In an episode of CBS’s new show “Supergirl,” the title character — as her alter ego Kara Danvers — wonders aloud whether Supergirl is an anti-feminist moniker for the mysterious heroine. Her media mogul boss disagrees: “What do you think is so bad about girl? I’m a girl. So if you perceive Supergirl as anything less than excellent, isn’t the real problem you?” Calista Flockhart, who plays the boss, reinforced this supposedly empowered stance in an interview: “One of the things I love about the show is it’s a real celebration of girl power. She’s like, ‘I’m a girl, and I’m awesome, and I’m not going to apologize for that.’ ”
I’m all for girl power and reclaiming the word girl as strong and competent in the spirit of last year’s inspiring #LikeaGirl commercials. However, claiming that “Supergirl” is some progressive feminist example of empowerment and progress because of her name choice is far from empowering and progressive for one simple reason: Supergirl is a grown woman.
Referring to grown women, and even post-pubescent teenagers as girls is one of the more persistent and pernicious features of sexism today. It’s not acceptable for four reasons: one, it’s not accurate, just as referring to grown men as boys isn’t accurate. Both terms refer to children, who are biologically and developmentally immature.
Two, referring to sexually mature females as girls demotes us to our long historical role of being children in the eyes of men and the law — intellectually, emotionally and physically fragile creatures inferior to men who require their protection, tutelage and patience. Girls are not equal to men. No one would refer to Queen Elizabeth, Oprah Winfrey or Indira Gandhi — all at least men’s equals — as girls, except disparagingly.
Three, calling some of us “girls” demeans certain women to the advantage of others along class lines. African American women – as slaves and domestic workers — have been referred to as “girls” for centuries, reinforcing their “less-than” rank compared to other women and people (just as African American men have been called “boys”). Adult cheerleaders, dancers, administrative assistants and “low level” service workers are often called “girls”, even by other women, which highlights their lower status in an inappropriate and dehumanizing way. Finally, calling women “girls” legitimizes and even encourages our childish behavior. “Girls” may be playful and fun, but they’re not entirely responsible or self-sufficient. “Girls” don’t earn PhDs or drive military vehicles or run companies any more than “boys” do. Girls don’t have to be taken seriously or listened to, and when we’re called girls we don’t have to take ourselves seriously either.
I don’t think we should remove the word “girl” from our vocabulary entirely, nor that we rigidly refrain from ever referring to a woman as a girl. I do think we should reserve “girl” for those instances when it’s a better or more accurate term than “woman”. For instance, women can have girlish looks, or sometimes display girlish behaviors. As a midlife woman myself, I sometimes find “girlish” an appealing descriptor because it implies a fresh youthfulness women of all ages exude when we’re being silly or playful. A woman can be “girlish” or “girly” (ultra-feminine) without being a girl. Also, what women (especially of color) affectionately say in private to each other (“girrrrrrl!” or “girls’ night out”) is our business with its own meaning and history. Similar to “the n-word”, saying it to ourselves doesn’t give others permission to use it with us too.
This isn’t about “political correctness” for its own sake. Language creates thought, therefore reality. It communicates meaning and respect – or the lack thereof. Language assigns value and power. If to call a grown man a “boy” is to condescend and diminish him, to call a woman a “girl” does the same. There’s no good reason Supergirl can’t be Superwoman.
There’s nothing to gain by calling a grown woman a “girl”, and plenty to gain by referring to women as “women”, and post pubescent females as “young women”. We don’t have a problem with females not being fun or playful enough. We have a problem (still) with women not loving ourselves and our female bodies, not owning our power, holding healthy boundaries, speaking up, going out and getting what we want and need, creating a life we love, or bringing our full brilliance to whatever work we choose. Women do those things, completing the path we start as girls – with the proper support and respect.
I grew up in the 70’s watching Lynda Carter play Wonder Woman on TV. I thought she was pretty kickass then, and as I reflect back, I realize there was nothing “girl” about her – neither her body nor her attitude. Yes, we should absolutely reclaim and uplift the term “girl” as strong, capable and powerful as girls are, but to regress from Wonder Woman to Supergirl is not progress, and should not be celebrated as empowering.