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Archive for March 4th, 2011

The W-Word

For my first Anti-Room post, I’m going to let loose a small rant that surfaces, on average, every few weeks.

I kind of assume I’m carping to the converted, here, but even if not … well. This is my bonnet, and these are my bees.

Here we go.

Forget the L-word, the F-word, the C-word. Why, I wonder, is it so hard for some people to say the W-word?

You know the one? Five-letter noun, meaning “adult human female”?

Yes, that’s the one: Woman.

I don’t know what it is, but some people just won’t say it.

Recent example: Henry McKean on Newstalk (look, I know), in the run-up to Valentine’s Day (I know, I know!), tells George Hook (I know – Jesus, would you lay off?) what a turn-on it is when a girl irons his shirts. Clearly (I hope to god), this is a tongue-in-cheek, wind-them-up type of remark, but I sweep past the intended fatuous sexism and leap squarely onto my hobby-horse.

(My hobby-milk-white-steed.)

“Henry,” I growl at the radio, “you’re a grown-up. Physiologically, at least. So if you find that you’re turned on by girls you might want to talk to someone about that before it gets out of hand.”

I’ve never felt comfortable with the notion that “girl” is a cool label for an adult. I just can’t separate it from the infantilisation machine that operates in our culture. Youth is superior to age, smooth skin is better than hairy, females are at their most valuable when innocent and unsullied by the vicissitudes of life – all that harmful nonsense.

Anybody is of course free to label hirself “girl” if it floats hir boat, but I won’t. I’ll never be “one of the girls” – and I won’t call another adult “girl” either (I’d have a hard time doing so even if I knew it was hir preference). Phrases like “a girl I work with” make my teeth itch.

That, or I picture Father Ted judging the Lovely Girls contest (they all have lovely bottoms).

I used to grumble about this a lot at choir rehearsal. Our conductor, an adult human female a few years younger than me (and, incidentally, one of the very best conductors I’ve ever worked with), for years had a habit of saying “men” when addressing the tenor and bass sections, and “girls” when addressing altos and sopranos. Men. And girls.

You see the problem.

I don’t know if it’s down to my disgruntled mutterings or just the passage of time, but she doesn’t do it any more.

Now it’s “men” and “ladies”.

Sigh.

It’s a thing, though, isn’t it? I’m sure most of us can remember when we made that transition – you’re out and about, and somebody’s toddler barrels into your legs, or reaches for your exciting scarf tassel. “Mind the lady!” says the child’s adult, and after the initial urge to look around and locate said “lady”, you feel … well, I felt like my mother’s maiden aunts when it first started happening. Your mileage may vary.

For me, “lady” doesn’t jar quite as badly as “girl”, perhaps because it’s merely elitist and inappropriately judgemental, rather than actually squicky. But I’m enraged that these two are so firmly entrenched as the preferred terms – particularly because in choosing which word to use, the speaker is making an (unconscious?) assessment of my age and/or status. I don’t like living in a world where people feel entitled – or, actually, kind of obliged – to do that.

Another radio snippet, from several years ago, has stuck in my mind (not to mention my craw): I don’t know who the presenter or guests were, but they were discussing the very issue of what to call adult human females. Everyone enthusiastically agreed that you can’t say “woman”, because – and this is what stands out in my memory – it sounds like she just crawled up out of a bog or something.

Until then, I’d lived in a bubble where “woman” was the neutral counterpart to “man”. It was dispiriting to realise that this tiny plank of linguistic equality was an illusion.

When I’m speaking to my two young children (who both seem male so far), I consciously try to refer to strangers as “person”, with “man” or “woman” as alternatives if the context calls for them. But I confess I sometimes stumble. I don’t actively want to give offence to individuals (earnest though my wish to dismantle the kyriarchal order may be), and in some cases, it seems easier to mumble “lady” than to make a point.

And so I shunt the problem on to the next generation. But inconsistently, at least. Baby steps.

The problem, of course, is that “female” is a marked category within the kyriarchy. There is no neutral word for “adult human female” because it isn’t a neutral space to inhabit.

Perhaps, in the end, it comes down to personal choice – which of the available words we adult human females feel most comfortable with. Do you choose youth, respect, or the uncharted barbarism of the bog?

Me? I’m thirty-six years old, with two university degrees, two children, a marriage, a mortgage, and a couple of career changes under my belt. I’m entitled to vote and buy alcohol; I have crow’s-feet, varicose veins, and (about bloody time!) one or two grey hairs. In short it’s a long, long time since “girl” was an appropriate descriptor for me. And you can fuck right off with the “lady” thing, too, with its implied judgement of my behaviour and character.

I’m in touch with my boggy roots. Please refer to me as a woman. Thank you.

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