Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Bad Language: Coming of age - or not.

When I was a littlun, I wanted so badly to be taken seriously. When I'm a grown up, I thought, people are going to listen to me; I won't be a child, a girl, I'll be able to sit at the metaphorical adult table and I'll finally be a fully fledged human being. I expected this to happen in my late teens, or maybe at the magic golden 20 at the very latest when I would stop being a 'teenager'. I assumed there would be some kind of sensible progression from child-teenager-adult.

Fifteen or twenty years on from these musings, apparently I'm still a 'girl'. Long after 'boys' have been upgraded to 'men' (or the more informal but still adult - or at least adolescent - 'guys'), adult women even into their thirties are still stuck with their child-status. This, to me, seems extremely strange. It's so widespread and ingrained that it so often goes unnoticed, but the more I think about it, the more irritated I am by it. My previous landlord began all correspondence with my two housemates and I (all women in our mid twenties) with 'Hello girls'. Why did she think this was acceptable and appropriate, where a very similar 'Hello boys' would have clearly been unprofessional, extremely condescending and maybe even a little predatory? What would she have said to a more diverse gender group? Yes, there are occasions where adult men get called 'boys' - 'old boys' for alumni or elderly men, 'city boys', 'our boys' for soldiers: these are all very specfic usages with some kind of qualifier. They cease to be 'boys' outside of these contexts; by contrast, a younger woman might escape the 'girl' label in some specific contexts, but it remains the default; a stranger would probably describe her first as a 'girl' (that girl over there, the girl I saw on the bus, a girl in my year- replacing 'girl' with 'boy' suddenly feels uncomfortable).

You might say I'm reading too much into it, that words are just words, but I think it reveals something very odd about attitudes towards women in the younger-rather-than-older box. A child - whether a girl child, a boy child, or a child somewhere else on the gender map - is someone who isn't ready to take responsibility for themself and their own wellbeing, someone who is still in an early stage of their mental, emotional, intellectual, everything-else-al development, someone who probably doesn't have a whole lot of agency as far as most things go. Someone who is not taken seriously enough. When I am called a girl, I feel as if this is what I am being told I am. Whatever I do to earn adulthood (and for me that's mostly collecting more degrees than anybody really needs and gaining recognition in my small but wonderful corner of academia for hard work and new ideas), I can't seem to shake off this weirdly clinging girlhood. (And yes, girlhood more specifically than childhood: to add insult to injury, because the category 'person' was already too crowded, we must cram everyone into inadequate binary constructs of gender, or civilisation might collapse.)

I'm still working my way round these ideas (maybe I will have been upgraded to 'adult' by the time I get there!), so I'm presenting them here as more 'food for thought' than as a fully worked out essay. There's plenty more to say on this subject, and I'd gladly welcome any comments.


  1. It's so true. Even women in their forties are encouraged to go out for 'Girls' Nights'. I'm guilty of referring to women my age as 'girls' but I think that's mainly because I don't feel mature enough for the label 'woman' myself.

  2. Man, this articulates perfectly some vague ruminations on the topic I've been having recently. I'm 21 and I aggressively use the word "woman" for myself and for anyone who seems older than 18 (even though I'm a terrible judge of age.) We get enough infantilizing bullshit, every tiny little step in the opposite direction must be useful.