am i still a ‘girl’?

I’ve been thinking about different terms of address for men and women. Especially about the use of the word “girl.”

I guess what brought this on was a certain behavior I noticed at work (as so often happens—it’s the perfect environment to observe many obliviously non-feminist people of all ages interacting in their natural habitats). I work in an office for a smallish company, in a large, open room with the rest of the billing and collections departments. Most of the employees in this area are women, though there are a couple of men.

Many times, I will hear someone on the phone speaking to a customer say something like, “Let me transfer you to the girl who handles the credit card payments.” Hmm. How old is this girl? If I was that customer, would I be picturing a 12-year-old sitting at a desk, handling my credit card information?

If I complained about this, surely the perpetrator would protest that men are often called boys, too. That is true. But I have a hard time imagining anyone saying, “Let me transfer you to the boy in credit and collections.”

I haven’t complained—yet, because nobody has referred to me that way so far. If anyone does, I will definitely ask them not to, and explain why. I will tell them it is offensive to refer to a grown woman as a “girl”, especially to a customer in what should be a more formal conversation, in a situation where one would never refer to a man as a “boy”.

So this got me thinking, and I started doing some dictionary-type research on my go-to online dictionary, (I like it for its comprehensiveness, and in this case, because it orders definitions by usage, not by first appearance. Plus the URL is really easy to remember.)

Most people probably think that words like girl/boy, woman/man, and lady/gentleman are just opposite and equal terms to denote the (perceived) gender binary. However, if you reflect on their actual usage, you can see that they are not at all equal—that they reflect society’s disgust with women—its view of women as the second, lesser sex.

girl / boy

A boy is “1. a male child, from birth to full growth, esp. one less than 18 years of age.” Logically, girl should mean the same/opposite thing, but instead, a girl is “1. a female child, from birth to full growth.” So here we learn that a grown boy is a man (unless you decide to refer to him as a boy to insult him—see below), but a grown woman always stays a girl. That answers my title question: yes, I am still a girl, a child, equivalent (emotionally? physically? mentally?) to a less-than-18-year-old-boy, in society’s eyes, and always will be no matter how old I am.

Here we learn that if one refers to a man as a “boy”, it is most likely to insult him: “2. a young man who lacks maturity, judgment, etc.”. When one speaks of a woman/girl, however, such traits are taken for granted, since all women may be referred to as girls. Women are inherently lacking in “maturity, judgment, etc.”, no matter their age.

lady / gentleman

If you happened to read one of my first posts, “casually reinforcing the gender binary”, you may have an idea how I feel about the word “lady”. I’m not opposed to it’s use entirely—there are situations where it comes in handy. If, for example, you were a circus performer, it would be entirely appropriate to address your audience as “Ladies and Gentlemen!” It’s the unequal usage of its supposed opposite that really pisses me off.

It’s the same thing as when a man opens a door for me—I appreciate it, or it pisses me off, depending on his reason. (And before anyone asks how I could possibly know his reasons—believe it or not, women are perfectly capable of recognizing sexism. That is a topic for a whole other post, but if you find yourself trying to explain away what a woman says is sexism, please Google the topic and educate yourself.) I open doors for people when they need me to, or just to be polite if I feel like it, and I appreciate when others do the same for me. But I hate it when a man opens a door for me just because I have a vagina, as if it prevents me from opening a door for myself.

And I hate it when I am called a “lady” by some deferential chivalrous knight in shining armor placing me up on a pedestal where I can be admired for my fragile beauty. In that case, when I am called a lady, I am being called “a woman who is the object of chivalrous devotion,” by a gentleman: “a civilized, educated, sensitive, or well-mannered man”. Here we learn that the man is the doer, the action-taker, the knight, and the woman is the still and passive object of the knight’s actions. Not at all equal and opposite.

madam / sir

This is the easy one. Let’s take a look:

sir /sɜr/ [sur]
1. a respectful or formal term of address used to a man: No, sir.
2. (initial capital letter) the distinctive title of a knight or baronet: Sir Walter Scott.
3. (initial capital letter) a title of respect for some notable personage of ancient times: Sir Pandarus of Troy.
4. a lord or gentleman: noble sirs and ladies.

What a lovely word. Now let’s look at its supposed counterpart:

mad·am /ˈmædəm/ [mad-uhm]
1. (often initial capital letter) a polite term of address to a woman, originally used only to a woman of rank or authority: Madam President; May I help you, madam?
2. the woman in charge of a household: Is the madam at home?
3. the woman in charge of a house of prostitution.

So we have learned that to be a woman is not only to be inherently immature and obtuse, but also to be a whore. Whereas to be a man is to be… a man.