The United States: Where Men are Men and Women are Girls

I spent an unhealthy amount of my Peace Corps time in Tanzania fantasizing about that magical land, the U.S., where all the roads are paved and the internet video streams at 360p and above.  Sure, I remembered that it was a sexist racist place, but it was a distant sort of remembrance, subordinate to my memories of cheese.  This is how I completely forgot that in the U.S. it is culturally acceptable to refer to and address adult women as girls, and now it really annoys me.  I’m just over having people, usually men, who may or may not even be older than me, calling me girl, or gal, or Turing-forbid, girlie.  I want to go to the gym and not have the other patrons say “hey girls” to my sister and me as their default greeting.  When I spend about two weeks fighting with a manager about proper wording in a contract (“the relationship can be terminated for any reason at any time” is NOT how contract language works, sir), and I win mostly by insisting in so many words that I am used to being treated in a courteous and professional manner, to have the manager refer to me from there on as a gal is just an insultingly unprofessional thing.  Back in my ill-spent church-going days, the preacher took to going out of his way to greet me as “hey, girl” after I’d gone to talk to him to protest his statement that women who wear the pants lose their femininity (which protest, for the record, accomplished nothing).  Way to add insult to the injury of my second class citizenship under the god-given authority of his penis there.

I’m an adult.  I have been educated and I have accomplished things. I am the equal of other adults legally, socially, professionally, and, I’d hope, grammatically.  What’s a woman have to do for some basic linguistic respect around here?

I’m part of the problem, because sometimes I do it too. The demographics I am part of tend to identify their female members as girls: geek girls, nerd girls, horse girls, aerial silks girls.  Further, it’s culturally natural to refer to a group of women as girls, while a group of men is, at its most informal, referred to as guys or dudes.  I have attended girls’ nights, when I have never heard of boys’ nights.  I’m trying to do better.

Martin Luther King, Sr. rather famously told a police officer that he (King) was a man and should not be addressed as boy.  This was back in the day when white folk felt free to refer to African-Americans as boy and girl, but thanks to the brave people of the civil rights movement, this is no longer an acceptable thing.  Infantilizing language isn’t some harmless verbal tic, it’s a way of linguistically enforcing a status that is not quo to a point that the power differentials seems completely normal.  The privileged get to be referred to as adults; everyone else gets the status of children.  It is, as Kipling famously (and possibly sarcastically?  I’m not really sure with Kipling.  Maybe I just like the man’s writing so I try to justify it as sarcasm, I don’t know.) remarked, the white man’s burden to guide people who are half-devil and half-child.  That horrible person Christopher Columbus made much of the child-like qualities of the natives he encountered.  Though later, when it turned out the native Americans didn’t make good slaves, the ruling classes decided that really, Africans were much more childlike.  Infantilization is a great tool for rationalization when it comes to dehumanization.

It is ironic that I turn to the struggle against racism to draw parallels with sexism, when feminism as a movement has many problems with including people of color.  That, however, is an issue on which I am more qualified to listen than to speak.

Featured image from Wikigallery.

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Elizabeth is a professional belly dancer, a flaky computer scientist, and a returned Peace Corps volunteer. She lives in Georgia (the state of the U.S., not the country) but is nonetheless somehow not a combination of stereotypes from Gone with the Wind and Deliverance. Her personal blog is Coffeefied. Operafied. Fluffified. Beglittered.

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