Girl is Cool but Woman is Accurate

by | March 18, 2021

The words girl and woman have separate definitions. However, many women (like myself) use these terms interchangeably. Intriguing, right? Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines girl as “a female child.” The same reference manual defines a woman as “an adult female human being.” While women and girls lack an age-neutral term that applies to us as a female collective, men have the generic guy or dude. Female people are expected to switch between two developmentally-specific words, using whichever one we find best – but imperfectly – suited to the moment.

Though this problem might seem harmless, it isn’t. Referring to a girl as a woman is inappropriate because it assumes a sense of maturity that hasn’t yet developed. Referring to a woman as a girl disrespects us. It erases a woman’s maturity.

When adults refer to themselves as women, we reclaim a more accurate sense of ourselves. We also defy a culture that fetishizes girlhood. Take the widely-admired book Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov. The novel explores a grown man’s obsession with and sexual abuse of a 12 year-old girl. Still, the term Lolita remains ubiquitous. It’s frequently invoked when girls are sexualized by our culture. Similarly, the terms “barely legal” and “jailbait” often refer to underaged girls. 

Anyone else having a flashback to American Apparel’s banned school-girl ad? 

Valeria Pelet, a staff writer for Harvard Crimson, wrote about the woman/girl distinction in a piece titled “In & Around Language: Girl vs Woman.” Pelet articulates an argument similar to mine, detailing how the use of the word girl problematizes discourse. “‘Woman,’” she writes, “is meant to indicate an acquired sense of maturity…” Adults often hand the burden of “womanly” responsbility to cisgender girls when menstruation starts. The color red blots out cis girlhood. 

Dawn Claflin, a regular contributor to the blog Mothers Always Write, reminisces about getting her period in the aptly titled piece, “Congratulations! You’re a Woman Now.” All it took was a smear she mistook for poop to launch her into the world of adulthood: “…this was supposed to be a rite-of-passage of some kind. I vaguely remember women—my mom, teachers, even characters in books—parroting the quote, ‘You’re a woman now,’ to every poor girl with blood-soaked undies. What a rip-off, we all thought. This is it? This is what separates girls from women? You can keep it!”

You’re a woman now implies that it’s now appropriate for others, guys in particular, to sexualize us. We are perceived as ready to negotiate that burden. Pop music hits by Neil Diamond and Urge Overkill suggest this specific sexual shift with the lyric, “Girl, you’ll be a woman soon.” As if we needed any more creepiness, the statement is complemented by the refrain, “Soon you’ll need a man.”

Neil Diamond
Neil Diamond / Youtube

Pelet concludes her woman/girl piece with a comment concerning the media’s fascination with substituting the word girl for woman: “Pop culture has attempted to reclaim the word ‘girl’ and liken it to the respectability that accompanies ‘woman.’ One need look no further than Beyoncé’s almost annual female empowerment track release, ‘We Run the World (Girls),’ or the Tumblrverse’s ‘Feminist Ryan Gosling,’ which depicts ‘girls’ as both intelligent and playful, in control and with a splash of youthful sass—the best of both sides of the ‘girl/woman’ divide.” Pelet’s argument suggests that adults fall into the groupthink trap, using girls to refer to ourselves because so many others around us do it. I, for one, can name way too many pop songs that refer to grown women as ‘girls,’ though some songs challenge this phenomenon. 

Britney Spears’s throwback ballad I’m Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman is interesting because its chorus refers to liminality. It speaks to the singer’s in-betweenness. “It’s a personal song about that transitional stage in life,” Spears said in an interview with the Daily Record. “A woman has all the wisdom that she needs and I’m right in between right now. I’m almost a woman. It’s a beautiful song.” I like to think that Spears’s song not only fought against the groupthink trap of calling women ‘girls’ but that it also brought awareness to the inappropriateness of calling a young woman a girl when she prefers otherwise. The pop song expressed both her liminality and her autonomy.

I do sometimes use the word girl as a term of endearment and some of us use it to poke fun at ourselves, suggesting that there’s growth that needs to take place in our lives. The term shows up in a lot of media produced by women for this reason. The web series that preceded HBO’s Insecure was titled The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl. 

In a 2016 interview with Gayle King, Issa Rae, the star of Insecure, confessed,“I’ve always related to feeling uncomfortable and out of place.” Of course, women can feel uncomfortable and out of place at times, but the keyword in the title of Rae’s webseries, Girl, speaks to Pelet’s argument, that woman and girl have inverse meanings. Throughout both series, main characters Issa and Jay (both played by Rae) take a journey, learning truths about themselves and those around them, all through the lens of Black American womanhood. Like many coming-of-age character arcs, Issa and Jay both show a tremendous amount of growth as the series progresses. The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl expresses endearment, the title poking fun at Jay’s perspective while also hinting at gravitas. 

Issa rae
Issa Rae / Shutterstock

Lena Dunham’s HBO series Girls also deserves some…scrutiny. I was a teenager when the show was released. Though I tuned in every week, I was annoyed with the representation of its cast in relation to its title; I remember thinking with a huff, ‘not every girl is a white, spoiled, twentysomething living in New York City.’ This was a Captain Obvious take and I wasn’t alone in it. In addition to praise, the show got its fair share of criticism. 

Dunham was aware of the impression she made. She responded by taking note of Girls’ cultural gaps and expanding the show’s world by adding more racially diverse characters, such as Jessica Williams and Donald Glover. However, she also defended the show’s flawed premise. In an interview with Q magazine, Dunham flat-out said, “This is a commentary on what it means to be a white middle class person.” Defending and staying true to your original vision is what artists are supposed to do I guess. Still, when one pins such a universal word on such a specific type of person, one should expect to get dragged, at least a little. About Girls, Pelet writes, “The main characters are routinely portrayed as whiny and careless. Like anyone who refuses to grow up, they keep stumbling, not quite coming to terms with the fact that there’s more to life than their small, racially homogeneous social circle. Perhaps not coincidentally, the eponymous title dubs these characters ‘Girls.’” 

Film, television and music facilitate open dialogues and that makes them powerful mediums. While creating something for an audience, it is in an artist’s nature for their work to reflect their own personal world, especially if it’s loosely based on their lived experiences. Still, artists should pay attention to the ideas they perpetuate through their art. And I’d like artists to embrace the term woman more. “Woman” more aptly describes our struggles and alludes to the wisdom we’ve earned.

“It holds a lot of power, that word”, says my friend Sage, a trans woman. “I see it as a word that applies to the adult female that’s self aware, self-sufficient, and most importantly of age… There are women and girls…and it’s important we make a distinction.” My mom agrees. When asking her about the distinction between girl and woman, she simply answered, “You think differently and your thought process is different… at least, it should be.”

I can’t help but think of Whitney Houston’s I’m Every Woman. And yes, it could just be that the word girl is shorter, so it’s used more frequently, and that it rhymes with more things… but woman gives us more agency as adults. Reviewing one of my favorite feminist texts This Bridge Called My Back, I was delighted to see the word woman literally everywhere! Cherríe Moraga’s dedication lives on every page, “This book is written for all the women in it and all whose lives our lives will touch. We are a family who first only knew each other in our dreams, who have come together on these pages to make faith a reality and to bring all of ourselves to bear down hard on that reality.” The interchangeability of girl for woman might never die, but if feminists are out here having fun in celebration of the word woman, maybe the rest of the world can catch up.

Mariah Mickens is a creative writer and independent filmmaker from Los Angeles California. As a recent University undergrad, Mickens is excited to continue her journey through artistic discovery, further crafting her audience, aesthetic and artistic purpose. Mickens uploads her short films to Vimeo and makes/sells art through Instagram. At the moment, she is working freelance and writing a feature film.