I’ve been meditating on the “girlifying” of adult women since the Season of Zooey. Oh, the Season of Zooey was that time in late 2011 when everyone was talking about actress Zooey Deschanel in anticipation of her new FOX sitcom, “The New Girl.” And much of the talk centered on whether Deschanel’s quirky, wide-eyed, kittens and rainbows brand spells good or ill for womankind. Now, some Zooey fans pushed back that the endless critique reflected a cultural bias against the feminine. Our culture is biased against women, alright, but ambivalence over Zooey Deschanel is no illustration of the problem.
Traditional femininity is cool with me, if that’s your bag. And I am all for quirk. I’m a nerdy girl myself and I stan for Issa Rae’s Awkward Black Girl. It’s not the “dork” part of the “adorkable” descriptor, coined just for Zooey, that rankles me. What concerns me is society’s habit of equating childishness with femininity, of finding women more charming when they are adorable “girls” rather than grown ups. In a post about the topic on What Tami Said, I wrote:
Our society has a history of associating childlike qualities with women. The cult of true womanhood that emerged in the 19th century dictated that white women possess the childlike qualities of purity and submissiveness. (Women of color were left out of this idealization then, as they are now, which is one reason there is no black Zooey Deschanel.) Susan Faludi said, “The ‘feminine’ woman is forever static and childlike. She is like the ballerina in an old-fashioned music box, her unchanging features tiny and girlish, her voice tinkly, her body stuck on a pin, rotating in a spiral that will never grow.”
Look even at the words we use to describe extreme femininity vs. the ones we use to mark extreme masculinity. A woman who is hyper-feminine is not a “womanly woman,” but a “girly girl,” emphasizing unencumbered youthfulness. A man who is traditionally masculine is, well, a man–a “manly man,” very much an adult and in charge.
I was reminded of this the other day, while flipping through a local magazine that profiled Maggie Lewis, the executive director of the Dove Recovery House for Women in Indianapolis and Circle City’s new City-County Council President. Lewis is doing amazing things as a non-profit executive and a public servant. But note in the picture above how the magazine labels Lewis’ snagging of the top City-County Council spot. They call it “Girl Power.”
The Spice Girlian concept of “Girl Power” is cool enough as a rallying cry for tweens, but attaching it to the achievements of a 39-year-old sister, who is blazing trails, seems somehow diminishing. Do we write about men in this way? When Rahm Emmanuel was elected mayor of Chicago, did we file his win under “Boys are Rad!”?
The girlifying of powerful women doing great things happens all the time. Check out this article in the Daily Mail about Nobel Prize award winners Liberian Leymah Gbowee, who mobilized women against civil war; Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, who is Liberia’s president; and Tawakkul Karman, a Yemeni activist. How does the Mail categorize these women’s achievements, which include leading an entire country? Note the cutline on the accompanying photo: “Girl Power.”
I don’t think this is just semantics. Words mean things. It was not harmless when society made a habit of calling grown black men “boy.” It was disrespectful and infantilizing. It was a symptom on racial inequality. How can it mean anything different if adult women remain “girls” while men are men?
I’m sure I’ve been guilty of lazily referring to women as “girls” at some point, but lately the word sticks firmly in my craw. I’m longing for the day when the answer to Who run the world? is an emphatic: WOMEN!