Last week the Edinburgh University Sports Union ran a campaign encouraging women to be active, celebrating female sporting and athletic achievement. The name of the campaign was ‘This Edinburgh Girl Can’. Whilst the underlying sentiment is undeniably a positive one, the use of “girl” to describe young women is intensely problematic, and indicative of a wider infantilising and belittling of women in our society.
This use of “girl” does not come directly from the Edinburgh SU, as it ties in with the nationwide ‘This Girl Can’ campaign which, according to its website is “a celebration of active women up and down the country who are doing their thing no matter how well they do it, how they look or even how red their face gets”. Obviously, promoting an active and healthy lifestyle and body image is a good thing. But the tendency of referring to women as “girls” is simply patronising, whether in a social situation, a work environment, or even in an inspirational campaign such as this.
A girl is a female child, under the age of 18; a woman is an independent adult. By describing a woman as a girl, society is taking away her agency and reducing her to a figure which is unable to control her own life. To put this in perspective, a male over the age of 18 is never called a “boy” but is almost universally referred to as a “man”. In addition, “guy” can refer to a male of any age, but the lack of female equivalent means that young women of university age are forced to choose between “girl” and “woman”.
The term “girl” brings with it problematic notions of frivolity and shallowness, and an inability to look after oneself. And yet, on the other hand the term “woman” is widely viewed with distaste by many, often creating an image of age, severity and a lack of humour. But this is an image which must be reshaped. A woman is a leader, an adult, in charge of her own life and her own decisions, capable of independence and, most importantly, an equal to men. In contrast, a girl is small and unthreatening to the male world, someone who needs to be taken care of, and incapable of assuming responsibility. Attached too to the use of “girl” is the omnipresent notion in our society that a woman’s most valuable asset is her youth, and thus a woman should aim to keep looking and acting young for as long as possible, conforming to society’s evaluation of a woman’s worth by her body.
Writing this article from France, it is clear to see the parallels in French society. There has been a conscious effort to combat these diminutions, such as removing the ‘mademoiselle’ option on official forms, allowing women to refer to themselves as ‘madam’ regardless of age or marital status, as is the case with men and ‘monsieur’. But regardless, the misogyny is deeply rooted. The catcalls in the street that follow women throughout their day are indicative of the evident feeling of male superiority, that they have a right and ownership of the female body. Thus whilst in formal French an adult female is always a “femme”, the use of “fille” in everyday speech demonstrates this same devaluing of a woman’s agency.
Although there has been movement to the reclaim the word and use it instead for female empowerment, such as Beyoncé’s song ‘Run the World (Girls)’, or Lena Dunham’s illusion-shattering sitcom ‘Girls’, it makes little difference to the wider connotations of the word. In general it is a term which is patronising and infantilising, and which undermines the intelligence, power and independence of women.
Image credit: Bo Kage Carlson