Saturday, August 16, 2014

"Girls" versus "women"

The argument, made by many people, for why you should call an adult female person a "woman" instead of a "girl" is self-evident and compelling: The word "girl," like "boy," refers to a child, and an adult woman is not a child, and women have historically faced (and currently still face) discrimination from those who treat them as less than intelligent, autonomous, fully-grown human beings.

So why do so many people—myself included, admittedly—continue to call adult female people "girls"?

Setting aside the people who are indeed actively trying to undermine women by infantilizing them, the most likely explanation is just a failure of language. There's no agreed-upon female counterpart to the word "guy," and in the absence of a casual way to refer to a female person, "girl" has, for better or worse, wound up being the most natural-sounding alternative1.

For those who have issues with facing the realization that they are knee-deep into adulthood and getting older, referring to women who are their age as "girls," even if they're adults, may offer some reassurance that they're not old yet. (And I'm not sure why I used the third person here, because that's pretty much me. Maybe girls still refer to me as a boy! But I'm guessing many just refer to me as old.)

But I want to float another possibility: the idea of thoughtful people interpreting the word "girl" as a demeaning slur kind of sucks if you are, in fact, a girl.

I'm not suggesting that girls aren't able to hear "there's nothing wrong with being a girl, but women deserve to be called a word that accurately reflects their age" and understand it, of course. But our culture hammers home the idea that being a girl is bad, frequently and assiduously2: Bad at sports? You throw like a girl. Cowardly? You're being girly. Immature and petty? You're acting like a teenage girl. It's some pernicious stuff, and all sorts of people—from a tough-guy governor to a dweebish game show contestant—toss it around without a second thought.

It's not a coincidence that if you want to insult a boy, words like "bitch" or "pussy" are thrown around. Or, as Jessica Valenti wrote:

Royally fucked up indeed.

I don't pretend to know the answers here. Obviously, adults in a professional setting should be referred to using accurate terminology, which means using "women" to describe adult female people. And in general, I think we should call people what they want to be called, and if a woman wants to be called a woman instead of a girl, it's basic human decency to respect that.

But at the same time, as sound and logical as the reasoning may be, there's something optically awkward about saying that "Girls are amazing!" while saying that you really, really don't want to be called a girl.

The reality is that girls get so much shit just for being girls. Ours is a culture that does not foster respect for women, yes, but it seems to reserve a special contempt for girls in particular—the music they listen to, the books they read, even the way they talk. They're used as an antonym for brave or level-headed or strong or rational3.

And while they're probably used to hearing "girl" being hurled as a pejorative from the jerks in their lives, it's got to be a bummer to hear smart, confident women—the kind of women they might want to grow up to be like—seemingly considering it a pejorative, too.

1Even this flowchart created by Shawna Hein which suggests "lady-dudes" as an alternative doesn't really solve the problem. Even though she's joking, "lady-dudes" is arguably worse than "girls"—by appending "lady" to "dude," it's defining women in terms of men by suggesting that "dude" is the default setting and "lady" is an ancillary variation. I'll put away my women's studies-and-linguistics double-major now. (No, not really.)

2I remember a time when the kids in my neighborhood were playing in the streets, and one of the boys tried to insult a girl by saying, "Ugh, you're such a girl." That would have been disheartening enough, but then the girl replied, with great indignation, "Don't call me that!" This stuff's internalized pretty early, huh?

3I cringe whenever I hear people—particularly women—use the phrase "man up." I guess it's at least plausible that they mean to contrast "man" with "boy," but let's be real: the opposite reciprocal of "man" is "girl," and given how oh-no-terrible it is for a man to be a bitch or a pussy or otherwise girly, it's pretty clear what the subtext is.

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