Does referring to his future wife as a “girl” when he’d never call his boss anything but a “woman” reveal a secret bias?
I recently published an article on The Good Men Project entitled ‘I Knew I Met the Girl I Am Going to Marry When I Found Pictures of Her with Her Ex.’ I spent a fair amount of time and effort on the article itself, but the title came to me unexpectedly in a moment of inspiration. Upon completion, I was especially fond of the title. It captured perfectly what I wanted to say in only a sentence. While the meat of the story was in the article, the title offered a zesty appetizer of what was to come.
A few days after publication, however, the title no longer struck me as flawless. It had a glitch, a failing that, while not serious, I would have mended had it presented itself to me before publication. Why, I asked myself, did I not write, ‘I Knew the Woman I Was Going to Marry when I Found Pictures of Her with Her Ex?’
This sudden qualm arose the way ideas dawn on people in the shower. But like ideas that suddenly present themselves with clarity, it wasn’t entirely spontaneous. Rather, it was a punctuated culmination at the crest of a long gradual enlightening. It was not the first time I pondered the difference between ‘woman’ and ‘girl’. For a few years I had been fending off a lurking suspicion that some intimation of gender bias was embedded in this distinction between ‘woman’ and ‘girl’. The genesis of this needling fixation was a brief conversation with my younger sister while we were sitting in a restaurant having dinner. I found myself admiring a waitress I thought was attractive. As the waitress glided by our table, I followed her with my eyes while muttering only within earshot of my sister, ‘that girl is attractive.’ My sister’s immediate reaction was a reply that veered on the indignant:
‘Why do you call her a girl?’ she asked.
‘What do you mean?’ I replied.
‘What if I said ‘that boy is cute’?’ she asked again.
The implication seemed to be that ‘girl’ was disparaging, or at least belittling. Her remark was jarring to me, but I shrugged it off with an air of indifference. It was an irksome reminder of what I took to be her doctrinaire political correctness. I despise political correctness (with the understanding that there is a difference between cheekiness or satire or even insensitive innuendos which are innocuous because they are inadvertent, and giving offense gratuitously or being oblivious to the provocative undertones of taunts, jeers, and gibes), so I replied with a tone of mild contempt that I would be unperturbed if a woman referred to me as a ‘boy’ rather than ‘man’. It’s just a word. Who cares?
To me, it was all semantics. What does it matter if I call a female a ‘girl’ or a ‘woman’? What should matter is how I treat her. And to some extent, that sentiment holds true today. To the extent I have wrestled with whether the treatment of ‘woman’ and ‘girl’ as interchangeable is a manifestation of gender bias, it has not been exclusively a genuine personal inquiry into gender perspectives. It has also been a backlash of internal dialectic in which I was convincing myself that the nominal distinction between ‘girl’ and ‘woman’ was artificial and that my sister was overreaching.
Yet a few days after my article was published, as I found myself considering the pungency of my article’s title, it occurred to me how awkward it would be if it were a woman who authored such an article about her boyfriend and gave it a title that said: ‘I knew the boy I’m going to marry when I saw pictures of him with his ex.’ It seemed to me this would make it sound like her boyfriend was a teenager, or at best a college student. In short, young, not yet a man, someone in whom maturity and understanding were absent. Does a woman marry a ‘boy’ or does she marry a ‘man’? It seems to me that invariably a woman thinks of her prospective husband as a man. No vacillation on this matter.
This attitude or inclination may only be evidence that women frequently prefer older men. It may be awkward for a woman to refer to her prospective husband as a ‘boy’ rather than a man, but it is not because ‘boy’ implicitly belittles the male gender; rather, it’s because women often prefer older men and so would almost programmatically eschew the use of ‘boy’ to refer to a prospective husband. But even if this is true (it is only a loose conjecture on my part), she nevertheless still refers to her prospective husband as her boyfriend. Have you ever heard a woman describe her significant other as her ‘man-friend’? And by the way, have you ever heard a man describe his significant other as his ‘woman-friend’ (I have heard lady friend, though the connotation is a little different than girlfriend, which clearly denotes the partnership of a significant other)? But this all brings us back to semantics.
Despite ongoing attempts to counter my sister with semantic sophistry, I still felt the thorn of doubt. I could not avoid the question: should I be indifferent between referring to my prospective wife as a ‘girl’ and referring to her as a ‘woman’? Perhaps I should, because ‘girl’ does not carry the same strength of connotation in comparison to ‘woman’ as does ‘boy’ in comparison to ‘man’. This is why I was arguing to myself that the distinction is a simple matter of semantics. But the semantic point assumes a consensus understanding of what, in fact, are the connotative undertones of these words. Perhaps my understanding is not the same as yours. I am no linguist, so my understanding is inevitably a function, in large part, of how I and others use the word in everyday communication, and the use of words depends on the varieties, vicissitudes, and verities of circumstance and context. To use a concept from philosophy, language is a game (see Ludwig Wittgenstein). The meaning of words finds sustenance in how they are used, and how they are used depends on the rules of context and circumstance. For example, I understand ‘girl’ and ‘woman’ as interchangeable labels to identify someone as having the gender of a female. I use these words to make you understand that I am referring to a female rather than a male. But whatever the reason, unlike ‘girl’ and ‘woman’, ‘boy’ and ‘man’ do not strike me as similarly interchangeable.
In most contexts, this might seem clear enough. But what about a professional context? I used to have a female boss. She was exceptionally competent, mature, and professional. In thinking all this over, I was horrified to think of myself on the phone with a client and referring to my boss as a girl. I would never have considered it. I imagined myself on the phone, discussing a potential line of questioning in a deposition (she was an expert economist; the client would be an attorney who was grooming her for testimony), and saying: ‘well, Lauren is a sharp woman, she’ll be able to handle that line of questioning.’ It would not occur to me to say: ‘Lauren is a sharp girl, she’ll be able to handle that line of questioning.’ Not only would it be impolitic, I dare say it would be demeaning, if not insubordinate.
So ‘girl’ and ‘women’ are not always interchangeable. In some contexts they are. In some contexts they are not. What is the fine line between these contexts? Whatever the answer, the inference is that, in some contexts, ‘girl’ conveys shades of meaning that ‘woman’ does not, and that the difference is material. Whether as a matter of acculturation or indoctrination, I would venture to say ‘girl’ is likely to connote docility or tractability, maybe also as having a kind of puerile quality. In other words, not grown up. There is an implicit condescension in referring to a female as a ‘girl’ that is not present when referring to her as a ‘woman’, just as that same tone of condescension is absent when referring to a male as a ‘man’.
The primary concern, then, is the subliminal treatment of woman in the use of a word. Consciously, I declare vociferously and proudly that I seek to treat women as my social equal. But unconsciously, am I using a word that connotes shades of meaning that, however inadvertently, relegates a female to inferior status in my estimation of her as a partner in a relationship or an interlocutor in a dialogue? In short, was the title of my recent article sexist? Should I have replaced ‘girl’ with ‘woman’?
Maybe. I do not want to extrapolate the point too far. I recoil from political correctness as much as the next person. I think in most cases a man intends no harm. Do we really want to get all bent out of shape over a word? The important point is to make sure you treat a woman well and not get bogged down in semantics. But words have meaning, and gender-specific words inevitably influence how a man thinks about the opposite sex. I am no expert on sexism, but I would loosely define it as a set of attitudes and ideas about how men think about women, and those ideas and attitudes facilitate, or even encourage, discriminatory actions. In other words, sexism is about the power to discriminate, exclude, or alienate based on the way in which one’s understanding about someone affects the decisions he makes about her.
This extends to the realm of a relationship. Surely, I have no interest in abusing my significant other. I do not want to discriminate against or somehow alienate the ‘woman’ (‘girl’?) I love. And yet, my girlfriend and I have had our differences, and I have probably exacerbated the situation at times by not treating her as an equal. It happens in subtle ways, the most obvious one being when I disregard her complaints as the outbursts of a female, who I assume is, by her very nature, emotional, crazy, shrewish, dare I say, ‘girlish’. In other words, I resort to old-school sexist attitudes about the emotional fragility of a woman, and in the process dismiss the rationality of her concerns. Is there some correlation, even causal relation, to my mechanical use of the word ‘girl’ in the title of my article ‘I Knew I Met the Girl I Am Going to Marry When I Found Pictures of Her with Her Ex’?
I can say this much: I’ve been thinking a lot about it.
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