Girl or woman, boy or man?

After my previous post, in which I described my process of looking for a romantic partner, one of my friends asked me why I used the word “girls” instead of “women.”  I am a self-avowed feminist and my friend, I think, could not understand why I would use such sexist language.  In the feminist community it has been taken for granted, indeed it is a kind of commandment, that one should not refer to a grown woman as a girl.

The word “girl” has a lot negative connotations: immature, docile, inferior. “Woman” by contrasts indicates maturity, and induces respect. See for instance this article.  The corresponding youthful term, “boys”, for the other sex, seems to be much less often used (when referring to grown men), being replaced with the casual term “guys.” Thus there is an inherent asymmetry in our language, making it hard to treat men and women the same way. This asymmetry goes much much further than just the girl/woman distinction, as is excellently depicted in this essay by Douglas Hofstadter.

But do we really want to be so absolute? Because the word “girl” has these negative connotations, if you use it to refer to a grown woman you are being (even if only inadvertently) sexist? The word also has a lot of potentially positive connotations.

When I used the term in my previous post I did not choose to do so consciously. It felt like the natural term to use in the context. With hindsight, I would say this was because it was informal and suggested females who are youthful and marriageable. Girl is the natural incomplete form of “girlfriend.” (The same can be said of “boy” and “boyfriend”, of course. ) There is another, perhaps more important reason, why I used the term “girl”, rather than woman. I was talking about myself and my own search for love, and I consider myself to be young, youthful, and in many ways immature. To describe myself as searching for a woman would have seemed false – I am not mature enough to be looking for a woman. I am a “boy” looking for someone to grow up (read: old) with.

It is an oversimplification to say I am looking for someone immature and that I am merely a 16-year old in a man’s body. Rather, I believe there are many aspects to romance, and one of them is a youthful one which may be applied to some degree even to grown men and women. In these instances the use of youthful language may be appropriate.

Perhaps, instead of disavowing the word “girl” we should use the word “boy” more often. In the area of romance both sexes revert, in some sense, to a younger state of mind: the nervousness and excitement of prospective love, the inability to reason clearly, the terrible longing, the playfulness and coyness, the short-sightedness and tunnel vision.

I will leave you with this quote from one of my favourite movies of all time, Notting Hill, which uses both words to great effect:

“After all… I’m just a girl, standing in front of a boy, asking him to love her.” – Anna Scott (Julia Roberts), Notting Hill

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