What Does It Mean When We Call Women Girls?
Robin Wasserman on the Unstoppable Wave of "Girl"-Titled Books
As a dedicated contrarian—someone whose few attempts at trend-chasing have culminated in baroque, Wile E. Coyote-esque failure—little makes me feel more alien in my own skin than finding myself accidental avatar of a cultural fad. Which is to say, I’m not really the zeitgeist type. And yet it seems I’ve written a book with “girl” in the title. First prize: Free ride on the bandwagon, like it or not.
Tackling the “girl” trend has become a bit of a trend in itself, but often these pieces elide a meaningful distinction between two kinds of “girl” book: those whose plots revolve around actual, underage girls and those whose titles describe adult women. Conflating the two makes sense if you’re wondering how girly the market has gotten (answer: very), but—as any thirty-something woman who’s been called “girl” by a well-meaning waiter or retrograde employer can attest—the word evokes different connotations for those of us old enough to vote.
What we talk about when we talk about grown-up girl narratives: almost always, the Gone Girl girls, wounded women on the warpath. But that’s just one subset of a cultural moment that’s spilled across genre and medium, girl stories by and about women. The last few years alone have given us grown-up rocker girls (Girl in a Band, Rat Girl, Violence Girl, Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl), science girls (Lab Girl, The Girls of Atomic City, Rise of the Rocket Girls), WWII girls (Lilac Girls), ballet girls (Girl Through Glass), and journalist girls (Good Girls Revolt), not to mention all the grown-up girls struggling to find themselves on screen, 2 Broke Girls, New Girl, Supergirl, and, of course, Girls. There’s a Good Girl’s Guide to Sex, a Modern Girl’s Guide to Bible Study, there are Girls in White Dresses and 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl, and thanks to Amy Schumer, there will soon be The Girl With the Lower Back Tattoo. There is, it seems, a girl for nearly every kind of woman. I think it’s worth asking why.
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Case Study: Kathleen Hanna
In 1992, Kathleen Hanna was a righteously enraged 23-year-old fronting an all-female punk band. She wanted to do something more—something in response to the misogyny in her punk community and beyond. Something radical. And so Riot Grrrl was born.
The Riot Grrrls invented the modern usage of “girl-power.” A political movement of teenagers and young women, laboring under a self-imposed media blackout, Riot Grrrl is now (mis)remembered as an estrogen-fueled musical fad. But the music was only a means to an end: “revolution girl style now.”
Within a few years, “girl-power” had been annexed by the Spice Girls, harmonizing harbingers of lipstick feminism. Down with Backlash, up (yet again) with Sex and the Single Girl. Still, “girl-power” carries a whiff of its revolutionary roots. “I felt powerless not because I was weak,” Sara Marcus writes in Girls to the Front, her history of the Riot Grrrls, “but because I lived in a society that drained girls of power.” The word has become a weapon with which to fight back.
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There are, of course, circumstances in which “girl” seems plainly derogatory (e.g., calling Hillary Clinton a girl) or plainly risible (e.g., Hillary calling herself one). A thoroughly unscientific survey of my woman card-carrying friends suggests that they find the term acceptable—if not always accurate—when they apply it to themselves, but intolerable coming from a man. “I find it irritating when used as a way to belittle women for performing their femininity, or when a man—especially an older man—uses it,” M. says. “I feel the exact same way about ‘ladies,’ actually. I’ve never heard it used in a way that doesn’t somehow imply we’re a coven coming for their testicles.”
In her twenties, C. regularly called herself a girl, but she no longer feels the term applies. “The year I turned thirty also happened to be the year that I gave birth. So I think that probably also had something to do with the transition: You can’t be a girl if you’re a girl’s mother.”
If there is a thematic message encoded in the “girl” narratives, I think this is its key: the transition from girlhood to womanhood, from being someone to being someone’s wife, someone’s mother. Girl attunes us to what might be gained and lost in the transformation, and raises a possibility of reversion. To be called “just a girl” may be diminishment, but to call yourself “still a girl,” can be empowerment, laying claim to the unencumbered liberties of youth. As Gloria Steinem likes to remind us, women lose power as they age. The persistence of girlhood can be a battle cry.
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Case Study: Hannah Horvath
If you don’t hate Hannah Horvath, you know someone who does. Self-centered, self-absorbed, financially and sexually reckless, aggressively responsible to no one but herself, the protagonist of Girls is—at least for a vocal segment of the internet commentariat—female “adultescence” pushed to nightmare extreme. (Emphasis on female; we love to love the dysfunctional boys of Girls.) In fairness, the girls are dysfunctional narcissists whose efforts to impersonate grown-up women—via romantic commitment, child nurturing, professional advancement—inevitably blow up, occasionally with mass casualties. Admission of bias: I love them all. I love Hannah the most.
Judd Apatow made his name as the patron saint of overgrown lost boys, and he’s now using it to help women like Lena Dunham create her female Peter Pans. Shockingly, audiences prefer their charming schlubs to look like Seth Rogen; schlubby women are another story. Especially schlubby women who have lots of sex and show no inclination to take care of anyone but themselves.
In the pilot episode, Hannah’s parents cut her off financially, a moment often mustered as evidence of the character’s childishness. Instead, it’s the opposite, catalyst for a series about how to live as a grown-up, without losing the best parts of yourself. It’s this insistence on the latter—admittedly sometimes to the exclusion of etiquette or basic human decency—that mandates the title of the show. The girls aren’t Girls simply because they’re immature, but because they’re still walking question marks. They’re still busy, as Hannah says in the pilot, trying to become who they are.
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Here’s how Louis CK draws the distinction between girl and woman:
[22-year old girls] might say, I’m 22, I’m totally a woman… Not to me, sorry. To me you’re not a woman until you’ve had a couple of kids and your life is in the toilet… when you become a woman is when people come out of your vagina and step on your dreams.
If it’s easy to see how the girl label attaches to unmoored millennials, it’s less evident how it applies to women firmly rooted in the adult phase of life. But it makes sense if we read the “girl” narratives as corrective to the Louis CK threshold, the “girls” as women who refuse to let a little thing like people coming out of their vaginas ruin their dreams.
All the Single Ladies, journalist Rebecca Traister’s recent take on the rise of the single woman, opens with her childhood conviction that the marriage plot was less fairy tale than Shakespearean tragedy. “It was supposed to be romantic, but it felt bleak,” she writes of the nuptial trajectories of her girlhood literary heroes. “Paths that were once wide and dotted with naughty friends and conspiratorial sisters and malevolent cousins, with scrapes and adventures and hopes and passions, had narrowed and now seemed to lead only to the tending of dull husbands and the rearing of insipid children to whom the stories would be turned over.”
The girl books crowding the nonfiction shelf are written by and about women who insist on sticking to that wide path, women who refuse to Jo March themselves into a supporting role in their own life: girlhood as a state of mind.
The word attaches itself with special frequency to women in music and the sciences—not as diminishment of their achievement, but as its trophy. Girl in a Band, Lab Girl, Hunger Makes me a Modern Girl, Rise of the Rocket Girls: these are women who followed their girlhood passions into male-dominated fields and triumphed. Their stories speak of subverting gender expectations, breaking barriers, and—at least on the page—prioritizing work and art over the role of domestic caretaker.
In Girl in a Band, Kim Gordon pauses—briefly—in her tale of Sonic Youth’s rise to acknowledge the birth of her daughter: “Yes, she changed our lives, and no one is more important to me. But the band played on.” Gordon spent the first half of her career answering journalists’ inevitable question about what it was like to be a girl in a band; the moment she gave birth, they instead wanted to know: “What’s it like to be a rock-and-roll mom?” Her daughter might well be the most important thing in her life, but she’s nearly irrelevant to this story, which is about music, ambition, and the need to create. Gordon writes about her difficulties expressing her true self, relieved only by art: “For me the page, the gallery, and the stage became the only places my emotions could be expressed….Art, and the practice of making art, was the only space that was mine alone.”
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Case study: Rachel Watson
The girl on the train is a mess. An alcoholic, unemployed ex-wife who can’t imagine herself into any other role but woman scorned. She solves The Girl on the Train’s central mystery only thanks to a pathetic, pathological obsession with her adulterous ex-husband and his new wife and child. I won’t reveal the book’s twists, but suffice to say, the husbands and babies of this book don’t fare well.
Paula Hawkins’s novel features a triumvirate of women: One drowning in the loss of her husband and her inability to bear a child. One steadfastly ignoring the loss of her child, destroying her marriage in the process. And one performing, perfectly and to the exclusion of personal desire, the duties of wife and mother—doomed to pay a steep price. This is a novel about the corrosive effects of domesticity, but also about the intolerable void left in its wake. Rachel is the flip side of freedom, a wife erased by marriage. Once she’s no longer wife, she’s no one at all. Like the girls of Girls, she is unmoored, but not by choice. She’s the girl on the train because everything woman about her has been stripped away.
Her bleak self-appraisal: “I lost and I drank and I drank and I lost. I liked my job, but I didn’t have a glittering career, and even if I had, let’s be honest: women are still only really valued for two things—their looks and their role as mothers. I’m not beautiful, and I can’t have kids, so what does that make me? Worthless.”
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Another nugget of wisdom courtesy of Louis CK:
There’s a difference between girls and women and it’s not about age. There’s a reason that they call it Girls Gone Wild. You notice, there’s no Women Gone Wild—cause no one would fucking buy the Wild Women DVD. Because when girls go wild, they show their tits to people. When women go wild, they kill men, and drown their kids in a tub. That’s what wild women do.
Louis’s reverie of what wild women do comes strikingly close to describing a sub-genre of domestic thrillers, the Gone Girl girls. Tackling the trend in The Guardian and then NPR, Megan Abbott questioned how much these novels have in common beyond their titles, but allowed that both Hawkins’s and Gillian Flynn’s books are “dealing with the sort of perils of being a woman today, of marriages falling apart, of ambivalence with motherhood, the complexities of relationships among women.”
She’s right to pinpoint the “emotional violence” of domesticity as the tie that binds. I’d argue the link goes even deeper—that these books are grappling with an erasure of self by the identity of “wife” and “mother.” Their protagonists lead double lives, an ever-widening gap between the woman they present to the world and the girl hiding within. Despite being domestic thrillers about marriage and motherhood, the girl books tend not to actually depict domestic life—instead, they track various escapes from it. These are women in flight or exile from the trappings of womanhood.
The Luckiest Girl Alive is desperate to mold herself into a perfect wife, but victory requires a flight from conjugal expectations. (Not much of a spoiler; the novel begins with her fantasizing about stabbing her fiancé to death.) All of the girls on the train are imagining themselves into marriage or out of it; for them, girlhood functions as hell and salvation, pathology and refuge, wound and weapon, all at once.
Then there’s Amazing Amy. Gillian Flynn’s defiant wife-monster is a feat of double erasure, inner girl first devoured by “cool girl”—a constructed identity entirely in service to male desire—then, as her marriage curdles, constructed persona erased by the real Amy. When Nick decides he likes the fake version better—the “Cool Girl, who is basically the girl who likes every fucking thing he likes and doesn’t ever complain”—the real Amy kidnaps this simulacrum of a perfect wife, erasing her from Nick’s life and our page. Gone Girl encompasses a multitude of gone girls, its protagonist a palimpsest of personas, each doing her best to erase the ones that came before. None of them interested in being erased by a man, much less his spawn. The pregnancy at the end functions as a prison to trap both Amy and the man she fled—the final surrender of inner boy and inner girl to a life sentence of husband and wife.
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Case Study: Robin Wasserman
I am, on the one hand, a woman in my thirties, financially independent, with health insurance, annual IRA contributions, and, presumably, the occasional wrinkle that I decline to notice. I am, on the other hand, a woman with no husband, no children, and—because I foolishly live in New York City—no property. I spend my days making up stories, my career a relentless game of let’s pretend. I have no employer, no office, technically, no need to change out of my pajamas. Friends scramble to live their lives between cooking, cleaning, mopping up children’s vomit, and discussing the labor division of cooking, cleaning, and vomit-mopping with their spouses; they pay mortgages; they worry about bathroom fixtures and marble backsplashes. (They know what a backsplash is.) I watch Gossip Girl reruns and go out on dates and still list my mother as my emergency contact.
So you can understand my vested interest in the question of what qualifies as female adulthood and what it means to be a female adult who lacks those qualifications. What it means to be a woman; what it means to be a girl; whether there’s an age when we stop being both.
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Imagine if the Gone Girls had all decided that fleeing, framing, or killing the men in their lives wasn’t worth the trouble. Imagine if, instead, they’d waited things out. Waited for their children to grow up; waited for their husbands to die. Endured the obligations of womanhood until those obligations were at an end, and their inner girl could return with a vengeance. Imagine what that might look like.
I imagine it might look a lot like a house in Florida with a lanai and an ample supply of cheesecake, home to four women reverted to a time of ascendant female friendships and unbridled sexuality, beholden to no one but themselves, obligated only to the pursuit of their own happiness. It might look like the Golden Girls, domestic nightmare transformed, by passage of time and lilting theme song, into dream.
This is a show I first watched with my grandmother, her lonely apartment reminder that widowhood wasn’t exactly a one-way ticket to the promised land. But that only reinforced the miracle of the Golden Girls—what a triumph of aging female sexuality and power, what a belated but breathtaking reversal of the marriage plot. Over the course of the series, the girls were visited by a steady stream of opinionated ex-husbands and grown children, ghosts of obligations past. One by one, they were sent packing. Always gently, with love; always firmly, with a reminder that the demands of wife and mother no longer determined the order of things.
I chafe at girl as much as the next woman when I can sense the judgment in it, the implication that I don’t measure up. And the idealist in me resents my own theory about the semantics of girlhood—believes that if the evolution from girl to woman insinuates an erasure of self, then it’s our expectations of female adulthood that should change, not our terminology. That we should reclaim woman, acknowledge with language what we argue with manifestos: that womanhood can be its own liberated, self-interested state of mind. But the pragmatist in me is glad that, in the meantime, we have the word girl to remind us. Glad that these characters exist, girl in name and spirit, that we’re living through a cultural moment dominated by women of all ages, still and always busy, trying to become who they are.