“There are, of course, circumstances in which “girl” seems plainly derogatory (e.g., calling Hillary Clinton a girl) or plainly risible (e.g., Hillary calling herself one). A thoroughly unscientific survey of my woman card-carrying friends suggests that they find the term acceptable—if not always accurate—when they apply it to themselves, but intolerable coming from a man. “I find it irritating when used as a way to belittle women for performing their femininity, or when a man—especially an older man—uses it,” M. says. “I feel the exact same way about ‘ladies,’ actually. I’ve never heard it used in a way that doesn’t somehow imply we’re a coven coming for their testicles.”
In her twenties, C. regularly called herself a girl, but she no longer feels the term applies. “The year I turned thirty also happened to be the year that I gave birth. So I think that probably also had something to do with the transition: You can’t be a girl if you’re a girl’s mother.”
If there is a thematic message encoded in the “girl” narratives, I think this is its key: the transition from girlhood to womanhood, from being someone to being someone’s wife, someone’s mother. Girl attunes us to what might be gained and lost in the transformation, and raises a possibility of reversion. To be called “just a girl” may be diminishment, but to call yourself “still a girl,” can be empowerment, laying claim to the unencumbered liberties of youth. As Gloria Steinem likes to remind us, women lose power as they age. The persistence of girlhood can be a battle cry.
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Case Study: Hannah Horvath
If you don’t hate Hannah Horvath, you know someone who does. Self-centered, self-absorbed, financially and sexually reckless, aggressively responsible to no one but herself, the protagonist of Girls is—at least for a vocal segment of the internet commentariat—female “adultescence” pushed to nightmare extreme. (Emphasis on female; we love to love the dysfunctional boys of Girls.) In fairness, the girls are dysfunctional narcissists whose efforts to impersonate grown-up women—via romantic commitment, child nurturing, professional advancement—inevitably blow up, occasionally with mass casualties. Admission of bias: I love them all. I love Hannah the most.
Judd Apatow made his name as the patron saint of overgrown lost boys, and he’s now using it to help women like Lena Dunham create her female Peter Pans. Shockingly, audiences prefer their charming schlubs to look like Seth Rogen; schlubby women are another story. Especially schlubby women who have lots of sex and show no inclination to take care of anyone but themselves.
In the pilot episode, Hannah’s parents cut her off financially, a moment often mustered as evidence of the character’s childishness. Instead, it’s the opposite, catalyst for a series about how to live as a grown-up, without losing the best parts of yourself. It’s this insistence on the latter—admittedly sometimes to the exclusion of etiquette or basic human decency—that mandates the title of the show. The girls aren’t Girls simply because they’re immature, but because they’re still walking question marks. They’re still busy, as Hannah says in the pilot, trying to become who they are.
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Here’s how Louis CK draws the distinction between girl and woman:
[22-year old girls] might say, I’m 22, I’m totally a woman… Not to me, sorry. To me you’re not a woman until you’ve had a couple of kids and your life is in the toilet… when you become a woman is when people come out of your vagina and step on your dreams.
If it’s easy to see how the girl label attaches to unmoored millennials, it’s less evident how it applies to women firmly rooted in the adult phase of life. But it makes sense if we read the “girl” narratives as corrective to the Louis CK threshold, the “girls” as women who refuse to let a little thing like people coming out of their vaginas ruin their dreams.
All the Single Ladies, journalist Rebecca Traister’s recent take on the rise of the single woman, opens with her childhood conviction that the marriage plot was less fairy tale than Shakespearean tragedy. “It was supposed to be romantic, but it felt bleak,” she writes of the nuptial trajectories of her girlhood literary heroes. “Paths that were once wide and dotted with naughty friends and conspiratorial sisters and malevolent cousins, with scrapes and adventures and hopes and passions, had narrowed and now seemed to lead only to the tending of dull husbands and the rearing of insipid children to whom the stories would be turned over.”
The girl books crowding the nonfiction shelf are written by and about women who insist on sticking to that wide path, women who refuse to Jo March themselves into a supporting role in their own life: girlhood as a state of mind.”
[“BLA and GB Gabbler” (really just a pen name – singular) are the Editor and Narrator behind THE AUTOMATION, vol. 1 of the Circo del Herrero series. They are on facebook, twitter, tumblr, goodreads, and Vulcan’s shit list.]