Sisterhood Blog

On Co-opting the Word 'Girl'

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

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“Hey Gurrrlll, how you doin’?” Part Brooklyn homegirl, part Wendy Williams, it’s the way I’ve lately greeted my nearest and dearest girlfriends. I’m going for affectionate and ironic — what with it coming out of the mouth of a white woman edging into middle age, even if as a naturalized citizen of Brooklyn I can stake some legitimate claim to Brooklyn-ese.

Nonetheless, the semiotics of “girl” are an interesting topic, as the layered implications of this loaded label continue to evolve. As with all things language related, these implications are culturally specific, and so Nettie Feldman’s recent Sisterhood post about the sharp annoyance she feels at being called “girl” by her male colleagues in Israel is as much about what it means in the context of Israel’s culture as anything else.

Because it’s so run-of-the-mill for women in Israel to be addressed as “maideleh” or similar, as Nettie suggests, it reflects the fact that it’s a culture where chauvinism remains entrenched. The issue is really about what calling a grown woman “girl” suggests: that in the Israeli workplace, there is a gender power imbalance and that men feel quite secure in the dominant position. Things today in the U.S. — at least in my blue state world — are quite different.

I’d be shocked to hear a woman called “girl” in a professional environment — at least by a male colleague or supervisor. It’s so out of touch with the current cultural norm that it might even be usable as evidence of a pattern of sexual harassment for those who lean toward litigiousness.

But the subverted use between peers of terms like this one is a different matter.

As was addressed with excerable insensitivity by Dr. Laura Schlessinger in her rant last week on her radio show, sometimes terms used derisively by people with more power to describe those with less power, like “heeb” or “girl” are subverted by the people in that group and used between them with irony and affection. (Subsequent to her showering her (black) caller and her listeners with “the ‘n’ word,” Schlessinger announced that she is quitting her show at year’s end.)

Underneath the imbroglio, there remains an interesting (if super-sensitive) issue, as pertinent to our consideration of women being called “girl” as to the terms used for other disempowered groups. Some terms, however, remain too loaded for comfortable use. Somehow “heeb” between Jews seems okay, while the “k” word would not be. Similarly, women calling each other “girl” seems acceptable (if slightly tongue-in-cheek) while anyone calling a grown man “boy” would seem offensive.

Young women with no personal memory of being called “girl” by a male superior use the term freely with each other. In my first job out of college, a short-lived and unhappy experience working as the servant, I mean executive assistant, to an older public relations executive, I was treated with as much casual arrogance as if he called me “girl” to my face. That I was “his girl” was clear from his attitude, and it left a lasting impression.

As did my grandmothers’ use of the term “girl” to describe their household help (invariably black), as in “my girl is coming Friday to clean.” While their language was totally typical of members of their generation, their unconsciousness about the class and racial implications inherent in the term rankled each time I heard it.

The only time I still hear it is from women in the Haredi community who will say, about their West Indian or Eastern European cleaning lady, “my girl is coming to clean before Pesach.” They say it the same way Nettie’s colleagues have addressed her as “girl,” from the same unconsciously more powerful place in the dynamic.

Hearing things like that has helped me be more conscious about appreciating and addressing with respect the (mostly West Indian) women who have aided me as babysitters and housecleaners over the years.

And Lord knows that like Nettie, I would not easily suffer a male colleague calling me any form of “girl.” It bothers me similarly when a man addresses an elderly woman with “how’s my girl?” because it bespeaks the same fundamental (if unconscious on the speaker’s part) disparity of power and disrespect.

But when a friend — male or female — says “Hi girl!” to me, it feels affectionate, as I hope it does when I greet my girlfriends that way.

For kids of my children’s generation, once they pass through tweendom the popular term for boys is “guys” and for girls, well, it stays “girls.” I’d love to come up with some new term for girls, something which would indicate that period between childhood and womanhood, a term to be used in casual conversation that would suggest youth but no disrespect.

What do you suggest? C’mon, girls, post your ideas as comments below.


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