Thanks, Mayim Bialik!

So Mayim Bialik, whose Blossom nerdery inspired wardrobe choices for me in early teenhood and whose role on some other show I choose to mostly ignore, is pretty smart IRL. She actually has a PhD in neuroscience, which shows somewhat in her recent video that’s being shared by everybody and their dog, on why you shouldn’t call grown adult women “girls”.

pexels-photo-167921
This image is one of many of adult women that came up on pexels.com when I searched for “girls”. WAY TO PROVE MY POINT STOCK PHOTO PPL. 

Bialik bases her argument on the claim that the language we use influences the way we think, briefly name-dropping Sapir-Whorf and encouraging readers to Google that to get an explanation for it. I would advocate against googling those names and that term, though, as you’re likely to land in a morass of pseudoscience, possibly getting lost in the blizzard of “words for snow” debates. It can, or should, be taken as nearly axiomiatic that, as Bialik says, language matters. It neither comes from nowhere nor does nothing, and if you continue to see language as a neutral descriptor of an objectively existing world, well, I’m not sure this blog is for you.

And in this specific example, Bialik hits on a major issue: women are construed as inferior to men through the not-so-subtle use of language. This language is not the cause of women’s inferiority, nor is a shift in word choice the be-all-and-end-all of feminism, but it is meaningful. Using a term whose primary reference point is small children and applying it to unambiguously adult women, whether they are in a bar (as in the initial example Bialik gives) or acting in power positions (as in the CEO she mentions, or in a recent example I heard, university professors [Ed: Ouch]) is an act of infantalization. The semantics of the word “girl” continue to include not only female, but female + child, and using it repeatedly reinforces the notion that women are not as capable, not as intellectually advanced, and not to be taken as seriously as men. It’s a solid four minutes of feminist linguistics in pop culture action, to be honest.

But as the maxim goes, don’t read the comments. As I’ve seen this video shared several times on my social media feeds, I’m coming across some repeated arguments used to counter Bialik’s ideas, and they are hitting all my feminist linguist buttons all at once, leaving me to need to put the giant grading pile aside and get some thoughts about them out.

  • We call men “boys” too. Isn’t that the same thing?  It’s true, there are times when grown adult men are called “boys”, but there are definite contrasts between these uses and the ubiquity of calling adult women “girls”. A key aspect is that “boys” is used in contexts where adding the connotation of youthful play or even childishness isn’t seen as an inherent negative – they’re the “boys” on one’s sports team, for example. Bad behaviour among adult males may even be excused using the colloquial phrase “boys will be boys”, where yes, being a “boy” is a bad thing, but paradoxically, that “boyness” is something that we just have to tolerate and doesn’t preclude the male in question from a position of authority or responsibility. It’s also clearly used in a way that distinguishes adulthood from childhood, as in “separating the men from the boys”, which just doesn’t work when you try to feminize the expression into “separating the women from the girls”. That in itself is kind of telling, because Bialik’s whole point is that we erase the separation between women and girls. “Boy” is not generally used to refer to adult men in their regular, everyday lives (except: see the last point in this section), and you don’t hear someone asking to speak to the “boy in charge of this office” in the same way that you would often hear them refer to “the girl at the desk”. The diminishing of women’s authority and capability is generalized, not based on behaviour, and it’s pervasive. Yes, Bialik says it “never” happens. Yes, she’s wrong about that. But no, that doesn’t erase her point or make it okay for you to dismiss everything else she says, and taking her error that way is simply making an excuse not to listen to women.
  • Well, what about “guys”? We use the phrase “guys and girls” for everybody, so isn’t that the same? Not so much, no. It’s true that this has become a paired set (which reinforces both a binary notion of gender, erasing the many forms of “neither”, and also places identity focus on gender as a relevant enough category to use as a standard, necessary differentiator [Ed: Wow, that’s a lot happening in a couple of words]), but the connotations of the terms are fundamentally different. Only one of them includes the sense of “small child”. When applied to young kids at a school, you don’t actually hear “guys and girls” – you hear “boys and girls”. Washrooms for male identified kids aren’t labeled “guys”, they’re labeled “boys”. And so on. So we give a substitution for adult (or even teenage) men, but the women’s term stays the same. Boys get to grow up and change, while girls don’t. See how that’s not equal?
  • I’m a woman and I refer to my friends as “girls”. Yep. Stop doing that. This isn’t a matter of “only men treat women like children”. It’s a matter of “women are socially constructed as lesser than and our interests are dismissed and diminished”. It’s pervasive, societal, and structural.
  • There isn’t a better word. Sure there is – “women”. We find some of these terms awkward to use in everyday conversation because we’re not used to using them in everyday conversation. The only way that changes is by habit.
  • Wait a minute, are there really no times when using “boy” to refer to adult men is offensive? I’m glad you asked that, fictional comment writer who I haven’t actually seen, because there is one damn important point that Bialik misses and that I wanted to detach from the earlier points because it deserves to be more than a side note. “Boy” is regularly attached to adult men…if they’re black. And in this way, it is clearly infantalizing, diminishing, and reinforcing white supremacy. A quick google search turns up several discussions of why (see here, here, and here – that last one has a whole bunch of legal discussion and analysis of racism that deserves its own post, but still highlights the basic point). That first linked article reacts to an incident where then-Senator Barack Obama was referred to as a “boy” by a white Republican Congressman, and includes this passionate articulation of the problem with that label

    it’s the ultimate sign of disrespect, and is often more offensive than calling them the N-word. For years black men were summarily dismissed and treated with disregard. It was as if their stature was diminished when someone white called them a boy. I’ve heard black men describe the hurt and pain of growing up and having someone white call them a boy in front of their own child.

    In this context, “boy” is a means of diminishing, dismissing, and infantalizing specific types of men, of deeming them less than, and of establishing a racial power hierarchy. The semantic and pragmatic properties of “girl” have a lot in common with this dynamic in terms of power (and we should absolutely add discussion of differential usage patterns that emerge based on other lines of privilege and power, including especially race and disability).

  • Why should we care what a TV star thinks? Here’s an interesting angle on this discussion, to my mind. Bialik is famous because she’s an actress on TV, yes. But she also has a PhD in neuroscience. She’s not a specialist on the relationship between language and cognition, but it’s close enough to her general area of expertise that she’s able to bring that background to bear on her interpretations, in much the same ways as I’m doing here. I’m honestly tired of seeing popular posts by, say, Neil deGrasse Tyson where he comments on language or culture in ways that are totally ignorant because that’s not even remotely close to his area of expertise (Ed: Seriously, stay in your lane, NdGT. You’re so good in your lane), but that are attached to his authority as a scholar and serious thinker, while women’s expertise is ignored. So maybe this should be linked as “Dr. Mayim Bialik, neuroscientist, discusses the relationship between language and thought”, and I would still critique some of her points, but also – Respect to scholarly women saying scholarly things.

To close this now long and ranty post off, if language, gender, and power are your jam, you can find much better and more authoritative commentary on this and other related issues at debuk.wordpress.com.

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5 thoughts on “Thanks, Mayim Bialik!

  1. Tristan Pedersen

    I enjoyed this blog post written by Dr. Shulist because she gives a clear and fair critique to Mayim Bialik on her video demanding that people should stop referring to women as girls. I like that Shulist acknowledges that Bialik is talking about something out of Bialik’s area of expertise. Shulist then uses her knowledge as a Linguistic Anthropologist to polish her argument, point out a few mistaken points, and then expand the argument and hopefully spark a conversation about racism in language and therefore society. I especially appreciated the format that Shulist used on this particular blog post because replying to comments on contentious issue with a well thought out educated response is not an easy thing to do.
    This is relevant to ANTH 110 because it highlights inequality among genders in our culture. Weather consciously or unconsciously, referring to women as girls is a social construction that highlights the inequality among men and women in contemporary society. Giving reference to someone’s age in their title is a sign of respect. Bialik touches on what it means to be a woman, indicating that a once you pass certain rites of passage such as have children or own property or reach a certain age then allows for the title of a woman. Shulist applies the anthropological perspective by including holism and intersectionality when she points out that Bialik missed the racism that can be connected to men being referred to as boys. Shulist shows cultural relativism in responding to the comments with respect and explaining a better way to address women and why in detail; as opposed to just assuming that men are the worst. In her acknowledgement that Bialik has a neuroscience PhD and not a PhD in a field that would study this she is also being relative.
    For me personally, this absolutely sparked a conversation I will have with my friends and family about referring to women as girls. The people in my life including myself constantly refer to women as girls and think nothing of it. It does feel odd to use women but Shulist is right in saying that if we used it all the time it wouldn’t feel weird. I am definitely going to think twice in using the word girl now.

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  2. Evan Cameron

    This post really does a fantastic job of outlining a point that I feel all of us need to think about more when we talk to and about people and groups of people. I really how the post addressed the original source material and then brought up supporting points for the argument being made by Mayiam Bialik such as the differences between how we use the word boys and girls. It is something I had never considered much until reading this post but the language we use makes such a huge difference in how we view people in our social spheres. This post is a great example of how we are socialized into what we think in regards to gender. I liked how the comparison drawn between what we use the term “boy” for describing adult men and the term “girl” for describing adult women. It is very telling to see that there is such a different tone placed on these two words. If it were not for how we are raised to think about the meaning of the words “girl” and “boy” the values we associate with them would be totally different. The conclusions drawn here tie in very well with how gender is something we are taught and it is also reinforced through our behaviours as a culture. It is important I think that the post brings up the idea of celebrity status as a factor into why we should listen to what Mayim has to say. While I believe that being a celebrity does not entitle you to have the “right” opinion I do think someone like Mayim who has some relevant knowledge in the particulars of this issue can bring the issue to the general population where these issues can be made known to more people which is imperative in changing people’s usage in this case of a word like girls to describe adult women. This post really has made me view how I use the word girl and what it means to the women who are addressed in this way.

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  3. madisen james

    As I was reading your blog I read this post several times because it had intrigued me and engaged me in the topic. I had noticed several other posts written by you but this is the one that I connected and supported, which was exactly what I wanted for my Anthropology project. I loved how this blog used a well-known actor and expanded on the controversial issue of a broad topic about gender and racism, which is some of the major topics I have learned in my Anthropology class. It has an important topic, it is addressing how men and women are treated differently in our society today and how women can be looked at as inferior to men. Some people do not understand that the little diminishing comments toward women, they do not even know what their saying affects us. That even though people/men might not notice their using certain terminology for example “girls”, referring to women does effect some women and makes them feel lesser. Another aspect I enjoyed about this blog is that they pointed out the racism that can relate to vocabulary like this, words that seem little and non-implicated on people. The example used in the blog quoted from Barack Obama really stood out to me because this is a huge controversial topic that matters to me and it is nice to hear that political people and people with power are taking a stand.

    Like I had mentioned previously this blog connects to very big topics I have learned in my Anthropology class. For the first one it is gender, and how men and women are seen and treated differently from each other. This blog supports the message that even if it is a little comment bias to a gender either positive or negative it effects people. The more this happens, the more people think that it is okay. This can connect to many different sub-topics in Anthropology, for example, looking how men and women are treated in different cultures and what is seen as the norm for a gender hierarchy. This also connects to the concept of power and how it effects and differs among cultures, this includes intersectionality. Although age and gender are our main topics in Anthropology, racism is connected and shown in this blog. How gendering words and phrases are linked to racism, so they are not just diminishing women but also people from other races. This shows the separation between male and female and white privilege that people assume they have.

    For me this introduced these two concepts in a different way and let me broaden my scope on examples of these issues and how they happen in everyday life. I have experienced language offence based on racism personally, this just reinforced how I felt and that I now see it is a much broader scale in how certain language can separate people. I loved your blog as a whole and this piece will stick with me as I spread the message of offensive gendered language. I will defiantly be keeping up on your blogs!

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  4. Anon

    I enjoyed this blog post written by Dr. Shulist because I have never really thought about how we refer to women as “girls” more than we say boys when referring to men. It’s obvious in this day and age, that sexism still exists. Men will always think they are stronger, smarter and more capable than us. But, us as women can be doing little things like acknowledging the fact that we are not only called girls over women but we are also referring to ourselves, and other women as girls, while grown men are referred to as men or “guys”. I often even find myself doing this without giving it a second thought. I found it to be very intriguing, and it made me think about how we are viewed and portrayed in society in a different light. I believe this relates to our theme of sex and gender because it glorifies the differences and gender ideologies expected for men and women; that women will always be seen as less than men. It also talks about how just having men and women, or “boys and girls” leaves out that fact that some people don’t associate their gender to be either, which was one of our major conversation topics in class; to not assume that there are only two options. While this blog post falls into our topic of sex and gender, and our differences as women and men it looks at it from other ways that I would never consider as an example. I chose this post because it really spoke to me! I’m not a super feminist where I get offended by our status, but I do find posts that point out and shine light on our socially constructed differences fascinating, because I believe that men and women are equal. If more people realized this, we could have equal opportunities for success, strength, and position. It really opened my eyes to viewing possible ways that we are creating these gender ideologies, and stereotypes without even realizing it. How did you come up with this idea? In other words, how did you come to this realization? I would have never thought about the word girl as being demeaning to women!

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