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Good Boys and Sweet Girls

Guest post by Dallas Rising

When invited to join the VINE team in a fundraising role, I knew I’d be walking into a world where I had much to learn. After spending nearly eight years at an organization as leader and teacher, stepping into a role where I would be working alongside pattrice has been challenging. I’m not alone in seeking out her writings and speeches as they reliably unearth blind spots of mine, and the lessons have been coming fast and furious since I’ve started. This post is my response to request she made that I share my experience processing one of the more surprising corrections I’ve gotten from her about language and writing appropriate for VINE communications.

Working on a project around the recent group of roosters rescued from cockfighting, I was crafting a piece asking for people to donate to help cover the costs of their intake and integration. When I sent a draft to pattrice, she told me never to use the term “boy” or “girl” when referring to an adult animal when writing for VINE.


At VINE, an adult like Autumn would never be called “girl”

I corrected the wording and moved on, but the exchange drew my attention to how frequently I use the terms “boys” and “girls” with adult nonhuman animals. I refer to the dogs and cats my husband and I have adopted as “our boys”. In the days following the feedback on my wording, I was aware of the myriad ways I use “boy” when talking to our dog and cat, Warren and Milo.

Who’s my precious boy?
Who’s my special boy?
What a handsome boy you are!
Come on baby boy, let’s get you your din.
You’re the most charming little boy.
Good boy! Good boy!
Why are you such a naughty boy?

And I noticed how I responded to other animals I don’t live with. Variations of the same, minus the “naughty” and plus an “it’s okay to be a shy girl.”

I understand the reasoning that it’s disrespectful to refer to adults as if they were children. I thought about how much easier it is to make decisions for animals when we infantilize them, which we do unconsciously through our language. Just as referring to an animal as “it” makes it easier for us to do cruel and painful things to them, referring to adult animals as “boys and girls” allows us to avoid the discomfort we should feel about how much power we have over them. It’s a tool that reinforces the notion we’re not bound to respect or listen to their requests or preferences. We tell ourselves we know what’s best for them, as parents “know” what’s best for their children.

Despite coming from a place of love and protection, could our using “boy” and “girl” as an affectionate term be reinforcing a paradigm of unquestioned power and control over the animals with whom we live and love?

Just as referring to an animal as “it” makes it easier for us to do cruel and painful things to them, referring to adult animals as “boys and girls” allows us to avoid the discomfort we should feel about how much power we have over them.

I love being called “girl” by certain people even though I’m a grown woman. My sister, my mom, my husband, and an affectionate friend who always makes me feel loved whenever we see one another. The difference here is these people don’t decide what and how much I eat and when, or when I can be outside or for how long, or what medical treatment I will receive. They can’t scoop me up and carry me whenever they want to.  (My husband Brandon can currently do this but he knows better than to try.)

What do you think about calling adult animals “boys” and “girls”? Do you see a distinction between private and public use? What do you imagine you’d say instead if you were to give up “boys/girls”?

7 comments to Good Boys and Sweet Girls

  • Sheryl Rapee-Adams
    This chafes at the part of my nervous system that melts for nonhuman animals, a lifelong implicit reaction.

    About 15 years ago, I noticed myself infantilizing Bailey, my late, beloved cat who inspired me to go vegan and so much more.

    Even calling Bailey “my” cat arouses this discomfort. He was also his own cat. I took many life cues from him, and his dominant behavior set rhythms for our household. Though we controlled his life, we were also, arguably, his people and the other cats were his cats. But also not, because the bottom-line decisions about Bailey were mine, including, ultimately, the moment of Bailey’s death.

    Teazer has become our “little old man-baby.” At nearly 17, he is showing his seniorhood, yet is still so kittenish, having never developed what I think of as the look or demeanor of a mature cat.

    The ways I refer to animals — including humans — emerges from my implicit responses to them. It’s taking especial attention for me to even become aware of my expressions and their implications. Change happens even more slowly.

    It’s an interesting question of public versus private expression. I’ve observed my sincere, implicit reactions (complete with infantilizing endearments) toward nonhuman animals not generally considered “cute” opening humans’ eyes to considering them as who, not what.

    Yet humans regarding other animals as their babies surely perpetuates human dominance.

    I’m still working on this one.

  • Susan Curry
    I agree with you that whatever language we use keeps unconscious and unquestioned false relationships in place.
    African Americans experienced the same “boy” — and have a negative reaction to “nigger” when used by a non-African American, but an affectionate reaction when used by a peer of their race.
    In order to shift our global human culture toward a less arrogant,and morally inclusive human culture, I think it is extremely important what language we use.
    Intimate “baby” language between affectionate people can be consensual and expressive of that affection.
    You point out a few ways in which humans unquestioningly exert power over the lives of our pets, lab animals, domesticated food sources,and in the fur, clothing and entertainment industries.
    Consciously choosing to change our language habits as you write in your article can be part of a movement to expand human consciousness away from thinking of nonhuman animals as “property”, toward seeing them as co-existing members with equal rights to freedom and pursuit of happiness within the total Life community on Earth.
    However, changing language habits, will not go as far as is needed, as would advocating for full rights for all animals. That is a big stretch. promotes that direction. of change
  • Good and interesting points made in this post and the comments thus far. I agree with activists who say that using appropriately-gendered language for our fellow animals is much preferable to referring to them as “it.” But as you point out, we still must be mindful of forms of address that reinforce human supremacy. I’ll be speaking about gender and language at this weekend’s Intersectional Justice Conference:
  • Dallas Rising
    Sheryl and Susan – thanks for your comments on the piece. I have long been convinced that language is a critical and oft under-examined part of animal advocacy. The boys/girls issue is one area I hadn’t spent much time thinking about, though.

    Sheryl: I an absolutely relate to the “melting” you refer to. I have the same response and it’s really strong. And I’ve thought about the possessive “my” when thinking about Warren and Milo (and Max and Taz before them) but always came back to the notion that they’re part of my family. I have my mom, my sisters, my husband, my brother, my nephew. I felt like calling them “my boys” instead of “my dogs/cats” was a way of me expressing elevated respect for them. I love them as dependents – and they ARE dependent. But that gets messy fast.

    Susan: Bringing up how “boy” is and has been used in a racial context is a great point. I did, however, feel a bit unnerved by someone I presume not to be a POC making this assertion: “African Americans experienced the same “boy” — and have a negative reaction to “nigger” when used by a non-African American, but an affectionate reaction when used by a peer of their race.” I would be careful with blanket statements like that as it can come off sounding like you’re speaking for an entire group of which you aren’t a member. And THAT is connected to the notion that “boy/girl” allows us to more easily impose our interpretations of non-human animals on them. To me, this just points out how much these habits permeate our society.

    Thanks for linking to RPA! I organized an event where David Cantor spoke via Skype to a group in Minneapolis and he really does take a radically different approach to animal rights than the mainstream movement. I found myself wanting to fly out and spend a week talking more about all the things he brought up. It’s fascinating stuff.

    It’s amazing how much we can get out of such simple words.

  • CQ
    Wow! Thanks, Dallas (and pattrice) for giving me something new to chew on.

    My first response is: “Of course! How could I not have thought of that before?”

    My second is: “Now, what will I say when I’m referring to and/or speaking directly to the dogs I see on my walks? And to the other animals I interact with in friends’ homes and yards, in pastures, trees, and sometimes barns and stables?”

    Sharing some free-flowing ideas here:

    (1) Find out the animal’s name, if they have one, and use it exclusively when I greet them. I mean, when we greet one another.

    (2) Create a respectful-sounding name for them — if, say, they are a squirrel, bird, butterfly, bee, spider (etc.) — and use that name when exchanging courtesies.

    (3) “Lovely lady” or “handsome gentleman” don’t sound derogatory or as I’m speaking of/to a helpless dependent, but they seem contrived and they emphasize appearance instead of inner qualities. And I wouldn’t say those things to humans. Thus, if I regard them in the way I regard humans, then I will speak to them naturally, as I speak to friends.

    Examples: “Hey, how are ya, Gladys? . . . Great to see you again! . . . You’re looking well. . . . I adore your warm smile! . . . Henry, you’re tooooo funny. Remember that joke you told the other day? Run it by me again! . . . Safronia, you look like you’re having a blast playing tag with your friends. Oh, I see the water in the bucket has gotten pretty low. Let me take it and refill it, OK? . . . I see it’s dinnertime, Kim. May I walk with you over to the hay bale? . . . Hmmm hmmm. That sweet corn is really tasty, isn’t it, Turner? I’m glad you like it. Oh, you’re welcome. You deserve the best! . . . Did you know, Dolly Madison, that you’re my best friend in the whole wide world? Yup, it’s true! I love you! . . . OK, Horace, if you insist, I’ll rub your tummy! Feel good?” (Well, I wouldn’t say the last sentence to a human, but everything else sounds pretty natural.)

    Thanks for letting me practice below your guest blog, Dallas, and in your VINE space, pattrice! I’m getting the hang of how to talk to a fellow being whose species happens to be other than human. But please feel free to point out any of my still-blind spots! :-)

  • CQ
    Oops, in (3), there should be an “if” between “as” and “I’m”

    Also, my strange-looking “Hmmm hmmmm” should really be “Mmmm mmmm” or however the sound indicating deliciousness is spelled.


  • Wil Davis
    Interesting discussion! I refer to the kitties at the “Kitty Angels” shelter where I volunteer as “Hey, Guys! How are you all doing today?”, or “Hello Ladies & Gentlemen! I hope you all had a good night!” and my two kitties who share my home as my “cell-mates”, and “Hey, FuzzWuzzies! I’m home!” when I arrive home, and “Hey, Men! Who’s ready for some breakfast?” How else would you suggest I might address them? “Boys & Girls” is no biggie! I’m fed up with the Oh-So-Politically Correct Modern Society, and feel it it was best said by P. D. James – here’s one of my favourite pearls of wisdom from the late P. D. James – (From her BBC obit.)
    In a 2009 speech she attacked what she called “the cult of political correctness,” which, she said, actually raised barriers in society.
    “If, in speaking to minorities we have to weigh every word in advance in case we, inadvertently, give offence, how can we be at ease with each other, celebrate our common humanity, our shared anxieties and aspirations.”

    Phyllis Dorothy James, Baroness James of Holland Park – an absolutely brilliant woman!!!

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