When 'woman' is a dirty word

Working Girl (1988): Good girls finish first and get their man. Strong and assertive women aka bitches don't

I get the feeling that the word ‘woman’ is sometimes used in a pejorative manner in my family. In conversations about a woman who is either interesting or just happen to be female regardless of age (but below 50, though this is completely arbitrary), the person is a ‘girl’. A ‘woman’, on the other hand, is often applied to describe someone in a catty way; a female driver in most cases. Conversations with my mother tend to be like this – we’re often on a completely different page when we’re talking about and describing women.

So it’s perhaps not surprising that I’m still a girl to her. And while I still remain unmarried and childless, I remain a girl. Perhaps on a more acceptable aspect of this is due to the protective parent-daughter relationship that I have with her which keeps me in her eyes forever suspended in childhood.

But it could also mean that on a subconscious level a ‘girl’ invokes some level of sympathy and innocence while a ‘woman’ can come to signify incompetence, aggressiveness, and even immorality. Perhaps this is the reason why so many women refer to themselves as girls. And so it is uncomfortable for my mother when I call myself a woman, rather than a child because for her it could connote sleeping around, driving badly, and being a first class bitch. But this is the way sexism in our society works – by using language to put child-like, infantalised women in their place, undeserving of equal respect and authority.

I find reconfiguring and reclaiming certain negative terms problematic. If being called a ‘girl’ means being physically pathetic particularly for men and boys, then can ‘girl power’ really have the potency to mean strength, courage, and control? This is the same reason why I am ambivalent towards other more female-friendly terms such as ‘grrl’ and even ‘girls night out’. Why should grown women claim girl power and submit to the sexism that pressures women to remain youthful and girl-like in order to feel worthy?

Keeping women as children emanates from the desire to control women and their sexuality. This control is perpetuated in the way we use language to describe gender, and women are just as guilty as men for perpetuating it. Calling grown women ‘lass’ is just as bad. A middle-aged woman is finally ‘woman’ because she is deemed unattractive and isn’t a sexual threat – so no need for societal control anymore. This comes to show that female value is perceived to be at her lowest when she is called a woman.

One thought on “When 'woman' is a dirty word

  1. Thank you for this discussion. I’ve been catching myself using the word “girl” in conversation when the person I’m referring to is clearly a grown woman, and noticed in other people’s conversations when I was back in Malaysia for the last two months. I thought maybe it was just me, but I’m glad to know I’m not the only one to notice it.

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