There are many offensive words you can use for a female but they are often confined to, ahem, “bitchy” conversations or private emails among football executives. The word “girl” is different. The question of where we stand on it, and when and to whom we apply it, seems undecided.
This week the BBC removed the word from a documentary and was promptly accused of censorship. In the documentary, The Queen’s Baton Relay, broadcaster Mark Beaumont was seemingly surprised at being floored by judo champion Cynthia Rahming – perhaps unaware that someone becomes a champion at judo by being rather good at it. The first time the documentary was aired he said: “I am not sure I can live that down – being beaten by a 19-year-old girl.” But when the programme was repeated, the word “girl” had been removed.
Whether you find the word “girl” offensive or not depends, as ever, on context. Is it being said by a man or a woman? What is the age of the female being called a girl? And what is the intention behind the use – is it belittling, affectionate, or purely descriptive?
One of the key objections to the word, of course, is that it is infantilising when used to describe a grown woman – but the age at which a girl is thought to become a woman is highly variable. Internationally you are defined as a child until the age of 18, but you are able to do various adult things before that age in this country, and at 19, like Rahming, you’re still a teenager, and so arguably still in your girlhood.
Girl is also, surprisingly, a term that women seem to use more to describe themselves, and their friends, the older they get – perhaps irony and affection for the word increase with age. Women may spend their twenties and early thirties fighting for respect and recognition and demanding not to be called “girl”, only to embrace it later on when “lady” starts sounding like an awful euphemism.
While recognising that “girl” can have negative connotations when used to describe a woman, we don’t want to compound those connotations by recoiling at its use. Demanding not to be referred to as a girl confirms that it is an undesirable thing to be, that it is associated with weakness or silliness or irrelevance. The fact that it is used as a threat to boys to encourage certain masculinised behaviour – “You can’t have a dolly, they’re for girls” – shows them that boys are not only different but better. The “girl power” espoused by the Spice Girls gained currency because it was a novel concept.
When people are criticised for “throwing like a girl”, “crying like a girl” or “being a big girl’s blouse”, it implies that there is nothing as rubbish or weak as a girl, or quite as surprising as them being a champion. Beaumont was making a joke about being beaten in a combat sport by not just a female, but a young female. Maybe he shouldn’t have felt emasculated by being beaten by a judo champion who is clearly better at her sport than almost anyone else in the country, regardless of age and genitalia.
“Girl” isn’t sexist every single time it’s used, but when it is used day-in, day-out to signify that the female of the species is somehow lacking, and that the worst thing that could happen to a man or boy – to any of us in fact – is to be like a girl, then it does have an effect. Beaumont needs to listen to more Iggy Pop, who once said: “I’m not ashamed to dress like a woman because I don’t think it’s shameful to be a woman.” It’s not more shameful to be beaten by a girl than by a boy – especially when she’s a black belt. – By Naomi McAuliffe © Guardian News and Media 2014
Image – Spice Girls (AFP)