The Atlantic has this interesting piece by Lily Rothman about the decline of the word “gal” – despite such an analogue to “guy” being more needed now than ever – and the hope of its resurrection.
Personally, I use “guy” as a gender-neutral term all the time – male or female, everyone is equally likely to be “guy,” “dude,” or even “man,” in the “Hey, ___, what’s up?” or “___, look at that!” kinds of ways. (…But not “bro.” Never “bro.”) Heck, I sometimes use “guys” and “dudes” as placeholder names, in the same sense as “doohickeys” or “whatsits.” “Hand me one of those little metal guys.” “Put these dudes in the drawer for me?”
I’m sure something could be said about patriarchy there; that this blanket use of masculine terms carries some implicit assumption that all persons are male until proven otherwise, that even all humorously-personified inanimate objects are male by default, or that all things should be male, or something equally ridiculous. Nevermind that the mass-noun substitution could also be seen to objectify males just as much as it masculinizes objects. But that’s a separate and less interesting discussion. (As is the discussion that could be had on slang terms for females that are also terms for prostitutes, or for the female genitalia. It’s self-evident that none of them would be an equivalent to “guy.”)
Regardless, the common current options for females do leave something to be desired. “Girl” does have those connotations of dependence and immaturity. “Woman” isn’t casual enough. And “lady” implies an elegance and sophistication that may not be present or even desirable. A lady is the counterpart of a gentleman; to presume that female-shaped-and-or-identifying humans are somehow classier, more refined, or have more genteel sensibilities than males is just a different sort of stereotype. Also, something is fundamentally jarring about a sentence like “Two shirtless guys are punching each other in the alley next to the dumpster, and there’s a lady hitting one of them with a shoe.”
I know where Rothman is coming from, but etymologically, “gal” just comes from “girl,” which makes it feel like a somewhat insufficient substitution. It also doesn’t seem to be quite as neutral – there’s a sort of fun-loving, inherently-friendly connotation there. “Gal pals.” Buffalo Gals, dancing by the light of the moon. Something almost sounds contradictory about an “angry gal” or a “dour gal.” It might just be the vintage nature of the term, but I only ever think of a gal as a perpetually smiling 1940s-era woman, staring off the page of an advertisement.
Despite the musical’s suggestion, “dolls” is not a suitable counterpart for “guys,” either. A doll is a toy, a passive object that exists to be played with by others — and, moreover, one whose purpose usually falls into one of two types: infants to be nurtured, and disproportionate fashion models. In both, the doll is an object of the player’s actions, rather than a protagonist in its own right. But if I had to be one or the other, I’d rather be called a “girl” than a “doll;” girls are at least sentient.
“Babe,” taken literally, is even more infantilizing than “girl,” though still less objectifying than “doll.” Even after a near-century of use, it’s still a little strange that a word for babies is also used to describe sexually attractive women. What constitutes “attractiveness” is always subject for debate, but this still makes it far too specific to be an analogue of “guy.” You can be an ugly guy; you can’t be an ugly babe.
“Chick” is slightly better than the previous options, but still iffy. It has a lighthearted and somewhat lightheaded association, even an affiliation with commercialism, which I think comes more from its other formations – chick lit, chick flick. Chicks hang out at malls until dudes pick them up in cars that are total chick magnets. Chicks don’t go to the library. Chicks go to the bar – and they never have to buy their own drinks.
I’ve never quite been sure if the British slang “bird” had the same, er, flighty connotations of “chick.” But since it’s never yet caught on in the States – and since both it and “chick” might, to the pedant, be too dehumanizing – it doesn’t seem particularly viable, either.
Anything spelled wrong is right out – that means you, “gurl.” “Girl” is bad enough; spelling it wrong and implying lazy typing or outright illiteracy is not making it the least bit better. And “grrl” only wants me to give the user a REASON to be incapable of pronouncing vowels. It might – might – have a small window of utility for females aged anywhere from 13 to 17 or so, but it lacks credibility even for them. It’s trying to be meaningful and distinctive and tough, but only comes across as cutesy and a little desperate, the very opposite of the independent attitude it’s trying to convey.
So too with “womyn.” The Old English “man” at the root of both “men” and “women” was basically a synonym of “one” or “anyone,” with no connotations of gender in the first place; knowing that etymology, stripping away the “man” and keeping the “wo-” seems to be missing the point. Going back to wer-man and wyf-man for males and females would be pretty nifty, as it would acknowledge two main groups and leave “man” itself open for the gender-neutral – but it wouldn’t exactly be casual. Politically-driven language rarely is.
“Skirt,” on the other hand, goes way too far in the opposite direction; it can stay in the old detective fiction, if you ask me. It just describes a whole person (or gender of persons, in fact,) by a single garment. Females have been rocking the bifurcated trousers for long enough now that “skirt” is rarely even an accurate description of one’s clothing, anyway. Given the rough timeframe when both began falling out of favor, we can go back to calling girls “skirts” when we can accurately call guys “suspenders.”
“Dame” also has that wonderful old-fashioned flair to it. It’s a strange hybrid of high and low class. A dame is the equal of a knight, a status of even higher import than a lady! And as such, it has the same sorts of assumptions, at face value. Elegance, nobility, poise, grace, and all that jazz. Used as the slang term, though, it’s much more low-down and streetwise, to the point of mild offensiveness. I’m not sure what made it become offensive, originally – if there was an element of sarcasm, or if it was just the fact that it was a common slang term for women from a time when being a woman was seen as inferior. These connotations don’t seem to balance each other out as much as they trip each other up.
Even more obscure, and more purely low-down, would be “moll.” The gun moll is already the counterpart to the wise guy, when it comes to 30s-era gangster slang. But that’s a little too much inherent criminality for “moll” alone to be a useful all-purpose analogue for “guy.” There’s also an implication of codependence – the gun moll is a partner to, or supporter of, the gangster, not quite someone who operates on her own. No dice.
I love the word “broad” though. I can’t quite explain why. It’s similarly vintage, and even if it’s supposed to be pejorative, it’s still a great sounding word. I don’t know where it came from – broad hips, maybe? If so, cool; nice to imply that being more than 16 inches in diameter is okay again. That wouldn’t make too much sense, either – males tend to be broad in the chest and broad in the shoulders, so it doesn’t sound like it could be a physical term at all. Even if it was originally an invective, or at least meant to be demeaning, it doesn’t specify anything about attitude or appearance, and it therefore has… well, broader applications. You can’t be an ugly babe, but you can be a classy broad. Or a smart broad. Or a strong broad, though that sounds like Rule 63 for Strong Bad. It isn’t inherently youthful, and it isn’t matronly. (Though you can be an old broad, which is rather more casual than being an old woman or an old lady, and less oxymoronic than an old girl – or an old gal, for that matter.) Even acknowledging its history as an insult, people are trying to reclaim “bitch” as an empowering term, and that’s an outright swear! It’s a direct insult against a person, whereas “broad” is, if anything, vaguely dismissive – and even then, not half as disdainful as “toots.” “Broad” is less harsh and less cruel than “bitch,” which might mean it has less need to be defused and reclaimed – but it also might mean it would have more (and more meaningful) success.
To seek to ennoble the word “bitch” can be misconstrued for a celebration of “bitchiness” itself. The very point may be that the traits that constitute unacceptable “bitchiness” in a woman are often the same traits that constitute laudable boldness in a man, but the term is much more often used to describe regular old rudeness, viciousness, and self-entitlement – sneering, snarling, and snootiness. The absurdity of the idea that women should deserve a separate word for their rudeness than men is a fair counterpoint; women certainly don’t have a monopoly on such attitudes — but I’ve rarely heard “asshole,” “pig,” or even “jerk” ascribed to a female, and for men to try to reclaim any of those words would be somewhat similarly weird. This isn’t true for “broad,” however. A reclamation of “broad” can’t be seen as an attempt to celebrate the unpalatable behaviors or attitudes it’s used to describe, because “broad” isn’t descriptive.
At least, not in that sense.
Used more generally, “broad” is rarely a negative adjective. It’s good to to be broad-minded, to have broad knowledge, to be unrestrained. To be broad is to be open, expansive, and it can describe both someone who has explored and the expanse of the places or concepts she’s been exploring. To be broad is to be rife with possibilities. To be broad is to inherently defy being belittled or overlooked or disregarded; to defy being pigeonholed. It is to not only be there, but to take up just as much space as you damn well please, and to contain as much as you damn well like within yourself. If something is broad, with broad implications, in broad daylight, and you still can not or will not see it, everyone knows it’s because you just aren’t looking.
Broadly speaking, I think it’s a pretty good option.
But what do you guys think?