Last year I attended a large women’s event: an herbal festival held at a rented summer camp. On the first night, one of the owners of the establishment welcomed the crowd of about 600 women. “Are there any guys in the house?” he asked, almost immediately. He was greeted by a sea of women’s laughter: there were no guys in the room. “Well, if there were we would be hanging out later,” he replied. “But seriously, I want to welcome all you guys!” Without missing a breath, he had immediately let us all know that though there were no guys among us, we were all guys after all. At the end of the speech, he repeated what I guess was meant as a compliment: “Have fun, guys! Thank you!”
Most of us, if we notice this sort of thing at all, just roll our eyebrows and push it back in our minds along with all the other nuggets of daily sexism we stash away. If you start being too aware of something that’s so much a part of current culture, it can drive you nuts. “Guy” is not only everywhere—it is everywhere in a smug, self-satisfied way that just screams, “who, me, sexist? Are you kidding?” So most of us, even if we suspect something unsavory underneath, just back down, figuring it must be ok. After all, probably the culture will grow out of it.
Or. Not. What if ignoring something like this comes across as permission—or even encouragement? Because this thing does keep growing. NPR, for example, is the epitome of liberal, educated media. They are careful always to use the title “Ms.” to refer to women, and they would never be caught dead using an archaic, sexist, supposedly gender-neutral masculine inclusive term like “mankind,” for example. Never! Right?
Wrong. NPR hosts, female or male, use the generic “guy” in exactly the same way that people for centuries used generic “mankind” or “man”—at times to refer specifically to males and at times to refer to all people, randomly switching between the two. It’s the trading back and forth that makes it so dangerous; just when you start to relax into using one of these terms as a gender-neutral word, the patriarchy shows its claws: someone says something like “guys are much less likely to use handkerchiefs than women are,” and off we go again—the supposedly generic word has a male meaning after all and women, once graciously invited into this universal, all-encompassing universal word but now suddenly, linguistically speaking (and language is an oh-so powerful thing!) thrown out of it, in effect stop existing.
“Guy” also shows up with shocking frequency on NPR in a different kind of sexist language, one that Casey Miller and Kate Swift, authors of the definitive Handbook of Nonsexist Writing https://www.amazon.com/Handbook-Nonsexist-Writing-Miller-Casey/dp/0060962380, call “irrelevant gender emphasis.” This is the practice of mentioning someone’s gender when it is completely gratuitous. “Gratuitous specification of age, race and ethnicity should also be avoided,” note Miller and Swift. “In the following examples, unnecessary references are in italics: Mary Brown, a Maori, has been selected for the position. The lecturer, a middle-aged grandmother. A Chinese computer programmer.” Imagine if NPR habitually tagged people with a mention of their ethnicity , even when it was completely irrelevant to the story! Yet thanks to the Teflon aura of hipness that surrounds the word “guy,” this is what they do, habitually, when it comes to gender
For example, there’s an episode of NPR’s Radio Lab on the supposedly gender-neutral topic of translating poetry in form. It’s a topic dear to my heart and I was absorbed in the show until the hosts, Robert Krulwich and a guest, went all “guy” on me. This guystorm had the effect of reminding me that they are both guys and so are all the people they are talking about. And that I’m not. The more aware and joyful and powerful I become in myself and my life and my path as a witch and a writer, the thinner my skin for sexism gets. Not being a guy (no matter how many times I’m treated to the honorific), after hearing the word a dozen times, I just didn’t feel very welcome. In fact, I felt so excluded that I finally gave up on the show. But not before writing down these snippets:
“A guy named”
“You may know Hofstadter as the guy who”
“Written by a guy named Clement Moreau”
“It’s just this guy talking to a young girl”
“Sent them to one of the guys who”
“A guy named Bob did that”
They were still going strong when I left.
I remember when I was getting my “green witch” training in herbalism from Susun Weed with a small group of women, part of the process was having to listen to Susun rant about the word “guy.” It wasn’t pretty. “I hate this “guy” thing, she kept saying. “I’m not a guy. There is not a single guy present at this gathering. So don’t call me a guy!” Instead, Weed proposed we all call ourselves Gaias (pronounced “guy-a”) in honor of Gaia, mother earth.
I knew where Weed was coming from, but “Gaia” sounded silly and I thought her objections to “guy” were over the top. After all, many of the people I know, including women of all ages, call me a guy on a regular basis. The habit felt too widespread, too deeply rooted, to be changeable. Surely it didn’t mean that much…..But on the other hand I could remember that when it started up, in the 1990s, my instincts felt as if something was awry. The first time a waitress said “you guys” to a table of women that included me, though it felt flattering in an exciting, transgressive sort of way, I did notice that I was being addressed as a male, and I squirmed.
Nowadays, especially after the 2016 election and its avalanche of backlash sexism against the possibility of a woman president, I’m squirming a lot more. Our language took centuries to get rid of generic “he” and generic “mankind” and generic “man”—and after all that, just in case women are starting to feel too much like we have a right to be female and human at the same time, here comes the generic “guy” to accomplish the same thing all over again: erasing femaleness with the illusion of inclusive maleness.
Just like I never believed that “he” could really refer to women during all those centuries, no matter how grammatically correct one was being, I will not be able to forget that “guys” really means “men.” Not for an instant. Just ask that guy over there.