BY LINDSEY HANNAH
When reading the terms “boy” and “girl,” what comes to mind? Children, likely. Even teenagers navigating the complexities of growing up. But put them in a different context and these harmless words take on a very different meaning.
Prior to the Civil Rights Movement, African American men of all ages were referred to as boys, often as a replacement for their names. The issue is even addressed by Martin Luther King Jr. in his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”
This infantilization of grown men, intended to belittle and devalue them, has become socially unacceptable as a form of racial slur. The reference of grown women as girls, however, has gone largely unnoticed.
Although calling African American women “girls” has faded as a racially-charged insult, the term is still used today to represent women of all races and ages as a form of sexism.
“Women’s’ authority has flipped from just two decades ago,” CCHS senior Emma Trittin said. “I feel that calling women girls is just another way of expressing that idea that men are superior.”
While sometimes deliberately intended to degrade, the issue of using “girl” to refer to a woman is more often accidentally insulting, even subliminal. Oftentimes, it is reflected in the media. Take TV shows, for instance: New Girl, Gilmore Girls, Supergirl and Girls versus Two and a Half Men, Superman, Last Man Standing and Mad Men. The more you think about it, the more obvious the discrepancy becomes. This labeling runs deeper than mismatched terminology; it is based in views perpetrated in society and reflected in entertainment.
“Advertisements and other forms of media portray women as being childlike and immature,” journalist Carmen Rios wrote for Everyday Feminism. “People of all genders are socialized to see women as helpless, irrational, weak, and in need of protection, and legislators feel it’s okay to tell women how to run their lives and what to do with their bodies. We handle women with ‘kid gloves,’ as if their emotions are going to make them incapable of rational behavior in times of stress or conflict.”
There have been recent attempts to reclaim the word from its common implications. “You ____ like a girl!” is inherently insulting, whether the word in the blank space be “fight,” “run,” “throw,” “scream,” or anything else you can think of. Always, the feminine hygiene brand, has started a campaign called #LikeAGirl that attempts to take power away from the insult and encourage young women to pursue their dreams. “Fight like a girl” is also a phrase commonly used in support of women with breast cancer. The trouble is that in both of these cases, common insults are used with ironic self-awareness. The campaigns essentially say, “Yes, we know it’s intended as an insult. But no, we don’t think being a girl is insulting.” These isolated instances, however, are not enough to remove the stigma associated with “girl,” or to justify its use on fully grown women. I believe that Bonnie Greer, an American-British playwright, novelist and critic, said it best.
“A girl is someone who is not an adult, not a grown up, is not someone who takes responsibility for herself, she’s a wimp, a loser, a cutie,” Greer said. “When you get past a certain age, as a mature adult, you want to be treated as an adult… In a culture where women are underpaid, are striving to make inroads, we should pay attention to how we address one other.”