Friday, September 29, 2006

What Do I Mean By Girls Anyway?

Let me be clear. I don’t mean women. Girls are 18 and younger, and anyone 19 and over can officially be called a woman. Programming for girls in the non-profit world typically encompasses the 6 – 18 year old age range with certain exceptions.

I’m intrigued by women who refer to themselves and their friends as girls, as in “Let’s go girls.” Often, the women who use the word “girls” are looking for an alternative to the word “guys” and are coming up short. What options are there? “Ladies” or “gals” smack of another era altogether. Saying “Let’s go, women” comes off as a little weird, formal, and somehow impractical for every day use.

Even if you think that women calling each other girls in every day life is not such a big deal (and many smart savvy women I know don’t have a problem with it) what about groups of women organizing and calling themselves “Wonder Girls” as a NYC group of women are doing? I am guessing it’s meant as a fun, Gen X way of responding to more mature established women’s organizations which could use an infusion of youthfulness. I'm all for young smart women organizing themselves to make a difference in the world, but women calling themselves girls is problematic.

Flip the coin, and you have the problem of what to call girls themselves. With young girls, you can simply say “girls,” but as girls hit 11 and 12, the word no longer fits. A tilt of the head and the look that says “I am not a child” is what you might get in response if you try. Professionals working with girls struggle for alternatives, often landing on “young women” or “young ladies.” There are worse things to call young people, but I think it is just as problematic to start calling girls, “women” or anything that intimates adulthood at age 12, as it is to call grown women, “girls.”

Why is this such a problem? Girls are growing up in a mediated culture which sells them adult clothing at younger and younger ages, in a world where the song “Candy Shop” is not about chewing bubble gum, and with high-pressure expectations in relationships, school, and staying on track towards a positive future. Professionals who work with girls can help preserve a girl's world by helping us to find language that recognizes their development into their teen years, but doesn’t place adult expectations on them. And women can help us by letting the word “girl” belong to those 18 and under.

What do you think?


Anonymous said...

Awesome and right on! I think the lack of (positive) words to describe girls and women as we pass through different stages of our lives is society's stand-in for our lack of autonomy in deciding who we are. If we don't even have a word to describe ourselves (or if the word eclipses us, such as "guys" for women) then how can we describe who we want to be or who we are?

Thebodytalk said...

Good point! I don't think Women who call girls to each other have intention to make themselves younger than who they are. I think calling each other "girls" is just for friendship and being nice.

Patti Binder said...

Thanks to anonymous and thebodytalk for kicking off the discussion!

I'm with anonymous here-- language and self definition is important. Thinking through how we talk about ourselves and using language powerfully and mindfully is something we should concern ourselves with.

I'm sure that most women don't mean anything negative by calling each other girls and that for the women who use it, they are just being friendly or nice, as TBT points out.

Is it Good For Girls when women call each other "girls"? Couldn't girls be a word just for girls, and couldn't women, as smart and talented as we are refer to ourselves something that is more grown up?

mindy said...

i really dislike being referred to as a girl (i am 26 years old) and find it terribly condescending. it is the worst when coming from a guy but when it comes from another woman i am disappointed in another way. when another woman uses the term girl to describe a woman i feel like they are subscribing to the male dominated male mediated world that wishes all women would look / act like girls forever. i am not into it and have been struggling to articulate why for quite some time.
last year (or maybe it was 2 years ago) i attended a vanessa beecroft discussion at the new school university and i was so put off by her liberal use of the term girl to describe the women she uses in her art pieces. her use of the word girl disturbed me most because the majority of her models (who are all over 18) are wearing little to no clothes. gross. naked girls. such a shame. i even raised my hand and asked her if the girls she was referring to were over 18 and she answered by saying that yes they were and that some of them were over 50.

Anonymous said...

I agree with most of what each of you has mentioned in terms of the lack of "positive" words to describe a woman at different stages of her life and the that we must be aware of our use of language. But I have to diagree that "girl" is all together negative. I use the term "girl" all the time to refer to myself and other women in my life (with the execption of my mother) and don't intend it to be condescending in any way. To me the word "girl" is empowering because at 30 it helps me to continue to embrace and follow my dreams and to try to take a youthful approach to viewing the world -- always questioning, always learning, ego-free, to not take like too seriously and with a sense of whimsy! It also reminds me of the tight bond and silly sense of humor I share with my two sisters, that really bloomed in early childhood -- something I have always cherished.