Feminist Friday: Girl Talk

Girl.

It’s a small word. A common word. And like many small, common words, it is saturated with meaning.

Sure, “girl” means “female child.” The basic meaning is relatively simple. But we use it in a lot of other ways, too. And that’s wonderful, actually. One of the things I like about words is their strange ability to be both precise and elastic, to have both an exact meaning and a host of other associations and idiosyncrasies.

Some of the associations we have with the term “girl,” though, are ultimately damaging. Living in the South, I’m also not unfamiliar with the racial connotations that may accompany the word, though the racial implications of “boy” are more often discussed and debated. We’re probably all familiar with the phrase “like a girl” as a pejorative meaning that something wasn’t done very well. And many of us, especially of a certain generation, have been called girls by bosses or professors, all too often with an unpleasant sneer or the jovial guffaw of ambivalent sexism.

On some level, the negative connotations attached to the word “girl” are about age and maturity. Because “girl” is a term for a non-adult female, it becomes be a term for someone who is not yet mature. And because we live in a culture that values age and maturity, childishness is in many ways devalued, giving the word a negative sense. And unlike the male equivalents of boy/man, there isn’t a word “guy,” a more neutral word than “boy” for a young man.

This should be fairly obvious if you use Google to search for girl versus woman. The first 5 are 10 pages are divided almost exclusively into 2 categories: articles that compare traits of girls and women and articles that discuss whether to use the word “girl” or the word “woman.” Articles that compare girls to women are almost universally concerned with dating, though many simply focus on contrasting the two. Articles that discuss the uses of the words “girl” and “woman” vary in their acceptance of the term “girl,” with some detesting it, some embracing it, and some ok’ing it but with caveats. And then there’s the recent HBO show Girls (I’ve only subjected myself to one episode, but I hear the show is all the rage right now.)

But the opposite of girl is not woman.

We have to stop contrasting girls and women. We have to stop bashing girls. We are damaging each other.

Nope.
Nope.

You might’ve noticed that I have “girls” in my tagline and that I have a “girls and women” category. (If you didn’t, go notice it now. Shoo.) Last year, I wrote an A to Z series about girls in children’s literature. And the Monster has always been a girl-centric blog.

So what do you think? Do you prefer to be (or hate to be) called “girl” or “woman”? How can we improve the connotation of the word “girl”? Are shows like “Girls” and movements like the “Riot Grrrrls” working to reclaim the word or do they further turn you away?

Nope.
Nope.
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63 Comments

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  1. I’ve seen the ‘Like a girl’ campaigns. I honestly didn’t think about the negative implications of the word. I also don’t understand why we give so much importance to words per se; isn’t it more the connotation or how the word is used that is more important, not the word itself?

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    1. I think that what we see with some words—especially things like “girl” is an effort to reclaim the word because it should, for all intents-and-purposes, be a fairly neutral word. But it’s become saturated with meaning.

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  2. I don’t mind being called “girl”, but then again I’m not far out of my childhood stage anyway. In some contexts I find it a bit demeaning, in casual/friendly settings it doesn’t bother me (I call my male friends “boys” more often than “guys” for reasons I won’t go into now). In a professional settings it does.

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  3. Agreed with most of what people said here- it’s very contextual- with close friends & family I’m pretty casual about language, and would use words that I wouldn’t with people I don’t know as well. In Minnesotan- “guys” is typically considered gender neutral plural (“you guys” is our y’all) but sometimes I run across esp. older women who get offended by it. Have also heard of women being offended by “gal” and even “ma’am” (it makes them feel old!) It seems like “lady” is often euphemistic- cleaning lady, bag lady, it’s oddly often used for people who others look down on, but also in an admonishing way “act like a lady!” I use that one casually too, though I am certainly not a lady! As an aside, I think we need more words for different kinds of friendships- Facebook sure as heck doesn’t help with the watering down of the meaning.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Good points, all. I think “lady” is a term that has really been devalued, so I tend not to use it often, either. I’m not sure that’s a solution, though.

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  4. This went well. Especially considering the month we’ve had, and the the fact that huge news sucked so much our attention away from the blogs for most of the day yesterday.

    I’m very pleased with this thread.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. I rarely hold a word by itself guilty of connotation. For me, it’s always tone. In my mind, I know there are people who use it to cast superiority over a female, “Girl, I’ll take care of you,” but I just see it as meaning non-adult. I teach girls and women.

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  6. I have another comment somewhere, but things I forgot: I tend to say “folks” when referring to a group (gender neutral and doesn’t sound like I’m being a southern poser or something. I can’t say “y’all” without feeling like a phoney.) A lot of women where I’m from will say, “going out with my girlfriend” to mean “hanging out with a female friend,, which I catch myself doing but have tried to steer away from. Because I’m bi, it confuses people and leads to awkwardness.

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      1. I think that as people are more open about their sexuality and as we find more and more variations of sexual orientation, the word is really beginning to exclusively be used for romantic relationships.

        Liked by 3 people

    1. I sometimes use “folks” but more often use “y’all.” It’s the Southerner in me.

      I don’t tend to use girlfriend either, because it’s just confusing.

      Liked by 2 people

  7. “The opposite of girl is not woman.” This line hit me – because I have often said the same.

    For a couple of years, I was the executive director for a program featuring women who use wheelchairs. When we gathered them as a group, I usually used the term “ladies” or “women” to address them, but never “girls.” One year, one of the new volunteers used “girls” to address those who had assembled, and the backlash he received was strong and pointed. These women were often forced to endure paternalistic comments or infantile language because of their disability. They were particularly sensitive to language which did not reflect their status as adults, fully competent and capable of self-direction.

    Liked by 7 people

    1. LOL, Denise you pretty much covered the first half of my comment, IE I am sensitive to this issue because I find myself constantly referred to as “that girl in the wheelchair” and the assumption is that I’m not a grown-up. That potentially makes my comments biased, but generally I try to think about the intent behind what the person is saying. There’s an older gentleman in my building who always says “Hey, girl!” When he sees me, and don’t think he means any harm. I would mind it from a man if I could tell he was being intentionally sexist.

      Generally, I think the best thing to do is use the word the way I/we want to see it used. The only way to change a word’s connotation is to use it in a specific way and get enough other people to do the same thing.

      Liked by 4 people

    2. I’m glad you brought this up, and I can certainly see the problem with referring to the group as girls—especially if it was a new volunteer and a man, because those things can certainly affect the perception of the word, as can ability/disability.

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  8. As stated above in comments, it’s all about the tone and the “intention” of the word. If it is being used to either demean someone or to discount them as being unimportant, then by all means call the person on it and let them know it’s not acceptable. I don’t use the word for adult women. I have used it with my daughters, saying “how’s my girlie?” or something to that effect. I will also use it with a group of young women, perhaps in their late teens up to 21 or so when it’s for fun. For example, with my daughter and her friends or roommates. “What are you girls doing later?” “Have fun but be safe, Girls.” That sort of thing.

    I have noticed men using “girl” with adult women when they are uncomfortable or want to seem impersonal. My ex-husband’s lawyer would refer to me as “girl” during the divorce. He wold also say stuff like “Girls get upset about things like that but it’s just a legality.” Once in awhile I would hear doctors referring to women as girls but not recently.

    I don’t like it used to refer to me.

    Liked by 5 people

    1. For me, it very much depends on who is calling me a girl. I’m more inclined to accept it from someone I know well, whereas someone I just met (or someone in a position of authority) would probably offend me by calling me a girl. Part of that, though, is that I just plain prefer to be called by my name instead of any of those words—it’s more personal but not heavily connoted.

      Liked by 2 people

  9. “Girl” is almost two words… One for a “young girl” or child, and one that’s more like “guy,” for a young-to-middle-aged person. Thinking about sentences I actually say, I’m more likely to use “little girl” in the first sense and just “girl” for everything else. I think of myself as both “girl” in the 20-something sense and “woman” sometimes and don’t really care which… But I hate being referred to as “one of the girls” in a condescending sense.

    I’ve also not been in a single-gender friend group since I was a kid, so it’s not usually applied in a friendly sense to me. There’s no defined group of “the girls” that anyone else would refer to, and there’s no reason to call a guy friend “one of the girls” since everyone is treated the same. We don’t act differently that way. So it’s usually only applied to me in a work context, since I’m a librarian and most librarians are women. Sometimes it’s creepy, like the older men who think we’re their secretaries, sometimes it’s totally fine, like with other patrons who’ll come in and go “The library girls! I haven’t seen you in forever!” and be excited to see all of us.

    I’ll have to give this some more thought, since the term has so many uses and I’ve never really had trouble navigating them. The only one that’s given me pause is the southern usage. I still don’t really have a way to refer to the person who does my hair, for instance. She’s about a generation and a half older than me and kind of punky-grunge. She’s friends with my mom. You don’t call that kind of person “the girl who does my hair.” Somehow that’s always the first phrase that pops into my mind, but it’s totally inappropriate because it sounds so flip and entitled when really I’m the one who’s thrilled and grateful for her to do it because she’s awesome, if that makes any sense!

    Liked by 4 people

    1. How about “the lady who does my hair”? That’s another word that can be used pejorative but is done a lot less than”girl”. I use it a lot when referring to a group of women and to show respect for someone because not all women are “ladies”.

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    2. You know, I think looking at it as two words might be a smart way to go about dissecting its meaning. They’re homonyms, of a kind.

      I actually tend to prefer the term “girl” to the term “woman” but I’m not entirely sure why. It’s better than using “female,” I think, though that’s a whole other thing—and interesting in its own right. “Lady” is the same way—it can be a negative or positive term, depending.

      It’s amazing how much context can change a word.

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      1. I tend to prefer “girl” too. I think it just depends on what exactly I’m asserting about myself. When I refer to myself as a “girl” I’m more talking about being female. If I use “woman,” I’m referring more to my age, I think. “Lady” I don’t use much at all.

        Liked by 1 person

  10. For me it’s like a lot of things. The intention and the tone. If someone I’m not close to or familiar with calls me a girl then I will likely be offended and make a judgement on that person’s attitude towards women. With my friends, I call them girls all the time, “Love you, girlie” or “Night out with my girls.” And I’ve always felt it/said it with the Riot Grrrrls mentality. I use it as a familiar and affectionate term for women and friends I respect or hold in high regard.

    This idea, like the memes you share above, of girls vs women is just another way to judge each other and divide each other. And what does it say to our young girls? Most of the young girls I know (my daughter, her friends) are more mature and evolved than those memes would have you believe.

    I don’t know if shows like Girls are helping to reclaim it. That probably depends on who you talk to and whether they are a fan of the show. I find it entertaining, but I will admit that the characters are supremely annoying and entitled. If it was a show about independent, strong women who were making their own way? Then yes, it could be a game changer when it comes to the term “girls.” But it’s a show about very dependent spoiled women mostly still living off of their parents and not realistic at all in my opinion. I would think Gilmore Girls might have been a better pop culture rebranding of the word. Granted, that show’s not on any more…

    Liked by 5 people

    1. I only saw the first season of Girls, and that was when it first came out, so it’s been awhile, but I think you have a point about that one.

      I tend to not use “girl” to refer to women I don’t know well, nor to refer to very young women. I call Vicki “girl” fairly often, though. As you say, all about the context.

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    2. I agree about familiarity. I don’t tend to use “girl” for women I’m unfamiliar with, though I would use it for females below the age of 20 or so as well. But the age thing is all bound up in the ways that the word is used as demeaning because we tend to think of youth as not fully formed and not in full control of themselves. I think this is a huge problem, and I think it’s part of the reason that we keep seeing waves of feminism that lash against the generation before (certainly, there are other–and good—reasons that we change our sense of what feminism is). We’re training girls and women against one another.

      As far as the show Girls—I tend to agree that it doesn’t do much for either the world “girls” or feminism itself. To me, Lena Dunham represents a branch of white feminism that I’m incredibly uncomfortable with. I hated the first episode, and I just didn’t want to watch more of the show. But there are women who celebrate Dunham and the show for its portrayal of young adults and see it as a real feminist success story.

      I hadn’t thought about Gilmore Girls, but that’s a good one to consider, too. I missed it when it was running, and though I enjoyed what I saw of the first season on Netflix, I just haven’t had time to really watch the series.

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      1. In discussing Girls I wonder how much of people’s reaction to the show is generational. I love it because I see a lot of my own experiences in it. It’s frank–which means that it’s frank about the entitlement and narcissism that many young privileged women feel. Is my life exactly like Girls? No. Do I see serious reflection of my own insecurities and challenges in Girls? Yes. I really appreciate how Lena Dunham has brought a new perspective to what young adulthood is, and that perspective has illustrated my generation in an uncommon way despite how common the plotlines/relationships actually are in real life.

        Liked by 1 person

  11. Awesome post. I’m interested to see how people’s reactions shake out on this one.

    I tend to use “girl” when I’m being informal/lighthearted. I tend to NOT use it when I’m referring to young women in a serious way — something I’ve mostly policed myself to stay away from.

    Agreed about the comparisons that demean girls, and those last two quotes are perfect for this.

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    1. I’m interested, too—there’s already a lot of good discussion going on.

      I had a hard time with this one; the words didn’t want to do what I wanted them to do.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. I have to say, being the youngest person in many professional environments (networking events & even the blogosphere–note that almost all of my bloggy friends are AT LEAST 10-15 years older, and up to 40-50 years older), I appreciate that you make an effort to refer to young women as just that rather than making them seem less serious or professional than calling them “girl.” I don’t like when people point out how much younger I am to connote that I’m inexperienced or incapable of doing more.

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      1. When I was a bright, hard-working twentysomething trying to get ahead and climb as I high as I could in whatever organizations I was working for, I used to hate being pigeonholed and talked down to because of my age. I’m very sensitive to the age thing.

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        1. yeah. People were never sexist to me. Just unintentionally douchebaggy about my age. Can’t imagine what that would have been like if I’d been a woman. I might still be bitter over it. In any case, I feel pretty strongly about not talking down to young people at this point.

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  12. I think of myself as both a girl and woman. Not being from the south, I don’t experience as many negative connotations with the word girl as you seem to experience. It’s mainly an age differentiation. Or, as Solveig wrote above, if I like someone I generally refer to them as “girl” – “girlfriend”, “girl from work”, “that girl I met traveling” – because it’s more familiar and friendly. If I’m referring to another female as “woman” it’s usually because she’s in a position of authority compared to me, or she is much older than I am. That said, clearly “woman” is the more respectful word, though that doesn’t make “girl” disrespectful (depending on context of course).

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    1. I tend to think of myself as both girl and woman, too. I’m interested in what you and Solveig have to say about using “girl” as a more familiar word and “woman” as a more authoritative word. I think that’s why it doesn’t work so well when someone in a position of authority uses “girls” for people they supervise and such (like in an office when a boss refers to secretaries as “the girls”). I think it very much depends on context.

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  13. I use both, and also hold “guy” as a gender-neutral term (though generally in the plural rather than singular use…). I feel like it ties to my general philosophy around the use of words. I know that there are people who have very strong opinions on how certain words are used, and I try to honor that, but for me it is the intention behind it that holds meaning.
    I HATE those “a girl/a woman” things, it’s such a false dichotomy – and a harmful one, as you say.

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      1. Yeah. I sometimes wonder if the fluidity I see in language like this (“he” does not always have male or masculine connotations for me – though primarily when talking about deities and theological stuff) is part of the reason I stumble less over the use of they/them as gender-neutral pronouns. Though, thinking more on it, I do tend to associate she/her with feminine always… stuff to ponder and write more on I think (when not phone-typing before work!)

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        1. I use they/them to avoid gendered pronouns all the time. As for the theological stuff, I only use the gendered language for dieties with specifically gendered personalities. When I’m talking in a serious way about the hypothetical intelligence that sometimes tells me to buy food for homeless people and such, I use “it.”

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        2. I use they/them a lot, but it’s been more of a shift when referring to a single individual.
          I have learned to do that, but for a long time I would refer to concepts (like god) as “he” because, to me in that context it didn’t hold a gendered meaning… but I’ve learned to adjust how I talk because it DOES for so many people. Greek/Roman gods etc, that have a clear gendered identity I do use the proper pronouns 🙂

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        3. Yeah, I suppose I was thinking of the way most deities are somehow gendered—in those cases, I tend to use the pronoun associated with the deity. When there isn’t a clear-cut representation, I tend to use “it” as the pronoun.

          Pesky things, those pronouns.

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    1. I also tend to use “guys” as a plural gender-neutral, but I wonder if it’s less gender neutral of if that is more similar to the Spanish ellos/ellas in the linguistic sense, where the male form is the one we use when the group is of mixed company. My trouble with using they/them as gender neutral is my hang-up with the singular/plural. They/them are plural, and I have real trouble transitioning into a grammatical pattern that regards the words as singular. As far as theological stuff, I generally use the pronoun most associated with the deity, I think. It depends a bit on what I’m talking about.

      And yes—false dichotomy. I almost called it that but decided to dial back the language a bit. lol

      Liked by 2 people

    2. I also use “guys” to include women, particularly when I’m excited online and post something “LOOK LOOK THIS IS THE BEST THING EVER YOU GUYS.” And I don’t mind being included in a “you guys” either. Some women do, though, so I’ve transitioned out of using it. This is one of the occasions when it’s handy to be from the south, though — “y’all” is gender-neutral. 😉

      Liked by 3 people

      1. hahaha…I hadn’t thought about it, really, but “y’all” is probably the collective noun that I use most when I’m talking to a group of people. I do sometimes use “you guys” with women, too, but I tend to Southern-it-up instead. lol

        Liked by 1 person

  14. I am a woman and a girl.
    and I think that I use girl more than woman.
    I think that often people will say that they will have a girl’s night out rather than a woman’s night out…
    Maybe ones social circle plays an important part in it too. Generally if I like someone I will say girl. For example “the girl from work” for someone who I get along well with, and not “the woman from work”.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Sorry about that—got on the wrong thread. Deleted the erroneous comment. 🙂

      I use girl more often than woman, too, I think. “Woman” feels more formal, and it’s generally something I use as a descriptor “the woman with black hair” or something like that. I’m interested in the idea of using it for people you don’t get on well with.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. No worries 🙂
        Well I don’t think that I use “woman” for people whom I do not get along with, but if I don’t get along with someone I am probably not going to use girl 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

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