Are you a girl, or are you a woman?

Are you a girl? Or are you a woman? Are you both? Or neither? And does it matter who’s asking it? Or under what circumstances?
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Rachel Werdin

22/3/2021

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Dictionary.com offers the following definitions to these words:

Girl

Noun

·      a female child, from birth to full growth.

·      a young, immature woman, especially formerly, an unmarried one.

·      a daughter:

·      My wife and I have two girls.

·      Informal: Sometimes Offensive. A grown woman, especially when referred to familiarly:

·      She's having the girls over for bridge next week.

·      a girlfriend; sweetheart.

·      Older Use: Usually Offensive. a female servant, as a maid.

Woman

Noun

·      An adult female person

·      A female employee/representative

Are you a girl?  Or are you a woman?  Are you both? Or neither?  And does it matter who’s asking it?  Or under what circumstances?  

A reconsiderations like this just political correctness gone mad?  Or necessary reappraisals of a language which we, often unconsciously, use despite its disenfranchising connotations inherited from an oppressive past?

These sorts of questions started preoccupying me after I was called a ‘good girl’ one day at work.  In a meeting.  By a superior (who doesn’t share my gender).  In front of other staff.

I should more accurately say these were the sorts of questions that started preoccupying me after I had recovered from the shock (which unfortunately rendered me speechless. I’ve since thought of many possible retorts or responses I could’ve made, trust me) after my blood had returned to a temperature below boiling point and after I’d had a much-needed teary moment on the carpark roof.  

Was I being overly sensitive and just needed to be more thick-skinned?  Shouldn’t I have opted to ‘be the bigger person’, confident in the fact that this off-hand comment in no way represented the capable and intelligent woman I am both professionally and at home?  Or does this sort of language need to be called out?

Any simple internet search will show you in about two seconds the varied and passionate opinions held worldwide on this issue.  Those pointing out the diminishing and disempowering overtones inherent in a term literally describing a grown woman as a child.  Juxtapose this against those making the effort in recent decades to reclaim the term as a symbol of empowerment (think ‘90s‘girl power’ all the way up to Beyoncé singing ‘Who run the world?  Girls!’). Girl, for some, can be a sassy and dynamic term, as opposed to the more staid ‘woman’, or ‘lady’, with all their implied undertones of being ‘well-behaved’ and adhering to ‘traditional female behaviour’.  

Of course, there are those (of both sexes) bemoaning that this entire debate signifies how ‘no one can take a joke anymore’ and that we are all becoming far too hypersensitive or eager to be offended by something as simple as being referred to by a noun we now find less than ideal. According to this argument, we refer to men as ‘boys’ all the time in songs, film and conversation without any implicit disrespect, so how is using the term ‘girl’ any different?

Why did it sting so much for me to be referred to as a ‘good girl’ in that work meeting?  

I believe that to ignore the broader historical and social context in which this word sits is to ultimately doom ourselves to an incomplete picture of why this term can be offensive for some.  ‘Girl’ has a direct correlation with youth, a link to juvenility which can be (and has been) used to trivialise not only the persons themselves but also their opinions and abilities.  The word has a history of being wielded as a weapon, similar to the use of ‘boy’ to disempower black men in centuries past, when slavery and segregation were legal.  As such, to be called ‘boy’ has had, understandably, vastly different meanings to Caucasians than persons of colour.  Similarly, it is erroneous to equate referring to a man as a ‘boy’ with calling a woman a ‘girl’.  These two terms simply do not bear the same cultural weight.  

Does this mean that no woman should be okay with being called ‘girl’?  That to do so makes a woman somehow a ‘gender traitor’ or suffering from a kind of ‘internalised patriarchy’?  Of course not and to suggest so would be, to my thinking, narrow-minded and prescriptive.

If feminism is about truly empowering women to choose for themselves,  then surely we should be able to curate (to a certain extent) our own experience. This, can include some sensitivity from others regarding how we wish to be referred to.    

American actress, neuroscientist, and author Mayim Bialik, in her viral video imploring people not to call women ‘girls’ starts her monologue with the disclaimer that ‘she’s going to be annoying’. Similarly, a (female) journalist who did a New York Post opinion piece on this video asked Bialik to ‘stop being so problematic’ by holding such opinions.  I guess my question in response to this is, why the hell not?

 

I’m pretty sure I didn’t speak up in that meeting at the time because, as in addition to being shocked, I was unsure as to how it would be perceived if I were to speak up.  Would I be seen as super-sensitive, a ‘ball-breaker’ or some other such unflattering term?  

Yet if we can free ourselves, and each other, from these expectations and labels, we would undoubtedly pave the way to a more equitable, honest and constructive communication and relationship building process.  Bialik, in her New York Post article lamented that ‘unless we’re planning to walk around and get everyone’s preferred descriptors in advance, we have to start letting it go’[1].  But I prefer to ask, why can’t we be more tuned in to this? Just as long as we can in turn, be corrected sensitively and respectfully when we get it wrong.

I’m happy to report that the next time I and another female leader were referred to by a male superior as ‘girls’ I politely told him I didn’t like that term and suggested a few alternatives.  He promptly replied with an apology and confirmed he would not do it again in the future.

Ultimately, we are as strong as women or as girls.  A specific word isn’t the sole, deciding factor of who we are, what we can achieve or how those around us regard us.  In and of itself, a word does not strip us of all agency nor imbue us with unlimited power. It is not a reflection of our true strength and influence in this world.  But our ability to choose the words that are used to refer to us indeed is.


[1] https://nypost.com/2017/04/09/no-the-word-girl-is-not-an-anti-woman/