Do a cursory search for the keyword “girl” in Goodreads, and the top for selections listed are books about women dealing with extremely grown-up situations and circumstances. Why, then, this popularity of referring to the females in these stories as girls in the titles?
I’m currently reading Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies. Truth be told, this is not a book I would have picked up by choice because it deals in the types of behaviors and situations I deliberately try to avoid in real life: abusive partners, codependency, gossip, violence against women….
Oh, and HOMICIDE. *blink blink*
But this is the book my feminist-themed, local book club has chosen for this month’s read, so I’m tackling it within the mindset of analyzing its treatment of women.
I haven’t been up on most new television or streaming series since being out of the United States for the past few years, but I can understand the popularity of this book as an adapted HBO series. Similar to my beloved Sex and the City, each of the women are living a particular *type* of life: a single mom with a troubled past, a stay-at-home mom with a troubled present, a divorced-and-remarried woman with baggage, and on and on. The point is that they are all adults. They are all grown and they are all mothers.
In the book, there are phrases and comments that catch me and make me wonder, “Did the author write it that way because this is how she really thinks? Or did she write it that way because she’s making a point about how often so many of us think this way?” A sampling from what I’ve read so far:
“A glittery girl. Older than Jane but definitely still glittery. All her life Jane had watched girls like that with scientific interest. Maybe a little awe. Maybe a little envy. They weren’t necessarily the prettiest, but they decorated themselves so affectionately…” (p.15).
“Celeste pushed open the glass door of the [cafe] and saw Madeline straightaway. She was sharing a table with a small, thin young girl wearing a blue denim shirt and a plain white V-necked T-shirt. Celeste didn’t recognize the girl” (p. 31).
I’m really hoping the author is fully aware of her phrasing and that she is, indeed, making a point. Reading passages like these brought me back to a question I’ve pondered before, though: why are females of all ages (up to a certain point, I guess) called girls? At what point does a girl become a woman? And why doesn’t there seem to be anything in between that is commonly used?
I posed this to my husband the other night as we enjoyed a dinner out. His response was that he uses the word girl to refer to any female who is below a certain age or he doesn’t know well, and that he reserves the word woman for those females above a certain age and/or someone he holds in high regard because of her personal or professional accomplishments or traits, or because he highly respects her for other reasons. But also, he tends to revert to using girl often casually just as he generally uses the word guy to describe most any man. In his mind, it’s not disrespectful to refer to any man as a guy, so the word girl shouldn’t be considered disrespectful either.
Huh. So, to be called a woman, a female had to not only be of a certain age, but she also had to EARN the title of “Woman”? (My eyes squinted so hard at this!)
I responded with, “Would you want to be called a boy?”
His face showed confusion, so I pressed further. “How would you have felt being a 30-something male starting out in the professional world and being called a boy?”
His face scrunched up as he considered this. “OK,” he replied thoughtfully. “When you put it like that, it really isn’t fair to refer to adults as girls.”
So, we brainstormed.
As a society, we so frequently use the word “guys” to casually refer to males of all ages and even mixed-gender groups (another discussion entirely!). Therefore, if we are going to be equal about referring to someone who identifies as female, shouldn’t we use the word “gal”?
What I know is this:
- Linguistics study has taught me that speech patterns will naturally favor words that are easier to say–those for which it is easier to make the muscle movements and mouth shapes. This is probably why “guys” is so prevalent while “gal” has fallen by the wayside. It takes a lot more effort form one’s mouth to speak the word “gal” than “girl.” Try it.
- I would be pissed if I heard someone in my personal or professional life refer to me as a girl. I feel like this would have upset anytime after I turned 20, though I can’t remember ever having to put this theory to the test.
- However, I actually do love it when my husband calls me his girl, when his dad looks at his mom and says, “You’re my girl,” and when his uncle looks at his wife and says, “She’s my girl.” There’s something nostalgic about it — the idea that my partner forever sees my youth, my vitality. There is also something about how it implies that he sees my vulnerability, no matter how capable or powerful I might be, and that I can trust him with that knowledge.
But I would never say to him, “You’re my boy.” Right? Absolutely not. We’re taught to build up males by acknowledging their manliness (however we happen to define that), so we call them men.
So, does it come down to the idea that if we refer to a female as a girl, there’s an inherent and relatable vulnerability to her? No matter how mature she might be, how accomplished she is (Ahem, I’m looking at you, Lab Girl.), or how much she has overcome, she is still a girl if there is something in her character or behavior that even hints at vulnerability? And because we can so easily identify with that part of her, we excuse the use of girl rather than woman?
“Woman,” after all, (as my husband pointed out) implies capability, resilience, success, self-respect. Therefore, Woman on the Train doesn’t imply the same sense of vulnerability, danger, and struggle as Girl on the Train. Similarly, Lab Woman suggests an established and successful career-driven individual whereas Lab Girl implies not only struggle, but also searching, and a need for self-discovery. And do men, therefore, prefer it because using it also elevates them as “the strong protectors”?
If that is the case, I get it. I get why the media insists on using semantics to sell.
I don’t like it, but I guess I understand why they do it.
So, if we consider someone like Joan of Arc (whose statue in Meridian Hill Park, Washington, D.C. I’ve included as the feature photo of this post), would we refer to her as a girl because she was only 19 when she died? Or because of her feats of heroism and bravery, do we refer to her as a woman?
At what point should “girl” become “woman”?
I’ll pose this question to the other members of my book club, for sure, but I’d also like to know what others (of all genders) think. Please comment! 🙂