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Are you a girl? Or are you a woman? Are you both? Or neither? And does it matter who’s saying it? Or where you are? Are considerations like this just political correctness gone mad? Or necessary reappraisals of language which we, often subconsciously, use despite its disenfranchising connotations inherited from an oppressive past?
These are the sorts of questions that 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 superiors.
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 in the moment… 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? Didn’t I just need to become more thick-skinned? Shouldn’t I take the high road and ‘be the bigger person’, confident in the fact that I knew this off-hand comment in no way represented the capable and intelligent woman I am both professionally and at home? Or does the use of this sort of language need to be called out?
Any simple internet search will show you within about two seconds the varied and passionate opinions held by people all over the globe on this issue. There are those pointing out the obviously diminutive and hence disempowering overtones inherent in applying a term literally used to describe a child to a grown woman, juxtaposed against those highlighting the efforts in recent decades to reclaim the term as a symbol of empowerment (think ‘90s ‘girl power’ all the way up to Beyonce 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’ which for many implies being ‘well-behaved’ and adhering to socially normative, traditional female behaviour.
Of course there are those (of both sexes) bemoaning the fact that this entire debate signifies how no one can take a joke anymore and that we are all becoming far too hypersensitive, eager to become offended and aggrieved at something as simple as being referred to by a moniker which we do not find 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 the use of 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?
Personally, I believe that to ignore the broader historical and social context within which this word sits is to ultimately doom ourselves to an incomplete picture of why this term is offensive for some. ‘Girl’ has a direct correlation with youth, a link to juvenility which can be (and has been) used to trivialize not only the persons themselves, but also their opinions and abilities. It has a history of being a word wielded as a weapon, similar to the way in which being referred to as a ‘boy’ was a means of further entrenching disempowerment of black men in centuries past when slavery and segregation were legal. As such to be called a ‘boy’ has had, understandably, vastly different meanings for a black vs a white man (just ask Bert Newton). In the same way 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 (when both applied to white people).
Does this mean that no woman should be ok with being called ‘girl’? That to do so makes a woman somehow a gender traitor or someone suffering from internalized patriarchy? Of course not and to suggest so would be, to my thinking, narrow-minded and proscriptive.
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 and this, surely, can include some sensitivity from others as to how we wish to be referred to.
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”, while a (female) journalist who did an opinion piece on this video for the NY Post likewise asked her 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 at the time in that meeting because, in addition to being shocked, I was also unsure how it would be perceived if I were to speak up and express my dissatisfaction with being referred to in that way. 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 or ‘labels’ then surely this is a road to more equitable, honest and ultimately constructive communication and relationships. The same NY Post journalist lamented that “unless we’re planning to walk around and get everyone’s preferred descriptors in advance, we have to start letting it go”. I say, why can’t we be more tuned in to this, as long as we can be corrected sensitively and respectfully in turn 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 really 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 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 we are regarded by those around 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 surely is.