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”.