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”.
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.