Boy vs. girl

Monday 12 May 2008

Here’s a short but complicated question: if grown men object to being called “boy”, why don’t grown women object to being called “girl”?

I was raised in New York City in the 1970’s by a radical lesbian feminist, and to my ears, “girl” is completely wrong. I’m always a little thown by hearing adults referred to as girl. It seems demeaning, but plenty of women refer to themselves that way. Am I completely out of touch? Are they?


Cory 9:57 PM on 12 May 2008

I grew up in a small town in the South, where "boy" and "girl" are often used to refer to grown men and woman. They are almost always used in a friendly way. My dad will see a friend at the hardware store and ask in a playful tone "Boy, what are you working on now?" My mom might be overheard saying to one of her friends "Girl, how about ya'll come over for dinner on Friday?"

Then again, I never knew it could be offensive to say "Yes Ma'm" until a new teacher from New York moved to town.

Ned Batchelder 10:01 PM on 12 May 2008

As you say, those are playful uses, which is different. When I asked my plumber today why he didn't leave a bill, he said, "I have a girl to do it now." He wasn't being playful, and he isn't employing a ten-year-old. If I had asked him who helped him clear the drain, he would never have said, "I have a boy to do it."

Nate 10:03 PM on 12 May 2008

I think most adult men my age refer to themselves and other men their age as "guys" not "men". Sure, we don't say "boy" but we don't say "woman" either. It's actually almost harder when talking about women, because "woman" sounds old and "girl" sounds young. Guy is nice and age-neutral down to 18-ish. Chick is kinda the same except has a slight negative connotation. I guess gal is the female version of guy, except I don't think I've ever actually heard anyone use the term gal, and it's kinda hard to pronounce. My fiance insists women do say gal, if they don't just says "guys", though she admits she'd never use it in the singular to refer to a woman.

manuelg 10:07 PM on 12 May 2008

I would bet dollars to donuts (or donuts to dollars, in the post housing-bubble world), the cause is the undervaluing of female maturity, and the cause of that is that even though society does not necessarily require fertility, in modern times, it still greatly values the signals of fertility.

Unfortunately, feminism did not change, at all, the ratio of men who are truly feminists (men who value and cherish women, pre- and post- menopause, and men who value and cherish traditionally female traits, no matter if female or male express them).

manuelg 10:08 PM on 12 May 2008

...feminism did not change, at all, the ratio of _women_ who are truly feminists, as well...

Jack Diederich 10:13 PM on 12 May 2008

I don't think you can glean much from word quirks. "Baby" as a term of endearment for both grown men and women always struck me as odd but it is popular. Guy/guys as the masculine girl/girls is more popular than boy/boys but it isn't unusual for a female friend to say "I met a boy" or to call a guys golf outing a "boys weekend." If I had to make a subtle distinction "boy" is usually in the sense of boys-will-be-boys and "guy" is simple a sex distinction. For women the matching pair would be girlie (stereotype) versus girl (simple distinction).

But really I think even that reads too much into it.

Of course this is only my personal experience but if you wanted a different view mine is certainly that: I was raised with three brothers and no sisters, attended an all boys school, and joined a college fraternity at an engineering school that was majority male.

Will 10:21 PM on 12 May 2008

I'm guilty of this myself. About a year ago, I was conducting job interviews to fill a web developer position. When updating my (woman) boss on the progress I was making, I would say things like "This one guy was really promising" or "There's a girl coming in tomorrow at noon". My boss always made sure to point out that I should be saying "woman" instead of "girl". Eventually, I got the hang of it, but only in that professional setting. I think part of my problem was that I was 25 and I tend to think of people as generally being the same age as me (which leads me to think of them as "guys" and "girls").

What we really need is a new word for women that serves the same purpose as "guys": Less formal, more familiar. "Woman" sounds too stilted or formal while "girl" is (or can be) demeaning.

Ken Kuhlman 10:56 PM on 12 May 2008

Woman, at two syllables, is too long for an American. Plus, it comes across too much like "of man" -- it seems to insinuate that a woman is just a derivative of a man. "Chick" and "gal" are both derogatory, so we're still searching for a better word. Just as we're still searching for the right third person gender-neutral pronoun -- can anyone say "thon"? -- we all realize that "girl" sucks, but we currently have no good alternative.

Thankfully, languages evolve, and eventually this problem will be resolved. It just might take another generation or two.

Jordan Running 11:26 PM on 12 May 2008

I have known several women who take offense to being called "girl." The trouble, as Nate and Ken point out, is that there's no female equivalent to "guy." I always say "woman" (unless I'm in familiar company, and even then it's usually "woman") simply because I'd prefer not to be called "boy" and figure women would be right to expect the equivalent courtesy.

Most of those women, I'm now realizing, were college-aged, so maybe they were trying to assert their adulthood.

David Chen 12:12 AM on 13 May 2008

I switch terms between girl, woman, or lady, depending on context. In serious contexts, I usually opt for woman. In less serious contexts, I typically use lady because girl does sound odd if they are past school-age. But groups when the girls are calling themselves girls, I may refer to them as girls as well. I figure they are co-opting the use of the term to infuse it with positive connotations (youthfulness and playfulness), whereas it's not as clear when the term comes from someone else.

Feminism is a pretty complex subject and there are a lot of disagreements between second-wave feminists and third-wave/post-feminists. It sounds like you were raised by what might be a second-wave feminist, whereas a post-feminist would say that more good may be done by embracing the word "girl" and removing any negative stigma attached to it. I tend to see two major sub-goals for feminism; one is that women should not be restricted or stereotyped to feminine qualities and roles. The second is that feminine qualities and roles should not have the stigma that they currently have. It can sometimes be hard to advance one goal without opponents grabbing ground from the other.

Jack Diederich 2:58 AM on 13 May 2008

Can I go meta? Being offended is a tax primarily on the offendee; it is draining to maintain a heightened emotional state and a burden to convey that emotion to the numerous people who do somethings without meaning offense. However the casual tsk-tsk is a very strong force because we're all people and social creatures.

You have to pick your battles and take the easy wins that can be had at the edges. Mel Brooks helped make racism unacceptable with "Blazing Saddles" as did Chevy Chase and Richard Pryor in this famous SNL sketch.

Top down efforts certainly have an impact but they aren't as good as old fashioned shunning and coercion. If you want a revolution in the West your are S.O.L. If what you want is something slightly different it is as easy as smiling or frowning appropriately. The results aren't immediate but if you have a point others will follow.

Ossian Woods 4:57 AM on 13 May 2008

I think that the use of "girl" says more about the maturity of the speaker in instances where the lady older than 10 years. In english it's just offensive. The only reason that Americans regularly get away with it is because it's so commonplace that people don't catch it.

American men should try it in Europe, and see how far it gets them!

susan senator 6:53 AM on 13 May 2008

Maybe it's because I'm 45, but I like being called "girl." It makes me feel youthful and lighthearted. It is playful. I also like being called a "woman," because that feels, to me, sophisticated and feminine. I think it is all about how you feel about yourself and what you value. My friends, who are a similar demographic to me, all care about how they look and try to be their most attractive without torturing themselves (excessive diet or surgery) and we do sometimes refer to ourselves as "girls."

In bellydance, "the girls," are breasts! It is a fun way to remind students to stay in dance posture: you keep "the girls" lifted.

And, by the way, Ned often uses the term "Girls!" affectionately when he is commenting on something particularly feminine that I am wearing, such as a skirt with bows on the hem or when I discuss the difference between a Louis heel and a pump. I believe that he actually enjoys the term, for its apparent illicitness (as a departure from how he was raised, although he loves and respects his mom)!

Foone 7:40 AM on 13 May 2008

I used "boy" and "girl" in an application recently because unlike the alternatives (male/female woman/man) "girl" doesn't contain any variation of "boy" in it. This wasn't for any "WOMEN ARE NOT SUB-MEN!" reason, I just was using substring-based searching, so searching "man" would get both woman/man and searching "male" would get both male/female. (And since the male versions are shorter, they'd always match before the female versions)

Clearly boy/girl is better, if only from an algorithmic standpoint! :)

Geoff 9:00 AM on 13 May 2008

The last time I tried to call a woman "woman" to her face--and note, I wasn't being derogatory or demeaning--I got a look of death. So I'll stick to 'gal' or something along those lines.

Geoff 9:02 AM on 13 May 2008

Oh, and also: It's common in the gay subculture to refer to oneself or one's friends in the feminine (even for non-drag queens), generally 'girl' and 'girlfriend'. Partners are frequently referred to as 'wives'.

David Boudreau 9:37 AM on 13 May 2008

Some people use "girl" to refer to a grown woman because the speaker is older than she is, or just to make her feel younger by assuming the familiar, as others mentioned. For better or worse, a female's social value seems to correspond to her looks (which denigrate over time), so reducing her years to "girl" status is not necessarily a bad thing, is it? A male's social value is more tied to his brains or strength (things that can be improved over time). Gmail's UI told me today that Joan Rivers or somebody said "Beauty is like being born rich, and getting poorer every day". My guess is, I doubt she ever had a job clearing drains.

mike bayer 9:53 AM on 13 May 2008

I think at its core, "girl" is just another of those patriarchally-toned expressions we use every day. I once temped for a NYC firm that put on fashion shows, and they had a room full of photos of prospective models...."girls" was the single term used to refer to these young women in all cases. Here's a folder full of girls, here's a bunch of girls we aren't going to use, etc. It was a radical feminist's nightmare. I was once berated by a particular RF because I used the expression "someone had the balls to do that". Because, oh male organs imply power and female organs imply weakness ? At the end of the day I think all these linguistic points that radical feminists make are correct in that yes, they do enforce a social structure that places men and women in different places. I think the question is, do you think men and women are fundamentally different....if so, then the gendered terminology does not seem quite as offensive (depending on degree of course).

sapphirecat 6:31 PM on 13 May 2008

As far as I can tell, offense is not inherent in any single part of the system. It depends on both the speaker and listener. If a speaker is mean-spirited, then the listener knows that; but (I think) it's a conscious decision on the part of that listener to feel that other speakers are acting in that same spirit. The whole idea of 'reclaiming' words is based on the listeners rejecting the negative connotations and building a community where the word is positive instead.

So what I'm trying to say is that it seems to me like things are only negative when everyone knows they're negative. And terms like 'girl' are in a state of flux, which will continue until the anti-girl campaign prevails or fades away. For the moment, though, everyone is not in agreement, and this difference will show itself now and then in "don't use that word, it's (favorite bad adjective here)."

teresajo35 1:24 PM on 12 Jun 2008

I'm secure enough in my femininity to not be offended by either woman or girl. Whichever word someone uses to describe me doen't lessen me as a person. Most times girl is not said in an offensive manner, and when it is, I consider the source! I don't feel the need to be validated by a word.

Dee 4:47 PM on 20 Jun 2008

If you are not offened by being called a "girl", I think that is great; however, it would be even better to feel as if I had a choice. I often observe people, and I feel for most individuals calling an adult female "girl" means something; otherwise, why the need to call a 3 year old male "little man"? Many commentators in the News referred to male teens as "young men" v. female teens as "girls".
The males that insist on calling me, as an adult female, "girl" would be offened if I referred to them as "boys". It has been my experience that it is OK for them to make a fuss about being referred to as "boys" but it isn't OK for me to politely tell someone that I am an adult and no longer a "girl".
It isn't the actual act of being called a "girl", but the fact that for some (mostly males) it appears that I do not have the right to correct them.
Hey, I am old, fat, and ugly, being called a "girl" isn't going to change that.

Captain Gabe 11:18 AM on 17 Sep 2008

"Girl" refers to a young female, and to young-looking attractive females. It's a high compliment to be 35 and have people naturally refer to you as a girl as it means you're hot. If you find people are naturally calling you a "woman" you need to look in the mirror and make some changes.

Add a comment:

Ignore this:
Leave this empty:
Name is required. Either email or web are required. Email won't be displayed and I won't spam you. Your web site won't be indexed by search engines.
Don't put anything here:
Leave this empty:
URLs auto-link and some tags are allowed: <a><b><i><p><br><pre>.