Someday, in a court of law, my excuse for using the word “dude” will be known as ‘The Millennial Defence’: Your Honour, forgive me. I was only doing it ironically.
After I saw Juno, Jason Reitman’s film about a wise-cracking, slang-slinging, idiosyncratic teenager, I adopted the character’s ubiquitous use of the word “dude.” Initially, I used it in a self-mocking way, and then unconsciously, and then constantly, until it wasn’t a joke anymore; it was just my vernacular.
But while “dude” was a new addition to my vocabulary, it was merely a variation of words that were already littering my conversations. “You guys” was a constant, and declarations often began with a cheerful “Lads, c’mere to me.”
I never really thought of it as a problem. I mainly used the words “lads” and “guys” to refer to groups of people, regardless of their gender, and that makes them gender-neutral. Right?
Except, they’re not gender-neutral. I don’t call an individual woman a “guy” or a “lad”, because “guy” and “lad” are single masculine nouns. Making something plural doesn’t make it gender neutral. And if terms really were gender neutral, then there would be an equal level of assimilation of feminine nouns into commonly used phrases. But there isn’t.
No-one is going around calling mixed groups of people “You gals” or “Ladies” – and doing so would not be seen as a celebration of our common, genderless humanity. It would be seen as an insult, a diminutive, particularly to the men present. Because we still view the masculine experience as superior, as default, as desirable. Women should feel honoured to be included in that; it’s cool to be considered “a guy’s girl”, “one of the lads” - but men don’t want to be “one of the girls.”
And let’s not pretend for a second that men would ever adopt or even accept the phrase “Big Pu**y Energy” with the same enthusiasm that women have embraced the idea of “Big D**k Energy.” Having a big d**k, having “the balls” to do something – these are seen as positive. Having a vagina? Not so much.
This double-standard of language exists because as a society, we still view femininity and womanhood as inferior and undesirable, and those attitudes have crept into the gendered way we speak about the world. Academics like Sherryl Kleinman, professor of sociology at the University of North Caroline in Chapel Hill, have studied the impact of these so-called “generic” male terms. In her paper ‘Why Sexist Language Matters’, Kleinman argues that the use of default masculine words functions to “reinforce a system in which ‘man’ in the abstract and men in the flesh are privileged over women.”
So while examples of gendered language such as “you guys” may seem pretty innocuous and harmless, they point to a wider problem: the prioritising of the straight, white cis male experience in language, and in life.
Language is never apolitical
And in era of Trumpian politics, where it’s no longer possible to ignore that misogyny and racism and transphobia are lethal forces, our awareness of the power of language is important.
Because language is never apolitical. Language is a tool that reflects societal attitudes, and the language we choose to embrace or discard is indicative of what transformations we wish to see in our culture. In this way, language that is normalised is the language of the status quo. There’s a reason that words that were once deemed to be acceptable by mainstream society have now been deemed racist, homophobic, transphobic, ableist – because our awareness of prejudice, and how prejudice is supported and perpetrated by language, evolved over time. And we decided that we wanted to do better.
At least, some of us did. Because there are still many people who choose to use language that prioritizes the straight, white, cis male experience over all else, and who view language that does not as a literal threat to their social power. Ironically, these people are likely to dismiss conversations about the politics of phrases as “political correctness gone mad” – even though they are acutely aware of the power of language.
There’s a reason that transphobic people who refuse to use trans people’s preferred pronouns or chosen names don’t have a problem calling David Howell Evans ‘The Edge.’ Acknowledging trans people’s humanity threatens traditional understandings of gender and patriarchy - but calling U2 members by their frankly nonsensical monikers is just rock n’roll, man. (Gendered pun intended.)
What language is ignored, deemed insulting or respected in a community reflects that group’s attitudes towards the world, and all too often, it’s the straight, white, cis experience of the world that is prioritised.
MEDIA AND NEW LANGUAGE
If we acknowledge this power of language - who it protects, who it oppresses, and who it renders invisible – then it becomes fascinating to observe which phrases we have normalised in mainstream culture over the past few years.
Mainstream media has obediently decided to refer to neo-Nazis and white supremacists by their preferred euphemism, the “alt-right” - as if believing that people of colour are inferior beings is a legitimate political position and not just organised, collective racism. The term “incel” has also become a staple of headlines and think pieces, as if men who simultaneously hate women but feel entitled to their bodies are somehow different to misogynists. They’re not.
These labels were chosen by those groups in order to sanitise, conceal and normalise their violent, oppressive beliefs – and we’ve accepted that. We have accepted terms that perpetuate the idea that straight, white, cis men are inherently superior to everyone else, and are using them as if they are normal. As if the attitudes behind them are normal.
But while we accepted hate-groups’ branding of themselves as “incels” and “the alt-right”, we’re still choosing not to adopt language that highlights, rather than hides, oppression. And that choice matters.
For example, in a week where Donald Trump referred to his former aide Omarosa Manigault Newman as “the dog”, and a “crazed, crying lowlife”, and rumours of him using the N-word seem disturbingly in-character, words like “misogynoir” aren’t in headlines. Because misogynoir – a word coined by Moya Bailey to describe the particular sexism that Black women faced – is a word that highlights how racism and sexism operate, and so highlights how whiteness and maleness still dominate society. The term misogynoir has existed the same amount of time the term “the alt-right” has, but only “alt-right” one has gone mainstream, because it came from a white man and prioritises his experience. But misogynoir is a problem experienced by Black women; a problem we don’t want to address. So we ignore the word. And hope that the problem, and the people talking about it, simply disappear.
Think of it as the reverse Beetlejuice, the opposite of Candyman, the antidote to Dorothy saying ‘There’s no place like home’: if you don’t say the words, nothing will happen. Nothing will change.
Except, I want things to change, for the better. And maybe refraining from using the words “dude” and “you guys” won’t change the world? Maybe not. But it’s a start. It’s the first step in acknowledging the power of language, and whose experience we prioritise and protect through it – and whose experience we are silencing.