My husband has an amazing talent for picking up verbal bad habits. What starts as a funny joke once or twice gets stuck in his speech pattern until he’s said it 5.2 million times and I WANT TO STRANGLE HIM. Then he starts working to get it under control. About a year later, it’s finally extinguished.
The first one that got really out of control pluralization. One of us made a joke out of pluralizing some noun, and then that noun was pluralized all the time, and then other nouns were pluralized in almost every sentence, and then I threatened divorce. Not really. I just complained a lot about hearing him talk as though he had more than one wife, son, and car, when to the best of my knowledge he has but one of each. Ditto for his head, the computer, the kitchen table, and several other frequently discussed objects.
The toaster oven escaped the pluralization episode, only to meet a different fate. I anthropomorphize objects, particularly ones that have been with me for a long time. This toaster oven was purchased when I moved out of a dorm and into an apartment, which was 1993? 1994? Let’s just say over a decade. So it’s practically an old friend, and I made the mistake of calling it “that guy” one day when I was tired and couldn’t think of the word “toaster.”
Do you see what’s coming?
C-Man thought it was funny, so he started doing it too. First the toaster, and then the heating pad became “the hot guy,” which was amusing, and then it spread. It spread and spread and spread until any object at any time could be referred to as “that guy” whether he could think of the actual name for it or not.
Then toys for our son began arriving in the house, and they too fell into the new classification scheme. The only toy that was not called “that guy” was a tomato. (Because it was short and round?)
From the way I’m writing this, you’d think this was all my husband’s doing, but I got stuck with it too. One of the most difficult tasks ahead for me in raising my middle-class white son is going to be making him aware that the world should not revolve around rich white boys, but here I was going around saying “that guy” when I meant a diaper, a sock, or a drinking glass.
Feminists get ridiculed for obsessing about things like this. “Why can’t they focus on something important?” people complain, “It doesn’t mean anything, it’s just a word, and ‘guy’ is practically gender neutral at this point anyway!” I admit, I’ve have had moments of impatience with women who complain about being part of a group addressed as “you guys.” Though I agreed that the person using the phrase “you guys” could have been more courteous, it just didn’t seem like a big deal to me as a marker of sexist oppression. (Side note: Why doesn’t everyone just use the gender neutral second person plural “y’all”?)
The “guy”-ification of every inanimate object in my home didn’t seem like as big of a deal as, say, the pay gap or funding for rape crisis centers, but it started to get creepy. Even C-Man had to admit that it WAS gendered. We were specifically using the word “guy” instead of “thing” or “doohickey” or “whatsit,” and we both felt like it was gendered when we said it. Our mental images were becoming gendered. And Boy Detective was spending all his time hearing about how everything in his world was a guy unless proved otherwise.
So we started getting rid of it. Every time I noticed one of us saying “that guy,” I would loudly say “that THING.” And somehow, despite the record levels of sleep deprivation experienced by parents of a baby who won’t sleep through the night, we started remembering the actual names for the objects in our environment. Amazing.
Next on my list in battling everyday sexism… oh, who am I kidding, I’m too tired to make a list.