I was watching an episode of Hell’s Kitchen a few weeks ago (yes I know, it’s a guilty pleasure), and a contestant from the blue (men’s) team said, “I’m not going to let this little girl intimidate me.”
Two things happened when I heard that. Firstly, I had a visceral gut reaction of ugh. Secondly, it made me wonder if this is something that happens a lot, a social linguistic disease, if you will. And lo and behold, after I watched that episode, I began to hear “girls” everywhere in contexts where the speaker was actually talking about women. Including when they were talking about me.
Where do people get off calling grown women “girls”? Because I’m pretty sure it’s not Equality Town. I’m not talking about the affectionate, cooing, “Hey girl, heyyyy!” so common between friends. Scratch that out of the equation, because it’s a whole different set of numbers. Instead, I’m talking about people using the world “girl” or even, at its worst, “little girl” to refer to – and ultimately belittle – grown women.
When you call me, a grown 27-year-old woman, a “girl,” you’re implying at its basest meaning that I’m not an adult. You’re implying that I lack maturity, common sense and fully developed cognitive skills. When you call me a girl, you’re making a power play. You’re reducing me to a child to make me seem weaker than you, less worthy than you, inferior to you. You are making it seem as though I should, by virtue of being a “girl”, naturally defer to you.
I learned really young that to “______ like a girl” is a bad thing. I remember my dad and brother helping me practice for T-ball when I was maybe six years old, and breaking down in tears when they told me I threw like a girl. They were making a joke, because of course I was a girl, but all I could think about was that scene from The Sandlot. I knew what being a girl really meant.
Why is “girl” an insult, even to girls? This is a question we should be asking ourselves. We’re teaching each other that to be a girl is bad, that girls are “less than” in every part of the conversation. It should be troubling that children learn this insult so early. They’re getting the message loud and clear: Girls aren’t meant to be strong, capable, powerful or smart; to make someone feel small, call them a girl.
Now, let me acknowledge that there is, absolutely, an affectionate way to use “girl” when talking about a woman. Between friends, saying, “Hey girl!” is fun, lighthearted and carefree. Even using it in a stern manner between friends is fine, usually between women themselves: “Girl, you know that was a fucked up thing to do,” for example.
Some would have it that this socially accepted, widespread context for calling women “girls” is part of the problem. It makes it easier for people to defend using “girl” in a sexist way, people point out. Those who do intend to demean get to claim they aren’t conscious of the implications of calling me “girl” because they hear women calling each other “girl”. It’s like having that one friend that only you’re allowed to make fun of, because you’re doing it from love. No one else can make fun of them. Sure, if you’re not aware of how to use words in context, then perhaps you shouldn’t be opening your mouth in the first place. But I for one know that I’m going to drop the casual use of “girl” that I’ve been employing thoughtlessly for such a long time.
Calling me a girl, especially when I’m not around, is meant to reduce, demean, de-legitimise and silence me. Calling me a girl is about power.
I’ve learned that there is something particularly terrifying about women. I can’t imagine so much effort being put in to keeping us down throughout history if we didn’t make people piss their pants with our awesomeness. The truth is, we are remarkable.
Women are observant, intelligent, funny, brilliant people who have a billion different ways of contributing to the world. Calling us “girls” is part of a long, ugly history of shutting us out of intellectual debate, ignoring our contributions to important areas of human development, and reducing us to our sex.
This is just the tip of the iceberg in a sea of misogyny, but these patterns can only be changed if we collectively decide to stop reinforcing them with our own carelessness. So think before you speak – and don’t call me girl.