The waitress was cute, perky, and probably about twenty. She bestowed a dazzling smile on my husband and slid a weaker version towards me. Pad in hand, pen poised, she tilted her head endearingly. She is lovely, I thought, and has her whole life ahead of her.
“So,” she said with a shift of weight from one slim hip to the other, “Have you guys decided what you want?”
There it is—one of those words whose meaning has shifted and seeped into common usage.
Back in the ’80s, long before Cute and Perky was even born, I first experienced that twinge of annoyance when I heard “guys” used to refer to a group of mixed gender people. This was only occasionally, so I got over it. Or so I thought.
Guys. A four-letter word that my dictionary defines as “men; fellows; of the male gender.” Yet into a recent edition of Merriman Webster marches this definition: Guy. n. person —used in plural to refer to the members of a group regardless of sex <saw her and the rest of the guys>
“Guys” has become a way to address a group, regardless of gender. Socially, at parties, workplace meetings, even with play groups at pre-school, “guys” abound. My friend’s five-year-old daughter runs after her playmates (all girls) shouting, “Hey guys, wait for me.”
Girls are not guys. Why this lumping together? Is it laziness? To insure rapidity of speech? Non-thinking imitation of what we learn at the feet of our authority figures? Insecurity at being female in a still male-dominated society? Bingo. The sexist socio-linguistic connotations of using this masculine term in a gender-neutral way may seem innocuous.
But imagine the reaction had my waitress greeted us with, “So, have you girls/gals (or more absurd) dudettes decided what you want?” Imagine if this had been an all-male group. Imagine a staff meeting. I can tell you without hesitation, the male employees would positively bristle with indignation.
Being labeled as doing something “like a girl,” or being a girl, is unfortunately, an insult in our society. Better try to be a guy.
When “Like a Girl” on You Tube by Always came to me via Facebook, I couldn’t stop myself from sharing, sharing, sharing. It attacks the stereotype that being a girl is somehow weak, defenseless, “dumb,” and less desirable than being a boy. The ad shows boys and girls, and young men and women demonstrating when asked, to throw, run, fight, or hit like a girl. Sadly, initial demonstrations showed girls just can’t cut it. “Throw Like a Girl” targets changing “like a girl” to be a statement of the individual power, intelligence, and talent of a female. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XjJQBjWYDTs
I think back to the varying calm, not-so-patient, and heated discussions I’ve had since the 1970s about adult persons of the female gender being “women” and not “girls.” All too often I heard and, I am sorry to say, still hear, “I’ll have the one of the girls in the office call you.” I’m tempted to look around for pre-adolescent teens or even younger little girls answering the phones.
I remember the first time I looked for the restroom in a school where I was presenting a workshop. There was a boy’s room, a men’s room, and girl’s room. That was it. Just semantics? More than that, I believe.
More seriously, I think of the desperate battle women have had to gain and maintain equal rights seeking job opportunities, salary parity, the right to vote, and play sports. Don’t even get me started on reproductive rights.
So when I tell Mitzi, as Cute and Perky’s nametag proclaims, that I am not a guy I will do so with a huge smile. I may even introduce myself and extend a firm hand of friendship.
Interestingly, I might share that Merriman Webster also educated me that “guy” can be a verb meaning to ridicule or make fun of. Kind of like “I’m not guying you on this.”