Friday, September 19, 2008

"B*tch" Magazine Complains About "You Guys"?

B*tch Magazine has a little post where Debbi Rasmussen expresses how she feels about the use of the term "you guys".

I really really really can't stress strongly enough how much it shocks my heart to hear how often the expression "you guys" is used in everyday language, especially in social movement/radical community spaces.

I don't mean to be unsympathetic or humorless or heartless. Yes I understand how difficult it is to replace that phrase with something else. But I promise it can be done. And talking about love and revolution and radical politics and building a movement feels so much better once "you guys" is gone.

What about just calling people what they prefer to be called? If Rasmussen doesn't like "you guys" used in reference to her, then she is perfectly entitled to insist that people not use it with her. However, her feelings aren't universal, so why should everyone else change? So that she can feel better? That seems like a really weak reason, to me.

This country consists of many different cultures spread out across a continent. Words just don't mean the same thing everywhere and I think it's a bit hegemonic to try and create some universal standards about what is and isn't better for all of us. I've lived on the West Coast, in the South, and the Midwest and I love the diversity of speech that exists in this country. Language is a significant part of culture. Each culture that uses a word adds their own meaning to it. It would be a shame if that diversity disappears any more than it already has.

I mean, what are we looking for? Is this what social movements are trying to move towards? A world where we all think and sound alike? If so, where does it stop? Personally, I'm not very fond of the word "b*tch". However, do I think that everyone else should stop using it? Nope. Is there any guarantee that if everyone stopped using it, "social movements/radical community spaces" would feel better for us all? If using the term "you guys" is problematic to Rasmussen, then how in the world does she square that belief with the fact that this is written in a magazine called "B*tch"?

In many places, these controversial words are colloquial terms of endearment. "Darling", "cher", "you guys", "girls", "folks"--it all depends on how they are being used. If my momma calls me up and asks "How are you guys doing over there?" it sounds a helluvalot better to me than if she asked me "How are you and the man and the female child doing over there?" It certainly wouldn't make me feel any better to hear the latter rather than the former. In that situation "you guys" would be perfectly fine with me.

Of course, since we're down here in the deep, deep south, we usually use "y'all" to refer to groups (of single or mixed genders). Still, is that really better than "you guys"? Better to and for who? I don't think any of my former English teachers would see it as much of an improvement.

Also, it's dancing dangerously close to cultural appropriation for some of these folks to start trying to switch from using the words from their own culture and purposely adopting the dialect of other cultures. If I'm in the heart of Wisconsin and some Mid-westerner starts using the word "y'all" to address a group that includes me, that would sound a lot more problematic, and perhaps offensive, than if they had just said "you guys".


Trinity said...

You win.

I tried to excise "bitch" from my vocabulary, and maybe this means I'm not feminist enough, but it always felt horribly forced.

Probably because I don't really experience that word as hurtful. Annoying, yes. Rude and uncalled for, sure. But I don't feel much more insulted by it than if someone called me "asshole," really. It just doesn't carry that force for me. Whereas I'd be/I have been really, really hurt and angry if someone called me "cripple." (NB: I am not dictating how anyone else ought to feel, here.)

I tend to use "you guys" and "y'all." English teachers aside, I find that I WANT my language to have a second person plural. I think it's the fault of the stuffy that English has so damn many and they all supposedly sound "wrong."

Trinity said...

And... this whole thing about language... well, it kind of puzzles me. Some words, like "n*" and "retard," are just so unambiguous in who they refer to and have such a gross history that I can see people saying "Shit, don't say that." But I don't think all the words that people (legitimately) get offended or hurt by have the same force, and I think people get ridiculous when they take language-policing to such a degree that "you guys" is deeply upsetting.

The big thing that made me realize this is that in every feminist group I've been in, including ones with language rules I saw as horrifically restrictive, has allowed the curse "fuck you."

What exactly are we wishing on someone when we say "Fuck you?" Surely not a transcendental consensual experience. The only way for the phrase to make sense as a curse is for it to literally mean "Go get raped" or the like.

Surely if "feminists" were most interested in removing anti-woman language from discourse, "fuck" should be the first to go. But it's not, which says to me that people are being much more arbitrary than even they realize. If people can say "Fuck you" with impunity, surely "you guys" is acceptable speech.

bint alshamsa said...

"B*tch" isn't really hurtful to me either. The thing is, I know that there are lots of people who are really, really offended by it. Coming from a conservative Christian family, I am the only one who uses "curse words". While they can handle hearing me use "damn" or "ass" on an occasional basis, "b*tch" or "shit" or "asshole" would spark an all-night argument.

My partner doesn't use "curse words" at all. Somehow, his speech never seems forced in the way mine feels when I try to completely eliminate all of them.

With regards to "cripple", I can definitely understand why it would make some people extremely hurt and angry to have it used in reference to them. For me, it's only acceptable when it comes from other people with disabilities. Otherwise, I'm gonna have to join you in those feelings.

By the way, I'm going to try to keep your preference in mind when I post on your site. I sometimes use "crip" on the blogs of other PWD that I'm familiar with, but I'll refrain from doing that on yours. I'm glad to know your feelings about this word. :)

Trinity said...


I don't mind "crip" at all. I'm talking about a reaction I had to being called that non-ironically/reclaimingly: "Well, you're crippled, so I'm not sure these exercises will help you..." etc.

bint alshamsa said...

Oh, I feel ya'. That shit is not funny ONE BIT. What pisses me off is that some non-disabled folks think I'm supposed to find their cripple jokes funny.

Lisa Harney said...

Using "y'all" is appropriation? I never thought of it that way. After years of Texans telling me to use it, I'm going to have to reverse course?

... insert defensive discourse here about how it's all about me ...

Seriously, though, is it problematic? Because I can stop using it.

Rachel said...

This is such an interesting conversation! A few years ago I made a conscious effort to cut swearing out of my vocabulary; my mom was really getting annoyed (I ... may or may not have had a colossal pottymouth. ahem.) and I was worried that my little cousins wouldn't be allowed to play with auntie Rachel if I kept it up! It is definitely a challenge not to swear in my work environment (civil rights law is not the most peaceful area to practice).

I am with Lisa, though, on the use of y'all - it had not occurred to me that I was appropriating something when I say that. A dear friend is a NOLA expatriate and I have picked up using y'all from her - it would be difficult to count the hours we have spent talking together, we've definitely rubbed off on one another - but I absolutely do not want to be appropriative.

bint alshamsa said...


I think that the line between cultural appropriation and the genuine blending of cultures can be a tricky thing to put your fingers on. Anybody who is in regular proximity to a southerner for a long enough period of time is probably going to pick up some of our colloquialisms eventually. I get a big kick out of hearing my little cousin from Maryland use terms like "y'all" and "makin' groceries" and "momma'n'em" after she's been by us for a few weeks.

It's absolutely adorable! And it's a lot more fun because when she goes back home she eventually stops using our words and goes back to using her own, which means we can have the same fun all over again the next time she comes down.

Lots of people use these words even though they might not have been born and raised in the south. What makes the use of these words problematic is when they aren't just absorbed from being a part of the culture but, instead, are adopted because you think they are just so golly gee grand compared to the words in your culture. If I know you've never been a part of southern culture and all of a sudden you start speaking like that around me, it just isn't the same as a natural absorption of a term into your vocabulary.

I don't like the term "you guys" but the issue isn't as simple as Rasmussen tries to paint it. There are (at least) two different kinds of situations to consider: using print and using spoken language.

Spoken language better reflects the cultural differences within the populations that speak a particular language. Written language is, I think, more formal. If you use the term "you guys" in your everyday speech, it's probably a reflection of your culture. The idea that you should substitute the your own culture for that of some one else is kinda bogus for several reasons

*cough* imperialism*cough*

Look, I wanna finish this post but my hand hurts like all hell. I'm going to write more when the drugs kick in, okay? I'm sorry but I gotta take a break. :(

Trinity said...

I agree with what Bint is saying. I picked up y'all from my mom, went to school and wanted to speak well, dropped it, went to college in the rural South and picked it back up again, and don't use it.

What I don't like is... well, some of the commenters in that thread are going "I decided to pick up 'y'all.' It's so cute and folksy!"

Which, well, I don't have a problem with people finding a word cute, but it does feel a little weird to hear that the way I and friends of mine speak is just so adorable, like something somebody has to pick up and take home.

And I kinda... well, there are a lot of stereotypes of "Southern Redneck" that just make me think that if these utterly language-obsessed women hadn't decided to identify "you guys" as a feminist issue, they wouldn't be caught dead "cutely" using y'all. So it just leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

Trinity said...


Well, for one, as the descendant of a Southerner and a New Yorker, who can fairly lay claim to "y'all" AND "youse guys" (I'm that awesome, see?) I don't have a problem with people picking things up from their friends. I don't like how those commenters treat it, like "I had a problem and went shopping and took home this little adorable word." But even there, I wouldn't make a stink either. I'd just roll my eyes and be like "whatever."

Or I guess I should say "whatever, y'all." :)

Trinity said...

aaah, completely mistyped there. I mean I DO still use it. Meh.

Lisa Harney said...

Cool, Bint. Yeah, I picked it up from Texans, rather than Southerners, but it's something I hold onto even though I haven't been around any recently. I certainly never adopted it to sound "folksy" or try to shift gears on acceptable plural pronouns.

Still, that's a lot to think about, and I'm sorry for provoking a finger-hurting comment. :(

BTW, I gave you Certified Honest Blogger award. :)

queen emily said...

Actually, I don't like "you guys" because it's sometimes used to degender me. So, unlike a lot of my cis friends, I'm fine with "ladies" because at least that way I know I'm passing. But it's such a mild irritation that it barely seems worth mentioning.

I do think that if you're in close proximity to someone, it is quite easy to pick up speech patterns without even realising it.

I haven't picked up the "y'all" yet, though I have got the Southern "hell yeah" off Suzan. And she's starting saying "chips" instead of "fries" a lot of the time, and a few other Australianisms I use..

shiva said...

I think "you guys" is problematic, because "guys" is a gender-neutral word in some variants of English, and a male-specific word in others, so it can be seen as equating the "generic" subject with the male subject - similarly to ending all sentences with "man" (although, even though i move in pretty much all the circles that are stereotyped as doing that, pretty much no one i know actually does it).

English does really need a second person plural. "Yous" (not sure if that should be spelt with an "e" on the end, or indeed even has an accepted spelling) is commonly used around here, and i use it despite its use being associated with a "stupid/uneducated provincial" attitude because it so neatly fills a gap in the language.

Pronouns are generally problematic for me, though - see my post of a couple of weeks ago on the subject...