As we read in Jacqueline Reid-Walsh’s essay on “Girlhood”, and have discussed in class, the term “girl” is a complex, nuanced, and ill-defined construct. Historically, Reid-Walsh points out, the term has been used to refer to multiple genders, ages and walks of life (p. 93). The age at which one is and is not a “girl” has yet to be clearly delineated. The concept of “girlhood” can be understood as both a chronological categorization, and a cultural construction (p. 92). Similarly, we have discussed the nuances of this concept in Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women”. In this novel, we observe a set of sisters transition from “girlhood” to “womanhood” and see their father refer to them as his “little women” (p. 8) rather than as “girls”. We see how these terms matter as the March sisters begin to navigate their sexuality and their agency as they become women. In literature as well as in recent popular culture (see Lena Dunham’s “Girls”, Beyonce’s “Run the World”), the term “girls” is clearly used in varying and interesting ways. Because of this, it is often looked over as a form of patronization and sexualization when used in real life in inappropriate contexts.
Hannah Jane Parkinson discusses this issue in a recent opinion piece in The Guardian, “Stop calling women ‘girls’. It’s either patronizing or sexually suggestive”. Parkinson specifically points to a recent example of a clearly inappropriate use of the term “girls”. Back in July of 2015, as British secretary of education Nicky Morgan, and secretary of energy Amber Rudd left a meeting of parliament, they were greeted by paparazzi who cooed “Morning, girls” . Both women are over the age of 40, and not by, most understandings of the word, “girls”. Morgan was visibly offended (see image below), retorting, “Girls? Girls!?” It is clear that Morgan recognizes that it isn’t likely that two men exiting a meeting of parliament would be greeted as “boys”, and thus she and her female colleagues should be treated with the same level of respect.
Although the term “girls” is nuanced and ill-defined, it is important to understand the ways in which it is used differently than its male-gendered equivalent “boys”, and why this can be harmful, particularly in the workplace. A group of female colleagues having a business lunch together, for example, should not be referred to as a “girls’ lunch”. A group of women who collaborated on a project together should not be congratulated with, “Way to go, girls.” We may look this over as simply a colloquialism, a way of interacting and establishing rapport between male and female colleagues. But, in fact, is more complex than that. It is patronizing and demeaning, in these contexts. It discredits women’s responsibility, their agency and their ability to succeed in the workplace as grown-up, intelligent and capable human beings.