Last time I went salsa dancing, one of my friends spent the entire night spinning around the dance floor, while her boyfriend, who was less eager to dance, watched from the sidelines. Noticing his patience and lack of jealousy, one of her partners commended her on having such a good boy. Though his comments were only intended to compliment, her boyfriend was deeply offended, insisting on the vast difference between the terms “man” and “boy.” Since I am accustomed to the terms “woman” and “girl” being used almost interchangeably (especially at this point of my life), this puzzled me, inspiring me to further investigate these terms and how we use them.
According to Merriam-Webster’s definitions, the term “girl” can be used simply to differentiate life stages such as minor or marital status, while the term “boy” has many more restrictions guiding its usage. Although the term can be used neutrally to describe minors, labeling an adult as a “boy” implies immaturity and inferiority in a way that is, apparently, more offensive to a man than to a woman. This is evidenced by the disparate levels of offensiveness attributed to each of these terms as they are applied to servants. The question then is: why isn’t it as offensive to call an adult woman a “girl” as it is to call an adult male a “boy.” Is it just because women have accepted a lower position in society or does the term “girl” just not carry the same negativity associated with the term “boy”?
According to many feminists, the answer is the former. By using the word “girl” to describe someone who would be called a “man” if not for her genitalia, we are “infantalizing” women. While both men and woman can experience an in between stage, men are not infantalized in this process. They instead resort to the term “guy,” which avoids age categorization all together. This technique is one many feminists believe would be wise for women to adopt as well.
For someone like Lily Rotham, this means reclaiming the word “gal.” She argues that it “has all the best qualities of guy. It’s casual. It’s all-encompassing and all-inclusive. It’s friendly and fun. It’s short and sweet.” However, “gal” has such a strong country connotation that I can hardly imagine saying the word without “Buffalo Gals” playing in the background. As an alternative, Ann Friedman suggests the word “lady.” She insists “lady” captures the best of both worlds:
“Lady” splits the difference between the infantilizing ‘girl’ and the stuffy, Census-bureau cold ‘woman.’ (Both still have their place—just not in the witty conversation that young feminists want to be having.) It’s a way to stylishly signal your gender-awareness, without the stone-faced trappings of the second-wave. It’s a casual synonym for ‘woman,’ a female counterpart to ‘guy,’ commonly used in winking conversation between one in-the-know woman and another.”
Regardless of which word you use, it’s important to know the impact of your words. Each word categorizes its subject with a fixed meaning, so it is crucial that our words categorizing people maintain equality. If you prefer to use the term “girl,” make sure you are also using the term “boy.” However, if you find yourself using the term “guy,” it might be a good idea to switch to a more equivalent word for members of the female gender like “gal” or “lady.”