Some of you might think this post is going to be about the trans- community, what with the recent “birth” of Caitlin Jenner (the quotation marks because she was not actually pushed from a womb, but reborn in her own right). This post is not about that. This post is about the words “man” and “woman”.
It’s an issue that has always rested in the back of my mind, very passive until recently. I’ve been waiting to see some figure, either in an op-ed or a Ted Talk or otherwise, discuss the way society will use the word “girl” in place of “woman”, while referring in an equal manner to males with the term “men” (ex. “Manly man” and “Girly girl”). I realized today that if I wanted someone to discuss this and nobody has, that I should be the one to bring it up. Sure, it may not seem an enormous issue at the present, but I think at its core, it may be contributing (and has contributed) to societal norms and ideas over time. To me, the change that is most important is the change that is long-term. Of course, I could go on for ages about how people use female associated words to demean men, because to them being female is inherently worse than being male, but people have already done that a thousand times (but that doesn’t make it less of an issue).
Several years ago, before Y2K, if the media really is a reflection of the truth of the era, men would often be scolded or diminished by being called “boy” (usually after behaving in an immature fashion). It served to infantilize them, and make them feel they had to prove their worth and earn the respect of others. We moved out of that practice as far as I can tell. It is a phrase no longer used in movies or television, and therefore one must assume it is no longer a popular practice among society.
Yet to my eyes, using the word “woman” in both the past, and sometimes even today, has served as a harsher insult, while the term “girl” is sometimes directed as a compliment of a woman’s delicate attractiveness or innocence (two “desirable” traits). I would give an example, but I can’t think of any common phrases with the word “woman” instead of “girl”.
Let’s try an experiment, shall we? I want you to find a sentence with the word “girl” in it (while referencing a woman). It could be the title of an article, it could be in a book, it could be on a billboard. Now change it so it is referencing a male human being, using the noun that fits most naturally in that sentence. What noun did you use? My guess is, you used the word “man”. Why not use the word “boy?” Probably because it sounds too demeaning, too young to be taken seriously. So why use the word “girl” instead of “woman?”
To me, at least, the use of “girl” only serves as a way to subtly strip a woman of her autonomy as a fully grown and responsible human being. For years, women have never had full power over their beings; girls under their father’s care were not considered women until they married, and once that happened, they belonged to their husbands. Even now, for some women (perhaps from more extreme conservative backgrounds), marriage is an end goal, because for years it was the only way for a woman to be respected by her peers, or society as a whole (though many just really want to be married for other reasons like love). Perhaps we subconsciously still treat married women with more respect than we do single women because of years of traditional thought. But I’ve dallied too long on that idea, it’s not really on subject.
Often, the word “woman” is used to describe an unruly female who can’t be controlled by the men in her life, and can’t be brainwashed easily. Even in Disney and the like, the villains are the women–powerful, strong, and self-confident; the heroines are the girls–innocent, selfless, and self-sacrificing. You may not say it aloud, but your brain makes that distinction for you based on years of media and society showing it little tidbits of “man” and “girl” everywhere you go.
Perhaps you don’t agree with me, and that’s okay. You don’t have to. But I hope the next time you say “man” and “girl”, you’ll start to think, and maybe, just maybe, you’ll change it to “woman”.
As for me, I will always take “woman” to be a compliment–because it means I am doing something right.