We hear it all the time in TV and movies: Women being called “girls”. Someone saying, “Hey, you should meet this girl” while referring to someone in their 30s, or, “The girls are here” about women in their late 20s. It’s happening so often that it’s even put in the titles of TV shows without us caring. Girls. 2 Broke Girls. New Girl. Gilmore Girls. We’re used to it.
So why do I cringe every time I hear a woman being described as a “girl”? Because we rarely hear men described as “boys”. Would a single dad, running his own business, be referred to as “boy”, in the same way Lorelai is one of the “girls” in Gilmore Girls? Don’t think so.
The Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary defines “girl” as “a female child”, “a young woman”, “a young unmarried woman”, and “a single or married woman of any age.” (The definition doesn’t even make sense; apparently everyone can be a girl!)
What about boy? A boy is “a male child” and “a young man”, which matches the definition of “girl” pretty well. But where girls are also defined by their marital status, a boy is only “an immature male”. Oh, and boy can also be a “person”, according to the dictionary. Because we all know girls are not people.
It may sound harmless, but media’s use of “girl” it’s just another sign of an unequal society, a society where both boys and men get to be people with personalities, while women are defined by their marital status. It’s a society where “being a man” is something positive, while “acting like a girl” is bad.
When Jess in New Girl gets creative as a strong, funny teacher in her 30s, I see her as a woman. When Hannah overcomes OCD in Girls, I see her as a woman.
Not because you have to be funny, strong, or have specific experiences to be a woman, but because being a woman isn’t something you earn by getting married or acting or looking a certain way.
So next time you hear someone say “girl” about a person who obviously is an adult, don’t let it go by unnoticed. Ask, “Oh, she’s a child?” or “Do you mean woman or girl?” Make people think a little bit about the language they use, and challenge them on why they use it.
Then maybe next time, Lena Dunham will make a show called Women!
Siri Nybakk is a Norwegian journalist currently working on her master’s degree at University of San Francisco. Her thesis is about how organizations and activism can spark change around how women are portrayed in the media. As a feminist, she is especially passionate about how female sexuality is represented and the awesomeness of Swedish feminist cartoons.