Donald Trump, Political Correctness and the Problem of ‘You Guys’

Rebekah Frank

 

Last week at the GOP debate in Iowa, Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly questioned Donald Trump about how, given his public mistreatment of women, he would answer the inevitable charge from Hilary Clinton that he is part of the Republican Party’s “war on women.” Despite Trump’s complaints that Kelly’s line of questioning was “unfair,” it is clear by taking a quick look into his past comments that her questions were based firmly in reality.

 

Back in 2012, Trump said that Arianna Huffington “is unattractive both inside and out. I fully understand why her former husband left her for a man – he made a good decision.” He also called Gail Collins of the New York Times a dog, said a female lawyer who took a break from arguing a case to pump breast milk was disgusting, offered to show lawyer Gloria Allred his private parts and famously said of his own daughter Ivanka, “she does have a very nice figure. I’ve said if Ivanka weren’t my daughter, perhaps I’d be dating her.” Donald Trump is not stupid and is well aware of his tendency to make questionable statements to, and about, women. In the moment, however, Trump responded with what he thought was humor; that he only says nasty things about Rosie O’Donnell, referencing a feud between the two that dates back to 2006. The audience loved it.

 

According to an interview Trump gave on “Fox and Friends” the day after the debate, (the Rosie jab) got “the biggest applause of the evening actually, so it was sort of interesting.” That says a lot about the people present at the debate and their feelings not just about Rosie O’Donnell, but about women in general and what sort of treatment they are deserving of. When Kelly continued to press Trump on his history of derogatory statements about women he responded, quite predictably, “I think the big problem this country has is being politically correct. I’ve been challenged by so many people and I don’t, frankly, have time for total political correctness. And to be honest with you, this country doesn’t have time either.”

 

Despite your feelings about Trump, he does bring up a point that has been floating around politics, and everyday life, for quite some time:  at what point does our commitment to “political correctness” start impacting our ability to have real meaningful conversations about tough issues? In the case of Donald Trump, the comments that he tends to make fall outside the purview of political incorrectness and squarely in the realm of immaturity, the derogatory and, yes, the patriarchal. We can all agree that his statements towards women, and Mexican immigrants for that matter, are entirely indefensible. But what about the more creeping, more nuanced statements that we use regularly? Statements such as the seemingly innocuous “you guys.”

 

Yes, you guys. About two months ago, a small tech start-up called npm blogged about a company-wide challenge that some of its employees had decided to participate in. They started dropping money in a “Guys jar.” According to npm, the idea is “if you believe that using the word ‘guys’ to describe a mixed-gender group of individuals is creeping sexism and are trying to eliminate that word from your casual use, you put a dollar in the jar every time you do it accidentally.” Participation is entirely voluntary. Those who take part drop a dollar in the jar every time they accidentally gender something that is gender-neutral or misgender somebody. Every time the jar gets above $50, they donate the money to a relevant charity. A group called Girls Who Code was the first recipient. (This is especially notable because women have had an extremely tough time breaking into the tech industry and, once they manage it, safety becomes a pretty serious concern.)

 

 

Upon first inspection, this might seem like a silly project and, as Donald Trump would likely scoff, debilitatingly politically correct. But it is not without merit. Jenee Desmond-Harris wrote an article for Vox .com where she examined the feminist reasoning for eschewing “you guys” from our regular vocabulary. So what, exactly, is wrong with “you guys?” According to an email to Vox from Jeane Anastas of the NYU Silver School of Social Work, “Whatever Webster’s dictionary says about the plural ‘guys’ [‘used in plural to refer to members of a group regardless of sex’] and despite the fact that I sometimes catch myself saying ‘you guys’ to people of all genders, ‘guy’ is a gendered word.”

 

In other words, whether our intention when we use the word “guys” is not to alienate women or reinforce creeping sexism, it is precisely what we are doing. Sherryl Kleinman, a professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill published an article about exactly this topic in the academic journal Qualitative Sociology back in 2002. In her piece “Why Sexist Language Matters,” Kleinman talks at length about what she refers to as male generics. These are words that most people consider perfectly acceptable. These words can refer to people who occupy certain positions such as a postman, fireman, congressman, etc. Or grander words that refer to our entire race such as “mankind” and the ever-present “he.” For Kleinman, though, the worst of all these words is the expression “you guys.” According to Kleinman,

 

“male-based generics are another indicator – and, more importantly, a reinforcer – of a system in which ‘man’ in the abstract and men in the flesh are privileged over women. Some say that language merely reflects reality and so we should ignore our words and work on changing the unequal gender arrangements that are reflected in our language.”

 

 

That is, of course, part of the solution. But if we admit that language is a problem, that it matters and that it reinforces inequalities, shouldn’t part of our efforts be focused on changing our use of specific words? Kleinman continues.

 

“It’s no accident that ‘man’ is the anchor in our language and ‘woman’ is not. And of course, we should make social change all over the place. But the words we use can also reinforce current realities when they are sexist (or racist or heterosexist). Words are tools of thought. We can use words to maintain the status quo or to think in new ways – which in turn creates the possibility of a new reality. It makes a difference if I think of myself as a ‘girl’ or a ‘woman’; it makes a difference of we talk about ‘Negroes’ or ‘African Americans.’ Do we want truly inclusive language or one that just pretends?”

 

She then references Douglas R. Hofstadter’s 1986 satire on sexist language in which he imagines a world where people use generics based off race as opposed to gender. So in all the places where we use the word “man,” Hofstadter replaces it with “white.” So we are left with things like “policewhite,” “chairwhite,” “postwhite,” and in keeping with the theme of this post, “you whiteys.” So now instead of the common refrain “all men are created equal,” we are left with the rather troubling (and perhaps more accurate than we would like to admit) phrase, “all whites are created equal.” And then, in that alternate world, we expect people of color to somehow feel included in society that linguistically excludes them at almost every turn.

 

So why should women continue to be absorbed into “you guys?” The author and activist Alice Walker argues that it is representative of a “fear of being feminine.” She doesn’t mean feminine in the superficial way like wearing pink, painting your nails or wearing jewelry. She means it in the larger sense of being female. She says that you can “see it most easily in the way that women refer to themselves and other women as ‘guys.’ This is very dangerous. It’s like erasing yourself daily.” And, she argues, “the programming of erasing what is feminine, what is female, is very strong. And women have not gathered themselves together to really fight it.” So while women strive to succeed and to achieve greater equality, we allow ourselves to be absorbed into, to disappear into, the higher-status group: men.

 

So what is the alternative? Breaking the “you guys” habit seems almost as daunting as breaking the habit of apologizing for our existence, something women do constantly. The first step, it seems, is to recognize the absurdity of our use of generics. Much as Hofstadter turned this tendency on its head by replacing the use of “man” with “white,” we need to figure out a collective way to recognize the dangers and power inherent in gendered language. By willingly taking the backseat to men, we are setting ourselves up for a significantly steeper climb as we strive to succeed and make our mark not as females or women or guys, but as human beings. There are alternatives out there such as “folks,” “gang,” “y’all” and “colleagues,” each with its own set if challenges and problems. But there is one commonality to all of them: they are significantly more inclusive than the much more common “you guys.”

 

 

So while many, if not all, of us were infuriated by Donald Trump’s remarks at the GOP debate, as well as those that preceded and followed them, we must admit our own role in consistently othering women. We cannot be equal if we are invisible. So perhaps we should all make the move to eliminate “you guys” from our vocabulary as best as possible. Or, at the very least, be aware of the impact that seemingly innocuous words can have. Is this yet another foray into absurd political correctness? Perhaps.  Or, maybe by altering the very root of our language, by trying to associate the idea of the feminine with power rather than weakness, we will make sexist comments by Donald Trump less acceptable. Perhaps by forcing ourselves, as women, to stand strong rather than be shrugged off as one of “the guys,” our contributions will be more highly valued. It’s worth a shot.

 

Author Bio:

Rebekah Frank is a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine.

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