If you can’t reasonable substitute boy for girl, pick a different word
“I’ll have my boy call your boy to set up the meeting,” is a phrase that no-one has ever said. It sounds stilted and frankly ridiculous. Why then does it sound perfectly natural and reasonable to say “I’ll have my girl call your girl”?
I’ve written more than once about why it’s disempowering to continue to refer to grown women as girls in the places where we refer to males as men, but it’s such a deeply ingrained practice, even among women, that it still doesn’t seem to make sense to a lot of people. I’ve had several people ask me to explain it further as if I’m making much too big a deal of things, and I’ve had several people, including some women, push back. I thought some concrete examples might make it clearer.
Of course, there are a few instances where it’s fine to refer to women as girls, but those are all the same ones where we might call guys boys, such as girl’s night out/boy’s night out, but there are also many other instances where a disparity in terms both illuminates and reinforces a long-standing power differential between men and women. These indicate how society tends to frame men as authority figures but often frames women as being about as agentic (decisive, assertive, and competent) as children.
Our culture and our experience of it are largely informed by the words, the language that we use — often in very subconscious ways. The way we label things changes how we frame them in our minds — this is brain science. Even if most people don’t intend to imply that adult females are inferior to adult males, continuing to speak of them as girls does subconsciously reinforce that dichotomy. We never speak of men in positions of authority as boys, because it’s demeaning and emasculating. However, too often women in positions of authority do still get referred to as girls because it’s only been 50 years or so that women have been seen as competent enough to be allowed things like their own home loans or credit cards in their own names and the subconscious dregs of this lives on.
As Mayim Bialik, a neuroscientist, says, “Maybe if we start using language that elevates women and doesn’t equate them with sweet, small, cuddly, tender, things, we’ll start treating them as more than that as well. Language sets expectations. Let’s set ourselves up to have women behave like mature, responsible women. In this way, we encourage women to keep being the complicated, wonderful, unique, gifted beings that they are.”
Here are some more examples to further illustrate what I’m talking about. The first is a phrase where a grown adult women might commonly be referred to as a girl in a way that an adult man would never be. The second phrase is an example of just how absurd it sounds when you substitute boy for girl. If it sounds silly to say these phrases using boy, but no big deal to say them with girl, that’s the issue in a nutshell.
“Ask that girl behind the desk if she has any other pens. This one is out of ink.”“Ask that boy behind the desk… (something no-one has ever said to an adult male in that context.)
“Good girl, you’re really getting the hang of this.”
“Good boy, you’re really getting the hang of this.” (what you say to a dog you are training)
Several female cabinet ministers were leaving Downing Street when a photographer called out, “Morning girls!”
No-one has ever yelled out to male cabinet ministers, “Morning boys!”
“I’m crazy about my girl,” might be said about someone you are dating.
“I’m crazy about my boy,” is what’s said about your son.
Otherwise known as just a boss (and not boy-boss.)
Adding girl in front of an noun isn’t sassy, it’s reinforcing that the normative person for that position is a man, and trying to be cutesy about hoping to claim some of that gravitas for women. It’s trying to ask for a little bit of power and respect without stepping on anyone’s toes. Stop asking for sloppy seconds, and go be a boss, or a writer, or a whatever — not a girl-boss or a girl-writer, etc. As Bianca O’Neill points out, adding girl to these terms is actually disempowering.
“It speaks of the ultimate female catch-22: that when girls are too young, they’re sexualised, and when they’re sexually mature, they’re infantilised. It’s a control mechanism that we’ve come to act out subconsciously; our gender reduced to the eternal filter of the male gaze. Society’s youth obsession in women is as much about reducing women’s perceived expertise and intelligence as it is about sexual desire.”
There are instances where it’s just fine to refer to women as girls, but that is only in the same context where you might refer to a man as a boy. And if you’re a woman who habitually falls into doing this, you might stop for a minute and ask yourself why. If referring to yourself and others above the age of about 20 as women feels uncomfortable, what’s that about? Does that word connote something unflattering or unsexy to you? Is it dowdy, and matronly, or stodgy somehow? Why do you think that is, and are you up to helping to reclaim that term from the patriarchal overtones that have been foisted upon it?
Even today, there remains an often subconscious belief in a natural social order in which men are dominant and women play second fiddle, in supporting roles. Continuing to refer to women as girls reinforces that paradigm. You can say, “Hey, girl” to your friend, or use that term in any number of other inoffensive ways. But it might not be a bad idea to think before calling an adult woman girl, whether you would call an adult man boy in the same context.
© Copyright Elle Beau 2020
Elle Beau writes on Medium about sex, life, relationships, society, anthropology, spirituality, and love. If this story is appearing anywhere other than Medium.com, it appears without my consent and has been stolen.
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