Image by K.Ho

Social Justice Synonyms #20: “You guys”

Welcome back to Social Justice Synonyms, a column at The Talon that discusses the power of language and why we should unlearn the words that maintain the status quo. For more insight, check out our past segments here.

This week’s segment looks at needlessly gendered terms, specifically the phrase “guys/you guys.”

Greeting a group of friends with “Hey, guys!” has become so embedded in our everyday speech that most of us likely don’t notice what we’re saying. Regardless of our gender identities and the identities of the folks around us, “guys” is often used as a plural noun to address a group of people. While this term is relatively informal and most used to address close friends or people who we’ve gotten to know, it still has the power to marginalize and erase many different identities within your group settings. If phrases like “you guys” are meant to be inclusive and neutral, why is masculinity covering up so many other identities?

Saying “guys” when addressing a group of people of different genders has become so common that almost any dictionary definition will make note of it1. It doesn’t just happen in English – for example, if my grade school French class memory serves me right, the pronoun “ils” (meaning masculine plural “they”) is used for a group of people if a minimum of one person identifies as male or masculine, regardless of how many folks in the group identify otherwise. When thinking about how languages gender their nouns, masculinity is often positioned as the default, all-encompassing standard.

In many ways, masculinity may be seen as “gender-neutral” or “androgynous” – for example, this occurs in the realm of gender presentation. Speaking from my experience as a non-binary person (I do not identify as either of, or between, the two Western binary genders of man and woman2), there’s a common notion that non-binary folks, and particularly those who are AFAB (assigned “female” at birth by a doctor, often based on genitalia), must incorporate “menswear” into their presentation in order to be “truly” non-binary or androgynous. This narrative erases femme identities, as well as folks who do not wish to be associated with masculinity or “maleness.” While gender identity and gender expression/presentation are two different things, masculinity is still framed as a norm or requisite for gender-neutrality, and phrases like “you guys,” “mankind,” and “he” (used as a gender-neutral pronoun from the early-18th to mid-20th centuries) work in the same way.

This inherent masculinity-as-standard concept is one of the main reasons why using “guys” as a greeting for a multi-gender group is harmful. By imposing “maleness” as the default, all other genders are pushed to subordinate status, reinforcing patriarchal, (cis)sexist power structures that privilege men. It fails to acknowledge the multitude of gender identities and expressions that may exist within a group and uses a very gendered, masculinized term as a catch-all to describe these identities.

Additionally, using “guys” to address a group of people assumes that everyone in the group is comfortable with being called a “guy.” This creates an especially unsafe space for non-binary folks, two-spirit people, and other identities that do not fall within the two Western colonial binary genders, as well as trans women and AMAB (assigned “male” at birth) transfeminine folks who experience the overlapping oppressions of sexism and transmisogyny (the common punchline of trans women as men/guys in dresses being an example of this).

In short, needlessly gendered terms such as “you guys” reinforce male structural dominance over other gender identities and assumes a person’s comfort with being labelled as a “guy.” Consider the ways in which gendered terms create unsafe spaces for many folks, and the positive impact of de-gendering your language to create inclusive spaces for everyone in your group settings.

“Hey, guys!” “Hey, folks, friends, pals, comrades, all, y’all, everyone!”
“What are you guys up to today?” “What are your plans for today?”
“I love you guys!” “I have so much love for all of you! I couldn’t ask for better people to smash the white supremacist colonial capitalist cisheteropatriarchy with.”

Marlee is a second-year GRSJ and sociology double major at UBC who is passionate about queer and trans activism, radical care, and petting dogs.

  1. Most of these dictionary websites state that “guys” is used to describe people of “either sex.” It’s important to acknowledge that this term erases the experiences of intersex folks, who may not easily “fit” into the binary Western stereotypes of “male” and “female” bodies.
  2. There are so many ways to identify as non-binary (the definition that I have here describes how I view my identity and does not reflect the experiences of all non-binary folks), and so many ways to describe how you fit between or outside the gender binary. Remember to never assume someone’s gender identity and the words that they use to describe it!
  • Student

    I’m amazed that an entire article about the problematic “masculine as default” standard managed to talk about everyone it could potentially harm without ever once mentioning the biggest group that is oppressed by masculine hegemony (aka patriarchy): female women. I don’t think female women are offended at this term, probably because they are often not seeking to be recognized as feminine but seeking to be recognized as people who can be (what we call) feminine and equally respected or (what we call) masculine or anywhere in between. In any case, why can’t women be called guys? I’d be more in favour of de-gendering terms rather than allowing them to keep gendered associations and then having to refrain from using them. I find “you guys” helpful in breaking down gendered language when applying it to my female and/or women friends, and I appreciate it being used on me. I realize that there are real problems with masculine-as-default (e.g. medical studies that only test male bodies) but I don’t think this is one of them.

    • Marlee

      Hi there! I’m the author of this piece – thank you for sharing your thoughts. I’m having a little trouble following your message (it might just be that I’m in the middle of writing term papers and I’m running on little sleep), but I’ll try my best to clarify some things.

      1) Women are absolutely included in this discussion. When I wrote “by imposing ‘maleness’ as the default, all other genders are pushed to subordinate status, reinforcing patriarchal, (cis)sexist power structures that privilege men,” this includes women.
      During training for my job as a Residence Advisor, we were told to try using “folks” instead of “guys” because “there may be women in the group,” which failed to acknowledge trans identities and how this language can affect trans folks, especially trans women and transfeminine folks. As a non-binary person, it’s important to me to talk about non-binary and trans erasure and how we face both sexism and cissexism, which is why it was a huge focus in this piece.

      2) “I don’t think female women are offended at this term, probably because they are often not seeking to be recognized as feminine but seeking to be recognized as people who can be (what we call) feminine and equally respected or (what we call) masculine or anywhere in between.”
      – careful to not assume that all women are okay with being called a “guy.” I know cis women and trans women who aren’t cool with this phrase for the reasons that I discussed in this piece.
      – please also be careful on your use of “female women” – from how I’m reading this message, I think that when you say “female women” you mean cisgender women (women who identify as the gender that they were assigned at birth). As an alternative for the future, try to use “cis women” (“female women” implies that trans women can’t identify as female), or simply “women.”

      3) “In any case, why can’t women be called guys? I’d be more in favour of de-gendering terms rather than allowing them to keep gendered associations and then having to refrain from using them. I find ‘you guys’ helpful in breaking down gendered language when applying it to my female and/or women friends, and I appreciate it being used on me.”

      Maybe one day “guys” won’t be a super gendered, masculinized term (I’d love for this to happen!), but it looks like the change won’t be happening any time soon. Unfortunately de-gendering a term isn’t easy or quick, and for now, the alternatives that I listed at the end of the article are some simple gender-neutral fixes. Perhaps some people do like “guys” and that’s totally fine, but there are also a lot of folks who don’t like the term because of its gendered implications. Respecting both sides is important!

      4) “I realize that there are real problems with masculine-as-default … but I don’t think this is one of them.”

      Sometimes it’s the little things that can make a huge difference in how we think about certain topics/issues! Thinking about the subtleties in our language can be one of those things! They’re all very much “real problems” that are part of the big ol’ system called the cisheteropatriarchy. While the term “guys” may not directly affect you or some of your friends, it can greatly impact others. One of the goals that I had with this piece is to encourage folks to create more inclusive spaces for everyone around them, as you never know how language can impact someone.

      I think that’s all I have to say – I apologize if I misread anything that you said, but I hope that this helps to clarify where I’m coming from 🙂

      • Student

        Hi Marlee,

        You didn’t misread what I said.

        “Folks” has connotations with ageism, and can come off sounding patronizing, so I don’t personally use it; but I understand the reasons you do.

        Female women are the largest group that is oppressed by patriarchy, so I was surprised that they were not mentioned in the many examples other than in your example of “other people besides men”.

        I will respond to your warning with regard to referring to “female women”. My use of “female women” is intentional.

        I will not use the term “cis women” to refer to biological females. Biological sex and gender are not the same thing, although they’re often conflated because they both play a part in identity construction and because gender is so closely tied to sex in our society. In current, western culture, I believe that there exists a gender spectrum as opposed to a binary, but on a broader level I don’t believe that gender exists beyond a social construct anyway (just look at how femininity and masculinity is expressed in different cultures through time!). I do not subscribe to the idea that there is a chromosomal sex spectrum (that is, I subscribe to the notion that sex chromosomes make up a sex binary [XY male or XX female] with the exception of -very- few chromosomal anomalies which don’t change the fact there there is a sex binary any more than being born without an organ makes having that organ “on a spectrum”). Phenotypic variation in sexual dimorphism is not the same as biological sex either, as this changes with things like nutrition, ancestry, etc. When I refer to females, I am not referring to “cis gender women”, or “AFABs”, or “women born women”. These are all linking sex with gender identity. I am referring to females as a sex class. I am talking about sex identity. I am referring to material, biological reality; and the people who are situated in experiencing that reality from birth. They make up the largest class of people who are oppressed by patriarchal structures.

        I appreciate that trans women can suffer body dysmorphia and can also identify under feminine social constructs and therefore associate themselves to the gender constructs under which females are socialized from birth. I also realize that trans women want to be accepted as “real women”, and that trans women face transphobia and discrimination and oppression in its various forms because of their gender non-conforming identities, especially by a patriarchy that sees femininity as inferior to masculinity. However, females and trans women are not the same even if they do experience social intersections.

        Trans women and female women can both be “real women” but that doesn’t mean that females as a sex have to be erased or re-classified so that “trans women can be female too”. I believe in trans women’s rights to express themselves freely because I believe in equality and human rights (and because I’m not a total butt head). But to erase the biological, material reality of females by re-defining what a “female” is, in order to make it easier for non-females (i.e. males) to appropriate a socialized identity is harmful to people who are female and who experience this material reality as only females do. I do not subscribe to Queer theory’s ideas that bodies don’t matter, or that they can be self-identified. Bodies do matter. They matter for females a great deal, as females can’t self-identity out of a period, pregnancy, or vaginal rape.

        A friend of mine who identifies as both trans woman and female, who usually presents in masculine clothing and appears to be in alignment with a male gender on the outside (in other words, she makes no effort at “passing” because she doesn’t believe she has to as a gender non-conforming woman), attempted to de-legitimize valid concerns voiced from female women about street safety because she doesn’t experience those fears and thinks they are irrational. To me, this sounds like it comes from a person who hasn’t had to grow up under the socialization that comes with being born and raised as a female, and hasn’t had to experience what it’s like to be thought of as female by strangers (strangers most definitely assume she is a man). It sounded like it came from the mouth of someone who was socialized as a man.

        “Female” is not a gender identity: it is a real, biological reality that female women and trans men experience. So the splitting up of “female” (as a sex) into “cis women” and “trans woman” (as gender identities) is not okay with me.

        That is why I say “female women” when I refer to females who identify as women, or “females” when speaking of the biological sex class more broadly (i.e. including trans men, gender non-conforming females, etc.).