Hey You Guys

Hey You Guys

What voice should I use when the peacock speaks in Simon’s book? Or when his stuffed dog sings?

Do I name his lion or police officer or ladybug when we play pretend?

These, and questions like these, fill my head as I play with my son. There are so many micro-decisions to make about gender each day as I teach him about life. And it gets exhausting, in part because I think language actually matters. A lot. I am like many parents I know: I am amazed at my child’s brain. He knows so many words, understanding so much at an early age, mimicking moves and faces and details that are automatic to me. Yet it makes sense when I think about the routine and repetition of our lives. In ten months on earth, how many times has he heard his favorite book read? It’s easy to blame Target for their pink and blue aisles of toys, but what am I doing over and over again every day that perpetuate gender norms? Turns out he spends more time with me than he does at Target.

I had a professor in college never once use a pronoun for God. There were moments when his sentences became awkward, using words like Godself or repeating God several times in one sentence. It was those awkward turns of phrase that were particularly powerful because I noticed what he wasn’t saying. Even though intellectually I believed that God does not have a sex or a dominant gender, over the course of the semester, I actually began viewing God differently because of his fiercely neutral language. In turn, this affected how I saw myself as a woman. The verbal vigilance this professor provided changed my hearing forever. To this day, I still notice every single time a male pronoun is used for God.

I also hear every single time a mixed group or a group of women are called “guys.” When I bring it up to people, I am made to feel high maintenance and overly sensitive. Men and women alike blow me off saying:

It’s not a big deal. 

I think it is a big deal. Try calling a group of men or a mixed group “ladies” and tell me it’s not a big deal. That would never fly. They don’t want to be referred to as women, and so it’s not too much for me to ask to not be referred to as a man.

It’s colloquial. I mean “everyone.” You get it. 

Right. Calling women “guys” perpetuates a male normative. Everyone is not male. Male is the starting point, and women are the other. That’s a problem.

I don’t even hear myself saying it.

That’s the problem. Like these micro-decisions I am making about Simon’s toys and book characters, it is what goes unnoticed in the repetition of the day that sends implicit messages about gender norms in society.

There is just no good alternative. “Gals?” It’s awkward.

Awkward is the point. Every time I have to be careful about how I speak, using less popular phrases like folks or ladies and gentlemen or you all, it reminds me for a split second that our language is set up for men. The pause I have to take, the awkward wording that makes those listening notice, keeps us honest, keeps us awake.

It’s tiring. It’s tiring thinking about the tiny explicit and implicit messages I send my baby son every time I associate a gender with an animal or toy or profession as he is learning and soaking up the world. It’s tiring to change speech patterns. But if we are not actively countering the societal norm of male-as-default, then we are supporting and perpetuating it. So I for one am going to keep trying.

  • Emily McKinley

    I wrestle with this daily, added with the extra layer of heteronormativity in most kids’ books. Sometimes I change wording to mommy and mama, or daddy and papa, and L is already very much on to me. She corrects me, “no, that’s a daddy, that’s not a mommy and a mama.” The few books we have that are printed with two same sex parents, she is suddenly very interested in and attached to. But from my view of the world, the fact that most children’s books have predominantly heteronormativity with consistent gender roles that go with that (mom will comfort you, dad will adventure with you, mom will make you dinner, dad will fix your bike…) is such a weight on my mind.