UNRAVELING THE KNOT

ALLAN G. JOHNSON'S BLOG

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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.

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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.

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