When “girls” isn’t so endearing.

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.

Members of Parliament reacting to the greeting "Morning, Girls"
Members of Parliament reacting to the greeting “Morning, Girls”

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.

4 thoughts on “When “girls” isn’t so endearing.”

  1. I think this article is a great example of the portrayal of inferiority caused by referring to grown women as “girls”, that often goes unnoticed by the men saying it. It wasn’t until she pointed out the negative connotation that the reporter thought to apologize. While the reporter may have only meant it as a recognition of their gender, and not their age or maturity level, I agree in your comparison to the terms that would have been used if it had been a group of men. It is infrequent that grown men are referred to as boys unless they are being immature and using such phrases as “boys will be boys”, so it should be the same case when referring to a group of grown women.

  2. I agree with the points made in this post. I believe that a majority of the negative connotations and subliminal messages that are tied to the word “girl” stem to the current undermining of the female gender overall. As women aren’t given the same respect that they deserve in comparison to men, referring to one’s gender as female can often times be seen as an insult (in certain situations of course) in and of itself. As a “girl” is a lesser form of a “woman” in almost all senses of the word it automatically functions as an even more degrading descriptor of one’s gender and sex naturally.

  3. Hi Janine,

    I’m really glad you made this post, because this is something I’ve been thinking about more and trying to change in my own language (how it is that I’ve been conditioned to think of my 21 and 22 year old peers as ‘girls’, I have no idea). Anyways, I thought the Parkinson article was interesting in that it clearly delineates chronological age as a marker of girlhood vs. womanhood (she suggests 13 or younger for girls and anyone above that is either a young woman or a woman). But I think this suggestion is tied into more complex constructs such as puberty, maturation and sexuality that we also see explored in our readings. For example, in Little Women, Beth is a character who is never spoken of in terms of ‘crushes’ or flirtations or interactions with men in any sense besides young boys or older men (Laurie’s grandfather). This creates an almost asexual character in Beth that we see translated into her being thought of as a ‘girl’ even towards her death. Even Jo admits on page 32 in Little Women that “Beth’s eighteen; but we don’t realize it, and treat her like a child, forgetting that she’s a woman”. Beth’s character is perhaps more interesting because chronologically, she is an adult in the novel yet her interests, pursuits and dreams are never ‘adult-like’ (pg. 374). In this case, I think the simple age cut-offs of adulthood vs. childhood aren’t nuanced enough to fully explain Beth as a character.

    1. This is so interesting. The colloquial use of “girls” and other phrases such as “morning, girls” made me think about how there aren’t many parallel demeaning phrases for men, like you mentioned. The only one I could think of is “boys club” which is really more a negative term for women than it is for men. I agree with you that it is too bad that these phrases still exist in everyday language today.

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