LOUISE O'NEILL: I find it insufferable when I hear adult women described as girls

This obsession with the word ‘girls’ is a by-product of a preoccupation with youth in women, writes Louise O’Neill

Ben Affleck has a new girlfriend. I know, I’m delighted for him too. Her name is Lindsay Shookus and she’s just a ‘regular girl’.

According to sources, Ben has ‘never really dated a regular girl before’, leading me to wonder what sort of alien life forms he’s been copulating with up until now. (No judgment Ben, you do you.)

In direct contrast to Shookus’s ‘regular girl’, we have Jennifer Garner, Affleck’s ex-wife, self-proclaimed ‘good girl’.

“I grew up being the good girl,” Garner said in a Newsweek article in 2004. “All the Garner girls are. We’re a good-girl family.” Garner bakes, she is photographed at the local farmers market surrounded by her adorable children, she goes to church every Sunday, she sacrificed a promising acting career to support her husband and raise her kids.‘Goodness’, as the Buzzfeed reporter Anne Helen Peterson posited, has become the backbone of Garner’s public branding.

I have to be honest here, I don’t really care about Ben Affleck or his love life. What does interest me is the manner in which the media has pitted these two women against one another. The Regular Girl versus the Good Girl. It is fascinating to observe how often women are expected to perform their femininity in this way, and are, time and time again, forced to conform to certain stereotypes.

Ben Afflect with Jennifer Garner
Ben Afflect with Jennifer Garner

Women are not allowed to be fully formed, well-rounded individuals; they must be placed into boxes that define them, the parameters of which are becoming more narrow. Good Girl or Bad Girl. Madonna or Whore. Cool Girl or Nag. Wife or Mistress. It’s also noteworthy how often these roles are defined by either their relationship to a male figure in their life or by their attitude to sex and their own sexuality. Choose a part and play it well. You can only be one thing or the other, ladies.

I also note that Shookus and Garner are constantly referred to as ‘girls’. Shookus is 37, Garner is 45. These are both grown-up women. We do not describe Affleck — who is 44 — as a boy because to call a man a ‘boy’ (outside of the confines of Cork City, obviously) would be seen as an effective way of instantly disrespecting him, an affront to his very masculinity.

I find it insufferable when I hear adult women described as girls. TV shoes like Gilmore Girls, New Girl, Girlboss, HBO’s Girls. In publishing it seems as if the only way to guarantee a bestseller is to include the word ‘Girl’ in the book title. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Gone Girl. Girl on the Train. Luckiest Girl Alive. Girl Unknown. As the author Sara Barnard remarked: “Be honest. If the title was The Boy on the Train, wouldn’t your first thought be, ‘Where’s his mother?’ not ‘Ah, commuting professional’.”

I find it insufferable when I hear adult women described as girls

This obsession with the word ‘girls’ is a by-product of a preoccupation with youth in women. I have heard people discuss the injustice in how men and women age differently, complaining that men become more attractive and women become increasingly invisible. This is not a biological fact, it’s the result of generations of movies and TV shows portraying men in their fifties, sixties, and beyond as sexually viable human beings and women of the same age as dried- up husks.

We find it difficult to view women over the age of 60 as sexually attractive because we have simply never seen it before.

When we call women ‘girls’ we are contributing to a culture that insists that the younger a woman is, the more appealing she is (please see the ‘barely legal’ category on porn sites for proof). No wonder many women themselves do not like to be eferred to as such, when the term ‘woman’ seems to connate a decline in societal value.

The word girl is the technical definition of a female-identifying person who is below the age of 18. ‘Girl’ is a female child and therefore to refer to women as girls is infantilising, reducing women to a childlike state.

And what do we think about children? We think they are in need of care, of protection. Children need boundaries. Children need an adult to guide them due to their innate helplessness. It is striking to put that into context in a country like Ireland that still refuses to grant women bodily autonomy by allowing us access to safe, legal abortion.

I find it insufferable when I hear adult women described as girls

If we think of women as ‘girls’, perhaps on some level we do not believe they are mature enough to make such important decisions about their reproductive health?

Could this reduction of women to children be contributing to the fact that female participation in national parliaments is only 23.3% across the globe?

I don’t think that we call women ‘girls’ as a way of being intentionally disrespectful. It is a habit, one that is not easily broken.

I am guilty of it as well, and have to constantly correct myself when I call a woman my age a ‘girl’. Because I truly believe that words matter, that the way in which we describe people as the ability to affect the way in which they see themselves.

By referring to women as girls we are diminishing them, robbing them of their power.

As the journalist Carmen Rios wrote for Everyday Feminism, it is highly likely that society calls women ‘girls’ as a subconscious attempt “to reduce them, to make them take up less space and garner less recognition.

We do it to make them smaller. Like girls.

“But women deserve space. Women deserve recognition. Women deserve to contribute. Women deserve to be acknowledged for what they are — grown ass women. And anything less just won’t do.”


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