Girl Talk: When, If Ever is It Appropriate?
Recently I sat down to grade papers for a diversity class I teach and was surprised like you wouldn’t believe. Reading one of the student’s papers I was all of a sudden faced with an intriguing situation. The student started the paper by informing me that he was in a local business and over heard two people discussing J.W. Wiley’s take on the word “girl.” Aside from the fact that this business owner was publicly disparaging me with gossip that could be heard by anyone within earshot, the business owner is also a woman who condones “girl talk” as well, and was attempting to make a point about not just the substance of my message, but the delivery of my message. Normally that wouldn’t be a problem for me to hear about and I’ve even had students close to me ask me about my delivery or style, trying to figure out the rhyme or reason for my approach at times. That has never bothered me. But this business owner allegedly didn’t realize that she was criticizing and chastising me for my style of delivering a message while she was displaying her style, class (or lack thereof), and aplomb before people that she had no clue might possibly be connected to me somehow. In this case, one of them happened to be a student of mine who decided to include some of the specifics of the business owner’s public critique in a paper he was writing on gender. The main reason the student included the business owner’s comments in the paper was that he couldn’t understand how, under any circumstances, this business woman wasn’t in agreement that the use of the term “girl” is very much inappropriate when aimed at an adult woman.
Now, this business owner has a reputation for gossiping to the point where I know a couple of people who have never returned to her business because of their disinterest in hearing her gossip or share her opinion of people that she barely knows, or obviously can only articulate stereotypically. I once wrote a blog on gossiping (October 7, 2007 “Neighborly Gossip: Dissed Respect or Just Down Right Un-Neighborly?”). In this case though, what motivated this gossip was a conversation I allegedly had one night at a bar with the business owner’s husband. During an extended period of time the business owner’s husband repeatedly referred to women as “girls.” Now, I don’t mean young women under the age of 18—which we actually can feel comfortable referring to as girls because legally they aren’t considered women yet—even though their intellectual engagement and responsibility levels may transcend that of many women older than them. The business owner’s husband must have referred to at least four different women as girls in a span of about 45 minutes. His references were so casual and inconsiderate, and vocal, that finally I felt I had no choice but to engage him about it. And believe me, I don’t get off on being the diversity police, but after years of encountering him and having to sit by and watch him toss around “girl” I wouldn’t have been able to sleep that night if I hadn’t challenged him.
I was also prompted to engage him because he has a tendency to project a level of sophistication in his manner and world view that is above reproach—so somewhat as a favor, I wanted to point out to him that he might be undercutting his social image—not too mention framing his respect for women and/or his understanding of women’s struggle in a very negative manner. So, on some level, I was attempting to give him an assist, perhaps challenge him to think beyond his own socialized and inconsiderate perspective. Hence, I didn’t attack him, nor belittle him for referring to adult women in a manner he wouldn’t refer to adult men. Yes, at no point in the evening did he refer to any man as a boy. So, I asked him an obvious question to take a round-about-approach to the conversation. I asked him if he loved his 13 year old daughter. He answered yes, with no hesitation. I then asked him if he loved his wife, mother, sisters, aunts, etc. His answer was an unequivocal yes to all these questions. I then asked him if he had little patience for men who disrespect women. He answered yes to this as well.
I then politely pointed out to him those references to adult women as girls contribute to the infantilizing of women. I also shared with him that reference to groups of people that had five women and one man, or three women and one man, or four men and one woman (in other words, any combination of mixed gender in a group) as guys” was problematic as well because it kept men at the center, even though women do it just as much as men. Now I understand that many things we say are just instances of language use that are as automatic as men putting on pants and women wearing brassieres. However, it still is worthwhile for us to consider why we use the language we use as much as it doesn’t hurt for men to consider why we don’t wear dresses and for women to consider why men don’t wear brassieres (when we all know that some men should as much as some women really don’t need to wear them).
If most of the problems with social injustice are a result of the way we are socialized or a result of our inadequate unpacking of how we were inappropriately indoctrinated in terms of how we engage differences, then while we don’t want to disparage each other for our inconsideration, we still do want to improve our environment by challenging one another to consider the consequences of those actions we exhibit that are problematic. In essence, that is what I was doing with him, trying to get him to “consider” the statements he might be making about women and the sexist world he was further adversely perpetuating for his daughter to grow up in. I pointed out that his blindly spewing language that he himself had been basically introduced to in his ascent to adulthood wasn’t necessarily his fault until the logic of the transgression was pointed out to him, but from that point forward it was his fault. He didn’t like the insinuation of him possibly transgressing, in any way, shape, or form, and loudly attempted to cry foul. He implemented what I jokingly and arbitrarily often refer to as “move number 14,” and immediately went into a spiel about how it isn’t that serious. He followed that rationale with what I now will jokingly refer to as move number 29, the argument that “he’s always spoken that way (the fallacy referred to as “the argument to tradition”).” Both of these arguments are extremely weak, especially for a Black man to use (yes, he was Black), because they are the same arguments that people used back in the day to justify calling people that look like him and me boy (and other disparaging terms) before so-called Civil Rights were inadequately distributed in our society. When I pointed out the hypocrisy of his position he only got louder and more annoyed. Go figure!
Ultimately his voice became louder and edgier. Ironically, the edge that eventually arose from me in my exchange with him came from his repeatedly talking over his wife’s voice in a very disrespectful way, as if she should know to defer when he was talking. It got so bad that I pointed it out to him a couple of times and he summarily dismissed that as well, as she got silent each time he did it, rolling her eyes in disdain, while nevertheless yielding the conversation to him. Then later, in the student’s paper, it was revealed to me that she didn’t like my style of communicating. I found this so bizarre, seeing as how she was visibly disturbed by his dominating the conversation, not allowing her to get a word in most times.
So, my questions to you are these:
Why do men get so defensive when you point out the fact that they are hypocritically disrespecting the same women that they claim to love?
Should men (or people) get a pass on possible disrespectful language simply because the language has always been used that way?
How many of you think that the elimination of “girl talk” might actually contribute to a necessary change in consciousness towards the way we think, speak, and treat women?
Should women also stop the “girl talk” or is “girl talk” an accepted “in-group” thing similar to the use of the N-word by some African Americans, B-word by some women, and F-word by some gays, and R-word by some people with disabling conditions? In other words, is it okay for adult women to call one another “girl” but inappropriate for men to do it?
Should women who consider themselves feminist or socially liberated feel like hypocrites by further contributing to keeping themselves marginalized while simultaneously keeping men in the center when an extreme example of this can be seen when they say “farewell you guys” to a group of all women?
Obviously you don’t have to just answer these questions, but go wherever you choose to go in discussing “girl talk.”