Why Language Matters: Is it Okay to Call Women 'Girls'?

Why Language Matters: Is it Okay to Call Women 'Girls'?

I’m not a girl,

Not yet a woman,

All I need is time,

A moment that is mine,

While I’m in between,

I’m not a girl. 

For those of you who aren’t aware, these hard-hitting lyrics were once told to us by Mississippi-born pop superstar Britney Spears, who spread the word that she was not a girl any longer yet still didn’t feel like a woman. Little did she know, despite this global statement, the term ‘girl’ would still be used to describe her now, sixteen years later, aged thirty-five. Is it okay to call women ‘girls’?

This is no new phenomenon; society has often sidelined women as girls. Earlier this year, Mayim Bialik – aka Amy from TBBT or holder of a doctorate in Neuroscience – spoke of this catch 22 in her video, ‘Girl vs. Women: Why Language Matters,’ which has over 170,000 views on YouTube and millions more on Facebook. She says: “When we use words to describe adult women that are typically used to describe children, it changes the way we view women, even unconsciously, so that we don’t equate them with adult men.”

Even a quick Google search reflects this. Type ‘girls’ into any search engine and many young made-up adult women appear, mid-twenties perhaps. When you search boys, very young males appear on your screen, ten years old or less. Even Google, one of the biggest companies in the world, is telling us women are girls, why is that?

Language is your best stab at representing how you are thinking and feeling. This makes its use incredibly important in everyday life. “Language reflects and also affects the way we think,” says Dr. Pia Pichler, Senior Lecturer in Linguistics at Goldsmiths, UoL. If you start calling people a word then you put meaning behind it, good or bad.

Pichler talks about how we tend to represent females. “Often labels we give women carry more negative meaning then ones for men. Mr and Mistress or wizard, witch, or bachelor and well… even terms like bachelor pad, you might think of a wealthy high-flyer. The female equivalent, does it even exist? And if it does, it definitely carries negative connotations.”  

She continued: “You would never refer to someone of a multi-million pound company as the manageress, would you? You might find that in a bakery shop or likewise.”

But, a lot of women identify more with the term ‘girls’. Trudi Lang, owner of a feminist textile business said: “I often refer to my friends as girls without even thinking because it’s so ingrained in my own language. Me and my friends are all almost, or over, thirty and it really is time for us to stop using this language, but why do we as women use it?” So, is this all a bit PC? Right now, you would rather sit back and enjoy that bakewell you bought earlier and probably not think about this, yes?

But, before you get too into your snack, Trudi brought up the non-negotiable point that men are called girls when they are being ‘weak,’ when they can’t do that last tequila at the bar. She said: “Possibly, the most obvious issue I see in this language, is that when men want to call other men weak, they call them girls.” And she is right, they do, these subtle problems make for a bigger picture that continues to grow and the blatant inequality is further reinforced.

Feminist activist Sara-Jayne Poletti spoke about her own representation. “I’ve definitely been referred to as a girl more often than not, despite the fact that I’m a 28-year-old married woman with a full-time job.” Pichler explained how this could be due to language reflecting society’s norms. She said: “Feminist linguistics do believe language reflects norms in society, that is why it is really important. If it is okay to speak about women in this way what does this tell us about society?”

She asks to consider the topic of language and promiscuity. “How many terms do we have for promiscuous women and how many do we have for men? If you try to sit down and write a list of terms for both genders, you will find a lot more for women. Then, the quality in these, you have stag and then you have slut or slag. Immediately there is a difference.”

Language is biased against women, sometimes subtly and sometimes more blatantly, like a silver birch amongst a bunch of evergreens. But some women will still not agree, some will enjoy retaining their youth through being called a ‘girl’, not necessarily those who identify as ‘girls’, but those who don’t realise how problematic the term really is. Trudi explained: “Being referred to as a girl when your body is that of an adult women is frustrating for some, but a compliment for others who are desperate to retain their youth; both very damaging.”

“Is it the notion of youth, women aren’t allowed to age whereas men, they can?” Let’s hope not, because as much as we all wish this was ‘The Age of Adeline’ and we were Blake Lively, it’s probably for the best it isn’t.

Is this ramble over-thought? Some of you may say yes and some no. But that doesn’t matter because gender inequality is still rife – the pay-gap, the wolf-whistling, the language, the career prospects – and the only way to solve this, is to start from a strong foundation – make sure you use a good primer. Jokes aside, this means you need to use the correct language to represent and address people.

There are a lot of questions here, I count twelve altogether (excluding the title, if you were wondering). If you can answer them, get back to me as that makes one of us. For sure though, listen to a different Britney song – your choice – because it is not okay to call women ‘girls’. Language matters.


Written by Maddy White


Visuals not owned by XXY Magazine