So the other day, I was watching The Apprentice (just for the lolz, not for the power-dressing tips). This can be a troubling experience for me, mostly because I have to deal with the fact that a man named Lord Sugar is actually not anything like Gene Wilder in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (although I do see him as Willy Wonka’s capitalist candy-making nemesis with golden tickets to gold. Kind of.)
This time, however, there was a whole different thing I noticed that had me staring thoughtfully into my dinner-time bowl of Special K like it was the tea leaves of FEMINIST ISSUES.
It was in the boardroom, and the female contestants were referring to themselves and their teammates as ‘girls’, even when trying to explain how their all-female team failed the flat-pack furniture task (oh yeah, that’s a task.) Now, I struggle with the boardroom dénouement at the best of times. There’s something tragic about watching a group of adults argue amongst themselves like young cousins vying to become the one child whose name their emotionally-stunted grandfather remembers at Christmas, when we all secretly know that the ONE PERSON Lord Sugar really wants in the room left several series ago (Margaret, still miss you). But, in all honesty, this girl thing really bothers me. Why, exactly, would a woman in (what the producers and set-designers clearly intend to portray as) a high-pressure work environment – trying to convince a potential employer that she is capable of doing work stuff well, if not way better than her competitors – refer to herself as someone who has yet to achieve maturity? We all know That Female Thing of apparently trying to make yourself less threatening to men, but surely, if there’s anywhere to be hard-nosed, it’s The Apprentice (Neil is offish ‘prepared to trample over people’, just so we know.)
And the reason this ‘innocuous’ problem grinds my gears is because it’s one of those things that’s so pervasive that it doesn’t seem offensive at all. I’m sure the couriers who turn up at my desk calling me ‘sweetie’ and ‘princess’ don’t consciously think they need to baby me through the devastatingly stressful process of signing one of those phone-things, but the implication still hangs around like a bad brand of J-Lo-sponsored perfume. And you can be sure that they wouldn’t take that attitude with one of my male colleagues. The thing is, at work, the way you address people matters – that’s why everyone gets up in their grill when you sign off an email to the MD ‘keep hanging loose’, rather than ‘kind regards’. And calling a woman a ‘girl’ denies the possibility of her having seniority. A girl doesn’t head up a board meeting or lead a pitch, because she’s too busy applying lip-gloss in the loos or gossiping by the water coolers. She’s a schoolchild.
It was Uzma who referred to ‘the girls’ in her team though, not Willy Wonka’s nemesis. She’s definitely self-referencing; nobody is ostensibly thrusting this linguistic insult upon her. Girls are the fun, cute ones (if not the ones you need to take seriously) and those are kind of the things that us-with-the-vaginas are meant to aspire to be, right? Likeability is the golden chalice of womanhood: something to which we all are all expected to aspire. Our culture is all about women having to be youthful and beautiful to be relevant and worth attention. Hell, even everyone’s favourite of-the-moment, hailed-as-feminist TV series is named Girls. Some guys even seem to think it’s a compliment not to call us women – because it is just so gross to be ‘old’ in Uterus Land. Men don’t have that problem: in fact, Mad Men are probably the coolest people on TV right now, and they don’t have to be boys to be worth watching. Besides, a man calling another man a ‘boy’ would be regarded as devastatingly insulting (disregard Made In Chelsea for this one – but then, surely, you always do anyway?)
But then, what are the dudes on The Apprentice responsible for? Well – SPOILER ALERT – Zee got fired this week. I think we all knew it was going to happen as soon as he called Dubai ‘a second home’. Turns out he meant it like one of those second homes Justin Bieber probably has, the one that he sent his PA to buy after his accountant told him to diversify his portfolio. He only ever goes there to deposit pets he’s got bored of, so he doesn’t really remember the route from the front door to the stairs or anything like that.
Zee also managed to go out in a shit-storm of sexism accusations, which totally hurt his feelings. All the female hysteria got so offensive that he had to tell Natalie to ‘calm down with your language’ when she started chucking the word ‘chauvinistic’ around just because he took the only two women in his team back into the boardroom with him. Even though Kurt had GOT CONFUSED BETWEEN CENTIMETRES AND INCHES (for serious) and Neil had both bought the wrong item (resulting in a fine) and used the phrase ‘I’m in a very very hurry’. But, whatevs. At one point Leah got so unreasonable that Zee had to get her to pass the phone to the nearest man so, you know, you’re probably right Zee: it wasn’t your behaviour that was insulting; it was those bolshy ‘girls’ calling you out on it that was.
Of course, if you want to describe a person of the female persuasion there are other options apart from ‘girls’ – like ‘ladies’, for example, which is supposed to be polite and respectful when you’re in the 1920s, but often sarcastic and demeaning otherwise. ‘Ladies’ comes with that whole unspoken reminder to be ‘ladylike’ – which is basically just reminding us not to do fun stuff like sex or drinking or voicing thoughts too much. And then there’s the old Heat-esque LAYDEEZ spelling which gives me stress spasms (seriously, I typed LA CUCTG the first time round.) But I feel like that covers most of the workplace bases. Not including the names you say under your breath.
At the end of the day, we all have the right to self-reference as we like, including Uzma and her ‘girls’. I merrily marched down Piccadilly identifying as a ‘slut’ not so long ago, and it felt empowering and important. What bothers me is that in the place that I work, and in the culture that surrounds me, women are constantly referenced as children. It doesn’t sound respectful to me, and it carries on that whole trope of news items that wonder if ‘women and children’ – those tiny, silly, defenceless little souls – are a part of ‘people’ killed or wounded in the latest war or natural disaster.
So, from the dregs of my feminist teacup, some of the new TV we could enjoy if ‘girls’ wasn’t so prevalent:
Two Broke Women: a show written and produced by parents of arts grads who failed to do law conversion, detailing the tragic lives of middle-aged ladies with no money. Because it’s only OK to be broke when you’re young. No one can live off VKs forever.
New Woman: post-divorce mother of grown-up children has an epiphany and becomes a late-onset hippy. Alec Baldwin appears as Jack-Donaghy-from-30-Rock-with-a-different-name/ her appalled Republican ex-husband, mostly because I miss Jack Donaghy.
Women: named after the cry of exasperation from our four young, male protagonists as they try to find their places in the Big Apple. Main character, Hansel, thinks he may be the voice of his generation for expressing how hard it is for him to grow up/get a job/ hold down a relationship now that his female peers are generally succeeding/taking all the jobs/ emasculating him and his generation. As we do.