A Guy Is A Man Is A Guy

7359990748_1da7afab8cWhen 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.

Photo from Flickr user John Lawlor under license from Creative Commons 2.0

AllanCroppedAllan 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.


  1. Well, you may make a tidy case for your “Thou Shalt Not” but you offer no viable alternatives.

    And if you refer to me as a “girl” or “gal” I’ll break your nose.

  2. The problem is that, except for the Southern US’ “Y’all”, the English speaking world doesn’t really have a suitable gender neutral alternative. To replace “Hi guys” with “hi people” or “hi everyone”just sounds clumsy. Suggestions anyone?

  3. Thank you Allan from a student of C. Wright Mills, the sociologist famous for pointing out the obvious in terms of how the ruling class controls what language means. Two years ago I vented in and was shot down by a host of members posting in the Forbes Women’s Group on LinkedIn about retrofitting women into the use of “you guys”. I couldn’t believe it. These responses boiled down to women adjusting themselves to the illusion presented in the idea that “you guys” now provides universal coverage for both men and women. NOT!!! I hear this term all the time. Even Dr. Phil on TV while dispensing sage advice on troubled relationships says “you guys” to a couple in a rocky relationship. Just know your blog on this point made my day!

  4. Guys=Gals, girl = boy, men = women. Language of equivalency exists, but most refuse to think it matters. I say guys and gals, or Ladies and Gentlemen, or honored guests or folks or friends or people depending upon the audience. Any female over the age of 18 who continues to refer to herself and other women as a girl does as much if not more harm than calling a gal a guy! If everyone would remember why African-American men were once called boy, then they might be able to see the harm that using titles that denote inequality brings.

  5. I like the points you make here. However, the oldest form of domination is speciesism, rather than patriarchy.

  6. Not long ago I was depressed and offended by one of my husband’s friends who for some reason came into my home raving about “pussy-power.” If he knew that such terms are the equivalent of using the N-word for African-Americans, he showed no sign of it! This is an educated man, and worse, a former teacher. I puzzle about such behavior.

    I can only conclude that the fear of women in positions of power and authority are so threatening to many men that they become hysterical and irrational. I’d like to feel compassion for such people, but all I feel is contempt. Sorry!

    • If saying pussy power is more offensive then the N-word then why did you say one and not the other? If a word/term is so bad you can’t even say it odds are you consider it worse.

    • I’d argue that we have seen a fairly significant rise the amount and degree of sexism directed toward men in recent years. I might never use the term “pussy-power,” but I have been irked more than once by the casual sexism inherent in some of the comments women make. For example, “All men are idiots.” Perhaps, in some reality this statement is not the equivalent of “Women can’t drive,” but that not in this reality. Sexism and the casual air of superiority and domination that women have been displaying at least in my social circles is no less inappropriate in an egalitarian society than was the typical male behavior of decades past. It is inappropriate for a women to casually tell their husband, “You won’t (or will) do this because I said so.” In the financial and political world men may still hold sway, but in the world of daily life power seems to rest with the women and they have already begun to abuse it. It would be interesting to see how long it takes for men to respond with their own version of feminism.

      I regularly say a prayer of thanks that I am gay and don’t have to deal with many of the manipulative, ridiculous, and entitled behaviors that women currently display. If I were straight, I’d probably seriously consider celibacy as a viable option rather than tolerating it much, I imagine, as some women did in decades and centuries past. I will admit that being able to approach every relationship on completely equal footing (gender-wise) is a nice bonus to a homosexual pairing as well.

  7. William Lane says:

    This would make for a very interesting sociological experiment.

    4 mixed gender groups should be taken in. One will receive a course in women’s studies that includes the concept of linguistic discrimination. Group 2 will receive the same course, but with that topic omitted. Group 3 will learn about the concept of linguistic discrimination without any other material. Finally, Group 4, the control group, will receive no education on the matter whatsoever.

    Afterwards, the people will be given a survey on their views about gender, sexism, etc.
    The results could be very helpful.

  8. You are so right! I have seen someone say “do you guys want to go” and a woman start to go because she thought that included her, and a guy get all huffy with her. She obviously was hurt and surprised by the reaction.
    It’s difficult to figure out when it is inclusive and when it’s not, making women and girls perpetually on edge trying to figure out if THIS time it means them. It’s quite distracting for them, and is likely one of the major causes of female hesitance.

  9. I grew very used to calling everyone “guys,” myself, before I developed a feminist consciousness on the matter. It’s not an easy habit to break. I’ve taken a cue from Southerners and now say “y’all.”

  10. nancy faubel says:

    I own a small store and it drives me nuts when my employees call woman guys, particularly elderly women, whom I think are much more sensitive to it. In their day, they were ladies, women, whatever, what they must think the world has come to now that they are called guys.

  11. Remember “girl” was originally the term for all children, regardless of sex. I don’t know where boy came from, but females got stuck with the childish bit.
    We feminists just need to agree on a better term and use it continuously in all the media outlets available to us. Sneak it into pop culture and that’ll make it stick.
    But it’s also like the using ‘right’ for ‘correct’. It may seem like a small thing, but it continuously reinforces ‘right’ as good, so therefore ‘left’ must be bad. So pagan. And as a leftie, very irritating.

  12. GallusNumpty says:

    The etymology of “guy” is very much gender neutral, so the more interesting question to me is when it stopped being so and why.

  13. “But still, most people hold to the idea that men and women are fundamentally and inherently different, with men being superior.”

    Really? Do you have any evidence for this?

    I’m guessing that if we were to poll Americans they would overwhelmingly deny that men are inherently superior to women. (I take it that, in your article about the word ‘guys’, you are referring to systemic sexism in the U.S. — or at least the English speaking world. I would guess that it’s the same UK, Australia or Canada.) If you have evidence to the contrary, please share.

    Perhaps you did not mean what you said to be taken so literally. Or perhaps you’re playing with phrase ‘hold to the idea’. I do grant that it’s somewhat more plausible to say that most of us harbor tacit prejudices associated with the discredited belief that men are superior to women, but even this seems like the kind of thing that would require at least some empirical support.

    Is the fact that ‘most people’ hold to such a crass version of the old-fashioned sexism really essential to your interpretation of the word ‘guys’? Maybe it was just an off-hand remark. Still, the claim is conspicuously lacking in support.

    • See the research summarized and discussed in Cecilia L. Ridgeway’s Book, “Framed by Gender” (Oxford University Press, 2011), especially chapter 6, “The Persistence of Inequality.”

  14. meridianknight says:

    “Folks” works for larger groups of people and I also say “everyone” or “everybody.” “Y’all” works in certain situations but would feel awkward in others. In smaller groups though, say, 3-5 friends, I almost always use “guys.” Is there an alternative for this scenario?

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