Is ‘Dude’ the Gender-Neutral Term We’ve Been Sleeping On?
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I once dated a guy who didn’t like it when I called him “dude.” To me, the word stood for something affectionate and playful — not as cringe-y as more common terms of endearment, and then again — not exactly a term of endearment, either. Casual. Boyfriends, I came to realize, didn’t like casual. But I did, and still do; I like the term’s inclusiveness, an undefinable quality that feels gender-neutral and all-encompassing. But is it really? What’s the meaning of dude?
A quick look at Merriam-Webster defines “dude” as:
1: a man extremely fastidious in dress and manner : DANDY
2: a city dweller unfamiliar with life on the range especially : an Easterner in the West
3 informal : FELLOW, GUY
This is undoubtedly a masculine reading of the word, but definitions change over time, and it doesn’t take much to realize that “dude” these days doesn’t bring up connotations of fashionable men or city dwellers.
More likely, one thinks of Jeff Bridges in The Big Lebowski (1998) or the various stoner-types that followed: Ashton Kutcher, Jonah Hill and Michael Cera, even the bros from The Hangover (2009). All of them men, yes, but defined far more by their very specific character type than their masculinity. In fact, when we think of “masculine” (“masculine” in quotes here, because we all know that being a hero doesn’t subscribe to a particular gender identity — Hollywood is just filled with cowards and forced heteronormativity) heroes, we think of tall, dark, and handsome protagonists; we think of James Bond-types and stories about vengeance.
The “dude” narrative, however, doesn’t rely on the heteronormative values of saving the girl and catching the villain, but actually on genderless ideas: friendship, weed and, like … going to White Castle.
Scott F. Kiesling, in “Dude” for American Speech, writes: “dude is an address term that is used mostly by young men to address other young men; however its use has expanded so that it is now used as a general address term for a group (same or mixed gender) and by and to women.”
If we’re going by archetypes, I think it’s safe to say that women like Kristen Wiig and Melissa McCarthy fall into the “dude” category, too. Movies like Ghostbusters (2016) prove that women can be both 1. heroes and 2. dudes, and finally give men like Chris Hemsworth the roles that we, the public, deserve to see men like Chris Hemsworth playing: himbos.
In “A Brief History of Dude,” J.J. Gould of The Atlantic writes: “…women now use the word, too—both with men and with other women. Perhaps unsurprisingly, usage patterns vary by gender: Kiesling’s work indicates, for instance, that women show a relative tendency to deploy the term when trying to mitigate conflict with friends or acquaintances. (“Dude, you know I’d never do that.”) But even this usage is a variation on a theme. You can, after all, take the masculinity out of dude, and it still works as a way of establishing solidarity without intimacy.”
When contemplating the meaning of dude, I think of one of the great cinematic masterpieces of the 1990s:
Maybe we all finally need to come to terms with the fact that Kel Mitchell was ahead of his time when he declared: “We’re all dudes.”