Men and girls
April 28, 2010 2:42 AM   Subscribe

Is it acceptable and PC to refer to grown-up women as girls in this context? Does it say something about the person who does it?

English isn't my first language, and even though I'm relatively fluent and use it daily, subtexts can be tricky, which is why I'd appreciate some native speaker insight.

I recently heard a 40+ year old American guy talk (as in, overshare) about his sex life, and more generally discuss sex, relationships and other gender-related topics, and he consistently referred to women as "girls". E.g., "I like it when girls do X" and "some girls want the man to Y" and "the girl should never Z". He was talking about grown ups, and his own partners were 20-40 years old.

Is this just standard, normal, neutral use of English without any sexist connotations at all?

I have of course over the years noticed that this kind of use of "girls" is more commonplace in English than in my mother tongue (or, in fact, in most other languages I've learned), especially as the counterpart to "guys". But in this case, the person in question referred to men as, well, "men", which made the juxtaposition sound a bit off to me.

Is it just my non-native ear that caused me to hear a slightly sleazy or condescending undertone?
posted by sively to Society & Culture (87 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
 
There are uses in which it can be endearing, or intended to be endearing. Or to put it another way, when women refer to "the boys" or "one of the boys" or "boys' night out" I wouldn't automatically read it as an overtly sexist or condescending term.
posted by MuffinMan at 2:47 AM on April 28, 2010


Look at it this way - most men partner / hook up / sleep / etc. with girls (see what I did there?) that are around their age or younger. At least - this could generally be said to be a socially accepted ideal. If he was talking about sleeping with a woman / women (again, see?) above his own age, I suspect he would be much more likely to not use the term "girls."

I don't personally think there was some condescending undertone that you were missing, but then I have disagreed with others on the green about the "politeness" of the use of this very term before (albeit not in the sexual sense, more in the "I sure would like to meet the right girl" sense). I think maybe here the context of the conversation you heard (sexual activity) may throw an extra wrench into the works, as it were.
posted by allkindsoftime at 2:58 AM on April 28, 2010


Referring to all womankind or all female colleagues as "girls" is non PC. When talking about friends and relationships things are not so clear - but if he calls a girl somebody - of any age - who would call him a boy in return then I would not see the term as sexist.
posted by rongorongo at 2:59 AM on April 28, 2010


I'd be more offended if he was talking about what "the ladies" like.
posted by dzaz at 3:08 AM on April 28, 2010 [10 favorites]


I'm a woman, and I bristle when anyone refers to me as a girl. The people who say it usually don't intend to sound sexist, but I do think the term implies some degree of inferiority or subordination. People talk about "party girls" or "checkout girls" or "office girls", for example, but they would never use the word "girl" to describe a female boss or even a respected female colleague. "Girl" is dismissive; it carries an implication of low status.

So no, it's not your non-native ear. It definitely has a sleazy or condescending undertone. That said, "girl" is probably not so sexist that you should call someone out for using it, especially if they're talking about third parties. I complained on my own behalf, once, after an older male in a customer service situation repeatedly called me "girl" in a way I found creepy. The female manager noted my complaint, but seemed completely baffled that anyone would find the word offensive.
posted by embrangled at 3:17 AM on April 28, 2010 [25 favorites]


I appreciate the view that the word 'girl' when referring to women can be patronising and sexist, but in the UK at least it's quite commonly used by women to refer to themselves, and may be used synonymously with the word 'woman', without any negative connotations. Generally speaking it seems to be quite unobjectionable here.

The connotations may be different if the word is used by men referring to women, but just a different perspective from another English-speaking country.
posted by cryptozoology at 3:18 AM on April 28, 2010


I have heard it commonly - men & girls - and I don't like it because it presumes that adult females are not equivalent (sexist overtones in my opinion), but then, I don't mention it in public because the people who use that phrase have, in my experience, complained that I was too PC, or that the difference was trivial, or I was a femi-nazi or whatever (no sexist overtones in their opinions).

I can't say if "the boys" are an equivalent usage, but women don't tend, in my experience, to talk about sleeping with a boy unless they self-describe as a girl, whereas men will talk about sleeping with girls when they self-describe as men, and not as pedophiles.

I personally find it very weird to be described as a girl or a lady and have felt that way for the last 20 years, as I am neither. I do however use the word "guys" as a multigender collective noun, which doesn't connect to age or maturity.
posted by b33j at 3:25 AM on April 28, 2010


I appreciate the view that the word 'girl' when referring to women can be patronising and sexist, but in the UK at least it's quite commonly used by women to refer to themselves, and may be used synonymously with the word 'woman', without any negative connotations.

I'd dispute this account of how things are in the UK. Plenty of British women I know find this offensive. But I'm not trying to start an argument — all that this goes to show is that some people do find it offensive, and others don't, so you should therefore a) avoid using it yourself unless you're certain it's OK and b) avoid taking offence when it's used unless you're sure it's intended condescendingly.
posted by game warden to the events rhino at 3:29 AM on April 28, 2010 [2 favorites]


I do however use the word "guys" as a multigender collective noun, which doesn't connect to age or maturity.

And part of the issue (perhaps) is that there isn't a good female equivalent of "guys". "Ladies" can make you sound like a sexist character from a bad 70s sitcom and "Women" can make you sound like a misogynist.
posted by MuffinMan at 3:30 AM on April 28, 2010 [4 favorites]


It's completely common usage in English, sexist or not. So is the reference by grown women to "boys," although I agree it's not an equal situation because, after all, language is still an instrument of patriarchy in many places.

And this will shock you. College faculty members often refer to their 18-25ish students as "kids."
posted by fourcheesemac at 3:32 AM on April 28, 2010 [7 favorites]


I thought those zany characters from Sex & the City had "Girls Night Out!" times all the time? And they are certainly no spring chickens.

I think I'm trying to say that using the word girl instead of women or ladies or females is not always sexist. But it certainly can be, and given the context above, it certainly would seem that way.
posted by Grither at 3:59 AM on April 28, 2010


And this will shock you. College faculty members often refer to their 18-25ish students as "kids."

I've met dozens of 18-25 year olds in undergrad, graduate, and professional programs who refer to themselves as "kids" as well...which is always a bit jarring to my ears, as back in the day (which wasn't THAT long ago) my own peers at that age were very serious about referring to themselves as men and women, past the age of 18. I'm not sure what changed.
posted by availablelight at 4:03 AM on April 28, 2010


And part of the issue (perhaps) is that there isn't a good female equivalent of "guys". "Ladies" can make you sound like a sexist character from a bad 70s sitcom and "Women" can make you sound like a misogynist.

Gals? Though male gendered terms in English are generally assumed to encompass females as well, I use "Gals" as preferable to "Girls", though sometimes I use "Ladies" as well for young adults of my acquaintance tween and up (me: female, thirties).

And one can affect an accent and go "Y'all" on y'all.
posted by tilde at 4:06 AM on April 28, 2010


Calling women "girls" is kind of a strange linguistic quirk that the English language does get us all into.

Partly because there's a perfectly acceptable "slang" term for when you're talking about a group of men -- "guys." "Guys" is sort of the friendly, informal way of talking about a group of men -- but it's different from "boys".

However, there's no real slang equivalent for "women", and calling them "women" sounds a little too formal to people (and so does calling them "ladies", as well) so people do fall back on..."girls".

So, like Grither says above, it's not always sexist. This is a language quirk that does make some women a little annoyed (I personally wish it were different), but most people realize that there's not much to be done about this situation and just put up with it. Some people do go out of their way to avoid calling women "girls" because they personally dislike it, but there's no real reason to believe that someone who calls women "girls" is sexist, based on how they use just that one word alone.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:06 AM on April 28, 2010 [3 favorites]


It's the female equivalent of "guys." "I like it when girls do this"; "I like it when guys do that." This is often used in a sexual or casual context, where it might seem too stiff or formal to say, "I like when women do this" or "I like when men do that." If it's ever used, it should always be "girls" and "guys" (or something other casual term -- "dudes," etc.), not "girls" and "men." But "girls" and "guys" is an unfortunate pair, since only one of those words ("girls") also refers to children.
posted by Jaltcoh at 4:07 AM on April 28, 2010 [2 favorites]


I should add that I try to always say "women," not "girls," in this context. But it's difficult; I do naturally want to say "girls" to be more casual.
posted by Jaltcoh at 4:08 AM on April 28, 2010


Sorry for the multiple comments ... You know what this is sort of like? It's like people objecting to the word "kids" applied to children because a "kid" is a baby goat. It's like: "I see your point, but ... did you honestly think I was putting down human children by referring to them as goats?" If I knew that someone was offended by "kids," I won't use the word around them, and if I thought a lot of people were offended by it, I wouldn't use the word at all. But I would still think it was a bit silly. One word can have different meanings.
posted by Jaltcoh at 4:13 AM on April 28, 2010


Using "women" instead of "girls" makes the speaker seem more interesting and mature, and probably like he would be a better conversationalist.

Re: "guys" -- I have noticed that people have begun using this term for both males and females, which is actually a huge relief to me.
posted by amtho at 4:13 AM on April 28, 2010


What members of a group sometimes call themselves isn't a reliable indication of what is appropriate for non-members of the group to call them. There's no reason for that to be less true of women than of other people.

I find it jarring when men call adult women girls, and still somewhat problematic when women call other women who are younger than they are girls - I (a woman) sometimes do need to make a conscious effort to refer to females younger than myself as women instead of girls.

There are many overtones and undertones flying around here, from the linguistic problem of 'guys' to a cultural tendency to glamorize youth (for women) and infantilise/patronise grown women.

Embrangled and EmpressCallipygos are right, I think, that it makes sense to (barring other factors) give someone the benefit of the doubt for this usage, but to support women who don't appreciate it also.
posted by Salamandrous at 4:17 AM on April 28, 2010 [4 favorites]


Re: "guys" -- I have noticed that people have begun using this term for both males and females, which is actually a huge relief to me.

I like this too, but it doesn't solve the problem posed in the original post, because a hetero male can't really say 'I like it when guys do [x] in bed' ;-).

I'm with Jaltcoh that I try to say 'women' not 'girls', but at the same time 'women' sounds overly formal, and 'girls' sounds like a good equivalent to 'guys'. [But then I'm nearly 40 so should probably stop talking about 'guys', too].

Embrangled and EmpressCallipygos are right, I think, that it makes sense to (barring other factors) give someone the benefit of the doubt for this usage, but to support women who don't appreciate it also.

Fully agree with this: I think it's worthwhile to try to avoid using 'girls', out of respect for women who don't like it (rightly, I think) but to give the benefit of the doubt.
posted by Infinite Jest at 4:35 AM on April 28, 2010


I sometimes go to India. At one place, the gender-specific toilets are marked "He" and "She". Seems like a novel way to avoid problems around terminology.
posted by MuffinMan at 4:38 AM on April 28, 2010


The use of the word "girl" as the female equivalent of both "boy" (younger) and "guy"(a less formal way to refer to adults) is an odd asymmetry in the English language. Some people do consider the use of the word "girl" to refer to adults to be sexist and avoid it. As a practical matter though, most people don't avoid it, so using "girl" doesn't usually imply a sexist attitude on the part of the speaker, if they'd use the word "guy" to refer to men in the same context.

The asymmetry can also account for another oddity of English usage: using phrases like "you guys" and "those guys" to refer to groups of women. Saying "those women" can sound too formal, and it sounds weird to say "those girls" if they're adults, so a lot of us say "guys" instead.

However, in this context, I think your intuition is right. There is a sleazy or condescending undertone. It's odd for a person to go through a long conversation about men and women using the words "girl" and "guy" exclusively. Usually they'd switch back and forth. (I can't explain exactly why, but they would.) It's even odder for a person to use "girl" exclusively when they do use the word "man" in the same context. You quoted the guy as saying things like "some girls want the man to Y." That is weird if he does it a lot. Combined with the guy over-sharing about his sex life in the first place, it does sound a bit sleazy.

In other words, some people think the normal usage of "guy" and "girl" in inherently condescending, but most most people don't think about it and don't mean it that way. However, it sounds like this guy was being condescending outside the range of normal usage.
posted by nangar at 4:42 AM on April 28, 2010


Congratulations! You have discovered a linguistic minefield! I'd like to agree with the bulk of what is said above, and add that there is a population of adult females that bristles at being called "women" because it has the connotation of being older, well, at least older than a girl. This is something I didn't know until I worked customer service. (Another tricky one is Sir/Ma'am - Sir can be used for any aged man, but Ma'am is for women that are older, and yes, 50 year old women will complain...)
posted by fermezporte at 4:46 AM on April 28, 2010


I am also in the camp that uses the word girls, especially when talking about my peers (despite being over 30). Woman seems too formal. I have tried to use it, and sometimes correct myself, but it just doesn't seem appropriate. So, yeah, I use girls as an equivalent to guys. I would never, however, refer to a group of women in my workplace as "girls". That totally sounds off.
posted by molecicco at 4:54 AM on April 28, 2010


As to appropriateness, I think it completely depends on the situation. Some excellent answers above about the non-PC use of "girls". But in the particular situation you describe (and as tiresome as office oversharing is), what other term would he use? "Women" would probably be best, but maybe a little formal to the conversation. How about "ladies"? Ick. "Gals"? Ick. "Chicks"? Ick. In this context, I think it's annoying, but comparable to a female office mate using the term "guys" and subsequently is fair use.
posted by meerkatty at 5:04 AM on April 28, 2010


So when you walk into a room filled exclusively with women, what is the best way to greet them? "Ladies"?
posted by jasondigitized at 5:31 AM on April 28, 2010


Because you certainly wouldn't walk in and say "Women!"
posted by jasondigitized at 5:33 AM on April 28, 2010


So when you walk into a room filled exclusively with women, what is the best way to greet them? "Ladies"?

"Hello"?

UK datapoint: As a male, I would consider it slighltly patronising to refer to grown-ups as 'girls', so I generally don't, but like cryptozoology I've noticed a reasonably common usage of it amongst my female peer group.
posted by robself at 5:35 AM on April 28, 2010 [2 favorites]


My mom and her friends (all fiftysomethings) refer to each other as 'girls' - as in "meeting up with the girls later", and so on - so I don't see it as sexist or patronising at all.
posted by Xany at 5:38 AM on April 28, 2010


As others have said, I use "girls" as the equivalent to "guys". "Gals" seems more derogatory to me for some reason. Though I do often feel guilty when I refer to grown women as girls, but that could just be my normal Catholic guilt.
posted by speeb at 5:41 AM on April 28, 2010


To throw another wrench in this discussion, what about the recent advent of the term "grrls"? To me it seems like a group reclaiming a derogatory term as their own [i.e., African Americans using the "n" word among themselves think what you will about that], and elevating it to acceptable if not complementary, while putting a unique spin on it in this case. "Grrr" refers to growling, which would give the impression of fierceness, toughness, etc. My 13-year-old niece's email address incorporates grrl into it. I think it's kind of cool.

I'm of the camp that believes that if a word is used in a positive spirit, then I do not take offense to it. In the case put forth by the OP, I'd probably frown on it but not say anything. I also don't like to hear it from (older) men in a workplace. But I think it's endearing when a group of adult females talks about "a night out with the girls" or similar. In this case, the term is used affectionately, and connotes a playfulness and camaraderie that other terms can't achieve.
posted by wwartorff at 5:44 AM on April 28, 2010


I would find it jarring and sleazy to hear a 40+ man talk about 40-30 yr old women as "girls" when discussing his sexual exploits and about how "all girls should do x." Besides being patronizing, it's also juvenile, especially when you're talking about sex. I am a woman though, so maybe it's less juvenile in tone if said between men. I think it's acceptable to say "girl" up to about 30 years old (both the interlocutor and the subject). After that, weird.
posted by yarly at 6:11 AM on April 28, 2010


UK datapoint here - I think it is sexist for a man to refer to women as "girls" in almost any context. I would consider it particularly demeaning in the workplace (to refer to a senior or junior).

Perhaps this is because I don't frequently hear groups of men described as "guys" , though there's also the possibility that I'm a bit of a zealot on this issue. For example, a friend of mine described how he (an executive) would greet a group of (exclusively female) secretaries who sat outside his office with a cheery "morning girls" every day. Personally, I think that is more or less unacceptable.
posted by patricio at 6:12 AM on April 28, 2010


Personally, I find it annoying if it's used by anyone over 30 or so to refer to other people over 30 -- love interests or otherwise. The level of twee or condescension involved usually depends on the speaker, though.

If you walk into a room full of women, and you are a man, what's wrong with saying, "Hi, everyone!"
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 6:14 AM on April 28, 2010 [2 favorites]


People in my peer group refer to one another as girls, boys, men, women, whatever. Nobody seems to have any second thoughts about sexism, etc. For older people who grew up in a 50s-style (US) environment may feel differently. But I think young people generally are less inclined to take offense at slang.
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 6:14 AM on April 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


Context is everything here. I detest the use of 'girls' in professional settings, when it's frequently used to refer to women in low-level positions (secretaries, for example). In that case, it's absolutely sexist and demeaning. Men who refer to "this girl I dated" or "meeting girls," or in the examples you gave, tend to sound pretty immature, as if they're stuck in teenage dating mode, but not necessarily sexist. But in casual conversation, it's most often used as an equivalent to 'guys,' and it's not a problem at all for me.

There's not a great option for casually referring to females. 'Women' seems to imply older women - middle-aged and up. I can't hear 'ladies' for anyone but senior citizens without thinking of a leisure-suited swinger from the seventies. 'Gals' is technically the female version of 'guys,' but it sounds really off coming from anyone but my grandmother.

I have definitely heard 'boys' used to refer to men in similar situations, by both men and women, although less often. "I'm going to go hang out with the boys," "boys' weekend," "it's a boy thing" and "ooh, cute boys!" would all be pretty normal things to hear. And, of course, "boyzone." I think it's probably used more ironically than 'girls,' but not always.
posted by Dojie at 6:17 AM on April 28, 2010


I'm no authority on etiquette, but "girl" only really bothers me when it is used in a professional context... I don't appreciate being referred to as "the girl at the front desk" or worse (by a boss) as "my girl" as in "I'll have my girl fax that right over to you."

Socially/romantically I see girl as analogous to guy as well as boy. I'd use men or guys most of the time, but occasionally refer to a guy as a boy when I'm feeling flirty.

Lady or "the ladies" sounds slightly sleezy to me, gal is kind of old-fashioned and weird (sort of on the order of "broad" or "dame" only nicer. )

Woman, of course, is always appropriate.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 6:21 AM on April 28, 2010


In the usage you're describing I'd think the guy was immature (if he's a man, and likes women, he sleeps with women, not girls. Hopefully.) but I wouldn't automatically think 'sexist.' Possibly 'dumb.'

If it were in the workplace, however, about professional-related stuff, I'd think it was horribly sexist and weird.

So in this case I disagree with the analysis of sexist, but agree with the analysis of 'sleazy.'
posted by A Terrible Llama at 6:22 AM on April 28, 2010


> So when you walk into a room filled exclusively with women, what is the best way to greet them? "Ladies"?

Maybe I'm more introverted than I realized, because I doubt I've ever walked into a room and shouted out a greeting to everyone in it, Dolly Levi-style. I often send out e-mails to groups of women, and my standard salutation is "Hello, all."

I don't call women "girls" and I raise an invisible eyebrow when other women do so. If you're a woman in your twenties it makes you sound insecure. If you're in your thirties through your fifties, it makes you sound like you're pining for your lost youth. If you're in your sixties on up, you can get away with it. But I recognize that many (most?) people don't care about it as much as I do, and that I'm reading far more into it than the users intend.
posted by The corpse in the library at 6:24 AM on April 28, 2010 [4 favorites]


'Gals' is technically the female version of 'guys,' but it sounds really off coming from anyone but my grandmother.

Technically, maybe, but I think people should be careful about using that word in reference to Black women. There can be an unpleasant and unacceptable connotation there. It can be considered the equivalent of calling an adult Black man "boy".
posted by fuse theorem at 6:25 AM on April 28, 2010


For me(male) this is exclusively an age issue. If you're close to my age, you're a girl, if you're older, you're a woman. The other people who do my job are all female, all between 25-30. I refer to them as girls most of the time because they're young (as am I). My boss who is also female, I call a woman, because she's in her 40s. I also call the secretaries women, because they are all 40+.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 6:26 AM on April 28, 2010


I have definitely heard 'boys' used to refer to men in similar situations, by both men and women, although less often. "I'm going to go hang out with the boys," "boys' weekend," "it's a boy thing" and "ooh, cute boys!" would all be pretty normal things to hear.

Actually, I'm surprised you'd say this is generally used by men and women. In my experience, the only people who use "boys" to refer to grown men are women ... and gay men. Women will say, "I'm going out with the girls" (meaning their female friends), but men (except maybe gay men) don't say, "I'm going out with the boys" (meaning their male friends). Again, the clear equivalent of "girls" would be "guys" -- "I'm going out with the guys."
posted by Jaltcoh at 6:26 AM on April 28, 2010


There is the big picture, and then there is the personal.

The big picture is that the reason there isn't an informal female equivalent to guys commonly used in English is because of sexism. Our language reflects our patriarchal culture. Calling grown women girls is a way of infantilizing them, just as calling grown men boys is often dismissive. But no doubt, the norm is to call a women a girl and a man a man. Boy/girl can also be used as a term of endearment, but that wasn't the context in your situation.

When a woman refers to herself or her friends as girls it is based in the same base cultural sexism as when men say it. Our society is not as accepting of aging in women as it is in men, and so women often try to act younger than they are. Sexism is a societal ill that affects the attitudes of both men and women alike, so don't think that just because a woman uses the word girl means it's somehow not sexist.

On a personal level, even knowing all of this, I still use girls more often than I'd like, because it's so culturally acceptable. Depending on the situation, it doesn't necessarily bother me when people use it. I think of it as a remnant of a time when there was much more overt sexism, and it will just take a while for our language to catch up to our culture. Just as there's no good informal word to describe female genitalia (although I strive to popularize downstairs), there's no good informal word to refer to an adult female.

It's definitely more acceptable to use it when referring to vague groups of women than to a particular woman, which seems to be the context in which your friends was talking. So I don't necessarily think he's sleazy. It should never be used at work, unless you have a friendly relationship with the person. Someone I worked with used the term shop girl the other day, and I bristled, but in informal conversations, I don't notice it at all.
posted by Tooty McTootsalot at 6:27 AM on April 28, 2010 [3 favorites]


It's part of this weird, Peter Pan-ish never ending adolescence thing that post-college white professionals in the states fall into where everyone is eternally a twenty something, nobody ever stops being hip and relevant and most are deaf to the cognitive dissonance this creates once you hit 40. In another 10 years this dude is probably going to inflict the same conversation on his son.
posted by The Straightener at 6:30 AM on April 28, 2010


Agree with the boys/girls, guys/girls, men/women pairings. If someone's saying men/girls, it's a little weird. If it's just "girls," it can be hard to know if it's sexist or not without hearing the tone.

On a related note, one of my close female friends had a crisis the other week and after it was over, e-mailed the group of us (all women) and said, "I could not have got through this without you guys, I'm so glad you guys are my girls!"

Just if you wanted a little more guy/girl confusion. :D
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:34 AM on April 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


My mom and her friends (all fiftysomethings) refer to each other as 'girls' - as in "meeting up with the girls later", and so on - so I don't see it as sexist or patronising at all.

I want to (re)emphasize the point that someone else made above: groups have different ways of referring to themselves that may or may not be appropriate for "outsiders" to use. I thought that was obvious by now. Not that the word "girl" is in any way as offensive, but it's the same kind of thing that comes up when white people do the whole "Why can't I use the n-word?" thing. I wouldn't at all take it as a given that a woman who playfully refers to herself and her peers as "girls" would be happy being called that by anyone else - especially a man.
posted by Salieri at 6:40 AM on April 28, 2010 [5 favorites]


The oversharing dude is being sexist and condescending, yes. But not so egregiously so that it would warrant a slap upside the head from a stranger.
posted by desuetude at 6:42 AM on April 28, 2010


It's hard to know without all the context, but if "I like it when girls do X" and "some girls want the man to Y" and "the girl should never Z" are somewhat accurate quotes or paraphrases from the conversation, the conversation and usage sounds not all that respectful and considerate toward women. Not necessarily horrible, but I would expect more from someone if I were ever to be one of these "girls" he's sleeping with.
posted by needs more cowbell at 6:46 AM on April 28, 2010


I wouldn't at all take it as a given that a woman who playfully refers to herself and her peers as "girls" would be happy being called that by anyone else - especially a man.

I see your point that this can't be assumed. On the other hand, if you use a term regularly, you are sending a message to people of all kinds that it's OK to use the term. Women who go around calling other women "girls" would seem a little ridiculous to suddenly take offense at the wrong kind of person doing the same thing.
posted by Jaltcoh at 6:46 AM on April 28, 2010


This is how I've always thought of it - I don't like to be referred to as a girl for the same reason that black men don't like to be called boy. It's a way of implying that the person is not a full-fledged adult and can therefore be treated like a child.

I don't throw temper tantrums when someone uses it, though. I usually just lift an eyebrow and say "Honey, I haven't been a girl for a long, looong time!" But when a 40 year old uses it in context of talking about his sex partners, well, that's creepy. Pedophelia, anyone?

But where the problem arises, I think, is college-aged people. It's sort of an in-between stage, where they're not children any more, but the terms "men" and "women" seems a little formal and odd.

FWIW, my 70 year old mother refers to the friends she has coffee with several times a week as "my coffee ladies". And my daughter, who is 30, recently called me when she was upset, and when I asked her what the problem was, she replied "Boys!" And then there's the words "boyfriend" and "girlfriend", which seem rather odd when you're referring to someone in their late 40's.

It's a minefield out there...
posted by MexicanYenta at 6:46 AM on April 28, 2010


As a 29 year old female (who refers to herself as a girl fairly frequently), I don't see "girls" as being so much sexist as unprofessional. In my family and group of friends, it's pretty common to refer to a group of women as "the girls" and a group of men as "the boys", even if some of the people in each group are well over 40. However, I would probably bristle if this was used, say, in the workplace or in some kind of patronizing context.
posted by tastybrains at 6:51 AM on April 28, 2010


On August 4, 2009, when George Sodini went into the women's fitness center and shot and killed several women, he also gave the public access to his blog, which he'd been updating since Nov. 5, 2008 and of which contained many entries about his thoughts about relationships, race, and his plans to retaliate against others. For several weeks, I studied that blog and mapped out all the language patterns I found. One finding that was particularly relevant was his conception of women vs. girls. In every single instance where George Sodini mentioned someone other than himself in a relationship, the parties involved would be referenced with diminutives ('guys' or other related terms for men; 'girls', 'bitches', 'hoes' covaried with stylistic intent for women). Sodini very rarely used ‘girl’ to refer to females he was interested in or had relations with, but consistently used ‘girl’ to refer to the love interests of others. Conversely, Sodini always referred to himself as 'man', and almost always referred to females he was interested in or had interactions with as ‘women’. And lastly, ‘male/female/one/people’ were the least commonly used terms. These usages were generally non-specific, irrealis, or reflective in nature.

I bring this up for several reasons. First, language choices, especially labels, reflect attitudes that people have about the meanings and connotations behind those choices. They're chosen by people because the connotations reflect what people intend to convey. And their use of the term maps right back onto the meaning of the term. It's circular to be sure, but the shape gets ever so slightly warped and redefined by each use, and humans are both predictable and creative with language in that regard. In Sodini's world, there was a difference between who he was as a 'man' (and all that entails) and who he belonged with, 'women' (and all that entails) and the rest of the people in the world, who received a different set of language terms (including everything that all those terms entail). Secondly, people don't often realize when they've set up contructs like this. And it's not readily noticeable by others (unless you're looking for it/patterns). It's very rare that we consciously notice these things. We may hear somebody speak and think, "Oh hey, that guy's a jerk!" but we don't also think, "Wow, that person has sexist attitudes towards women...did you hear just how many times he referred to girls using a marked intonation pattern? What a jerk!" Third, it's also important to note, as somebody said upthread, that what people call themselves can be different from how they refer to others. And people are often very unaware that there is even a difference there, so their reports about their language use are often unreliable (yet still very revealing, as a reflection of what they think they do or as an ideal version of themselves and how they represent).

Gonna wrap this up before I go too long on a tangent, but I also wanted to point out one last quibble, related to this and some earlier comments. It's pedantic, but bear with me. I think it's important to be clear about where these words come from and how and why they change/evolve/ameliorate/pejorate. Many have said upthread that these usages are a quirk of the English language, or these are problems with English language terms, etc. That's not it really. These are problems that arise out of a long history of society using these terms to set up and display hierarchical power relationships between people. The meaning of 'girl' or 'boy' has changed dramatically over several hundred years, and even just a whole lot in a lifetime, or from geographic region to region. It's the things we ascribe to these words, through the way we use them (who they are assigned to and our relationship with those people) that give the words their happy or sad meanings. Citing 'the English language' becomes a shortcut way of saying all that, sure, but it re-labels the real root of the problem ('blaming' the language, which is really a metonymy for 'the people who use it'), which I just wanted to point out there.

Anyways, this is a good question and I think you're pretty perceptive here and proactive about understanding the politics behind gendered language use by asking it, so that's cool. And just so we don't all give you a complex about what the hell terms to use now (they allll have a landscape of meanings, depending) just remember that context is going to always matter, bigtime. For that's the very thing that got these words here in the first place.

Also want to be REAL clear here. I am NOT saying that people who use 'girl' are sexist, bad, or murderous! My point is that context matters. In fact, I think it'd be awesome to use 'girl' in creative, positive ways and deter any negative connotations. It's tricky though...it takes time and a lot of people who would be unknowingly or knowingly invested in the cause, with a lot of misunderstandings along the way I'm sure.
posted by iamkimiam at 6:52 AM on April 28, 2010 [26 favorites]


Holy crap that was long. Sorry!
posted by iamkimiam at 6:53 AM on April 28, 2010


Mrs. Morte calls her group of late-30s friends 'the girls'. On the rare occasions I venture out with a group of male friends, she'll refer to them as 'the boys', although to me they're just 'my friends'. 'Guys', however, at least to my particular British ears, is very very American, in the same way 'folks' would be. Hearing the word 'guy' used by with British person (except when talking to someone called Guy) is quite jarring, and somehow sounds rather insincere or affected.

At the other extreme, I once had a conversation with a woman who used the word 'pre-woman' completely normally and non-ironically to refer to a female child - I would guess because she felt the word 'girl' to be tainted by misuse.

To get to the point, it's a very nuanced thing, and we all have a different line on one side of which is a 'girl', and on the other a 'woman'. That line will depend on location, culture, age, gender, education and peer group. Erring on the side of 'woman' is usually a safe bet, particularly in formal situations.

It's very much one of those linguistic things that you will get a feel for the more you interact with different groups of people in different situations.
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 6:56 AM on April 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


Alright, over-thinking this a bit more.

People are likely to use the words "girl" and "guy" if they're referring to somebody they have a personal relationship with: "He's a nice guy" or "I used to date a girl who was into X." They more likely to "men" and "women" if they're making generic statements: "Men and women are different" or "Most women don't like Z." Though there are no hard and fast rules about this.

So if somebody says "some girls want the man to Y," they're referring to a generic man (and using the more formal term), but simultaneously referring to the woman as the man's "girl," even though she's actually the subject of the sentence. It would be slightly less odd if you said "some women like it when their guy does X," or the reverse, "some men like it when their girl does Y" if you're talking about what men like.

I'm probably over-thinking that one quote, and it's probably not verbatim, but the phrasing seems to reflect a male perspective, even when when neutral generic phrasing (woman/man), neutrally personable (girl/guy), or even the reverse (woman/guy) would be expected. If a person does this a lot, it could imply that their attitude is a bit odd, if not sexist per se, a bit egocentric.
posted by nangar at 7:07 AM on April 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


I'm yet another person who doesn't notice 'girl' that much when used in isolation in an informal context. 'Men and girls' I find extremely aggravating, as is 'girls' in a professional environment.

I also wanted to highlight for the OP, and just because it's interesting, that there seems to be a divide between individual/generic usages (girls like blah, those guys are awesome), and the plural 'my close group of friends' usage:

"I'm having drinks with the girls tonight" -> my close group of female friends, you (listener) know who they are.

"I'm having drinks with the ladies" -> same

"I'm having drinks with the women tonight" -> what women?

And similarly, "drinks with the guys" and maybe "drinks with the/my boys" but never "drinks with the men"

With the possessive, gender of the speaker matters too. Here's the connotations I get, other people feel free to disagree.

1) She's my girl/They're my girls - From a woman, "they/she is a closely valued friend." From a man, singular probably refers to a romantic partner.

2) She's my woman/They're my women - Can't imagine a woman saying this. Sounds like an alarmingly possessive reference to a romantic partner from a man.

3) He's my boy/They're my boys - From a man, 'close friend/group of friends'. For a woman speaker, same reading, maybe less common. Maybe I've spent too much time around young kids, but I typically use "my guys" to refer to "group of small children I work with".

4) He's my man/They're my men - This is just weird, and only brings up images of generals referring to troops.

Note that if the boys/girls involved are actually children, none of this holds :)
posted by heyforfour at 7:38 AM on April 28, 2010


Women who go around calling other women "girls" would seem a little ridiculous to suddenly take offense at the wrong kind of person doing the same thing.

Much to be said for context. My best friend often calls me by a pet name, but no-one is actually confused that this is a general-use nickname for me. I affectionately call a number of my friends "honey," but it would be inappropriate for their bosses to do the same.
posted by desuetude at 7:40 AM on April 28, 2010


Actually I take #4 back. "He's my man" is fine for 'close friend' from a dude, possessive-reference-to-romantic-partner from a woman. "They're my men" is still generals.
posted by heyforfour at 7:45 AM on April 28, 2010


Is it acceptable and PC to refer to grown-up women as girls in this context?

Sure, when talking to Tinto Bass about sexual acts.

Does it say something about the person who does it?

They're old, trying to impress you and have a narrow view of the world. My friends and I would never seriously have a conversation like that and if anyone tried to tell us what "girls like," they'd be in for a terrible ribbing. In this Dan Savage Age of Sex we know that sexuality and what someone likes is as personalized as their taste in wine. We have also, unfortunately, seen enough porn to know that women aren't magical creatures that some Lothario has suddenly discovered.

Is it just my non-native ear that caused me to hear a slightly sleazy or condescending undertone?

Nope over the hill guys who over-share their sex acts are sleazy in a universal way. You're putting too much emphasis on the word he used and not what he was describing.

*Now I also have Mrs Garrett saying "Goils, Goils, Goils" stuck in my head.
posted by geoff. at 7:47 AM on April 28, 2010


Agreeing with nangar about the generic/specific use of "girl" vs "woman"-- "their girl" reads as loving, but "the girl" sounds dismissive (to me, that is).

Even worse is any use of "females" or "female".

I think younger men have started using that one because they've been warned off the use of girls/girl, but don't feel comfortable with the term "women".
posted by travertina at 7:59 AM on April 28, 2010


Even worse is any use of "females" or "female".

Well, not any use. "Female" is fine as an adjective. It should be avoided as a noun.
posted by Jaltcoh at 8:03 AM on April 28, 2010


Using/saying "girls" can be sort of subliminal thing. The women on the receiving end often don't notice/care, and the people doing it are often aren't actively conscious of their word choice. Still, in context of casual language, these are the most common situations in which I find myself addressed as "girl" (as a 27 y/o person):

- By an male (or just older) salesperson: "You girls should know this car has all the latest safety features."

- By a male (or just older) coworker/boss: "Can one of you girls fax this for me, please?"

- Someone who is trying to lend themselves status: "You girls need to keep it down, please."

- When addressed by a parent/older person : "You girls can have as much ice cream as you want!"

- When a female friend/peer is trying to be "fun" and recapture their teen years (self infantalization): "It's just us girls tonight, lets go dancing!"

- By a male friend/peer who is self infantalizing: "When I talk to girls I feel like I'm still in high school"

- By a male who wants to convince himself he's still a "boy": "I keep meeting pretty girls who aren't my wife"

In this sense, the usage seems to break down into pretty distinct categories:
- (self-)Infantalization
- Paternalism
- Status negotiations

None of these are particularly positive, and while I wouldn't knee-jerk that the person using it was a bad person or a misogynist, I think word choices like these say a lot about a person's subconscious or hidden attitudes and viewpoints.

In my mind, someone who exclusively refers to women as "girls" comes across as either old fashioned, insecure or clutching desperately to their lost youth. Some of these are more harmful than others but overall I don't think it's ideal.

I have often encountered the type of classic anti-"PC", anti-"feminisim" (scare quotes because it's equivalent in my mind to be the Tea Baggers' hating "communism" when they don't really understand it) dudes who will bristle the second anyone says they can't say "girls" or whatever other freedoms we are trying to steal from them. They will talk about the old days, about holding doors, when "men were men" etc. These types will never disagree and I don't bother - they are more than welcome to go try to rebuild a glorified past that never really happened.

Try to spend a whole day referring to every man you meet as a "boy" and see how well it goes over. It is no coincidence that diminutives like "boy" were actively used prior and especially during the civil rights era to put black men in their place. Language is powerful, and in this case asserting someone's place as lesser-than, as having the status of a child, is a very political act, whether you want it to be or not. And often the privilege of being male in this society is the privilege to never have to really worry/think too hard about that fact unless you choose to.
posted by SassHat at 8:08 AM on April 28, 2010 [10 favorites]


From the perspective of this 40+ American guy, it wasn't your non-native ear; I'd have reacted the same way as you did.
posted by Zed at 8:09 AM on April 28, 2010


I'm surprised there is so much acceptance of this around here - I thought this thread was going to be much more heavily skewed toward considering it creepy and misogynist. In my neck of the woods, pairing "men" and "girls" consistently is definitely a little off.

It is a problem, because as has been noted, there isn't a great female counterpart to "guy". So saying "guys and girls" is okay, not great, but eh, you see why it happens. For a while it was popular to say "boys and girls" for everything, even when talking about grown men, to equalize things - so to talk about the new boy someone was dating, or about how the boys are going out on friday, or whatever. That sort of works. And the other option is to always say woman or young woman, but as others have said, that sometimes feels a bit formal. Still, personally I try to just use "guys" as a genderless term (hey you guys...) and choose between 'men' and 'boys' the same way I would choose between 'women' and 'girls' (formality, maybe age).

Women who go around calling other women "girls" would seem a little ridiculous to suddenly take offense at the wrong kind of person doing the same thing.

This is specifically about pairing "men" with "girls" in usage, not just using the term "girls" to start with. And of course the context makes a difference.
posted by mdn at 8:11 AM on April 28, 2010


Better to use women and be seen as a little stilted in formal if you're unsure.

I've never noticed someone using "women" to describe women and then thought it was stilted!
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 8:14 AM on April 28, 2010


Actually, I'm surprised you'd say this is generally used by men and women. In my experience, the only people who use "boys" to refer to grown men are women ... and gay men.

As heyforfour alluded to above, "my boy" is pretty much how men refer to each other, especially when noting a close friendship. I hear people say "your boy" to men, and use it to mean "your male friend, and I don't at all mean boyfriend" all the time.
posted by 23skidoo at 8:20 AM on April 28, 2010


Great comments here. I would add to the observations that the individual is discussing sex acts, and doesn't really care if you are a receptive audience in addition to his choice of language. All of those factors would put the person in a very low respect category in my choice of individuals to sit next to in a work setting.
posted by effluvia at 8:26 AM on April 28, 2010


Try to spend a whole day referring to every man you meet as a "boy" and see how well it goes over.

Sure, but some people only use "girl" to mean "woman I am romantically/sexually interested in". There's a whole lot of gray area between "I use girl only to refer to children" and "I never use the word 'woman': where others would, I substitute the word 'girl'."
posted by 23skidoo at 8:26 AM on April 28, 2010


I hear people say "your boy" to men, and use it to mean "your male friend, and I don't at all mean boyfriend" all the time.

I have never heard this -- not in real life or movies or any context. If someone referred to a good friend of mine who happens to be male as "your boy" ("Say hi to your boy for me when you meet up with him later"), I would be taken aback and would wonder if the speaker was under the impression that I was gay and/or my friend and I were romantically involved. I actually have heard a straight (married) man refer to his "boyfriend," meaning a male friend, but this is considered incorrect.
posted by Jaltcoh at 8:31 AM on April 28, 2010


My former boss used "Girl". I would shout back "It's sexist and dismissive to refer to a grown woman as a girl!!!" (It was mostly in jest, because he was in my same age bracket (20-30),also used 'boys' for men, and wasn't really a jerk.) If one of the higher-ups had tried to call me a 'girl', it would have been completely inappropriate.
posted by Green Eyed Monster at 8:33 AM on April 28, 2010


I hear people say "your boy" to men, and use it to mean "your male friend, and I don't at all mean boyfriend" all the time.

I have never heard this -- not in real life or movies or any context.


I dunno, maybe it's a more urban usage? I hear this all the time too. And I'm not using "urban" to mean "black," I hear it among the South Philly Italian dudes too.
posted by desuetude at 8:39 AM on April 28, 2010


I have never heard this -- not in real life or movies or any context.

Maybe it used to be urban, but if they're throwing it in Will Ferrell movies, there's really no reason to not understand the usage.
posted by 23skidoo at 8:44 AM on April 28, 2010


In casual or romantic contexts with friends, I've used "girl" to refer to women around my age or younger. I'll also use "boys" to say "I'm going out with the boys" (I'm straight). I use "women" in a more serious or formal context, like women should be paid the same as men for the same jobs. Using "girls" and "men" or any other unequal combination is tacky and offensive.

And I thought everyone knew the female equivalent for "guys" is "dolls."
[HAMBURGER]
posted by kirkaracha at 8:47 AM on April 28, 2010


23skidoo: I believe you that you've heard this usage, but we're supposed to be helping a non-native English speaker with a question about what kind of gender language is generally considered appropriate. "Your boy" is something I can't imagine someone saying to me in any kind of normal/appropriate context. (Of course, this is all a derail from the actual question.)
posted by Jaltcoh at 8:53 AM on April 28, 2010


Is 'Ladies and Gentleman' now falling out of favor as well?

When walking into a meeting with just women, I might say "Good afternoon ladies" as one of the many remixes to "Hello". If there is something wrong with this, I would like to take my ball and go home now.

Interesting side note. In Bermuda ( and surely other places ), you will find people saying "My girl" or "Your girl". "My girl is wicked smart", or "Your girl is messing things up". The use of 'My' indicates a friendship or association. The use of 'Your' is to imply that she's your friend or associate, not mine. The most interesting variation of this is by the Irish who say "Your one" which could imply it being a male or female. As in "Your one then proceeds to slap me across the face"
posted by jasondigitized at 8:53 AM on April 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


I dunno, maybe it's a more urban usage? I hear this all the time too. And I'm not using "urban" to mean "black," I hear it among the South Philly Italian dudes too.

Yeah, the young predominantly black corner hustler kids I work with don't use "your boy" any more they would say "your bull" which is short for "young bull" which three or so years ago used to be "young buck" but morphed somewhere along the way. Because of the Carolina twang infused in the Philly black accent it also sounds more like "bol" than "bull" and a lot of kids actually spell it "bol" when using it on Twitter, etc.
posted by The Straightener at 8:55 AM on April 28, 2010


Yeah, the young predominantly black corner hustler kids I work with don't use "your boy" any more they would say "your bull" which is short for "young bull" which three or so years ago used to be "young buck" but morphed somewhere along the way.

So I guess in what, five or ten years mainstream American will be saying "your bull?" Heh. Among urban black professional-types, I still hear "my/your boy."
posted by desuetude at 9:20 AM on April 28, 2010


I have to be the only one to stick up for the word lady. Ladies! I love it. I think it's elegant, retro, and classy. It makes me think of a woman in a wool suit and a pillbox hat. I am a lady. I am also a lesbian, and I live in a women-dominated sphere. Therefore, I don't deal with the male appropriation of the word much. I never hear it used (in person, that is, all bets off for tv, movies, etc.) sleazily or with sexual aggression behind it. My friends and I use it with an enormous amount of affection and solidarity behind it.
posted by missmary6 at 11:33 AM on April 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


I think it is too commonly used to be offensive. It sure beats "chickies".
posted by meepmeow at 1:04 PM on April 28, 2010


SassHat came as close to articulating the explanation I wanted to give, at least insofar as "self-infantilizing." I hear a lot of guys say "girl" when they're talking about women they're dating or want to date, and it's not because they're sexist, but because their self-perception is that they're still quite young so they date "girls," and "women" sounds like someone they wouldn't date. I'm 25 and it feels odd to refer to guys my age as "men," and it's not lack of respect or that I think they're immature, the connotation just feels like it belongs to men over thirty years old or something. (There are exceptions, which I'll talk about in a moment.) I even think of my husband as a "guy," and he's very mature and accomplished. It feels similarly weird to think of my female friends in my age group as "women." I mentally categorize them as "girls" and there's no disrespectful connotation to it in my head. If I see someone my age walking on the street, I would probably say, "Look at that girl," not "Look at that woman," or "Look at that lady."

I could see a 40+ year old guy still doing this, perhaps out of a habit he never broke, but it's not as common so it's hard to say. I do have a guy friend who is 35 but acts way younger -- heh, notice I call him a "guy" and not a "man" -- and he still refers to women he's interested in as "girls" because socially, he's in a peer group with people ten years younger than him and that's how we talk and that's how he thinks about himself. He's not misogynistic at all, just kind of endearingly stuck in the couple years after college.

There's also kind of a behavioral connotation to terms like "lady" or "woman" or "man" that "guys" and "girls" don't have, and to some people, "guys" and "girls" are more attractive terms. From my perspective "lady" and "woman" and "man" have a kind of grown-up-and-given-up-on-having-fun connotation. I suppose you might call it ageist in some ways, but the label isn't determined by age so much as behavior. "Ladies" and "women" and "men" wear suits and don't play video games and go to work and balance their checkbook and don't go out like they did in college -- but it's not so much a youth thing as a playfulness thing. "Guys" and "girls" are adults who are still playful and don't act stuffy or beaten down by life's responsibilities, which is why I like my 35-year-old friend who still acts like he's 25, and why I think of him as a "guy." I look up to people like that (provided they're not immature in emotional ways) and hope I still retain my playfulness at their age. Furthermore, I've met people my age or younger that I consider "women" or "men" just because of how they act, and while I don't dislike them I don't want to hang out with them. I don't know that I ever want to think of my husband as a "man" instead of a "guy" because it would mean that his playfulness is largely gone. And I kind of cringe to think that someone might call me a "lady" or "woman" when they see me walking by, instead of "look at that girl" -- as long as they didn't mean "girl" in a derogatory way. So, at least for me and some of my peers, it's a compliment to call someone a "girl." It means that growing older hasn't sucked the life out of you.

"Lady," in my mind, is even older than "woman" and tends to be reserved for someone who pisses someone else off, as in, "This lady at the store went off on me for moving her basket when I couldn't get by!" When people use "ladies" in a polite way it always sounds cheesy to me unless they're a waiter or something, or else they're purposely trying to be comical by using a cheesy word. When women address a group of their friends as "ladies" is just makes them sound older than they are to me, I think because it sounds like it's out of the 50s when everything was overly gendered. I do feel the "classy" connotation to it, but the association with self-segregating by gender ruins it for me. I also bristle a bit to be collectively addressed in terms of gender because it seems unnecessary, but few of my friends do this so it's not a big deal. (They'll say, "So what do we want to do now?" instead of, "Soooo ladies, what do we want to do now?") When I end up hanging out with only girls it's always just because of chance, not because I was actively seeking "girl time," which is alien to me. I choose my friends for their personality, not their gender, and when other women can't have a conversation without constantly interjecting reminders that we're both female, it's extremely grating; it makes me feel like they're making tons of assumptions that we must have certain things in common -- almost always wrong -- based on gender instead of bothering to get to know me as a person, and I don't like when people try to foster false intimacy with me. They usually act confused or disappointed when I don't meet their expectations of what other women are supposed to be like, so to me all that hyping of "sisterhood" just comes across as more sexism, however well-meaning.

I also agree with a commenter above that when a guy talks about "the ladies" it almost always sounds sleezey to me, unless he's purposely trying to be funny. It makes me think of a womanizing older guy. But it could also be an overly-proper, respectful guy, or a socially clueless guy who doesn't realize how dated the term is, or other things too.

Keep in mind plenty of people don't think about the words in that way, just some social circles do. My point is that the meaning of the word depends on who's doing the talking; there's a wide range of positive and negative connotations.

Whether or not the person in your example was using "girl" in a sexist way I'd have to tell by their demeanor when they were speaking -- and honestly, it's easy to infuse "ladies" or "women" with misogynistic meaning too, so any word he chose could sound bad. (I do have to agree with some commenters above that referring to women as "females" in that kind of context is almost and open-and-shut case for skeeziness, though.) My inclination is to think the guy was using the term in a condescending way, but then again, I think a guy can talk about stuff he likes sexually and not be at all misogynistic, it's just when you transcribe that sort of thing it strips it of its intonation and facial expressions so all you're left with is something that sounds prurient. I can hear that conversation in my head in a variety of ways, from earnest to condescending.

Bottom line: if their demeanor seems sleezey, it's more telling than if they use "girls" or "women" or "ladies."
posted by Nattie at 1:15 PM on April 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


Feel free to use the word "ladies" when you use the word "gentlemen" just as much. To me, 'lady' is unnecessary and confusing word that has hidden implications.
posted by b33j at 2:09 PM on April 28, 2010


"Ladies" is an interesting term. As a 20-something, I'm not offended by it at all - to me it implies elegance and a sort of charming olde-worlde politeness. It's the linguistic equivalent of a much older man flourishing as he opens a door for me - quaint and unnecessarily formal, but usually motivated by respect, not condescension.

But, I'm close friends with a group women in their 70s and 80s - feisty pioneers of the feminist movement who don't take crap from anyone - and they all find the word deeply offensive. I once slipped up and used it in their presence, and the whole table stopped talking and glowered at me. "We are certainly not ladies," said one. "We're women. There is nothing ladylike about us."

What I gradually came to understand is that for these women, "lady" carries an exhortation to be "proper" - to sublimate their anger, to obey authority, to be feminine but not feminist. In the 1960s and '70s, when these women were leaving their abusive husbands and fighting for equal treatment in the workplace, "lady" was a word used by men to put women in their place.

So, I don't say "ladies" any more. As a younger woman, it still sounds neutral to me, but I suspect that's because no man has ever told me to "Stop all this feminist nonsense and start behaving like a lady." I avoid the word out of respect to a whole generation of women who were fighting against sexism before I was even born.
posted by embrangled at 9:05 PM on April 28, 2010 [3 favorites]


This thread has been absolutely fascinating to pour through. Thank you, everyone. I'm marking a few best answers but really, the entire discussion and all the differing opinions expressed (including the tangents) have been very enlightening.

I'm still a little blown away by what several posters pointed out - that there doesn't seem to be a good, value-neutral, colloquial catch-all word to refer to adult women in English. That's really just... kind of amazing to consider. The idea that "woman" might sound uncomfortably formal in certain types of casual conversation is something I hadn't given any thought to.

In the original situation I described, the pairing of men and girls got grating after a while, but then I began to wonder if it wasn't just because, say, referring to a 35-year old woman as "this girl I slept with" would sound rather jarring (and even silly) in my native language. I didn't want to be too hasty to apply any kind of douchebag-label, in case it was all a question of a cultural/linguistic difference. I now appreciate the complexity of the whole issue (although in the case of this particular person, I think the posters who suggested (self-)infantilization, paternalism and an attempt to sound hip may have been close to the mark).
posted by sively at 2:12 AM on April 29, 2010


I think a LOT of this is tone and context. Some people have suggested "ladies" -- but to my mind, "ladies" sounds vaguely sleazy. However, that's largely because I've mostly heard it spoken by someone who was trying to either flatter women over-much (I'm thinking of The Decameron, here, where Boccacio seems to address the "dear and noble ladies" who would be reading his work) or I've heard it used by someone who's trying a little too hard to pick up women (if you think of the tone this guy uses, that's kind of how I feel people try to use it).

But then again, you have the classic "Ladies and gentlemen", which doesn't bother me at all -- maybe because I've heard it so much that I tend to mentally process it as one single word -- "ladiesandgentlemen" as a synonym for "everybody".

So I think context and tone has a lot to do with it.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:06 AM on April 29, 2010


I'm still a little blown away by what several posters pointed out - that there doesn't seem to be a good, value-neutral, colloquial catch-all word to refer to adult women in English. That's really just... kind of amazing to consider. The idea that "woman" might sound uncomfortably formal in certain types of casual conversation is something I hadn't given any thought to.

To be fair, "women" is a perfectly good term for this. The only reason it's not is because of longstanding sexism that makes it overly formal to acknowledge that women are adults.
posted by desuetude at 6:33 AM on April 29, 2010 [2 favorites]


I'll just chime in here that I've found "folks" to be a reasonable gender-neutral substitution in these situations. It's a tad, um, folksy--but not that bad.
posted by RikiTikiTavi at 10:19 AM on April 29, 2010


Really interesting question/thread.

Came in too late, so everything I would have said, has already been said. I'm not sure how it figures into this (if at all) but I will add that "girls" used to mean simply "young people (of either sex)". Kind of like how you can prefix "ge-" in Esperanto (and German?) to make a (collective) noun refer to either sex.
posted by blue funk at 7:12 PM on April 29, 2010


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