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‘Guys’ isn’t a gendered word anymore. It’s fine to use with everyone. – The Washington Post

The winter after I graduated from college, I visited a couple living in Rome. The man had a job on a Sylvester Stallone movie, but the woman could not legally work in Italy and had no income. He happily paid their bills and facilitated her work as an artist until their return to the States, where she could start her paid working life.
She was deeply uncomfortable about the politics of her situation, the dependency. One day she exploded about the term ragazzi, the plural of boys, which also refers to the mixed company of men and women. The feminine was ragazze, which meant girls. To her mind, this exemplified how sexist not only the Italian language was but the Italian culture.
I saw her point, but I also got the sense that her frustration was related to her unease at what she perceived as her anti-feminist situation. What made language good or bad to her was inseparable from her experience.
English, of course, has fewer gendered words than Italian, but “guys,” our version of ragazzi, is one example of how we, too, often treat the masculine as neutral when gendered options are available. Men and women can both be actors, for example, but only women are actresses.
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You needn’t find yourself in an Italian idyll to be troubled by this dynamic. But there’s a different kind of hand-wringing over language that troubles me. In the past few years, I’ve noticed women — almost always women — apologizing whenever “guys” habitually came out of their mouths. “We shouldn’t say that,” they’d explain after, though they weren’t always sure why.
They may have vaguely understood that masculine words functioning as neutral terms are expressions of a misogynistic social order. They knew that the word was gendered in some way, assuming that it was and always had been the opposite of “gals,” and thus was not inclusive.
One of the problems with dismissing the word guys as inherently masculine is that it assumes that the gendering of language is fixed — that the meaning we make of things now is the meaning they’ve always had and always will. But clearly that’s not true. In fact, guys comes from the burned effigies of England’s 17th-century would-be bomber Guy Fawkes, which were called “guys,” and then came to be applied to every lowlife fellow, and eventually to males altogether. But by the middle of the 20th century, women began using it too, as a generic, plural form of “you.” In other words, women themselves helped make “guys” gender-neutral.
I’ve been studying how things — clothes, colors, toys, even words — get gendered, and how their gendered meanings change over time. The names Evelyn, Ashley, Vivien and Kimberly, for instance, all used to be considered men’s names. The more parents gave their daughters those names, though, the less comfortable parents of sons felt using them; eventually they passed a tipping point, and they became girls’ names.
Why? Because while it’s cool for girls to cross over into boys’ territories, to wear pants or study science, it’s almost never cool for boys to do the opposite. In the feminist 1970s, the Sears catalogue had boys’ and girls’ size conversion charts in the boys’ section, so girls could shop there — though of course it didn’t appear in the girls’ section, per historian Jo B. Paoletti. But our conception of what constitutes boys’ and girls’ clothes has changed since a century ago, when both little boys and girls wore dresses, but only boys wore pants.
Working as a nurse had historically been the domain of men because it was associated with medicine. In the mid-19th century, Florence Nightingale professionalized it, popularizing it as a vocation for women and noting that, by nature, “every woman is a nurse.” As almost always happens when something is culturally coded as feminine, nurses remain diminished in status compared to doctors. The word tomboy went from meaning “rowdy boy” to lascivious woman to rowdy girl in a century, and eventually became a compliment. Now some consider it too sexist to use.
Meanwhile, some people used to think of pink as a masculine variant of red (and it is still ungendered in some countries). Now that it’s solidified as a girls’ color, not only won’t most boys wear it — nor will some parents buy pink things for their sons — but many girls often reverse their princess phases and go through an I-hate-pink phase around age 6 or 7, when they realize how much the world looks down on femininity.
Very occasionally, something switches from the feminine to the masculine. Computer programming was a low-grade data-entry job when women started doing it in the mid-20th century. Eventually, men discovered that it was difficult enough to be considered “masculine.” Now that 82 percent of computer programmers are men, it’s a highly desirable and well-remunerated job.
One of the goals of my writing and the workshop I do for parents, educators and corporations is to get them to help downplay the hyper-gendering of childhood. “Gender-neutral” clothes, colors and activities have historically meant boys’ things that girls feel comfortable accessing. But because “girly” — both the word itself and what it stands for — is an insult no matter who or what it’s applied to, most boys don’t feel comfortable accessing what’s on the pink side of the pink/blue divide.
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But gender — the meaning we make of sex — is something we impose onto objects, ideas, people and language. We can pull back those impositions, or make new ones. We did that in the 1970s by marketing and conceiving of “boys’ stuff” as safe and acceptable for girls. But we’ve never done the opposite. The way to make all kids comfortable accessing both sides of the pink/blue divide is to make things associated with girls — dolls, dresses, anything pink — ungendered, by normalizing them for boys. We can stop thinking of cooking and child care as “girls’ stuff” and market Easy-Bake Ovens and toy strollers to all kids. We can show children counter-stereotypical images of girls playing with cars and boys with dollhouses, which studies show are effective at opening kids’ minds. Even if we make pink footballs and purple sparkly Legos to try to bring more girls into the fold, we can make boys feel safe using them, too.
Happily, businesses are starting to get this. Old Navy has a gender-neutral clothes line with plenty of pink. The clothing company Primary advertises boys in dresses. Anything can become gender-neutral, if we agree to participate in a cultural project to make it so.
The use of “guys” as gender-neutral is as much about privileging the masculine as it is about the age-old pastime of denigrating the feminine. Following my own logic, I should be arguing that we make “gals” the all-encompassing, gender-neutral plural of “you” (though the word started as 18th century English Cockney slang for girls, not the opposite of guys). But sadly, this seems unlikely. In any case, to the great bulk of the population, guys already is gender-neutral and thus inclusive, thanks in part to women who embraced it. Maybe it’s time to set it free.
The battle over language is a battle over belonging, and over who gets to define boundaries and limits. But I think that understanding how and why meanings change is more important than telling people what words they can and cannot say. It’s about expanding language instead of shutting it down, and understanding that one person’s experience of censorship is another’s experience of social justice.
My hope is that we liberate more words, ideas, activities, toys, colors and clothes from any gender category. If we simply make words verboten or taboo, we miss the opportunity to understand that we have the power to change the relationship between gender and language. Language, like gender itself, is not fixed, but fluid.
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