De-gendering Our Language

24 Jul

by Kat Kelley, Erin Riordan, and Mark Joseph Stern

This is an edited transcript of a discussion between Kat, Erin, and Mark on the topic of how gender is used in our language. The conversation began after a Facebook debate about whether or not “you guys” could be used in a gender-neutral context. 

Erin:  ‪Let’s talk gender, shall we?

Mark:  Yes please! I live to talk gender. ‪If I recall correctly, this conversation was sparked by a Facebook status in which Kat addressed her Facebook friends as “guys,” but noted she meant it in a gender-neutral way. ‪I, being a jerk, commented that I was skeptical that “guys” is ever truly gender neutral. Several courteous comment clashes later, here we are. So Kat—what exactly is your position on this topic?

Kat:  ‪Honestly, I reached out to Erin and was interested in hearing more from you, because I realize that language both creates and is created by our culture, and I want to learn to use language that creates a better culture. I want to learn to use culture that doesn’t oppress people based on their gender identity, but I am wholly ignorant on the topic. My “position” would be that I’m ignorant. And I want to be able to change the way I speak, but at the same time, not speak in a way that alienates certain people from willingness to engage or listen.

Mark:  ‪An admirable goal! There are really two separate issues, I think, when it comes to the “you guys” issue, and they need to be considered independently. One, which isn’t really that fraught, is that our language lacks a second-person plural address—our vosotros, if you will. That leaves various dialects to pick up the slack, hence “y’all” and “you guys.” ‪But “guys” of course was traditionally used to describe men. Which leads to the second issue. How comfortable are we repurposing a word like “guys” in this manner? I’d posit that it’s unique from words like “actor” or “poet,” which were once gender-dichotomized but for which we now use the once-male form for everyone.

Erin:  ‪Yes. I think as much as guys is used in “gender-neutral” contexts, it is still a very gendered term and reasserts “male” and “men” as the gender dominant norm.

Mark:  ‪I would tend to agree.

Kat:  ‪That makes sense. And also it isn’t a title/position the way actor/poet is. It doesn’t tell us anything but the gender of the population. So the repurposing would be more transformative.

Mark:  ‪It’s worth asking at this point, though, why transforming a word like “guys” to mean “everybody” reinforces male norms. I have a gut feeling that it does, but I find it a little tricky to articulate.

Erin:  ‪It seems related to the idea of referring to people as “cis men” and “cis women” rather than “men” and “women.” Using cis de-centers gender norms and gender assumptions, and I think trying to transform “guys” to gender neutral still has issues with re-centering men and cis men as the gender norm.

Mark:  ‪Does our language need a gender norm?

Kat:  ‪I don’t believe it does, however I’m not sure how deep we’d have to go to remove a gender norm.

Erin:  ‪Our language should be more inclusive of all identities, which involves reexamining language and assumptions and norms reinforced by language.

Kat:  ‪I mean, we’d have to refashion the connotations of just ‪about everything. Although there are plenty of intermediary steps before we are achieving that. ‪I mean I think our entire society needs to be de-gendered. We think of everything in terms of gender. And that creates an inherent dichotomy, an inherent inequality between genders and sexes.

Erin:  ‪That said, I think there is a balance between de-gendering society and finding other solutions, because ultimately, gender, like race and class and anything else, exists.

Mark:  ‪Right. Even if the stereotypes we attribute to it are fabricated.

Erin:  ‪Pretending that we can de-gender or de-racialize society also invalidates the fact that these things are all parts of our identities and experiences.

Kat:  ‪However, there are lots of aspects of our lives when gender doesn’t need to be relevant. And yet it is present everywhere.

Erin:  ‪So that is what I struggle with actually. I think that gender is a huge part of our identities and to pretend it is just a social construct is also really problematic.

Mark:  ‪So is it okay to just start with the obvious, and work our way down?  ‪Or will effective change need to be more subtle and comprehensive?

Kat:  ‪Re: Mark- I think we need to do both. We need to have the “radical” side of it (I use radical in quotes because I don’t think that wanting things like equality should be considered radical) to ‪chip away at the underlying causes. But we also need to make ambitious immediate change, and that requires working our way down.

Mark:  ‪Kat, I agree, but I wonder if taking some relatively simple steps—gender-neutral pronouns, non-gendered normative nouns—might not be a more radical move than we realize. It seems to me that a lot of the language that ends up reinforcing gender norms (and more perniciously gender stereotypes) could be very easily screened out with a little awareness.

Kat:  ‪Sure seems pretty radical every time I try to speak English hah.

Mark:  ‪I’m a strong believer in the ground rule ‪that we shouldn’t specify gender unless it’s apposite to context. The example I use is, “My friends and I went to the bar,” vs. “My male friends don’t like Christine Quinn, probably because they’re sexist.” Unnecessary gendering is actually really common.

Erin:  ‪It is in almost every conversation and almost every part of our language.

Mark:  ‪Indeed. I think that after all the theory and abstractions we produce on this topic, we still need to have a rule, an ask, for the general population. And I think that ask should be that we only ever mention gender when it’s relevant to context.

Kat:  ‪Okay, so how can we, and ideally everyone, make the change? And how do we literally get people to care, and to be able to develop that awareness? I mean this is the most literal sense- like do we need fact sheets on examples of gendered language?

Erin: I think just using the appropriate language ourselves creates a fair amount of awareness, and challenging people in safe contexts when relevant.

Mark:  ‪I agree—the first and best thing you can do is change the way you yourself speak. If it’s a cause I believe in, I can also bring up the practice with friends and encourage them to do the same.

Erin: I think in the times when I make conscious efforts to change my language or to introduce myself and my preferred gender pronouns I usually explain myself afterwards since there is a fair amount of confusion. My own practice ends up leading to some level of raised awareness and education.

Mark:  ‪I think the conversation should be based around modeling your own de-gendered language. If someone asks you why you don’t say “you guys,” or request a preferred gender pronoun, explain away! It’s not pedantic. And if your friends don’t ask, explain anyway. They’re your friends. They signed up to hear your views.

Erin:  Yeah, most people who are my friends know what they’ve gotten into.

Mark:  ‪I try to explain from both a personal and a philosophical angle. In practice, it’s not toooo different from teaching people proper grammar. You use language a certain way, you encourage others to as well. This just happens to be infinitely more important than lay vs. lie.

Erin:  ‪And I think doing it in a way that isn’t blame-y, because a lot of people are sensitive to being told their language is oppressive.

Mark:  ‪It’s not something anybody likes to be told.

Kat:  ‪Yeah. I mean even if people are defensive, they are still learning. You are still planting seeds. But there is a lot of resistance.

Erin:  ‪And I think we too in examining gender and language need to be very ready and willing to be corrected and to reexamine our assumptions.

Kat:  ‪Admitting you fuck up, that it isn’t easy, that you are working on it. Not like “get on my level, oppressor.”

Erin:  Exactly. ‪I think it’s the response of acknowledging the mistake, apologizing, reflecting on it and making an effort to be more conscious in the future. And that we all fuck up both by nature of being human and by nature of the world we live in.

Mark:  ‪Agreed entirely. Okay, so have we reached a consensus?

Erin:  ‪I consent.

Mark:  ‪I consent, and hereby swear to reach out to my friends in an effort to further remove gender-reinforcing norms from my language. Kat?

Kat:  ‪I consent. Enthusiastically.

Mark:  ‪Excellent!

3 Responses to “De-gendering Our Language”

  1. Joshua Schoen July 24, 2013 at 8:12 pm #

    You guys really are full of it. “You guy’s” is merely the informal way of saying the plural “you” in the Northeast (see the linguistic survey of the United States.) as to Mark’s point English does not lack a plural you, in formal English it is “you” for both plural and singular. Secondly your argument about the inherent sexism in our language is ridiculous, to take it to its solipsistic conclusion it would mean that most Indo-European Languages are sexist because they assign a gender to words as well as the fact they often have words that don’t always correspond to the correct sex.

    Final point, you take the belief that if we change the language from its arbitrary designation to a more gender neutral one it can perhaps change the way we think. Your premise is not only Orwellian “Newspeak”, it’s not how language works.This phrase is agnostic.Modern linguistics, pioneered by academics like Noam Chomsky, has shown thoughts and idea exist independent of the word you assign to it. So therefore something like “you guy’s” merely signify the speakers intent to highlight that he is talking to the plural you. It not sexism, its arbitrary.

    • Irene Cavros July 26, 2013 at 4:17 pm #

      please, privileged white male, tell me exactly what oppression looks and doesn’t look like.

  2. Guy Jones August 1, 2013 at 8:11 pm #

    Interestingly enough, the use of “guy” to describe a person in general actually originated from the figure of Guy Fawkes, of whom the English make effigies on the 5th of November and subsequently burn. These effigies were usually grotesque, so originally calling someone “guy” was an insult, used on very ugly men. The term then evolved to refer to any man, and eventually groups of men, etc. That it is now being used to describe groups of people regardless of gender seems to me like a logical step.

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