Men, Women, Girls. and Confusion ; for Them, Being Called a Girl Is a Subtle Signal of Mastery, a Verbal Pat on the Bottom

By Blacker, Terence | The Independent (London, England), March 1, 2004 | Go to article overview
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Men, Women, Girls. and Confusion ; for Them, Being Called a Girl Is a Subtle Signal of Mastery, a Verbal Pat on the Bottom


Blacker, Terence, The Independent (London, England)


For those of us on the front line of the gender war, the hot new issue of girlishness poses a ticklish problem. On the one hand, we have the boss of Ofsted, David Bell, arguing this week, in a speech to mark International Women's Day, that to refer to an adult female as a girl is a reflection of "the prevailing male culture", a view which Bonnie Greer has cranked up by comparing it to a racist jibe. On the other, Ann Widdecombe has confessed rather sweetly on the Today programme that it is all nonsense and that she rather likes to be called a girl.

The reaction of many will be to deploy the whiskery old argument about political correctness and the excesses of the language police, and then to dismiss Mr Bell and Ms Greer as a couple of girly goody- goodies who are stirring up unnecessary trouble. Awkwardly, though, they may be on to something.

I should confess that I have recently had troubles with girls. A few months ago, I was discussing a novel for young readers that I had just completed with a class of 11-year-old students. An everyday story of teenage cross-dressing, it followed the misadventures of a 13-year-old boy who is obliged to disguise himself as a girl and who discovers that, like Jack Lemmon in Some Like It Hot, he rather likes it. Being a girl alters the reaction of the world towards him and, in the end, changes him, too.

Coincidentally, David Bell mentioned gender change in his Women's Day speech, quoting a survey in which children had been asked how they would feel if they awoke one day to find themselves members of the opposite sex. Girls rather liked the idea but boys were appalled.

This rather less than surprising revelation was borne out by the reaction of the children in Belfast to my story. They liked the set- up but, when I mentioned that I planned to call the novel Girlie, there were gasps of horror and disgust from the boys. "No way would I buy a book called that," said one of them. The title was quickly changed to Boy2Girl.

There is surely no great mystery about these age-old gender insecurities of the playground maturing a decade or so later into unthinking adult prejudice. Ann Widdecombe may scoff at the idea that the word "girl" can be demeaning precisely because only a man with a pronounced death wish would dare to apply it to her.

The position is different for many other working women who are not overt bruisers like Widdecombe. For them, being called a girl - with smiling amiability by a male colleague in a meeting, perhaps - is a subtle signal of mastery, a verbal pat on the bottom. It is not quite bullying but it has the same general effect, diminishing the woman in the eyes of others and, more significantly, of herself.

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