I have a comondrum (that’s obviously what a conundrum on a Monday is called).
Every now and then my kids will walk into a room where I am or they’ll pop up next to me on the couch or resurface from the far corners of Target with their dad and I’ll say, “Hey, girl!” It’s out of habit; I can hardly help it. And after all, they’re two and three – it hardly matters. But even so, every time it rolls off of my tongue, it simultaneously triggers a slightly panicked internal response and my mind starts to wind down a bunny hole.
I always find myself asking the same question: If I repeatedly greet my two sons with “Hey, girl!” are there going to be long-term effects?
I mean, I’ll be honest, I don’t even know what sort of long-term effects it could have and a large part of me doubts that it really could have any. But there is one, admittedly stupid, effect that always pops up and it pains me to type it but could greeting my two sons with “Hey, girl!” nearly every day, make them more ‘girly’ in the long run?
I know, I know. Let me join you in your collective eye roll. Because what is ‘girly’ outside of a sweeping generalization or stereotype, right? And why does it, when applied to boys or men, carry so many negative connotations? I get it. The Run Like a Girl campaign plays vividly in my mind and the other side of me, my proudly feminist side, rebuttals with a defiant, ‘Fuck you.’ And, really, how could a simple greeting come close to playing a role in the kind of men my sons become.
I mean, I’ve been referred to as a guy for as long as I can remember and not one time have I ever actually believed the men in any room were more important than the women. However, at its core, our comfort with referring to a multi-gendered group of people, and even entire groups women, as ‘guys’ is rooted in sexism. But all of us have done it; in fact, some argue ‘guys’ is used so broadly used that it has become a non-gendered term. I do it all the time – without guilt.
But if it doesn’t matter who we call ‘guys’, why do I feel so weird about saying, “Hey, girl!” to my sons?
Well, if anything, I think it highlights how deeply seeded gender roles and stereotypes run within my (our?) upbringing, like red dye in a body scan, and I can’t help but wonder: Am I sexist? I mean, facts are facts and at the end of the day, if I’m okay with referring to a group of my female friends as guys but I’m uncomfortable saying, ‘hey, girl!’ to my sons because this really stupid part of me worries it might actually make them ‘girly’ – which is completely sexist – I am, if even only a minimal amount, sexist.
It doesn’t matter that my concern is rooted in the things I can’t control – like the realities of being a sensitive boy in a cruel world and the fear of not being able to protect my child from that cruelty. It doesn’t matter how I dress it up, there is no excuse to fear my sons might not fit into the stereotype of a boy – or into that of a girl. After all, the definition of stereotype is undesirable: a widely held but fixed and oversimplified image or idea of a particular type of person or thing. It’s the opposite of what humans should be: complex, ever-changing, versatile and free.
As Shakespeare said in Romeo and Juliet, ‘What’s in a name? That which we call a rose, By any other word would smell as sweet.’ The quality or value of a human is not defined by their gender.
So, really, what’s in a name?
Gender is extremely hard to talk about because it’s so ingrained in how we talk, how we’re perceived and received as well as how we receive and perceive others. It plays a role in the things we expect of ourselves because it plays a major role in what our cultures and societies expect of us. It defines how our parents interact with us from the moment we are born and the ways they choose to raise us; it impacts the things we’re pushed to pursue and the paths we’re encouraged to take. It comes up every once in awhile but mostly, it’s just something we are – something dictated to us by our sex. But I think it’s time we begin to realize it’s not that straightforward and we would be doing a disservice to our future generations to continue perpetuating the idea that it is.
Will I stop saying ‘Hey, girl!’ to my sons – hopefully. And when I do finally kick the habit, it won’t be because of some sexist insecurities and fears that doing so will somehow hinder how ‘manly’ they can become in the future but because I want them to think outside of their gender, I want them to seem more than a boy or a girl and I want them to strive to be more than a stereotype. I want them to think in terms of commonalities and interests, regardless of gender. The world is already heavily riddled with gendered spaces and gendered language, I want my home to be different and the children raised within my home to know there is much more beyond a name.
Because, really, what’s in a name?