The purpose of our blog is to discuss topical issues, stories, and situations, as well as to share what we are up to and new ways for you to get involved. We are always searching for possible answers to the question: Why is a girl's worth culturally and historically relative?

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Men are Men, but Women are Girls

The Golden Girls. Photograph: Allstar/Cinetext/

Language is a funny thing.  Words often carry connotations and subtle meanings we don't think about on a daily basis, but can greatly affect our language choices and how we interpret things.  These subtle clues and changes in definition may prompt you to think "that's why we have thesauruses" (thesaurusi?), but sometimes the societal overlays cannot be captured strictly by a thesaurus.

Take the word "woman" for example.  Woman, as defined by a dictionary--the one built into my computer's operating system, in this case--means "an adult human female."  Simple and to the point, no?  It does go on to expand the definition in a variety of ways (employment, role, duties, etc.), but in it's essence, a woman is an adult human female.

On the other hand, "girl" has two definitions.  First is "a female child."  Second is where our potential confusion enters: "a young or relatively young woman."

What's wrong with "woman?"  Or "young woman?"  Well, I can't speak for everyone, but connotations have been formed, and, according to Carolyn Bronstein, the author of Battling Pornography: The American Feminist Anti-Pornography Movement, 1976-1986, "Girls are young and sexual and pretty and focused on their bodies and focused on attracting people of the opposite sex. A girl doesn't have to take things so seriously."  On the other hand, Bronstein adds, "Woman carries the image of an older, strident, militant kind of feminist presence that is, in popular culture today, frowned upon."  In short: "Woman just weighs heavily, and girl is light."  Additionally, every time I've heard the phrase "young woman" used, it's generally condescending.

Hollywood has certainly picked up on this trend.  There were the Designing Women, but mostly we've seen the girls of Sex and the City.  Once upon a time there were Two Guys, a Girl, and a Pizza Place (eventually losing the pizza place); the mother-daughter duo of the Gilmore Girls; Gossip Girl is still talking about Manhattan's elite; and reality show The Bad Girls Club is still running.  And who can forget about The Golden Girls?  Those four feisty women showed that, at least once upon a time, being over the age of 50 and widowed or divorced was not all bad.  This fall, all those girls will be joined by New Girl, 2 Broke Girls, and on HBO, plain ol' Girls.

Now, I haven't seen these shows, and all I know about them is what I've read (which honestly, isn't much).  But before I saw anything about these shows beyond their titles, I could have told you that they are all about women in their twenties, who are attractive, and primarily in-and-out of relationships (with equally attractive twentysomething men).  Why?  Because they are about "girls," "not women."  And apparently, women aren't fun-loving, attractive, or interesting.

To be fair, I don't know how accurate my interpretation is, but since "friends" isn't a practical name for a sitcom, something else had to be used.  So why girl?  Because it's marketable.  Most females in the demographics that networks are aiming for seem to refer to themselves as girls (or are at least assumed to).  I know I'm guilty of that, and I know I'm not alone.  I don't inherently see anything wrong with choosing to be labeled a girl over a woman, but I am sad that the word "woman" seems to carry a stigma.

"Men" and "man" don't face the same issues, though "boy" can range from mildly insulting to extremely offensive, depending on the circumstances.  But men are lucky.  They not only can be "manly" or "a man's man," but they can also be a "guy" or "one of the guys."  Women don't have such a luxury, or a surfeit of terms.  As "Grammar Girl" Mignon Fogarty says, "It would be nice to have a female equivalent of 'guy,' [...] I suppose it would be 'gal,' but that sounds quite antiquated."

-Katie Weidmann
Junior Girl
Girl Museum Inc.

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