Kathleen Murphey

Kathleen Murphey is an associate professor of English at Community College of Philadelphia.  She has a Ph.D. in American Civilization from the University of Pennsylvania.  She has recently expanded her writing on feminist issues from academic papers on popular culture to fiction and poetry.  “Girl?” is one of those explorations.  Learn more about her at www.kathleenmurphey.com




What does Girl mean?

“Sugar and spice and everything nice”


Thanks to expressions like “Go Girl!” and “Girlfriend!”

Today, in America, “girl” refers to any human female

from an infant to a senior citizen:

Powder Puff Girls, Golden Girls, Spice Girls, Two Broke Girls.


It matters that we are calling adult women girls.

The labels and the language we use matter—

what we call things, what we call people—

it matters.


Calling a woman a girl

is complimenting her internal youth, you might say.

Really?  or are there other messages lurking beneath the surface?


Rewind, in 1950, when a White man or woman called

a 40 year old Black man a “boy,”

he or she wasn’t complimenting his “internal youth,”

he or she was insulting him to his face,

reminding him that he was second-class citizen

and that if he got out of line,

he could be lynched,

or perhaps worse,

his family members could be victimized

in retaliation.


In that light, fast forward to today, when we call women girls.

Girls are children and minors.

A girl is a prepubescent female.

A young woman is female after puberty or should be considered so.

Because if she is a girl, a child, a minor, after puberty,

can she make her own decisions?

Is she in charge of herself, sexually, as a young woman?

But if we write her off as a child,

adults (men and young men) can ignore what the child wants,

can impose what they want (because they see themselves as adults)

on the girls (who they don’t see as adults),

so whether it’s coercion or rape,

men and young men thinking of women and young women

as girls is a dangerous mistake.





But we call men boys, you might say.

But do we?

Xmen, Kingsmen, Men at Work, Two and a Half Men.

We call them all men

even when they are children and teens

even when they are girls and boys

The almighty Male

Why does He still define us all?

But please note, he is seen and labeled an adult

even when he is not.


But we call men guys, you might say.

Sure, but the counter part for guy is gal, not girl.

And, sure, gal gets occasional use,

but we normally pair up girls (children)

and guys (which can mean either boys or men).

Of course, in 1955, Guys and Dolls was a Broadway hit

followed by a movie—

but even before today,

people could see the offensive nature of calling

a woman a doll—

an inanimate object and a plaything to boot!


Beyond girls and boys and gals and guys,

we have ladies and gentlemen and women and men.

Both of these latter pairs

we can associate with adults,

but we don’t use young ladies or young women

as much as we use girls for sexually mature human females.


If we childize women,

don’t we undermine their status as citizens?

The 19th Amendment gave women voting rights in 1920.

The 26th Amendment lowered the voting age from twenty-one to eighteen.

But thinking of women as girls puts them in danger.


In popular culture, Bella Swan is eighteen,

but her husband doesn’t consider her opinion when they realize she’s pregnant.

He plans for his father, the doctor, to terminate the fetus,

with no discussion of the matter.

Jacob, his rival, thinks the same:

“She’s small, drug her, and rip it out!”

—how charming from Team Jacob!

Edward and Jacob saw Bella as a girl,

a child, who didn’t know her own mind,

so they tried to make decisions for her—

and worse—for the most part, she let them,

and millions of readers have found the story sweet

instead of creepy and unsettling.

Call them women or young women because

that’s who they are!

Calling women girls trivializes them all.

Don’t give anyone an excuse to treat women as second-class citizens

or people who don’t know their minds.

Language matters.

What we call young women has consequences.


Take Bruno Mars’ “Young Girls”

“All you young, wild girls,

you make a mess of me.

Yeah, you young, wild girls,

you’ll be the death of me,

the death of me.

All you young, wild girls,

no matter what you do,

yeah, you young, wild girls,

I’ll always come back to you,

come back to you.”


If he really means young girls—what is he talking about?

Six or seven year olds or younger?

Gross, right?

Presumably, he means “of age girls,” i.e., women,

eighteen, nineteen, twenty year olds,

but he doesn’t call them young women (which they legally are)

He calls them young girls

(minors, children, females whose decisions can be overridden).

And he throws in “wild” to sexualize these girls and absolve himself of blame

So what exactly, is he suggesting, he’s doing with young wild girls?

It sounds like statutory rape even if they are willing!


That our culture is teaching women to embrace being called girls

is a patriarchal triple-whammy.  

We’re infantizing ourselves

while encouraging men to do the same

and telling them we want to be treated this way

through the label of girls


Names matter, language matters.

Where are the women?

Men only want to f*ck girls—

sexualized girls—

that’s what we teach them—

Bruno Mars and little “wild” girls

—that should be a gross out

Not an off-the-chart hit!



Maybe we’re afraid to name

young ladies or young women appropriately

because, to do so,


their sexual maturity

and their potentials

as fully aware sexual beings.


In our porn saturated culture,

where we sell everything, it seems, by linking it to sex

and sexualized young women,

we’re surprisingly prudish about discussing

positive female adolescent sexuality.

Ironic, isn’t?


We can push young women to want to look “hot”

and dress like “Prost-a-tots”

but we can’t teach them or talk to them candidly

about what it means to be

empowered female sexual actors

who understand their own bodies and

what gives them pleasure and what doesn’t.


So after this rant,

please give some thought,

to when, and to whom,

you should apply the term girl.