The illusion of inclusion

My blog and I have been in the news this week. After the Woman’s Hour presenter Jane Garvey complained about the use of ‘hi guys’ as a greeting for mixed-sex groups , a number of news outlets picked up the story, and several of them linked to this 2016 blog post in which I explained why I don’t think ‘hi guys’ excludes women.

This made me briefly very popular with bookers for talk radio, where language peeves of all kinds are the gift that keeps on giving, as is any public difference of opinion between two feminists. But other reactions were less positive. On Twitter I had people telling me to ‘stop invisibilising women’ and suggesting that instead of defending ‘guys’ I should be using my influence to promote other, more inclusive address terms.

Sadly (or maybe not), I don’t have that kind of influence. Changes in everyday usage are very much a bottom-up rather than a top-down thing: linguists can describe and try to explain what’s going on, but what they say will rarely if ever affect the overall direction of travel. What I was hoping to influence when I decided to start this blog was not the language itself so much as the way feminists think and talk about linguistic issues. And in that spirit, I want to revisit the issue at the centre of the argument about ‘guys’: inclusiveness.

Feminists (and other progressive types) talk a lot about ‘inclusive language’, and it’s generally assumed that we’re in favour of it. But what exactly is it? What makes a word or an expression ‘inclusive’? And are feminists’ purposes always best served by inclusive terms?

Back in the 1970s and 1980s, feminists criticising conventional usage rarely talked about ‘inclusive’ (or its antonym, ‘exclusionary’) language: we talked much more about ‘sexist’ and ‘non-sexist’ language. As the issue became more mainstream, other terms came into use which were seen as less overtly political and thus more palatable to people of moderate liberal opinions. Many included the word ‘gender’: it became common for institutions to formulate policies and guidelines about ‘gender equal’, ‘gender free’ or ‘gender fair’ language.

The concept of ‘inclusive language’ has become popular more recently, and it represents a further move away from the original feminist critique of sexism. ‘Inclusiveness’ is much more general concept: guidelines on ‘inclusive language’ may address concerns about the linguistic representation not only of women, but also of other marginalised groups like ethnic minorities, disabled people and LGBT people. And while most feminists would probably see this broadening as a good thing in principle, some (myself included) might argue that in defining the problem as ‘inclusion versus exclusion’ we have both narrowed the scope of the earlier analysis of sexism and lost some of its more radical insights.

The non-inclusiveness (or as we used to say, ‘androcentrism’) of conventional ‘he/man’ language was a significant concern in early feminist analyses of sexist language, but it was by no means the only problem feminists drew attention to. Many forms of sexist language did not discriminate against women by excluding them or making them invisible, but rather by over-representing them in distinctive and demeaning ways (consider, for instance, how many words are available in English to objectify/infantilise women—‘chicks’, ‘babes’, ‘blondes’—or express sexualised contempt for them—‘bitch’, ‘slut’, ‘whore’). Even when the issue did concern something we might now call ‘exclusionary’, such as the use of masculine generic pronouns, the older feminist analysis was (as I’ll explain later on) rather different from the one we tend to get now.

So, what is the current analysis? What do feminists mean when they say a word or expression is ‘not inclusive’? Typically, their objection is based on one or more of the following observations:

  1. That the word is formally masculine rather than gender-neutral/unmarked;
  2. That the word originated as a sex-specific term denoting or describing men;
  3. That standard dictionaries describe the word as referring exclusively or primarily to men.

In English (as opposed to languages that make more extensive use of grammatical gender distinctions), particular weight tends to be given to (1). ‘Inclusiveness’ is seen to require the use of ‘neutral’ terms, words which have no overt gender-marking. Jane Garvey, for instance, suggested ‘people’ as an inclusive substitute for ‘guys’. ‘People’ does not invite any of the objections listed above: it is formally unmarked for gender and its dictionary definition makes no reference to sex (according to the Oxford dictionary it denotes ‘human beings in general or considered collectively’). This lack of specificity has also made ‘people’ a popular choice in another context where the goal is to eliminate ‘exclusionary’ language–it’s a common replacement for ‘women’ in expressions which are intended to be trans-inclusive, like ‘pregnant people’.

In this new paradigm, the prevailing assumption could be summarised as ‘gender-neutral = inclusive = good’ and ‘gender-specific = exclusionary = bad’. But I’m going to argue that in practice it’s not that simple. If we turn our attention from the surface forms and dictionary definitions of words to the details of how they’re used in everyday life, it will soon become apparent that neutral terms are not always inclusive, and inclusive terms are not always neutral.

You don’t have to look far to find examples of formally gender-neutral terms being used in ways which are covertly gendered. Here’s a case in point, taken from a report in the Sunday Times:

The lack of vitality is aggravated by the fact that there are so few able-bodied young adults around. They have all gone off to work or look for work, leaving behind the old, the disabled, the women and the children.

The phrase ‘able-bodied young adults’ does logically exclude most of the groups  described as ‘left behind’: old people aren’t young, disabled people aren’t able-bodied, children aren’t adults. But what logic accounts for the presence of women on this list? The noun ‘adults’, like ‘people’, is formally unmarked for gender: in theory the category of ‘able-bodied young adults’ encompasses both male and female individuals. But in this context, clearly, the writer is using the neutral term ‘adults’ to convey the sex-specific meaning ‘male adults’.

A common variation on the same theme can be seen in these examples:

We cannot tolerate attacks on the wife of an American citizen

A 45-year old man has been charged with assaulting his next-door neighbour’s wife

Saxophone-playing vicar’s wife is the C of E’s first woman bishop

What we’re looking at here is a subcategory of sexism which featured prominently in early feminist critiques. In each example a woman is described as a ‘wife’, despite the fact that she herself is also a member of the category to which the speaker or writer assigns her husband. The woman in the first example was a US citizen, the second lived next door to her attacker, and the third was an Anglican priest–if she hadn’t been she would not have been eligible to become a bishop. The ‘wife’ references are thus superfluous from a purely informational standpoint; the work they do is ideological, reflecting and recycling the belief that women exist and must be seen primarily in relation to men rather than as individuals in their own right.

One by-product of this (still fairly common) pattern of representation is that the nouns denoting categories other than ‘wife’—in these examples, ‘citizen’, ‘neighbour’ and ‘vicar’—become covertly gendered (i.e., masculine). This has nothing to do with the characteristics of the words themselves: they are all formally unmarked for gender, and dictionary definitions would not restrict their reference to men. You might argue that ‘vicar’ is more likely to refer to a man because until recently only men were permitted to occupy that role; but that’s not an argument you could make about the other two. There would be nothing unusual or jarring about a sentence like ‘Sue has applied to become a British citizen’, or ‘my neighbour asked if I could feed her cat while she’s away’. On the criteria I listed earlier, these are perfectly inclusive terms. So, how do we explain the prevalence of patently non-inclusive uses like the ones in my examples?

The feminist writer and theorist Monique Wittig once observed that

…there are not two genders. There is only one, the feminine…For the masculine is not the masculine but the general.

One obvious example of this is the way formally masculine terms get used as generics (as with the use of ‘man’ to mean the human species). But Wittig’s point is also illustrated by the opposite phenomenon, the treatment of apparently generic, formally neutral terms as if they only referred to men. The examples I’ve reproduced—all cases where the writer or speaker’s own words make clear that the reference to ‘adults’ or ‘citizens’ is in fact a reference to male adults/citizens—are only the tip of the iceberg. Even when a writer or speaker does intend a formally neutral term to be inclusive, hearers and readers may still interpret it as sex-specific.

This is a manifestation of the ‘default male’ principle. It’s not that we don’t know that ‘adult’ and ‘neighbour’ might in theory refer to a person of either sex, but in practice, if the person’s sex is not specified, we are liable to default to a male reading. This tendency is most marked where formally gender-neutral words are strongly associated with maleness for historical and social reasons (e.g. ‘soldier’), but it is also apparent with words that have no such associations (e.g. ‘neighbour’). If nothing in the context suggests a female referent, we will tend to visualise a male one.

The evidence from actual usage, then, suggests that merely replacing gender-marked with gender-neutral terms does not guarantee inclusiveness. Conversely—and this takes us back to the argument about ‘guys’—the use of masculine terms does not guarantee that women will be, or feel, excluded. Just as neutral terms can be gendered, gender-marked terms can be de-gendered in use.

‘Guys’ is a case in point. It clearly originated as a sex-specific term: lexicographers agree that the original ‘guy’, who gave his name first to men of low and ragged appearance and later to men in general, was Guy Fawkes, the 17th century Gunpowder Plotter whose likeness is burned in effigy on English bonfires each November. But lexicographers also agree that ‘guy’ is no longer uniformly sex-specific. The plural form, ‘guys’, has become gender-inclusive in one subset of its functions—when it is used as a vocative, as in ‘hi guys’, or more broadly to address people in the second person, as in ‘what are you guys doing tonight?’

This de-gendering hasn’t (yet) spread to all the word’s forms and functions. Though some younger speakers might disagree, for me third-person references, both singular and plural (‘that guy over there’, ‘those guys we saw in the coffee shop’) can only be interpreted as masculine. But that doesn’t undermine the claim that ‘guys’ as a second-person address term is perceived by those who use it as gender-inclusive. Shifts in the meaning of a term very often affect some of its uses before others.

‘Guys’ isn’t the only English address term which is undergoing this shift. As I explained in my earlier post, ‘dude’ in the US is increasingly being used by and to women as well as men; in Australia, ‘mate’ (which, though not formally masculine, has historically had strongly male connotations) appears to be following a similar path; in Ireland, ‘lads’ is commonly used as a collective and gender-inclusive address term.

Research suggests that the key factor driving this trend is the uptake of the terms by young women, who are not just passively accepting them in mixed-sex talk, but actively using them in interactions with each other. In the case of ‘dude’, for instance, a study of college students in Pittsburgh found that its most frequent users were, as expected, men talking to other men, but the next-most frequent users were women talking to other women. Overall, I find the evidence quite compelling that these masculine address terms really have been de-gendered for younger speakers. If young women didn’t think they were being addressed when they heard ‘hi, guys’ or ‘listen, lads’, it’s possible they would put up with it from their male friends, but less likely they would adopt it enthusiastically in all-female interactions.

But what’s behind the enthusiasm? Some feminists see it as evidence of internalised sexism, a need to be accepted or approved of by men that leads young women to ‘talk male’, or at least accommodate to male linguistic preferences, in mixed peer-groups. To me this is unconvincing, not least because it overlooks the point that women aren’t just using the terms in mixed groups. It also discounts their own understanding of the terms: women under 30 consistently tell researchers that they regard ‘guys’, ‘dude’ and ‘mate’ as inclusive terms, available equally to address both sexes.

The explanation I prefer (and which I laid out in more detail in my earlier post) can be related to Monique Wittig’s assertion that ‘the masculine is not the masculine but the general’. I would argue that women are appropriating ‘guys’ and its ilk, not to be seen as masculine, but to be included in the category of ‘the general’. They are adopting these address terms to express the same attitudes and feelings men have traditionally used them to express, like camaraderie, solidarity and ‘mateship’. The fact that these attitudes and feelings have historically been associated with men does not mean they are inherently male (any more than historically male-dominated endeavours like science and sport are inherently male). Rather they are part of the repertoire of human attitudes and feelings.

The desire of women to be included in the general category of humans, rather than confined to a subcategory of ‘feminine’ (aka Other and lesser) beings, has often led them to reject female-specific terms. In the case of occupational labels, for instance, they have rejected marked forms like ‘authoress’ and ‘lady doctor’ and demanded to be referred to instead with the unmarked forms ‘author’ and ‘doctor’. This has never prompted accusations of ‘aping men’ or ‘making women invisible’.

‘Of course not’, I hear you say: ‘the two cases are quite different. A woman who prefers “author” to “authoress” isn’t giving herself a male label like “guys”, she’s just swapping an unnecessary and demeaning gender-marked term for something neutral and inclusive’. But if you take the long view, that difference disappears.  .

Words like ‘author’ and ‘doctor’ may always have been (in English) formally unmarked,  but they were not always ‘neutral’ and ‘inclusive’. For much of their history they were sex-specific, applied to men and not to women. To the extent that they have now become inclusive, that’s a historical achievement; they were made inclusive by the efforts of the women who laid claim to them and used them and demanded that others should use them too. That is also what is happening now with address term like ‘guys’, ‘lads’, ‘dude’ and ‘mate’. Women are laying claim to them and their meanings are changing as a result. It’s possible that in a hundred years’ time only language historians and etymology buffs will know that the ‘guys’ in ‘hi guys’ once meant ‘men’.

But I said ‘to the extent that they have now become inclusive’ because even today, as I’ve already pointed out, it can’t be assumed that generic references to ‘the author’ or ‘a doctor’ will automatically be interpreted as including women. In fact, there are no words which cannot be used or understood in a non-inclusive way: even ‘people’ can be covertly gendered (usually in line with the default male principle, though I did once overhear a woman saying she wouldn’t want a rattan coffee table because ‘people might snag their panty-hose’). Where the neutral/inclusive term is the same term that refers specifically to men (a common pattern in many languages, as Monique Wittig points out), there will always be room for doubt about whether women are really included. In that respect, ‘guys’ is no better and no worse than ‘adult’ and ‘citizen’ and ‘doctor’. None of these terms makes women visible as women, and all of them are liable to be interpreted as masculine by default.

The problem of sexism in language isn’t caused by a lack of inclusive terminology. It’s a structural problem, the product of assumptions and habits of thought which have seeped into our culture and our language over centuries, and which would colour the use of any set of terms we might come up with. If we want our language to produce more than the illusion of inclusion, what we really need to change is not our vocabulary, but our ingrained and largely unconscious habit of treating men as the prototypical humans.

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Guys and dudes

Some years ago in North Carolina, students taking a class on gender inequality designed a card that could be left in restaurants or shops where staff made a habit of addressing women as ‘(you) guys’. The card drew attention to the problems with that expression. As Sherryl Kleinman, who had taught the class, explained:

While being labeled “one of the guys” might make [women] feel included, it’s only a guise of inclusion, not the reality. If we were really included, we wouldn’t have to disappear into the word “guys.”

‘Guys’ is not the only offender here: women can also be addressed as ‘man’ and ‘dude’. And Kleinman is not alone in finding this problematic. Many feminists regard these address terms in the same way they regard words like ‘chairman’, which purport to include women but actually don’t (most English-speakers in most contexts interpret the –man suffix as meaning a male person rather than just a person). For Kleinman, the women who accept these appellations are displaying internalized sexism. They’re flattered to be treated as honorary men.

I don’t dispute that words like ‘chairman’ are sexist, but I think address terms like ‘guys’ and ‘dude’ are a more complicated case. For one thing, they are slang, whereas words like ‘chairman’ belong to a formal, official register. One reason why –man words continue to be used is because of the belief that inclusive alternatives (like ‘chair’) are ‘incorrect’. By contrast, no one says ‘guys’ or ‘dude’ because they’ve been told to: these are colloquial terms which speakers have adopted for their own reasons. Whatever those reasons are, they’re unlikely to be the same ones that motivate the use of the generic masculine in formal contexts.

There’s a clue to the reasons in the observation that ‘guys’ and ‘dude’ are most often used gender-inclusively when they’re being used to address people directly.* Addressing people directly brings the interpersonal function of language into the foreground: you’re choosing your words to say something about how you see yourself, the person you’re talking to, the situation you’re in and the relationship between you. In the case of greeting people, for instance, ‘Good evening, ladies and gentlemen’ establishes a more formal and distant relationship than ‘hello, everyone’, or ‘hi there, folks’. And it’s not just a question of formality: different address terms convey other, more nuanced meanings. ‘Hi, guys’ is in the same informal territory as ‘hi there, folks’, but it’s not an exact equivalent. Like ‘folks’, ‘guys’ is relaxed and friendly, but where ‘folks’ has a warm vibe, ‘guys’ keeps things cool.

‘Dude’ is a similar case. In an article on the way it’s used in contemporary American English, Scott Kiesling argues that the attitude or stance ‘dude’ expresses is one of ‘cool solidarity’. Addressing someone as ‘dude’ suggests a solidary relationship between equals—friendship, camaraderie, mutual respect—but it does not imply intimacy or sexual interest. (A colleague’s students once told her that if a woman addresses a man as ‘dude’ that’s a clear sign she isn’t interested in dating him.) It’s casual rather than intense, nonchalant rather than passionate, cool rather than hot.

‘Dude’ is also ‘cool’ in the sense of ‘anti-establishment, rebellious, non-conformist’. It was first used as an address term in the 1930s by African American zoot-suiters and Mexican American pachucos (both subcultures known for sharp dressing—an earlier meaning of ‘dude’ was ‘dandy’), and since the 1980s it’s become associated with the surfers and slackers of the post-baby-boomer generation.

Kiesling’s research, conducted with students at the University of Pittsburgh, found that ‘dude’ was typically used between non-intimates of the same sex. It was used most frequently by men talking to other men, but the second most frequent ‘dude’-users were women talking to other women. Cross-sex uses, in either direction, were significantly less common. The purposes for which men and women used ‘dude’ were more similar than different. Men made much more use of it as a greeting (‘hey, dude’, ‘what’s up, dude’), but both sexes used it as a token of sympathy or commiseration (like an oral equivalent of the sad face emoji), and to soften the potential offensiveness of speech acts like criticisms and commands (‘dude, turn-signal!’)

Here I want to pause and make a general point about the relationship between language and gender. The fact that a linguistic form is used more by men than women, or vice-versa, does not justify the conclusion that what the form actually expresses is masculinity or femininity. In many cases, what the form directly expresses is what linguists call ‘stance’: an attitude, a feeling, a point of view. But since many attitudes and feelings are culturally coded as either ‘masculine’ (e.g. aggression) or ‘feminine’ (e.g. modesty), the forms which communicate them may acquire a secondary association with gender. This is how Kiesling approaches the meaning of ‘dude’. What ‘dude’ directly expresses is not masculinity, it’s cool solidarity. But it’s associated with masculinity (and used more frequently by men than women) because its primary meaning, cool solidarity, has been culturally coded as a ‘masculine’ attitude.

I’m making this slightly theoretical point because it helps to explain why I don’t agree with Sherryl Kleinman’s suggestion that women who use terms like ‘guys’ and ‘dude’ are trying to claim ‘honorary man’ status. Rather I agree with Scott Kiesling, who argues that women use ‘dude’ for the same reason men do: because they want to express cool solidarity—especially, the evidence suggests, with other women. Rather than displaying internalized sexism, they’re like the little girl who sometimes wants to play with toy cars rather than dolls. It’s not that she wants to be a boy, she just doesn’t see why girls shouldn’t play with cars.

The question feminists should be asking about women calling each other ‘dude’ or ‘you guys’ isn’t why they’re talking like men (they aren’t), it’s why they can only express cool solidarity with other women by using prototypically male address terms. Aren’t there any female terms that would serve their purpose just as well?

Thinking about that, the only serious candidate I could come up with was the African American ‘girl(friend)’. If we leave aside obscenities and formal titles, most of the terms used to address women in English are terms of endearment: ‘baby’, ‘cookie’, ‘darling’, ‘doll’, ‘duck’, ‘hen’, ‘honey’, ‘pet’, ‘sweetie’, and so on. When they’re used between female friends these terms convey intimacy rather than cool solidarity, and when they’re used to women by male non-intimates, they also convey that the addressee is being belittled, sexually objectified, or both. Either way, they don’t do the same job as ‘guys’ or ‘dude’. Or ‘bro’, ‘bruv’, ‘buddy’, ‘fella’, ‘mate’ and ‘pal’. The difference between ‘bro’ and ‘baby’ is like the difference between a fist-bump and a pat on the head. Perhaps that’s another reason why women have adopted male address terms: to avoid being patronized, infantilized and sexualized.

The abundance of male solidary address terms, and the dearth of female equivalents, speaks to the differing attitudes our culture has historically held towards male and female homosociality (i.e., same-sex, but non-sexual, relationships). As many feminists have observed, male homosocial relationships—forged in institutions like boys’ boarding schools, college fraternities, sports teams, the armed services, trades unions, Masonic lodges, etc.—are important for the functioning of patriarchal societies, and they’ve been celebrated in everything from folksongs to Hollywood blockbusters. Female homosociality, by contrast, has been hidden, trivialized and negatively stereotyped. Women have traditionally been taught to value heterosexual and family relationships above female friendships; they have also been portrayed as catty, quarrelsome and incapable of solidarity with other women.

On the other hand, women don’t experience the same pressure as men to keep their same-sex relationships ‘cool’. It’s OK for women to depend on one another emotionally; it’s OK for them to express affection both verbally and physically. For men, however, these ways of relating to other men are at odds with the norms of heterosexual masculinity. In her book Deep Secrets, the psychologist Niobe Way has documented the process whereby boys who, as young teenagers, would say without hesitation that they loved their closest male friends, turn away from intimate same-sex relationships as they progress through adolescence. They fear being labelled gay: ‘“no homo” becomes their mantra’, Way tells us. She also tells us that many of her subjects found the loss of their emotional connections with other men a deeply painful experience.

Though it is part of the apparatus that maintains men’s social dominance, the ‘be independent, be cool, no homo’ ethos evidently has costs for individual men. It also has costs for women, since men who subscribe to it see their girlfriends and female friends as the only acceptable source of emotional support.

But just as men sometimes want more intimacy in their friendships, women sometimes want to turn down the emotional temperature. Cool and casual has its attractions for both sexes. And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. If women want to be addressed as ‘guys’ and ‘dudes’ I’m not going to tell them they’re betraying the feminist cause. (Particularly if the alternative is being addressed as ‘babes’ and ‘dolls’.) In language as in life, you do your best with whatever you’ve got.

* Just to clarify (since the point has been raised on Twitter): I‘m not suggesting that all uses of ‘guy(s)’ and ‘dude’ are inclusive. When they’re used as address terms these words usually include women, but when they’re used for reference (‘the guys in the office’, ‘that dude who works in the coffee shop’) the reference will usually be understood as male-only.  There are some signs that may be changing, but for now, if you’re talking about people rather than directly to them, it’s still good feminist advice to go easy on the ‘guy’-talk.