When a society is organized around the idea that one group of people is inherently better than another, it goes without saying that injustice and unnecessary suffering will be the main result, with patriarchy and male privilege being the oldest living example. Gender inequality is everywhere, from who cleans the house and takes care of the kids to politics, work, religion, science and the epidemic of men’s violence against women in the military and everywhere else.
Systems of privilege manage to keep going while, at the same time, being based on complete fictions about who we are. Men are not better than women and never have been. Take almost any human capability and map it across all kinds of social situations and what you will find is that distributions for women and men overlap so much that differences among men and among women are far greater than differences between the two. But still, most people hold to the idea that men and women are fundamentally and inherently different, with men being superior.
I can see how this would happen with all the cultural messaging that starts from the moment we are born. If we believe women and men are inherently different, it’s because it’s what we’ve always been told, and what psychologists call “confirmation bias” encourages us to pay attention only to things that support what we already believe. I get that. I can see it in myself. But then there are things that are stranger still because we know they aren’t true even as we act as though they are.
I am referring, of course, to the practice of calling women “guys.”
It is everywhere, not only in mixed-gender groups but in all-women groups. If you object, you’ll be told that “guy” is just another word for “human being,” which quite clearly it is, given how it’s used by just about everyone and all time. Except that it’s also not, and we know it.
Thought Experiment #1: Imagine a room full of men and women. Someone stands at the front and says, “I want all the guys to stand up.” What happens next?
Thought Experiment #2: You are with a woman. You tell her you think she’s such a guy, a great guy, the smartest guy you’ve ever known. Note the expression on her face.
Thought Experiment #3: You turn on cable news and the first thing you hear is someone saying, “Everyone knows it’s a guy’s world.” Picture in your mind what he’s trying to say.
A woman is not a guy and everybody knows it. Using the word to refer to human beings comes of making men the standard, the only reason for which is to reinforce the idea that men are superior to women because they are the human beings. There is no comparable word for women that can be used to include men, because women are not the standard. In a patriarchal culture, they are something less than that. A lot less.
It is a powerful bit of cultural sleight-of-hand that pulls this off so routinely that it doesn’t occur to people what a crazy thing they’re doing or the damage that it does. If we could hear ourselves, we’d be embarrassed. It is nothing less, really, than calling women men.
“Man” is just another word for human being, is it not? Mankind, the family of man, man’s best friend, man overboard, man-hours, man-made, man the phones, man-eating, manhunt, manslaughter, manhandle, man’s inhumanity to man. So, why not call a woman a man, as in, “Hey, man, what’s up?” Is she not a human being who can have a dog or fall off the ship or knit a sweater or answer the phone or be killed without cause or hunted down by the cops and roughed up when she’s caught? Can she not be cruel to other human beings? Does she not deserve to be included in the family of man?
You can’t get away with calling a woman “man” because the lie is too plain and hard to miss, whereas “guy” seems a little more vague and unspecific. But it doesn’t take much to show it’s really not. A guy is a man is a guy.
It may not be easy to undo what we’ve been taught, and people are unlikely to thank us for it. But we can do it. We are human beings, after all.
Allan G. Johnson is a nationally recognized sociologist, author, novelist and public speaker, best known for his work on issues of gender and race. His nonfiction books include The Gender Knot: Unraveling Our Patriarchal Legacy and Privilege, Power, and Difference. His novel, The First Thing and the Last, a story of healing in the aftermath of domestic violence, was recognized by Publisher’s Weekly as a notable debut work of fiction. He blogs at agjohnson.wordpress.com.