A few years ago, I felt very pleased with myself when I emailed a group of activists and addressed them as “ladies.” I knew they were primarily women, specifically LGBTQ and feminist-minded, so I made a point not to say “guys.” Most group emails I address as “hey guys!” or the slightly-less-formal “hey, y’all.” “Hello, ladies,” I typed.
Throughout the rest of the day I fielded emails from folks saying they objected to being addressed as “ladies” — some said it had 1940s white glove church hat connotations, while others said it made them uncomfortable because of their genderqueer identity. Ooof, I thought to myself, I guess I should have gone with “y’all.”
There’s a piece on Ms. magazine’s blog today called “A Guy Is A Man Is A Guy” about how sexist it is to use the word “guys” when referring to women. On some points, I do not disagree with author Allan G. Johnson at all: in a male-dominated culture, men’s experiences are understood as the norm and therefore male bodies and male-focused language is considered the standard. Female bodies or female-focused language is considered lesser-than. There is a reason why groups of women are referred to as “guys” but the only groups of men who are referred to as “ladies” (ironically) are tobacco-spitting football coaches reaming the team after their sixth straight loss. That’s not accidental. As Johnson noted:
[You may be told] 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. … There is no comparable word for women that can be used to include men, because women are not the standard.
But then what do we make of the rejection by some folks (admittedly, a more left-of-center group in my case) to words like “ladies” or even “wife,” as I wrote earlier this week? A person like myself who cares about not being a dick can make an effort to be more correctly descriptive, only to find out they are not actually being more inclusive at all but actually alienating people for entirely different reasons. It’s PC policing my own PC policing! “Folks,” I suppose, is the most gender neutral word to be used, yet even that doesn’t seem right when addressing a group on email. Hey folks … sounds so informal, more so than “y’all.” Plus, it brings to mind folk music, parents (“the folks”), and even the ending of “Looney Toons” — that’s all folks!
I don’t know what the answer is; it appears neither “guys” nor “ladies” can make everyone happy. Maybe we just have to all make like Michelle Tanner and call everyone else “people”?
[Image of Russian babushka nesting dolls via Shutterstock]