A few days ago, Courtney Stoker (of From Austin to A&M) asked, on Twitter, “Anyone have any theories as to why geek lady communities use 'Girl(s)' in their titles to identify themselves as female so much? ” “Alliteration,” I replied, “if you work 'geek' in there. Also, 'women/woman' holds more power than 'girl' and I think it scares people. So, we use 'girl' in order not to scare others off b/c it's not as 'in your face' as 'woman'.” She asked me to further develop this idea and it got me thinking about what I really mean by the word “woman” holding more power than “girl” and why I think that we women are sometimes afraid to call ourselves women. Clearly, Courtney and I are not the only ones thinking about this issue, as this article from Jezebel.com just popped up on my reader.
Now, first of all, I don't want to even indicate that I have a problem with communities that are comprised of women using “girls” in their titles. I think that we all make decisions what words to use to describe ourselves and everyone's opinions are valid. There are times when I still use “girl” myself. And I regularly follow some groups that do use “girls” in their names (Here's where I give a shout out to Geek Girls Network). And this article isn't meant to look at groups that have participants who cover a large age range (and, thus, might actually be girls). But I think that, as women, there's a line we walk between calling ourselves girls and calling ourselves women.
At one point in history, the line between girl and woman was pretty firm and obvious. The life phases of girls in medieval northwestern Europe were “ultimately marked by bodily-sexual and social factors such as the possession of an intact hymen and the loss of it, the occurrence of the first menstruation (menarche) and the (first) pregnancy and childbirth, the state of daughter-ship, of wife-ship, of motherhood, and of widow-ship” (De Ras 149). Basically, you're a girl until you have your first period. Then, you get married and have a baby and now you're a woman. Done. In fact, according to De Ras, as a girl you weren't even a “girl”, you were a “daughter” “maiden” or “virgin”; “girl” emerged as a word in the sixteenth century (De Ras 152). It was around this time, the fifteenth and sixteenth century, that urban cultures started to develop. Immigration from the country-side into cities lead to an influx of “marriageable youngsters” in those cities and an expanded educational system meant more girls and young women entered schools and the labor market instead of being married off young or sent a convent (150). All of this leads ultimately leads to a new period in girls' (and boys') lives known as adolescence – where you're neither a child nor an adult.
Now, adolescence (or being a “teenager”) as a life phase is a relatively new phenomenon. It has it's roots in the college-aged flappers of the 1920s, and really came into it's own in the 1940s during WWII. In the aftermath of the war, the United States changed its educational standards and started mandating compulsory education through a certain age (source: The notes from my kick-ass “Girls' Media Culture” class). All those post-menarche young women (and men) developed a youth culture that turned into the “teenage years” we know today. (I know this frames “adolescence” and “teenhood” as an explicitly American event. I'm not a childhood/adolescence scholar and only have so much information to go on). But why am I going on about adolescence?
I think women's tendency to use “girl” in social settings comes from the notion of extended adolescence. It's hard to pinpoint when girls become women and boys become men and many of us adults don't run our lives in accordance to what has usually been the markers of adulthood – getting married, having kids, buying a house. A lot of us who are younger still don't identify completely as adults (I'd be rich if I had a dollar for every time I heard a fellow twenty- or thirty-something say, “Gosh, I still feel like I'm 16. When did I become [insert age here]?”) so we still feel, even in our twenties, thirties and forties, that we're still “kids”. Add to that the fact that our culture is obsessed with youth and many folks will do whatever they can to stay young. “Girl” implies youth, vivaciousness, cuteness, innocence; “woman” implies maturity and formality.
“Woman” is a powerful word. “Adult” had power over “child”, so “woman” has a certain amount of linguistic power over “girl”. So does “man” over “boy”. Men get around this power struggle by being called “dudes” or “guys”, but women are left with “girls” (or “gals”). If you don't want to be a girl, you have to exert the sometimes scary power of claiming “woman”. And exerting that power is not something that our culture really likes to stress. Sure, we've had “Girl Power!” But think about it: isn't it more fun to say “girl power” than “woman power”? Don't those two phrases imply different ideologies? “Girl Power!” is fun; “Woman Power!” is... strident. And goodness knows we don't want women to be strident. This is a general cultural problem, but it's sometimes worse in geek culture. There's a notion, and it's not universal but it is important to note, that “computer culture has become linked to a characteristically masculine expertise, such that women too often feel thy need to choose between the cultural associations of 'femininity' and those of 'computer'” (Heeter, et al 76). If we geek women want to be feminine then we have to be “girls”.
Let me give you an example of the girl/woman power struggle. About a month ago I went to a popular South Western comic convention. I was talking to a fellow geek, male, and showing him my geeky tattoos. He was looking at my forearm tattoos, but saw my first tattoo on my upper arm. It's the popular symbol for “woman/female” but has been redone to look like a blue, glowing computer power button. I got it to help motivate me to finish my degree in Women's and Gender Studies. It means, unsurprisingly, “woman power” (My tattoos are fun, but not the deepest things in the world). My fellow geek saw this tattoo and said, without a pause, “Oh, cool! Girl power!” I nodded at him, meekly, and agreed that's what I meant by the tattoo. I wanted to tell him that, at age 28, I'm far from a girl and that it's woman power, but I didn't. We were in the middle of the exhibition hall and there were a lot of people around us and I didn't want to be – wait for it – that woman. You know, the strident one who insists on correcting guys on the difference between “girls” and “women”. I was afraid of pissing this guy off and was slightly intimidated by the power aspect of asserting that I'm a woman, not a girl.
This isn't an exhaustive study of why we geek girls/gals/women often forfeit our adult statuses to call ourselves girls. I'm not a sociologist and I've not interviewed other groups of geeky girls/gals/women to get their take on why they chose “girls” for themselves instead of “women”. But I hope that I've begun to scratch the surface of the power choices we make when we choose labels for ourselves. And I'm interested in your take: are you a girl, gal, woman, all three? Does it matter to you?
P.S. Dudes/guys/men - feel free to chime in, too.
De Ras, Marrion. “Female Youth: Gender and Life Phase from a Historical and Socio-Cultural Perspective.” Women's Studies Journal. 15.2 (1999): 147-160. Print.
Heeter, Carrie, Rhonda Egidio, Punya Mishra, Brian Winn, and Jillian Winn. "Alien Games: Do Girls Prefer Game Designed by Girls?" Games and Culture. 4.1 (2009): 74-100. Print.