While this post isn’t exactly a response to Dr. Heller’s post from two weeks ago, I feel like her post sets the stage for this one. I suggest that you read hers first, if you haven’t already.
For a long time now, I have found comfort in scholarly argumentation about power imbalances and struggles. A big part of this is about finding a way to articulate, in a rational, logical, structured way, things to which I initially react on an emotional, or a gut level.
Despite this pull that I have towards rational, logical argumentation, my emotions sometimes get the better of me and I find myself unable to articulate my thoughts and feelings. I find myself grasping for something to say to legitimize my emotional response to something, wondering if it’s all just in my head.
Today, I’ll talk about just one example of that – being called a “girl.”
I’m 31 years old. I’m young, but I’m well past the liminal phase in a person’s life when it’s not yet clear whether they can be interpreted as “adult” in all contexts. I’m definitely an adult.
Sometimes, people call me a “girl.” Unless the person is a stranger with whom I will probably never interact again, I usually respond with “I’m not a girl.” Sometimes, I deliver this with a smile. Sometimes, it’s deadpan. From time to time, I throw in a curse word for punctuation.
Sometimes, people smile at my reaction and correct themselves by calling me a “woman,” or a “person,” or an “adult human” or whatever. Sometimes, they seem confused until I articulate that I’m objecting to being classified as a female child. The other day, after my objection was made clear, the person who had addressed me as a “girl” didn’t just back down and correct himself, as most do (whether just to be polite or because they actually get it). Instead, he insisted that “girl” and “woman” actually mean the same thing and it doesn’t really matter what term he uses – he wasn’t calling me a child, he was just calling me a female, in a neutral way. I made it clear that I did not agree with his position, but I also lost my ability to articulate my thoughts and feelings.
Of course, there are lots of different contexts in which a woman can be called a “girl,” and some of them seem to be about female solidarity (“hey girl!”) rather than subordination or the distribution of power.
It seems to me, though, that when a man or an older woman calls a woman a “girl,” there is an undertone of cuteness, sweetness, innocence and naiveté. These are not suggestions one makes about someone one considers to be mature, capable, intelligent and respectable. Maybe on one level, my objection is because my personality and sense of self do not fit well with sweetness and innocence. But even more than that, I think, is my sense that I’m being thrown in together with ALL women when I’m addressed in this way, and that we are ALL being called girls.
Is being called a “girl” a big deal? I honestly can’t tell. I sometimes get fixated on the smallest of details because I can see how they connect to huge problems relating to power and violence.
It is very clear to me that being called a girl is:
- The wrong word for what I am
- (Sometimes) an example of subtle, everyday sexism
- A way of making a woman seem less worth listening to
That, on its own, is irritating. But as Dr. Heller wrote, two weeks ago, “symbolic and physical violence feed off each other.” Symbolic and physical violence are also very closely linked in my mind. So, being called a “girl” also brings to my mind a slew of other related issues:
- Gender pay gap (Canadian women are making 80 cents for every dollar made by Canadian men)
- Physical violence (Half of all women in Canada have experienced at least one incident of physical or sexual violence since the age of 16)
- Sexual assault (1 in 4 North American women will be sexually assaulted during their lifetime)
- Fear of walking alone at night
When I hear a person calling me a “girl,” I feel myself being associated with the sweetness, innocence, weakness and subordination of women. I feel our shared participation in a complex (and sometimes subtle) system of gendered oppression. I feel suffocated by it. I know that most people are participating in this system unconsciously, maybe completely unknowingly. But does lack of bad intention excuse it completely?
I mean that as a real question. I’m interested in how other people think about and respond to the word “girl” (or other words that make me feel similarly icky, when uttered by a stranger, like sweetie, sweetheart, honey, etc.). Comment, please, and let me know what you think.