Girl talk

Is it ever appropriate to call women "girls"?

Published August 18, 2008 8:00PM (EDT)

I'm a woman in my thirties. Calling me a girl is both inaccurate and offensive. Simple enough, right? Except, as Dodai writes at Jezebel today, plenty of us who resent being called "girls" under some circumstances don't mind it under others, and some of us even use the G-word ourselves to describe vagina owners who are old enough to vote. Female friends saying it at least semi-ironically get a pass, for instance, as do women old enough to be our mothers, from whom it (usually) sounds charming and affectionate. I cringe when my 73-year-old father calls a waitress or cashier "the girl" -- that's totally his residual "Mad Men"-era sexism showing -- yet when he calls my sisters and me "the girls," it's somehow a sweet acknowledgment of our long history together.

One only has to look at the evolution of the word "lady" -- from honorific to patronizing to almost exclusively tongue-in-cheek (with various detours along the way) -- to see that the perception of an adjective meaning "female person" can change with the times. But this "girls" vs. "women" debate has been going in circles for decades, and I submit that's because it depends too much on context. Anyone can earn the right to call me a "girl," just as anyone can earn the right to call me "Katy" instead of "Kate" -- but you'd best not do either before you've otherwise demonstrated respect for my adult competence. Is that really so complicated that there needs to be a more clear-cut rule?

Sure, there are some women who flip out if anyone ever calls them "girls," and others who always consider it unobjectionable, even flattering. But then, there are also women who think the statement "You look pretty today" is offensively reductive coming from their own partners, and others who consider a stranger's wolf whistle a compliment. Most of us fall somewhere in between. And most of us can distinguish between being treated as a child and being treated as an adult, regardless of the nomenclature. I'll take a respectful (if dated) "You go, girl" over a sneering "The problem with you women ..." any day.

By Kate Harding

Kate Harding is the author of Asking For It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture--and What We Can Do About It, available from Da Capo Press in August 2015. Previously, she collaborated with Anna Holmes, Amanda Hess, and a cast of thousands on The Book of Jezebel, and with Marianne Kirby on Lessons from the Fat-o-Sphere. You might also remember her as the founding editor of Shapely Prose (2007-2010). Kate's essays have appeared in the anthologies Madonna & Me, Yes Means Yes, Feed Me, and Airmail: Women of Letters. She holds an M.F.A. in fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts and a B.A. in English from University of Toronto, and is currently at work on a Ph.D. in creative writing from Bath Spa University

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