I have overheard several debates recently about the expression ‘you guys‘ and whether or not it is an exclusionary expression that overlooks women and elevates men.

You guys is something I say often, likely many times a day.  As in:

  • Come on you guys!  We’re late!
  • Can you guys give me your opinion on whether this report is too wordy?
  • Please take care of this task you guys.  I’m busy.
  • Have a good weekend you guys!

Granted, I work with mostly guys so saying this is completely fitting a lot of the times.   But I’m pretty sure that I use you guys in reference to groups of mixed genders as well as groups of just women.  To me, it is the equivalent of saying you all or you people or I guess just you (plural).  I’m not from the south or the midwest so I don’t say you all.  I probably do say you people, but it is a little less natural and can sound a little more pointed and authoritarian then the more casual you guys.

But recently, I’ve overheard several other women discussing how hearing and saying you guys offends their feminist sensibilities and strikes them as exclusive and lacking in acknowledgement of women.  They encouraged each other to find alternative ways of saying the same thing in a gender inclusive way and make a conscious effort to rid themselves of the you guys habit.

I would argue that rather than it being the exclusionary expression it may once have been, that the  evolution of language has resulted in you guys becoming a colloquialism striped of gender.  Just as certain groups attempt to co-opt words like feminist or gay or emotional or even curvy in order to change its meaning and render it anti-feminist or otherwise negative, an evolving, more progressive society has co-opted the expression you guys and claimed it as gender non-specific.  Is this not a feminist achievement?

It puts me in mind of the world created in the (contemporary) television show Battlestar Galactica in which the title of Sir is used in a gender non-specific manner by lower ranking officers to acknowledge higher ranking officers of any gender.  This is clearly a level of equality to which we aspire— where there is not the faintest hint that gender holds any relevance in this hierarchical system and it has been washed out of the institutional language.  In the same way, I feel like you guys is reaching this level of gender neutrality and has come to mean ‘group of people (of all genders) who are before me’ rather than ‘group of men’—- in much the same way I might exclaim Dude! to a female friend and not expect her to be offended.

However, I am thinking about this from my perspective as a woman using the expression.  I can’t help but wonder if men using the expression feel the same way and use it with same gender-blind level of consciousness.  When a man says you guys to a group of men and women, is he perpetuating a history of silencing and ignoring of women, or can we accept that he is embracing the same gender politics that we (women) are?  If a woman feels excluded by you guys even if we think we are using it a gender non-specific way, should we change our language?

In a similar vein, I ask you to consider another expression that I have been pondering with much more difficulty than you guysMen, as in group of warriors.  I was attempting to write a story recently that is set in imaginary gender-equal yet medieval world, and encountered the difficulty of referring to a military leader and his men— when his men were of mixed gender.  Clearly if I wrote Sir Steve and his men the reader would assume that all Sir Steve’s warriors were just that: men.  I considered Sir Steve and his soldiers— but I think that yet again the reader would interpret this as an all-male group.  Sir Steve and his people was too non-specific and conjured up the image of a group of townspeople rather than an elite group of people with combat-specific skills. The best solution I have come up with so far is Sir Steve and soldiers (pssst this includes female soldiers) or Sir Steve and his men and women (pssst ‘women’ is not a euphemism for harem).

As a bit of a tangent:  I think that this indicates a wider linguistic issue especially with regard to screenwriting.  One of Geena Davis’ (actress and advocate for women in film and television) major suggestions of how to begin increasing women’s visibility on screens is being mindful of casting women in roles where gender is really really really not of any importance . . . such as minor characters with one line, background actors, or extras in crowd scenes.  But as a screenwriter how do you make sure that the director reading script understands that the crowd in your scene is a gender representative group when homogenous groups (like soldiers, farmers, bankers, town leaders, executives) are often presumed male.  Short of add in a jarring stage direction as demonstrated above (not typical in screenplays) I have not thought of an effective yet graceful solution.

If we are not at a point in our society where we can say soldiers or executives and have that group be implicitly understood as mixed gender or even gender non-specific, perhaps we are not at the point I think we are at with the expression you guys.

What do you think?