messaging that starts from the moment we are born. If we believe women and men are inherently different, it’s because it’s what we’ve always been told, and what psychologists call ‘confirmation bias’ encourages us to pay attention only to things that support what we already believe. I get that. I can see it in myself. But then there are things that are stranger still because we know they aren’t true even as we act as though they are.

I am referring, of course, to the practice of calling women ‘guys’.

It is everywhere, by which I mean everywhere, not only in mixed-gender groups, but groups of all women. If you object, you’ll be told that ‘guy’ is just another word for ‘human being,’ which, quite clearly, it is given how it’s used by just about everyone and all time. Except that it’s also not, and we know it, which is where living in unreality comes in, the thing about privilege that is, frankly, a little nuts.

  • Thought experiment #1: imagine a room full of men and women. Someone stands at the front and says, “I want all the guys to stand up.” What happens next?
  • Thought experiment #2: you are with a woman. You tell her you think she’s such a guy, a great guy, the smartest guy you’ve ever known. Note the expression on her face.
  • Thought experiment #3: you turn on cable news and the first thing you hear is someone say, “Everyone knows it’s a guy’s world.” Picture in your mind what he’s trying to say.

A woman is not a guy and everyone knows it. Using the word to refer to human beings comes of making men the standard, the only reason for which is to reinforce the idea that men are superior to women because they are the human beings. There is no comparable word for women that can be used to include men, because women are not the standard. In a patriarchal culture, they are something less than that. A lot less.

It is a powerful bit of cultural sleight-of-hand that pulls this off so routinely that it doesn’t occur to people what a crazy thing they’re doing or the damage that it does, this simple, automatic business of calling women guys. If we could hear ourselves, we’d be embarrassed. It is nothing less, really, than calling women men, which, come to think of it, makes about as much sense.

‘Man,’ after all, is just another word for human being, is it not? Mankind, the family of man, man’s best friend, man overboard, man-hours, man-made, man the phones, man-eating, manhunt, manslaughter, manhandle, man’s inhumanity to man. So, why not call a woman a man, as in, “Hey, man, what’s up?” Is she not a human being who can have a dog or fall off the ship or knit a sweater or answer the phone or be killed without cause or hunted down by the cops and roughed up when she’s caught? Can she not be cruel to other human beings? Does she not deserve to be included in the family of man?

You can’t get away with calling a woman ‘man’ because the lie is too plain and hard to miss, whereas ‘guy’ seems a little more vague and unspecific. But it doesn’t take much to show it’s really not. A guy is a man is a guy.

We owe it to ourselves, not to mention one another and our children, to take responsibility for acting as if we really know what we know. It may not be easy to undo what we’ve been taught, and people are unlikely to thank us for it. But we can do it. We are human beings, after all.

_______________________________

If you liked this post, you might also want to read “The Hijacking of Political Correctness.”

For more on why language matters, see Sherryl Kleinman’s insightful article, “Why Language Matters” which you can read by clicking here.

I suppose a blog shouldn’t have footnotes, but I run into too many people who think gender inequality is a thing of the past. For the skeptical reader, here are some references. See Celia Ridgeway, Framed by Gender: The Persistence of Gender Inequality in the Modern World (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011); Cotter, David, Joan Hermsen, and Reeve Vanneman. “The End of the Gender Revolution? Gender Role Attitudes from 1977-2008.” American Journal of Sociology (117,1), July, 2011; U.S. Census Bureau, Current Population Survey, Annual Social and Economic (ASEC) Supplement, Table PINC-05: Work Experience in 2010, People 15 years old and Over by Total Money Earnings in 2010, by Race, Age, Hispanic Origin, and Sex” (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 2011); Kenneth Chang, “Bias Persists for Women in Science.” New York Times, September 24, 2012; Shaila Dewan and Robert Gebeloff, “The New American Job: More Men Enter Fields Dominated by Women,” (New York Times, May 20, 2012); “Women in Elective Office 2013,” Center for American Women and Politics, Eagleton Institute of Politics, Rutgers University, 2013; Offer, Shira, and Barbara Schneider. “Revisiting the Gender Gap in Time-Use Patterns: Multitasking and Well-Being among Mothers and Fathers in Dual-Earner Families.”  American Sociological Review, December, 2011; Treas, Judith, and Sonja Drobnic. Dividing the Domestic: Men, Women, and Household Work in Cross-National Perspective. (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2010; “Unholy Alliance,” New York Times editorial, March 11, 2013; Siddharth Kara, Sex Trafficking: Inside the Business of Modern Slavery. (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010); Associated Press, “Óne Third of Women Assaulted by a Partner, Global Report Says.” Reported in the New York Times, June 20, 2013; data on risks to servicewomen reported on PBS Newshour, July 30, 2013.

12 responses to “Women Are Not Guys

  1. Laura Bellmay Friday, September 6, 2013 at 3:03 pm

    Thank you Allan. Thoughtful piece. This woman is greatly encouraged by it. My husband will appreciate it as well.

  2. Liz Davis Friday, September 6, 2013 at 4:06 pm

    Awesome piece, Allan, thanks for being you. 🙂

  3. Lon Jones Saturday, September 7, 2013 at 11:15 am

    In our book, The Boids and the Bees, we talk about the biological differences between male and female and our wrongheaded efforts to make them disappear. We think the Iroquois had it right and that if the founders of our nation would have included this aspect along with the other aspects of federalism they did from the Iroquois League, we would not now have a problem. In the League they understood that men are the protectors, but they also knew that they often got too full of themselves so they put in the rule that a majority of the grandmothers (who are the unquestioned best at reading male pomposity) could impeach a chief. Including that element would empower women and all they stand for because those values would be transferred to the male chiefs.

  4. Chris Grattan Saturday, September 7, 2013 at 6:52 pm

    This is an instance of language being caught in mid-evolution. For some years, “guy” has been becoming a gender-neutral term used informally to indicate or address other people. This usage springs from an honorable desire to establish inclusivity, especially in the plural, when it is used to indicate a mixed-gender group. Yes, given its etymology, it sounds awkward, but its only real alternative, “people” carries its own baggage, a sense of formality and, in some contexts, a labored effort at leftist-sounding solidarity.
    As the I Ching might put it: “No blame.”

    • Brown Sunday, November 17, 2013 at 8:53 pm

      This isn’t an “evolution”. Man has not evolved to be “gender neutral”, on the contrary, people have pointed out that it’s NOT. A GUY has never been gender neutral, you must be referring to GUYS, which is gender biased at least and sexist at most. There are many alternatives, and yes, people is one of them. If you want to use folks, friends, everyone, you all, y’all, that’s up to you, but if you refer to me as such, I would ignore you.

  5. corey Sunday, September 8, 2013 at 5:18 pm

    Thanks for addressing this topic Allan! I am guilty of using the word “guys” and it bothers me. I catch myself all the time, so the awareness bar has been raised in my consciousness. I’m going to replace it with “folks or women.”

  6. Elizabeth Heffington Monday, September 9, 2013 at 3:59 pm

    Thank you for your work!

  7. tiny Wednesday, September 11, 2013 at 3:13 pm

    “y’all” is a suitable substitute

  8. Beau Thurnauer Tuesday, September 17, 2013 at 9:07 am

    Allan
    As you know I have used your book in my class on Domestic Violence. The more of your comments I read the more I am changing my entire course from one of guest speakers, police response and the cycle of violence to the roots of patriarchy. I now think more than ever about ways to express to a group of college seniors that it’s not just the violence but the subject’s understanding of the world and his [usually] right of maleness that really creates the environment of violence. I have a lot to learn but you have been helpful in getting me to look at a subject that I have dealt with professionally and taught for many years in a different way. Thanks.

  9. Karen Thursday, October 17, 2013 at 5:53 pm

    I live in Spain, and it is well-known that Spanish is a gender-biased language. In Spanish, you could be addressing a room full of women, and if there is just one man in the room you are expected to use the masculine form of the plural “you” (vosotros) instead of the feminine plural “you” (vosotras”).

    I am a linguist, and it is my theory that this shift in English is largely a manifestation of a certain “Latinization” of our language. The expression “Hey, guys!”, used to call attention, is a literal translation of the Spanish “¡Oye, chicos!”, where the masculine “chicos” is used instead of the feminine “chicas” in a mixed-gender group.

    Whatever the origin of this linguistic metamorphosis, I thank you for your sensitivity in dealing with this topic. Coming from a gentleman, your argument carries more weight. As a linguist, I am concerned for the improper use of our language (what ever happened to our plural “you”?), and, as a woman, I admit I do feel somewhat overlooked and unheard when in a group addressed as “guys”. Nevertheless, I do not feel it is my place to walk around re-educating complete strangers, so I do do a lot of tongue-biting. But, in my inner circle, I do often speak up and, as a mother, I have clearly taught my boys what I consider correct language usage and respectful speech.

    And, if people keep insisting on talking like Shaggy from a 1970’s Scooby-Doo Saturday morning cartoon, I might just have to start talking like Velma. Jinkies! .

    • steve66oh Friday, December 13, 2013 at 3:18 am

      I belong to a Facebook group whose membership (3266) is about 99% female. The group is “Polish-aholics Anonymous,” and I joined because I am one of the few men who enjoys painting my nails, despite the societal prejudice (and fiction) that “men can’t paint their nails… because its girly.. and girly is bad”. The group has been overwhelmingly friendly, supportive and welcoming to me. For my part, I have made a point of using the group for its intended purpose – showing off manis we like, sharing notes about good and bad polishes we’ve used, letting each other know about new colors coming out, or sales we’ve found – and I have resisted the urge to flirt with anyone there, because I know that nobody is there to find a date. The thing is, when I joined, a few people began starting their posts with “Ladies and Steve…”, “Ladies and gentlemAn..” and other similarly awkward salutations. I recognize and appreciate their desire to be inclusive, but I ended up asking them not to worry so much – that I joined knowing the group was almost exclusively female, I am honored and proud that they have accepted me there as one of them, and I consider “Ladies” to be an appropriate greeting to the whole group, including myself. In fact, in the context of that group, I feel more “included” when they just say “Ladies”, and less so when they acknowledge me separately with a more complicated greeting. I’m not a lady, I’m a man – physically and mentally – but, just as I can wear nail color without it threatening my manhood, I can also accept a feminine group salutation without perceiving an insult.

  10. Brown Sunday, November 17, 2013 at 8:50 pm

    Thank you Alan. Your article is exactly what I’ve been thinking about for many years now since I turned 20 years old. I don’t even use GUYS for males anymore because I find it vulgar and too informal/unprofessional especially at work. I used Folk, All, Everyone, etc.

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