The Vagenda

Hey Girl, Don’t Call Me That


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.

-Amelia Shroyer

26 thoughts on “Hey Girl, Don’t Call Me That

  1. Good point. I get angry when im reading a book and one of the male characters calls a grown woman a good girl. In one book the bloke was meant to be fifteen years older than the woman!

  2. Its use is also interesting when you look at when it’s employed as a title, for example ‘Bond Girl’ would give a completely different impression if it was ‘Bond Woman’, similarly with the term ‘Call Girl’ and the use of ‘GIRLS GIRLS GIRLS’ seen written in neon lights to advertise strip clubs. Similarly, the term ‘Business Woman’ would sound pretty ridiculous if it was ‘Business Girl’, so I find it interesting that it’s often in more sexual roles that women are referred to as girls.

  3. I think it’s interesting how many people think that girl is just the equivalent to “guy”…it’s not. There is no female equivalent to guy. The closest would be “gal” or “chick”, but that still reeks of reductionist sexism, as opposed to the light and breezy casualness implied by “guy”.
    “Guy” means both adult and child simultaneously, it reflects how for a male in the this world, he will both be treated with respect and taken seriously for his gender, and also given less responsibility and expectations for his gender. This doesn’t exist for a woman, only objectifying terms like “gal” which simply draw attention the fact this is a younger, and presumably romantically/sexually inviting woman. It is not an equivalent.
    What also really pisses me off is when women and men alike claim that “guy” is gender neutral. This is just an explicit example of androcentricism…if I call a mixed group “guys”, that’s cool, but if I call them “chicks” or “ladies”, I’m making some kind of joke. If I talk about a “guy” I know, you are thinking of a male, it is not gender neutral.

    The equivalent of “girl” is obvious: Boy. It is the exact equivalent. Does it seem uncomfortable to call grown men “boys”? Welcome to the world of women, where this middle-ground “guy”equivalent doesn’t exist. We are either fully adult and responsible, or fully childlike and irresponsible. I suggest we all drop “guy” and start using the true and honest “boy” or “man”. Why should we encourage an androcentric word that epitomises the double standard of maturity between women and men?

    • I love this comment. I completely agree. The only thing I would say is that you do hear men described as boys in a fair few scenarios – ‘boys’ night out’ or the like, or even that majestic tune ‘boys are back in town’ – but it’s not really comparable to the way ‘girl’ is used. Interesting that when men do something deplorable we say ‘boys will be boys’, but it’s light hearted and joky. I wonder what that says about our use of the word.

  4. Great article. I texted my two male housemates something small recently – probably something like ‘I bought loo roll’ – and one of them replied with ‘good girl’. It completely rattled me but I couldn’t work out how to call him up on it.

  5. Doesn’t bother me, never has, and to be fair- at 27 I would think of you as a girl simply because you are the same age as my daughter. It is context to a degree- I get called girl- so what given I am usually older than the person calling me it.

  6. LOVE this article.

    A friend of mine who I also work with called me a “girl” at work recently. I found this bizarre because I am 26 and 2 years older than him.

    He looked at me like I was a mental person when I explained to him that I was a woman and he should call me that. He said he thought that calling someone a woman sounds like an insult?! The thing is that no-one would consider being called a man would be insulting.

    Just shows how much meaning can be behind a word…

  7. You should Google image “girl” and “boy” separately then compare results.

    In one women are in their underwear, the other they are wearing baseball caps, etc and are obviously kids. And this is what we teach our children -_-

      • Some languages don’t quite have equivalent terms. In Spanish if you search ‘niñas’ (just the feminine of ‘child’) you get (almost) fine results, But if you search ‘chicas’ which can be applied to teenagers and possibly to adults in the same way as ‘girls’ you get highly sexualised images.

  8. What insightful comments! Thank you all for reading. I certainly think there is something sexualized about “girl” sometimes, and really, that makes sense. Women begin to be sexualized very, very early in life when they are still girls. The first time I was cat-called I think I was 11 or 12 years old. I do agree that there is no equivalent term for “guy,” and I love Th’s point about Google image searching the difference between “boys” and “girls.” It is striking.

    @Nic your comment particularly struck me because I had an (horrible, emotionally abusive) ex who called me “good girl.” At the time I thought it was erotic somehow, but now it makes my skin crawl.

    I have written several pieces now about language and the terms we use without critical thought, and I’m wary of policing anyone’s language. If nothing else, I just want to make people consider WHY they use a certain term, and what the implications are of its use.

  9. A few years ago I sat through a panel discussion the subject of which was my own theatre work, where a colleague of mine and me (both in our thirties) were repeatedly called girls. As in ‘the themes that these girls deal with in their work…’ The themes, by the way, being misogyny, immigration, globalisation and the like.
    The truth is it took me a couple of hours to articulate what it was about the evening that left such a sour taste. That is the extent of the internalisation.
    I was reminded of the issue in recent weeks, when a media debate made me wonder whether we could imagine a world in which a film about a psychopath murderer were called ‘Gone boy’.

    • Haha, I suppose “manfriend” would sound strange, huh? These terms don’t really make sense anyway – it’s not a friend. It’s funny too, because the word for “boyfriend/girlfriend” in both French and German is just “my friend” (mon copain, ma copine; mein Freund, meine Freundin). I’m sure it’s the same in other languages. Personally, I use the term partner for my significant other. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

  10. It is thought provoking for me, I often use girl in the context of meeting the girls for drinks, but in the same way I would say I was meeting the boys for drinks (both talking about adults in their late 30′s and 40′s). On the other hand if someone at work or in public called me girl it would raise my hackles for sure!

    Maybe I need to stop going for a drink with the girls and come up with another more appropriate moniker.

    Maybe going for a drink with the other ‘nearly middle aged women’ to act like 20 somethings’ tonight and come up with a suitable solution.

  11. After reading this article I tested out the title on myself and other people I know.

    I am a 23 year old female web developer and programmer, though it wouldn’t matter what I do in this context, I feel like I have worked very hard to break into this male dominated industry. I pay all of my own bills, help my boyfriend pay the mortgage on the house we live in, etc.

    However, what’s funny is I don’t feel like a woman yet. In my head, I still view myself as a girl.

    When I think of my female friends, my age, older and younger, I see them as women; when I think of men my age, older and younger I think of them as men.

    So why do I still have a mentality where I view myself as a girl, despite all of the things that I have accomplished and faced in my life? I think your article hits this on the head and I’ve never even realized it. Society does use “girl” when referring to grown women and it creeps into the very fibers of our being. I AM A WOMAN, not a “little girl”. I am going to say this to myself in the mirror every morning until I reverse the mindset.

  12. Everytime a guy calls me girl, I say to him, ‘I’m sure you’re not talking to me because I’m a grown woman, not a girl.’ People think that because I’m 5ft I’m a little girl and that pisses me off

  13. ‘girl’ infantilises us, in turn allowing the speaker to disregard everything we say and assert some sort of superior control. I feel this can be used amongst women about other women with the same effect, anyone calling me a ‘little girl’ would insult me.

  14. This article caught my eye because my boyfriend often says to me “that’s my girl” for example, I went to a party the other night, and he wasn’t there and I didn’t text or speak to him at all (discounting the time my mildly intoxicated friend felt the need to consult his opinion on her newly-formed omegle friendship at four in the morning. He wasn’t best pleased with that.) He asked me the next day if I had had a good time, and I said yes I had, and he replied with “that’s my girl.” Personally, I don’t mind when he says that to me. I feel like I have done him proud, because although having pride in myself is very important, his opinions matter in our relationship. But yes, I agree with this article, it was interesting to really think about the connotations of girl. This brought another point about my current relationship to my head. There is a two year age gap between me and my boyfriend, him being the eldest, at 18. Yet he refers to me in seriousness as a woman or a lady, despite me being younger and still legally a child. And I respect that, especially as I consider myself a woman now.
    The point about being called a girl meant as an insult was also interesting. Reminded me of the way Scout takes offence when her brother remarked “You get more like a girl every day.” And its not ok that someone’s gender should be used as an insult. It’s not ok for race, religion or physical abilities. So why gender or sexuality?
    Fantastic article.

  15. Great article!

    I had a similar visceral gut reaction of ‘ugh’ upon hearing the ACTUAL girls (some as young as 12) who were victims of the paedophile and child exploitation ring in Rochdale referred to as ‘young women’ on BBC Radio 4 of all places! I thought I could trust them not to be so stupid!!!

    Since when is 12 a ‘young woman’? Calling them that definitely goes some way to minimizing the horror of the crimes committed against them, doesn’t it?

    It goes both ways, both of which I find absolutely infuriating.

  16. Also it brings me IMMENSE joy that calling extremely powerful women like the queen and Angela Merkel ‘girls’ (pronounced Essex-style as ‘gews’) has become a running joke between two of my male friends, as they are aware of how ridiculous it is. Male feminists are like my favouritest thing ever I swear.

  17. You’re overthinking this to the point of absurdity. When a guy calls a girl a girl, he means nothing by it. No slight, no demeaning, no misogynistic intent. Nothing. Just like calling a guy a guy. You can disagree if you want, but you’re wrong. I say it all the time. This is what happens when people have too much time on their hands, and no real problems to worry about – they write blogs about how “offensive” and mysogynistic it is to be referred to as a girl instead of a woman. Ridiculous.

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