"Girlfriends of the Court"

Don’t Call Me Girl. I’m a Woman.

In Career, Guest Post, media, TV, twitter, Uncategorized, women on August 1, 2012 at 10:20 am

Is this how we wish to represent women athletes? (image courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Twitter has been abuzz since the start of the Olympic coverage, with the observation of Australian commentators’ use of ‘girl/s’ to describe women competitors.  The complaint that women have about this language is its capacity to diminish women’s athletic achievement and infantilise them.  Many disagree with this interpretation, pointing out that our male athletes are also called ‘boys’ or ‘lads’.  So why do many women feel so strongly about being called ‘girls’ in this context?

As the swimming has dominated Australian coverage in the early days of the Games, so too has reference to ‘our girls’ in the pool.  In the ABC’s live blog for example, women swimmers Stephanie Rice and Alicia Coutts are referred to as ‘girls’.  While these swimmers are aged 23 and 24 respectively, what about young women such as the 16-year old Chinese swimmer?  Shiwen Ye competed in the women’s event in a time better than that of the fastest man in the men’s event.  Headlines proclaimed ‘The Girl Who Left the Men in Her Wake’.  I recognise that as a teenager and with her astonishing achievement, such a headline might be warranted – though I note that another article stated that her feat was ‘the first time for a woman’.  The girl of the headline becomes a woman in the text.  That this was the first time for a woman means that her age was not relevant.

One social research blog has identified use of such language as ‘gender marking’.

The way television stations and commentators frame sporting events linguistically also makes a difference, whether we realize it or not. By allowing commentators to continue to refer to many female athletes as “girls” is to say that they don’t deserve the same treatment as “men”, who are the “real athletes”. It perpetuates the stereotype that female athletes are at the end of the day, just “female athletes”. Inferiority is what is implied.

Unlike references to ‘boys’ or ‘lads’, reference to ‘girls’ rather than women occurs against other charges of sexism in the Olympics.  The Australian women’s basketball team travelled premium economy while the men travelled business. Attention on Leisel Jones’ weight has likewise been seen as sexist commentary.

There was also controversy in the lead up to the selection of the Australian flag bearer, when beach volleyballer Natalie Cook said that it was a ‘no brainer’ that the flag bearer should be a woman: the first since 1992.  Other commentators believe however that gender equity would be best achieved by the appointment of a man.

In what might be considered to represent a more intrusive form of sexism, Olympic processes to test women athletes for their ‘woman-ness’ have also attracted criticism – not least because it seems that the basis of the testing represents disputed science.

While this seems like a lot of focus on women athletes in such a short period of time, that is probably because of the invisibility of women athletes and women’s sports in non-Olympic times.  A casual read of the newspapers will reveal this reality, but it is also borne out by research (see eg: here; here; and here).  Men’s sport gains far more exposure in media and attracts far more sponsorship, while women’s achievements are under-represented and attract less sponsorship.

It is this weight of ‘otherness’ of women athletes that I think prompts such a strong response to being called ‘girls’ in the Olympic commentary.  At such a high profile event, surely it is time for our ‘girls’ to come of age?

But they didn’t mean any harm…

I doubt that any commentator is deliberately trying to belittle women athletes.  My view on the use of this language stems rather from our apparently universal blindness to what it means to call a woman a ‘girl’ – in contrast to calling men ‘boys’ or ‘lads’.

I acknowledge that sometimes it might be OK to be ‘one of the girls’… I use the term to refer to my women teammates or close women friends.  For former women team members now commentating on their sport at the Olympics, it may likewise be acceptable during an interview to refer to ‘the girls’.  It should not however be presumed that any woman athlete can acceptably be referred to as a girl.

Attitudes to women that are subtly reflected in how we use language in public events such as the Olympics spill over into other areas of life – they reinforce gender stereotypes and are reinforced by them.  For example, in one of my former workplaces, a senior (male) practitioner referred to me as ‘Miss Muffet’ in a meeting with a QC (who subsequently became a High Court Judge).  I think that most people would recognise how damaging this was to me in this professional context; and also how it reflected my male colleagues’ views of my place in the (gender) hierarchy.

So perhaps this is the Olympics at which our commentators can take a stand, and work on their terminology: women athletes are women. Not girls, not ladies, but women.

Do you think ‘girls’ is harmless enough?

Guest author Kate Galloway teaches law at James Cook University. Follow her blog at Curl, and on twitter at @KatGallow

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  1. I believe that, although your arguments may be valid, you haven’t clearly distinguished between the acceptable and unacceptable scenarios in which a female is called a girl. I also fail to understand how it is different to calling a male a boy, or lad.
    Furthermore, what age is one branded woman, rather than girl?

  2. Thanks for your comment. To me it’s different from ‘boy’ or ‘lad’ because the connotation is that women are spoken down to. In the context of sports and in wider society, it is a means (though unconscious) often of diminishing women’s achievements. I do not believe that men experience this in the same way – so using ‘boy’ will not have the same connotation. The link above to the social research blog contains a more in depth analysis of this.

    It’s complex, I agree.

  3. So, it’s more the way that it is perceived among female society, spurned by the residual sexism still present at the Olympics?

  4. As always, it’s a matter of context. If “girl” is used by a former or current colleague to express comraderie, then it’s fine. If it used by a person in a position of power to judge the actions of another (eg a commentator whose opinions are heard by millions talking about athletes who are already highly scrutinized), then it’s not so fine.

    As a general rule, anytime you hear someone refer to a female athlete as “girl”, imagine that the same thing has been said about about men. If you think it’s weird to hear a commentator saying “the little Chinese boy” or “the American boy”, then the use of “girl” is probably inappropriate. If it sounds okay for a commentator to say to an exhausted relay team “good swim boys but are you disappointed?”, then the reference to “girls” might be okay.

    Of course, this exercise illustrates that, when it comes to men, commentators don’t refer to gender at all, which begs the question of why gender is referred to at all for women. Why not just refer to “the Australian” or “the Chinese swimmer”? In such circumstances, referring to the gender of female swimmers but not male swimmers is inappropriate because it reinforces that female swimmers/athletes are not normal athletes but a different or “other” kind of athlete, when the only point of distinction is gender. Clearly, that is sexist.

  5. We have a word “girl” to specifically refer to a person of a certain gender and age and therefore to misuse it will be, almost always, insulting, sexist or misleading. There is always a purpose in the misuse, even if the particular user at the time is unaware. It can be equally inappropriate to misuse other, similar words. An example is when the press refer to an 18 year old male victim of a crime as a “youth” but the perpetrator, who also it transpires later is 18 years old and male, as a “man”. (It is surprising how often this can be seen. The purpose here is clearer to most readers.)

    As an older woman, cavorting in a pool doing water aerobics as inelegantly as one would expect an older woman to be able to cavort, I object to being referred to as a “girl”. The men doing the same are never called “boys” (although they receive a regular bevy of other apparently amusing ageist jokes – more actually than the women). Isn’t it about time that we tried to refer to everyone with dignity and without discrimination? We have a language rich with meaningful words. Let’s use them accurately.

    We can all admire an outstanding 16 year old Olympic athlete (who is unquestionably exceptionally young) in a fashion that highlights how much time this athlete has to improve as he or she matures. But “girl” has been misused so often that it is no longer appropriate even in this context.

    • Thanks Anne for your considered comment. I agree with your observations about perpetrators and victims. Dignity as a guiding rule is a great leveler – and I guess that raising people’s awareness of the impact of language is a good first step.

  6. […] Don’t call me girl. I’m a woman. […]

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