Why Do We Insist on Calling Women Girls?

This article was originally published on TheVine on 24th February, 2015.

Pop culture would dictate that women are girls until they’re too old to warrant being a part of public life: so, like, 50. I probably internalised this as it’s only in recent years that I’ve felt a) old enough and b) confident enough to call myself a woman. Up until then I was, to borrow a line from Britney Spears, “Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman”. Now that I identify as a woman, I find it all the more noticeable when other people refer to women as girls.

As one of the strongest influences in many people’s lives, how certain cultures and minorities are represented in pop culture informs how we feel about them in wider society. Just listing the shows and pop groups with the word “girl” in the title already says a lot.

There’s Gilmore Girls, about a young woman and her mother; Gossip Girl, which follows the trajectory of high schoolers to just-as-immature adults; Girls, the brainchild of one of the most influential women in pop culture currently, Lena Dunham; and Gone Girl, about a very-much-adult woman who disappears. The Spice Girls are now grown women who still trade on that moniker. Even Sex & the City, which follows the lives of four 30-somethings, and later 40-(and 50!-)somethings in the ill-fated movies, insists on referring to Carrie, Samantha, Charlotte and Miranda as “girls”. “I couldn’t help but wonder about brunch with the girls”, Carrie would muse from her laptop.

In actuality, all but a few of these pop cultural representations could more accurately be described—and titled—with the word “women” in mind. Calling the career women of Sex & the City or The Spice Girls… erm… “girls” undermines the positions they are in their careers and personal lives.You would hardly call a Samantha Jones-type an “It girl” in her field if you met her in real life. Anne Helen Peterson continues to unpack the notion as it pertains to “It Girls” in a recent article for Buzzfeed.

Further to this, in a 2008 piece on Jezebel, Dodai Stewart writes, “A girl is insecure, incomplete; a woman is confident, competent.” With this in mind, calling the women of Girls girls might not seem as out of place as using it to refer to, say, Beyoncé, who sings about being a ‘Grown Woman’ on her self-titled album. (I am well aware that she also has a contradictory song called ‘Run the World [Girls]’).

Madonna addressed the stigmatisation and violence that trans women and girls face in ‘What It Feels Like for A Girl’ in 2000. Her voiceover states that boys who want to look like girls are “degrading, ’cause you think that being a girl is degrading.” Certainly, in some communities there is no distinction between women and girls: they both wield a dismal amount of power. The transmisogyny that Madonna sings about surrounds Bruce Jenner’s rumoured impending transition and shows that we might not be as progressive about gender relations as we fancy.

It’s not always necessarily about explicitly saying “girl” but the sexist connotations applied to the word. This is perhaps none more evident than in sport, as we’ve seen at the Australian Open. World number seven Eugenie Bouchard was doubly infantalised by the male interviewer who called her and her fellow female tennis players “you girls” and asked her to twirl in her pretty tennis duds.

The distinction comes down to the sexist ideal of girls being perceived as fun and fancy-free and women as hard-to-please shrews. Women have agency and aren’t afraid to ask for what they want; girls are agreeable to anything.

Law professor Kate Galloway writes further about this relationship between language and treatment at law blog Amicae Curiae, specifically referencing how the “girls” of our Olympic basketball team travelled to the London Games in 2012 in premium economy while the male team flew business class.

This, along with the lack of mainstream support and coverage, would seem to indicate an obvious disregard for women’s sports. “Throw like a girl” being used as an insult solidifies it. The term was, however, used positively in the recent Superbowl commercial for feminine hygiene brand, Always, and was the title of the Spike Lee-directed doco about baseball player and Associated Press’ Female Athlete of 2014, Mo’ne Davis.

In daily usage, we may not be actively diminishing the independence of our women friends when we “catch up with the girls” but it’s amazing how prevalent the term is. I’m just as guilty of it. I’ll sometimes refer to the saleswoman who presents as younger than me as “the girl who served me” or I’ll comment on something on social media with the cliché, “You go, girl!” Sure, “girl” can be used as a term of endearment between equals, just the way “queer” has been reclaimed by the gay community.

But as Galloway says, “I acknowledge that sometimes it might be [okay] to be ‘one of the girls’… I use the term to refer to my women teammates or close women friends. For former women team members now commentating on their sport at the Olympics, it may likewise be acceptable during an interview to refer to ‘the girls’. It should not however be presumed that any woman athlete can acceptably be referred to as a girl.”

When being a girl—indeed, being a woman—is still seen as less than, whether blatantly or more insidiously, I’m making a conscious effort to instead interact with and encourage my fellow women without pigeonholing them as “girls”. Women are capable of so much more than the gossiping, brunching and winging our pop cultural compatriots would reduce us to when they call us that.

Elsewhere: [Buzzfeed] The Trouble with “It Girls”.

[Jezebel] Ladies, Let’s Be Honest: Are We Girls? Or Are We Women?

[Daily Life] Eugenie Bouchard Asked to “Twirl” By On-Court Presenter Following Australian Open Match.

[Amicae Curiae] Don’t Call Me Girl. I’m a Woman.

[Daily Life] Eugenie Bouchard Deserves Better Than Sexist “Twirl” Request.

[Bitch] Is “Girl-Power” Advertising Doing Any Good?

The Rise of the Hunk.

This article was originally published on TheVine on 9th August, 2012.

“You know the apocalypse is nigh when men want to see a movie about a talking teddy bear and women want to see a movie about male strippers,” read a friends’ recent Facebook status.

While the world may be ending in December, and the integrity of Ted is questionable at best, I think it’s high time hetero women (and gay men to a lesser extent) turn subjugation on its head and become the voyeurs, and they’re using Magic Mike as a tool to do so.

Never before in mainstream Hollywood film can I recall a movie that so blatantly puts the male body on show for the unashamed consumption by straight women, primarily. Tom Cruise may have been shirtless for the majority of Rock of Ages, and True Blood has as much male eye candy as it does female, but Magic Mike is the first of its kind to feature conventionally attractive and perennially half-naked male actors as strippers: Hollywood’s last taboo, perhaps.

The male form has been sexualised for the last few decades, notably in underwear commercials. Remember Mark Wahlberg’s Calvin Klein’s and David Beckham’s distracting Armani ads? Or how about a shirtless Ryan Gosling in Crazy, Stupid Love, which arguably spawned the current obsession with him that has reached fever pitch? Porn star James Deen is experiencing a cavalcade of female appreciation not normally seen with adult actors. Even pay TV channel LifeStyle You is cashing in on the male body objectification trend, using in their advertisements shirtless men carrying out everyday household duties like ironing to reel the women in. (Because women are who we talk about when we talk about “lifestyle”.)

In the male stripper movie vein, there was that late ’90s UK effort, The Full Monty, which featured a bunch of average Joes getting their kit off at the encouragement of women, demonstrating that men don’t have to look like Channing Tatum, Joe Manganiello or Matthew McConaughey for women to find them sexy and to want to see them naked. But there is a certain allure to rippling abs, strong thighs and loaded guns that the comedic stripteases of unemployed steel workers just doesn’t have…

Dodai Stewart writes for Jezebel of the hollering and hooting in the cinema when she went to get her Channing fix, while I noticed more of a silent sexual tension in the air. There was nary a squeal of approval throughout, which lent a certain palpability that watching a sex scene with your parents or a potential love interest might elicit. Tatum’s dance moves succeeded in getting me and—if all the mute leg-crossing, uncrossing and squirming in seats was any indication—all the other red-blooded, presumably straight women in the audience hot under the collar. As Stewart continues, “Could it be that women are so used to seeing the female body sexualised on screen—from the point of view of the male gaze—that we don’t even know how to react to the sexualized male body?”

It seems that the characters who are virgins to the Tampa male stripping scene don’t know how to react either, with Alex Pettyfer’s portrayal of Adam consisting of equal parts disgust at Mike’s occupation and awe at the perks of his lifestyle. Adam’s sister, Brooke (played by Cody Horn), is closed in on by the camera when she first sees Mike dance and a range of emotions cross her face: judgement, arousal, amazement, discomfort at the role reversal male strippers provide. Discomfort and concern are also expressed by the bank clerk when Mike attempts to get a loan, showing up with a down payment in wads of ones and fives. Presumably the teller recognises Mike from the male revue, and offers to sign him up to a program for “distressed” clients, inferring that because he gets his kit off for money, he must be either strapped for cash or lacking self-esteem. Hmm, where have we heard this before? Usually directed at women who trade on their looks and are deemed “at risk”, “battered” and, yes, “distressed” as a result. Mike even has to resort to the ol’ spectacles trope to be taken seriously as he enters the bank, an action most often utilised by hot chicks who want to appear smarter. Speaking of hot chicks, in another play on man as sexual object, Mike’s lover, Joanna (Olivia Munn), tells him she doesn’t want to talk about his feelings: “just look pretty”.

With all the double standards that come with being a male stripper in Magic Mike—female adoration, money, drugs—Caroline Heldman at Sociological Images wonders why this kind of “stripping as fantasy life” attitude would never be seen in media about female stripping: because Magic Mike still panders greatly to male sexuality.

“Make no bones about it, this movie is all about reinforcing the notion that men are in control and men’s sexuality matters more…” Heldman writes. “… [M]any (but not all) of the simulated sex acts the dancers perform in their interactions with female audience members service the male stripper’s pleasure, not hers. Dancers shove women’s faces into their crotch to simulate fellatio, hump women’s faces, perform faux sex from behind without a nod to clitoral stimulation, etc. As a culture, we have deprioritised female sexual pleasure…”

Indeed, there is no full frontal male nudity in the film (does a stunt penis in an enlarging device count?!), however Munn and the actress who plays stripper Ken’s (Matt Bomer) wife have their breasts on show, as well as several other female nude scenes. When it comes to the penis, it would seem that it is the last taboo, not male stripping.

That Tatum’s penis ever so briefly flashed onscreen during a bedroom scene means there’s hope for a full-frontal peen shot yet, with Magic Mike 2 on the horizon. You’ll notice that most of the male stars of the films’ careers have thrived on the comidification of their bodies. McConaughey is more recognisable with his shirt off than on and Manganiello has been quoted as saying he “could care less” about being typecast as a beefcake. I find it kind of refreshing that men are wanting to show off their bodies in a way that has been traditionally reserved for women.

For those who cry “hypocrite” at the women who’re now wolf whistling at the screen, as if all women find the sexualisation of their bodies oppressive, I direct you to one of the core tenents of feminism: choice. If women are deemed autonomous enough to make their own decisions about their bodies and whether they want to use them as a commodity, it stands to reason that men are, too. It might be a hard concept to grasp, but after centuries of the ingrained objectification of women, perhaps men want to try their hand at being desired as opposed to desiring.

While the mainstream media still has a ways to go towards female sexual liberation and the refocusing of the gaze onto men and away from women in a way that benefits all parties and exploits none, Magic Mike is a step in the right direction.

Elsewhere: [Musings of an Inappropriate Woman] On #DailyWife & Writing for the “Women’s Pages”. 

[Jezebel] Magic Mike, Junk in the Face & the Female Gaze. 

[Sociological Images] Magic Mike: Old Sexism in a New Package.

[The Frisky] 12 Women Who’ve Used Their Sexuality (To Get Ahead).

[Salon] Male Strippers: Please, Just Leave It On.

On the (Rest of the) Net.

drake hotline bling gif

Check out my last minute Halloween costume ideas and the one I contributed to Junkee‘s roundup.

Speaking of Drake, his obsession with “good girls” is sexist. [Fusion]

On the silence of child sex abuse victims:

“Child sex abuse victims face a dilemma. To be recognised as victims, they cannot remain silent, but they must be silent enough to seem authentically hurt.” [WaPo]

Why putting women on the American banknote is far more complicated than we realise:

“What’s more insulting: to live in a society that treats you unfairly whose symbols remind you of that fact, or to live in a society that treats you unfairly but whose symbols belie progress?” [Jezebel]

Shonda Rhimes took on the “angry black woman” stereotype on Scandal, nailed it. [Slate]

The origins of the “It me” meme (it meme?). [Paper]

No, the Kardashians didn’t destroy Lamar Odom. They took him under their wing and supported him through his addictions and losses. [LA Times]

Celebrate Halloween by reliving periods and teen sexuality on film. [HuffPo]

How subscribing to The Big Issue can help keep at risk women in jobs. [The Vocal]

The problem with speculating about homophobic people’s sexuality. [Kill Your Darlings]

“What happened to Whoopi Goldberg?” [WaPo]

On the (Rest of the) Net.

MariNaomi Erica Jong Roxane Gay

Roxane Gay and Erica Jong discuss feminism, illustrating its generational, cultural and racial divides. [The Guardian]

Speaking of illustration, MariNaomi did just that for their talk! [Electric Literature]

Why aren’t we talking about Kesha’s rape case? [Bitch Magazine]

What it’s like to be harassed outside an abortion clinic. [Junkee]

Separating the man from the art: Tyler, the Creator edition. [Jezebel]

What Olivia Benson’s status as favourite female TV character tells us about viewers. [WaPo]

Miley Cyrus’ MTA VMAs hosting gig made her come off “as more of a cool mom than a youth culture avatar”. [The Verge]

“The 13 Best Pop Songs About Women Masturbating.” [Pitchfork]

Matt McGorry’s feminist journey. [Cosmopolitan]

We need to stop romanticising colonialism. [Daily Life]

Why is The Bachelorette so white? [The Guardian]

What women as consumers of true crime can tell us about being potential victims of it. [Hazlitt]

And can we forgive the men who victimise them after they’ve publicly apologised? [The Guardian]

Long hair and its ties to femininity. [Spook Magazine]

More links can be found in the latest installment of the Down Under Feminists Carnival. [Transcendancing]

Image via Electric Literature.

On the (Rest of the) Net.


Judd Apatow makes the same sexist, conservative and boring movie over and over again. [The Guardian]

Is there ever a justification for killing an animal? [Jezebel]

Why I won’t work with Lena Dunham as long as she supports the criminalisation of sex work. [Molly Crabapple]

How do singletons feel smug now that longtime lonely girl Jennifer Aniston is hitched? [Daily Life]

My friend Camilla Peffer wrote about how her persistent acne wasn’t caused by a lack of self-love. As an acne-sufferer myself, I can totally relate to this. [xoJane]

Anti-choicers shouldn’t dare proselytise to women about abortion: we know about it all too well. [The Cut]

Sesame Street‘s move to HBO begs the question: what about kids and families without access to premium cable TV? [WaPo]

Telling a rape joke made me feel amazing. [Jezebel]

The double bind of wearing—or not wearing—makeup. [Triple J Hack]

Why you shouldn’t search for people you know amongst the Ashley Madison hacks. [Fusion]

The best of Aussie and Kiwi feminist writing from July. [Zero at the Bone]

ICYMI: The full transcript of my interview, originally published on Junkee, with Rachel Hills about her new book, The Sex Myth.

These are the books I’ve read over the past year.

Why Walmart and Rite-Aid in the U.S. shouldn’t ban Cosmopolitan.

Image via LA Times.

In Defence of Cosmopolitan.

Cosmopolitan Demi Lovato

Men’s magazines are commonly displayed behind opaque screens in servos, supermarkets and news agents but in selected department and drug stores in the U.S., such as Walmart and Rite Aid, women’s magazine Cosmopolitan will be getting the same treatment.

Victoria Hearst, great granddaughter of the man who bought the title in 1905 and contributed to making it the magazine we know today, William Randolph Hearst, is spearheading a campaign, along with the National Centre on Sexual Exploitation, to have Cosmo shielded from children’s impressionable eyes, giving new meaning to its patented “sealed section”.

The reasoning behind the campaign, entitled Cosmo Harms Minors”, is explained on the Centre’s website thusly:

Cosmopolitan Magazine glamorises things like hookup, public, anal, group, or violent sex in nearly all of their issues. We are asking that Cosmo be sold to adults only and have the cover wrapped like all other porn magazines in retail shops.”

While often overlooked as “just another women’s magazine”, Cosmopolitan in Australia, in particular, has been a bastion for body positivity with the early ’00s Body Love initiative and stories about domestic violence, reproductive rights and career goals.

In recent years U.S. Cosmopolitan has undergone a similarly feminist reawakening of sorts. Editor Joanna Coles identified the magazine as “deeply feminist” in 2013 while in May last year The Wire reported that Cosmo had “hired longtime Feministing blogger Jill Filipovic to cover politics on the website” as well as former Jezebel writer Anna Breslaw. Since then, Filipovic has written longform screeds about why changing your name upon marriage and defunding Planned Parenthood are bad ideas; comedian, filmmaker and musician Lane Moore writes as Cosmopolitan.com’s sex and relationships editor such queer-friendly pieces as what to do when you’re a lesbian in love with a straight girl and “15 Things I Wish I Knew About Being Gay When I Was Younger”; and writers such as Rachel Hills round out the wide variety of sex- and gender-positive women working for the magazine.

Hills says of her work at Cosmo examining things such as dating while trans, painful sex and asexuality, that “Since Joanna Coles took over as US editor-in-chief in 2012, both Cosmopolitan and Cosmopolitan.com have taken on a more explicitly feminist bent, hiring a lot of feminist writers that cut their teeth on the Internet, including myself. And one of the great things about writing online is that you get to cover things that would never end up in the mag—not because they’re too explicit, but because they just wouldn’t sell.”

NCSE thinks that Cosmo promotes “Sex without responsibility is acceptable and desirable” however its emphasis on protection from STIs and pregnancy is high as well as their emphasis on sex not having to be between a man and a woman in a long-term relationship or marriage.

So it’s interesting that they’ve chosen to go after Cosmopolitan now, when it’s publishing some of its most progressive content.

From NCSE’s website:

“While it only has a few nude photos occasionally, this publication has steadily declined from a somewhat inspirational women’s magazine to a verbally pornographic ‘how-to’ sex guide. What’s worse is that this magazine is purposefully targeting younger and younger audiences with Disney stars and teen idols often donning the covers and featured in the headline stories.”

Disney star and teen idol in question Demi Lovato, U.S. Cosmopolitan’s current covergirl, responded to the brouhaha on Twitter, asserting that as a former sufferer of an eating disorder, covering Cosmo made her feel “EMPOWERED” and “the MOST BEAUTIFUL I’ve ever felt.”

In case the campaign’s problem with a more feminist magazine wasn’t obvious enough, the very first thing that blares out at you from the its homepage is that the new Cosmo is harmful to minors.  

However Hills doesn’t necessarily agree. “I don’t think it would be accurate to say that Cosmo used to be anti-feminist and now is feminist. I spent a bit of time in the Cosmo archives last year, and some of those issues from the 1970s are phenomenal—Susan Sontag was writing for them! I suspect Victoria Hearst would have been just as appalled by the Cosmopolitan of 1985 as she is by the Cosmopolitan of 2015.”  

But what about all the other magazines? Sure, Cosmo does have some loud headlines that may draw concerned glances at the checkout (one of the first issues I bought as a teen featured Kirsten Dunst alongside “Oral Sex Lessons” that drew judgemental looks from my parents), but what about other, far more harmful magazines? I’m not necessarily talking about men’s mags in the vein of Zoo Weekly (which could be a whole different article in itself) or Playboy (which is actually publishing more progressive content itself so now it really can be read for its articles), but weekly “rags” such as NW and New Idea which are also aimed at women because we love to gossip and humiliate each other, didn’t you know? A recent survey of the periodicals on offer at my local Coles included stories about One Direction’s supposed gay coverup, “Bikini Lumps and Bumps” and “Crazy Bachelor beach catfights” (because women can’t have level-headed disagreements without them devolving into “crazy catfights”), not to mention the squillionth Jennifer Aniston-pregnancy speculation. So diversity from the heteronormative sex positions “that’ll blow his mind” warrants concealment from the general public, however body shaming, outing and misgendering people is A-OK!?

Let’s hope that common sense prevails in Victoria Hearst and the NCSE’s quest to classify Cosmo as porn. In the interim, we can take solace in the fact that the blinders they intended to conceal Cosmo’s headlines has actually resulted in drawing increased attention to its cover subjects’ decolletage.  

Related: Shaming Lara Bingle.

Elsewhere: [End Sexual Exploitation] Cosmo Harms Minors.

[Politico] Joanna Coles: Cosmopolitan is a “Deeply Feminist” Magazine.

[The Wire] Hot Spring Trend: Hiring a Feminist Blogger at Your Women’s Magazine.

[Cosmopolitan] In the Age of the Internet, Changing Your Name When You Marry is a Terrible Idea.

[Cosmopolitan] Defunding Planned Parenthood is the Opposite of “Pro-Life”.

[Cosmopolitan] 15 Emotional Stages of Being a Lesbian in Love with a Straight Girl.

[Cosmopolitan] 15 Things I Wish I Knew About Being Gay When I Was Younger.

[Cosmopolitan] What It’s Really Like to Date as a Trans Person.

[Cosmopolitan] How to Deal with Painful Sex.

[Cosmopolitan] Asexuality.

[End Sexual Exploitation] Why Cosmo‘s Content Matters. 

[SBS] Coles Bins “Sexist” Zoo Weekly.

[Daily Life] Why is Pop Culture Obsessed with Celeb “Catfights”?

[Cosmopolitan] 28 Mind-Blowing Lesbian Sex Positions.

[The Cut] Cosmo Censorship Accidentally Highlights Boobs.

Image via Go Fug Yourself.

On the (Rest of the) Net.

The return of the teen girl movie. [Daily Life]

What Go Set a Watchman can teach us about contemporary racism. [WaPo]

But Atticus Finch’s racism isn’t a new thing. [New Republic]

The rise of porn gifs (NSFW). [Fusion]

Taylor Swift may have “Bad Blood” with some (most recently Nicki Minaj), but her “feminist selfies” with Karlie Kloss, Lena Dunham et al. shows what it’s like to be close to her. [LA Review of Books]

Speaking of Swift inserting herself into Minaj’s beef with the MTV VMAs for her groundbreaking videos being overlooked in this years’ nominations, it isn’t the first time Swift has both played the white, innocent victim and been at the centre of VMA controversy. [The Guardian, Kevin Allred]

The cultural appropriation of Keeping Up with the Kardashians, and how we perpetuate it by watching it. [The Cut]

Is Lady Gaga normal now? [Vulture]

Let’s clear up that Planned Parenthood selling aborted foetuses nonsense. [xoJane]

The hacking of cheating website Ashley Madison isn’t morally any better than The Fappening. [Daily Life]

In the wake of Good Weekend cancelling an article on Caitlin Stasey because she wouldn’t pose nude for them, she’s taken to Jezebel to tell her side of the story in more than 140 characters.

We need to stop devaluing women’s sports. [New Republic]

Serena Williams is the seminal athlete. [The Nation]

When painful sex continues long after the first time. [Medium]

What it’s like to be an extra on Magic Mike XXL. [Cosmopolitan]

“Pony”, “Closer” and the significance of the strip club soundtrack. [Pitchfork]

How The Bachelorette is changing the way reality TV deals with sex. [Vulture]

Clementine Ford is writing a book! [Facebook]