January 09, 2008

Pretty Machinery

Radish King questioned my use of the term "girl" to describe the figure in the Hopper painting at left (see my last post). I agree that her hair, shoes, and body suggests she's no longer a teenager, much less prepubescent. She's an adult woman. So does "girl" become an inappropriate way to refer to her?

It's an interesting (and fair) question. I'd venture that fifty years ago, these were common gender-based reference terms:

Gentleman and Lady (used to denote formality)
Man and Woman (used as a generic standard)
Guy and Gal (used to denote a peer)
Boy and Girl (used to denote youth)

It makes sense that feminists would have bristled at the use of the world "girl" in professional or other public situations, carrying as it did a connotation of immaturity. And there wasn't (and isn't) a lot of parity between "boy" and "girl" in terms of workplace usage. Rarely do you hear "the boy who..." used to identify someone in an office, with the possible exception of Jimmy Olsen at the Daily Planet.

Yet I've been known to call myself and others "girls" casually and with some regularity. It feels natural to do so. As a twenty-something, I'd posit that "girl" has migrated to the place (in American language) that "gal" used to hold: as the counterpart of "guy" and meant, in many cases, to denote familiarity versus diminution.

In an office where I'm the youngest by oh, thirty years, being called a "girl" doesn't phase me even if it IS age-based. In my first job out of college, I corresponded regularly with academics to whom I was simply a name on email. In this abstract space, they always referred to me as a "woman." Every year I'd meet a few of them face-to-face at an awards ceremony. A few times, I did notice a switch to "girl" after they'd seen me. But I didn't notice any corollary decline in respect; I didn't lose any sleep over it.

I'd hate to think that I might be leaching away the victories of feminism through laziness--a lack of self-awareness in my word choice. That said, I'm unmarried and living off my own salary in the city, sustaining a career in writing and holding leadership positions comparable to or outranking a number of men of similar age and educational background. I may not be Rosie the Riveter, but I'm no Betty Crocker either. = )

All of this to say that I appreciate the thought-provoking nudge.


Rumor has it that the new Barrow Street is out. I haven't seen it yet, but I look forward to neighboring poems by Ada Limon, Annie Finch, Campbell McGrath, Dana Roeser...a diverse buunch in here.

In prep for book-age (the latest release date: March 1!), I made up some mini-cards at Moo.com. For the graphic front, I collaged some images from the (as-yet-unrevealed) cover of THEORIES OF FALLING:

Because the cards are so small (actual size shown), the flip side only has room for "Winner of the New Issues Poetry Prize," the title, my name, and a couple of website addresses for ordering and author info.

For promotional postcards I'll be able to use the full book cover, and I'll have more room on the back for pertinent text. Any suggestions from folks on what to include, and what not to include? Should I leave a generous space to write in a particular reading date, etc.?


Radish King said...
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Radish King said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Radish King said...

I deleted my posts because I realized I had just repeated myself. This is a terrific post, and thank you for it.

Kelli Russell Agodon - Book of Kells said...

Interesting post.

I use girl when referring to myself, like saying "I'm the birthday girl!" Saying "I'm the birthday woman" sounds a little ridiculous. I would also refer to a grown man as "the birthday boy" for the same reason--Hey birthday man--not a good ring to it.

My girlfriends (not womenfriends) refer to our husband as "the boys" -- are the boys coming? (or maybe it's boyz). I try to refer to teenager girls as teenagers or "young ladies" instead of girls, though I'm probably sounding a bit like my nana or a crazy old aunt when I talk like that.

Though many times though when referring to my friends I say 'Ladies." "Okay, ladies, where shall we eat..."

I don't know, I think it comes down to someone's intent. If a male is referring to a female co-worker as a girl just to be dominant or harassing, that's one thing, but if a male friend walked up to me and said, "There's the birthday girl" or used the term girl in describing me, I most likely wouldn't be pressing charges.

(of course, I think in my 20's I was much more sensitive to the terms "girl" and "woman" - now, the only term I can't stand is "ma'am"--I'd much prefer "My Dame" or "Queenie" ) ;-)

Steven D. Schroeder said...

I often consciously try to say "woman" instead of "girl," but I've found that few people care, so I don't worry too much about it either. 'Round here we have "girls' night out" and "boys' night out" both. The only one that bugs me is "gal" because it sounds antiquated and condescending to my ear. My best friend uses it sometimes--picked it up from his dad.

Anne Haines said...

I've been known to use both "girl" and "woman" but it feels very different -- think about the difference in tone between, for example, "girl poet" and "woman poet." I might have a "girls' night out" but I doubt that we'd ever have a "girl President."

But, I also came of age during a time when feminists were VERY conscious of how words were used, and I took on that particular cause with a lot of gusto. :) (I'm 46 now, and I'm thinking of the late seventies/early eighties, when I was 18-25 or so and for the first time I found that I actually could call my peers "women" with a straight face, so I used every opportunity to do so.)

Anyway, in terms of the painting in question, I just realized that whether I think of her as "girl" or "woman" changes how I imagine the narrative of the painting. If she's a girl, I think that something has been done to her and that's why she looks so pensive. If she's a woman, I think maybe she's rather enjoying walking around naked and is doing it because she feels like it. Isn't that odd? It does kind of put words to the ambiguity I sense (and rather like) in the painting, though.

Sandra said...

I'm really glad people enjoyed the post; it was something for me to think about. Thanks, R.K., for being the instigator.

And happy birthday, birthday girl...I use "ladies" too, though that is very specific to the crowd.

I think if I'd called the Hopper figure a "naked lady," that would have put yet another emotive spin on it, oddly enough.