Forever Young: Girls, Ladies and Sexism in the 21st Century
My husband and I like to watch 70s sitcoms—Mary Tyler Moore, Rhoda, Bob Newhart, The Golden Girls. They make us laugh, and the historical references from the 1970s fascinate us. One of the obvious relics on the shows is the fact that the women on the shows are “girls” no matter their age. Well, this would have been a relic in the 1990s. But now it is strangely familiar. For the past decade, women have become girls again—and, even, ladies. She’s a [noun] + girl has become a part of everyday language. There is a series of popular books for women called The Girlfriends Guides, and even a cable show about twenty-something women called Girls. You can find two magazines on the Internet called Girlfriends, and one called Girlfriendz for boomer women. And on meetup.com in Portland you can join a “Ladies’” book club. While not denoting eternal childhood, “ladies” suggests frailty, otherness, rather than humanness. What is this language trend about? Is it a meaningless cultural shift, like dressing retro or wearing a 50s style apron?
I think some real changes have occurred in how women think about women. In grad school in the early 80s, my husband was told that men should never call women “girls.” But now, women themselves are viewing themselves as opposite to men in every way, including in maturity. In the 21st century, it is women calling each other “girls” more than men using the term girls (though notice strip clubs always advertise Girls ,Girls, Girls, never Women, Women, Women). Popular books that describe men and women as different species have somehow made this language shift seem okay (think Men are from Mars; Women are from Venus). The evangelical Christian subculture loves books on gender that encourage polarity (Wild at Heart, and Captivating); men hunt, women wait at the door in negligees. The toy industry tells our children that boys love violent images like skulls and girls love anything soft and pink. While meta-analyses of gender studies in psychology conclude there is little one can say definitively about someone based only on their sex, popular culture hasn’t heard this yet, and really doesn’t want to.
I note the resistance every time I bring this issue up. Women—not men–get angry at me for it. They want to keep their girlfriends and do girl-things. I think a kind of Girls’ Club has developed around certain stereotyped interests, like French manicures. But I also think that, on the positive side, women value certain qualities about themselves that are stereotypically female. They value their relationship-centeredness and their ability to share with each other on a deeper level. These values have become associated with the term “girlfriend” and so the word itself has become sacred, like our friendships. Can we look at the word “girl” more closely, though, with a little bit of distance?
It seems to me that we women increasingly accept that the idea that the way we look reflects on our worth as women. And we want to look young. Magazines like Cosmopolitan and even Ladies Home Journal both reflect that desire, and reinforce it. Though few would admit it, the 1958 Rodgers and Hammerstein song, “I Enjoy Being a Girl” speaks for many women, feminist or not, in 2013:
When I have a brand new hairdo
With my eyelashes all in curls
I float as the clouds on air do
I enjoy being a girl
Pedicure culture is an example. Even fifteen years ago, women didn’t get pedicures regularly. Now it is almost obscene to wear flip flops without shiny toe nails and smoothed heels, as though you just walked off the shelf of the girls’ section of the toy store. Spa culture has spread, as well, as though being pampered is all about primping.
While many women may enjoy nail polish, facials and Brazilian Blow-outs as an art form, or expensive fun, or as something to talk about or do with friends, many men see our values and behavior as an invitation to be viewed as inferior objects of consumption. We are screaming, “Women are just girls. We are inferior to you, and our lives are all about pleasing you with our beauty.” The recent Golden Globe Awards ceremony is an example. The disparaging comments about accomplished women were shocking, but somehow made possible by all the culture’s hyper-focus on women’s bodies, clothes and faces.
Many men may assume all the effort to stay eternally young and girl-like is all about sex—with them. And seeing ourselves as just girls may be affecting our ability to say what we do or do not want when it comes to sex. The cable show “Girls” may be an example of this. Apparently one of the last episodes had a near-rape scene in it. What was willing sex the first time became highly ambivalent sex the next time with a drunk, pushy, inconsiderate jerk. The online discussion about whether or not it was rape is a healthy one, because these scenes likely get played out over and over again in “hook-up culture” where “girls” do not feel empowered to say what they want. Why didn’t the main character, Hannah, say, “See ya!” instead of following the guy’s directions to do what she didn’t want to do? It is always important to consider that she feared for her physical safety, feared that pushy sex would become rape .
Yet , I think that eternal girlhood is one more thing keeping some of us feeling powerless when it comes to a man’s desire for sex. Without thinking about it, Hannah lives the reality of an obedient child. Hannah probably spent hours picking the perfect outfit, polishing her toes, shaving her legs and arm pits (and where did that girl-like cultural expectation come from?), applying make-up and blow-drying her hair for this abusive date. And so somehow it made a little more sense than it might have if she was not trying so hard to please, to go back to this guy’s apartment even though he was drunk and already not-so-nice, and to do exactly what he told her to do.
I think it is time for women to think about what it means to be a “girl” at 25, 35, or 45. Do we really want eternal youth and beauty, including the immaturity, incompetence, obedience and powerlessness associated with childhood? Let’s make a start in changing a sexist culture by refusing to call ourselves, or any other woman, a “girl” or a “girlfriend” or even a “gal.” We can hang out with our friends, or BFFs, and keep the relationships we so highly value. And we can have fun, but forget the Valley Girl, Party Girl, Spa Girl talk. Let’s be the real, all grown-up human beings that we are. Maybe that will help the men around us grow up a little, too.