Women, or girls? After a male photographer was criticised for calling Equalities Minister Nicky Morgan a "girl," journalist Anna Pollitt looks at gender semantics
When did you become a woman? The first time you had sex? Left school? Got married? Had a baby?
Subjective perceptions aside, in the eyes of the law it was the precise moment you turned 18. As well as being able to legally booze, gamble and vote, at 00:00 on that landmark birthday it was kicking out time at the kids' disco - society turned you from girl to woman.
It's the same for men, but somehow, the transition is not quite as loaded. Some 18-year-olds are keener than others to seize on the adult status suddenly thrust on them, but for males, holding onto the label of 'boy' is not particularly enticing. Women, on the other hand, are encouraged to see "girl" and "woman" as interchangeable.
A week before equalities minister Nicky Morgan's spectacular gurning riposte to a photographer who shouted "girls" at her and colleague Amber Rudd, my mum and I took a taxi in central London with a driver who repeatedly called us "girls". "Where you off to girls?", "Nearly there now girls", "Traffic's brutal today girls".
He was a nice bloke. We found out his daughter's getting married next year, he's leaving London because congestion in the capital has got so bad he barely breaks even and he liked classical music. But his endearment, we'll call it, was jarring. Of course there was no malice or intent behind it - but, thankfully, it wasn't something I'm used to.
Morgan rightly pulled up that snapper in front of the world's media - and he apologised - but it is also newspapers and magazines that are guilty of churning out insidious references that reduce women to adolescents.
A few recent examples of headlines where "girl" actually means "woman":
- 11 reasons the hottest girls are always single
- 15 things to know before dating a girl who went to an all-girls school
- Model girls: Who to watch at Fashion Month
- Holly Madison claims girls had to wash their FEET before getting in bed with Hugh Hefner
Some of these publications are targeted at female audiences and excuse it simply as "women talking to women". But while friends might say "alright girls" (or more likely "lasses" if you're a northerner) it's condescending when a publication takes that stance. Men don't get called boys in the same manner.
If it's not models referred to as "girls" in fashion mags or seemingly any young women bizarrely becoming "girls" when they're referenced in newspapers, women are put in a pointless "ladies" box that doesn't translate for men.
Unless you're the Queen's PA, are married to a knight or baronet, or gave birth to Jesus, what does "Lady" even mean? It's a pointless, lingering moniker that nods towards a regressive notion of "acceptable" behaviour for woman to abide by.
Yet we have "Ladies Day" at the races, women's football teams called "Ladies FC" and "leading ladies." The latter has the bonus of alliteration but does that really justify using it above "leading women" given no one is ever called a "leading gentlemen"? (While we're on it, can I ever make a gentleman's agreement?)
These gripes may seem trivial but the devil is in the detail.
Slipping the occasional "girls" into a breezy article on dating or fashion may seem friendly or even flattering in a culture where looking youthful is seen as an indisputable goal for women, but ultimately it's quietly diminishing one gender's age and experience. A subtle double whammy that may not be noticeable at first glance, but is subconsciously giving the green light to reducing and infantilizing women.
Given that the terms "glamour girls" and "ladies of the night" are still thrown around in some arenas but there are no chairgirls or businessladies, please newspapers and magazines, lets stick to the facts and call "women" what they are.