Good-bye to “You Guys”

Image credit: Christian Helms

Teaching about sexist language should be easy. After all, our classes have “gender” in the title and the vast majority of the students are women. Some of our courses are cross-listed in Women’s Studies. As a colleague once put it, “You have the selection effect going for you.”

And yet, even under the best of conditions, it’s hard.

We’re not referring to sexist terms that men (and some women) use to demean women, such as whore, slut, or the c-word. No, we’re talking about so-called male “generics,” such as freshman, chairman, and the ever-present “you guys.”

In the late 1960s, feminists pointed out the problems with these terms: They make women invisible and reinforce the idea that men and masculinity are the norm. Linguistically subsuming an oppressed group under a privileged group can’t be a good thing for the oppressed, though it may feel good to some. A woman might find it flattering when a man refers to her as “one of the guys.”    

And that’s part of the problem: How can “you guys” be harmful when it’s normalized and used by almost everyone?

We’ve found that understanding resistance to using true generics is more difficult than understanding why sexist language matters. What’s going on? What stands in the way of good people adopting you all, y’all, hey folks, or “you,” which is both singular and plural? “What can I get you to drink” works for one person in a room or 10.

The Research

To examine liberals and feminists’ resistance to using true generics, we analyzed negative comments to online essays that critiqued “you guys” (one posted on AlterNet in 2007 and another shared on Facebook in 2015). We found five types of resistance: appeals to origins; appeals to linguistic authority; appeals to aesthetics; appeals to intentionality and inclusivity; and appeals to women and feminist authorities.

Resistance to seeing the problems with “you guys” is linked to beliefs in U.S. society about harm. People believe that harm exists only if an action is initiated by an individual, the individual has bad intentions, and the consequences of what is said or done are immediate, visible, and extreme.

But inequality can be reproduced unconsciously; the harms to a group as a whole may be indirect. In the case of “you guys,” the harm doesn’t lie in occasionally addressing a group of women or a group of women and men with the term, but in the cumulative effect of men and women saying it over and over, and just about everywhere. “You guys” is insidious; no bad intentions required. With analytic distance, one can see “you guys” operating as a form of sexist conditioning.

It helps to imagine people using “you girls” or “you gals” as a generic term. Students find that possibility funny, ridiculous, absurd. They also say that men wouldn’t put up with it. Soon it’s not a big leap for them to see that men treating a woman as “one of the guys” has a lot more value than women treating a man as “one of the girls.” 

Our analysis suggests that people who value their feminist identity, like those in our classes, resist dropping “you guys” because it’s hard to take criticism for not living up to feminist ideals. For a social movement to succeed, however, participants must be willing to get rid of any practices that undermine their principles. Without adopting self-criticism as a life-long project, participants will expend more energy pushing against a simple call for change than making a change for the good.

Sherryl Kleinman is Emerita Professor of Sociology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She has published extensively in the areas of inequality, symbolic interaction, qualitative methods, and feminist analysis (e.g., Feminist Fieldwork Analysis). She also writes creative nonfiction, essays, and poems.

Martha Copp is Professor of Sociology at East Tennessee State University. She is co-author of Emotions and Fieldwork with Sherryl Kleinman. Her research and teaching interests include the reproduction of social inequalities, qualitative methods, work, and emotions.

Kalah B. Wilson is a PhD candidate in the Department of Sociology at North Carolina State University. Her dissertation focuses on Appalachian residents’ responses to changing rhetoric about coal mining during the Trump Era. She examines elites’ media framing of coal and the connections between identity, masculinity, and environment for Appalachian residents.

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