By Dawn M. Turner
Recently CBS premiered its new drama “Supergirl.” Although the lead character is a 20-something with powers similar to those of her older cousin, Superman, there’s something about calling her a girl that rings anachronistic in my ears. Reminds me of an old rotary phone that’s not only tinny but completely out of date.
To be fair, several clips of the show portray a heroine who discovers that her voice is among her greatest super powers. I appreciate that. And when DC Comics debuted her in 1959, she was indeed a prepubescent girl.
But my qualm relates to something I’ve noticed in recent years throughout popular culture in which grown women are being called “girls” or calling themselves “girls” even when, unlike Supergirl, it’s not part of their name.
Let me be the first to admit that the “G-word,” like feminism itself, is complicated.
You see, it doesn’t bother me when women assert their need for a “girls’ night out,” or a “girls’ weekend.” Or we might say to a girlfriend, “Gurrrl, you’ve got to be kidding,” or refer to our breasts as “the girls.” And I even respect the clarion call, “You go, girl!”
These don’t bother me because they are references among women that in ways big and small feel empowering and seem to cement a sisterhood. (In fact, I wouldn’t mind if you’re reading this now and thinking: “This girl is on fire!”)
What does sour me on the word “girl” is the utterly regressive way it’s used these days by women who lead with their sexuality. The glammed up types you might see in rap videos or on fashion runways, or even television reality shows such as “Girls Gone Wild” and “The Real Housewives” franchises.
To be clear, I’m not hating on women who lead (or lean in) with their sexuality. It’s just massively wrong for them to call themselves “girls,” especially in a culture that over-sexualizes girls. It also perpetuates the idea of women as weak, one-dimensional beings.
Barbara Risman, a sociology professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago who writes about gender, said that when “girl” is used this way, it infantilizes women. I totally agree.
But let’s back up a bit.
During the “Mad Men” era, when Supergirl was coming of age, it was nothing for business executives to call their secretaries their “girl” or “girl Friday.” To qualify as such, all a young woman needed was a thin waist, shapely legs and a bullet bra.
Somewhere around the publication of “The Feminine Mystique” and the mass production of the birth control pill, “girls” and even “gals” began to grow into women. Gradually, the idea of referring to a woman who worked in any place other than a strip club or a brothel as anything but a “woman” was simply unacceptable and insulting.
But in recent years, said Risman, there’s been a movement among women to reclaim the G-word. (Sort of like the movement, which I despise, to reclaim the N-word.) And this has led to a resurgence in both women and men using the word “girl” to refer to women.
(A digression: Recently, I was looking at a local news show and an African-American female interviewer told her glammed up African-American guest, “You’re such a pretty girl.” The interplay of race and the use of the word “girl” made my stomach knot.)
“When men hear adult women saying this to each other, the stigma of what the word means without the in-group irony gets lost,” said Risman, who’s currently a fellow at Stanford University’s Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences.
“It diminishes and treats beautiful women as though they aren’t adults. I would imagine that there are women who spend a lot of time being beautiful who would find (being called a girl) a compliment. But it’s a complication for women who are trying to be sensitive to equality.”
That is, equal pay for equal work, and equal opportunities.
When we refer to women as girls in ways that are not empowering, it feels especially wrong-footed at a time when we’re trying to help our girls, I mean, our real girls, break out of stiff gender roles and expectations.
We’re encouraging girls to enter the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering and math. We’re asking companies not to impinge on our girls’ imaginations, starting with their toys. In August, Target announced that it would eliminate “boys” and “girls” signs from its toy aisles and bedding departments and go gender neutral.
And girls themselves are harnessing their own power. It feels only natural that if we’re helping them create the infrastructure they need to be super girls, we also should be giving them the room they need to grow up.