January 31, 2009 § 36 Comments
I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the importance of gender-neutral language. I, like most people I know, am guilty of using the word “guys” as a substitute for “people” – not realizing that, oh wait, more than half the “people” population actually isn’t a guy. It may seem like a nit-picky thing to harp on, but the reality is that language plays a big role in maintaining patriarchy. Those little “hey guys!” really add up, and they translate to much bigger linguistic problems.
For example, the US House only switched to gender neutral language earlier this month, opting for “chair” instead of “chairman” and other words of that sort. And while this is a significant step, we’re fooling ourselves if we think our government is now 100% neutral when it comes to sex and gender. After all, this is the land where all men are created equal.
The problem with this kind of language is that it implicitly makes maleness the norm. I saw ripples of this effect in my English class earlier this year. We’d been reading texts by some phenomenal writers – Audre Lorde, Jamaica Kincaid, Maxine Hong Kingston, Sherman Alexie, Peggy McIntosh, Toni Morrison. During a class discussion a male student raised his hand and told our teacher that he’d enjoyed Alexie’s short story, really, he did, but when were we going to read some other male authors? “It just seems like all these other stories are from a really female perspective.”
Whoa. Here I thought that a female perspective, just like a male perspective or a genderqueer perspective or an Asian perspective or a thin perspective, was actually a human perspective. Forgive me. I didn’t realize that a man was the regular, a woman was the other.
But I should cut my classmate a little slack, since he’s only verbalizing what we’ve all been shown by society since childhood. When we use words that make women something different than the norm, when elected officials commend the work of policemen instead of police officers, when we say “hey guys” to a group that consists of men and women, we’re telling girls that their experience is something outside of the ordinary – that what they have to say isn’t from their perspective as an individual, but their perspective as a female. A little wack, no?
Like I said, I’m no saint when it comes to male-instead-of-human language. And it’s hard work repairing speech that’s become second nature to us – but that doesn’t mean we can let ourselves off the hook. Personally, I’m partial to “folks” as a replacement for the infamous “guys.” But choose whatever works for you, and stick to it.