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!

  • Brooklynista

    As I read the article, several black “free spirit” characters came to mind: Freddie and Denise from A Different World, Sinclair from Living Single, Beneatha from the play A Raisin in the Sun (she’s the earliest black hippie I’ve come across in pop culture), Lynn from Girlfriends, J from Awkward Black Girl (she’s more angsty though, not so much free-spirited, but definitely quirky), so I disagree with the writer about her assertion that there are no black equivalents to Zooey. None of them were perpetually child-like though. They still had grown-woman swagger when situations called for it.

  • Wow!


    Funny, I have heard women refer to men as boys while talking to me and a group of men. I’m almost certain other men have heard as much but I think I see your reason for your trying to make this point.

    And I hear your explanation put you are making some sexist assumption. Not every man when using the term “girl” is using it to belittle women. Many of the female posters and article writers here. And not every woman using “boy” regardless of how she uses it, is doing so with a bevy of positive energy and thoughts.

  • http://www.chicnoirhouse.blogspot.com Chic Noir

    You’re right on about Sandra Clark. What about Sharee Shepard from The View? Or Sandra from the Cosby show? How about Freddy from A Different World.

  • http://www.chicnoirhouse.blogspot.com Chic Noir

    I love Zoey Deschanel. Period!

    She is very refreshing in a Hollywood where every young girl wants to take off her clothes at the first opportunity and talk about how edgy she is when the only edge she knows is the one around the fence of her gated community.

  • D

    I’m sure some might not be using it to belittle women, but the term itself belittles women. And it’s true that not every woman uses boy with positive energy, I was just trying to think back to the times I heard it used and what it meant. Plus, I do find it “belittling” when a 35-45 year old man is writing that he wants a “girl” or describing his ideal “kinda girl.” Is he hunting for 18 year olds or afraid of actually landing a WOMAN? This stuff I find offensive, but that’s a chip on my own shoulder, and I do tend to date older men.

Read previous post: