Monday, November 26, 2007

Girls, Women, and Females

It started like this:

I was reading essays on Jenny Crusie's site (it was research, I tell you--not procrastination) and discovered that she, and some other women writers, call their subconscious/Muse/subliminal swamp the "Girls in the Basement." Which reminded me of how weird it is to me when women on What Not to Wear refer to their breasts as "the Girls." (As in: badly-fitting bras make "the Girls" unhappy.) Referencing any part of myself, either mental or physical, as a "girl" makes me uncomfortable, and it occurred to me to wonder why.

The short answer is that I don't strongly identify with being a female/woman/girl. I know that I am one, of course, but I generally just think of myself as a "person." The same way that I know that I am technically part-Asian, but I rarely think of myself that way. I don't think of myself as being white, either, or even Asian-American, although that's the closest label. What I picked up from growing up in an era of equal rights and feminism was that "all people, regardless of gender or race, are equal" meant that "men and women are the same," apart from a few biological differences.

Along with that came this idea that being a woman was something to be ashamed of, that embracing femininity meant emphasizing differences between genders, where the ideal was to be the same, to achieve genderless personhood. (Did said personhood look suspiciously masculine? Why, yes, it did. But that's for another discussion.)

But I've been thinking about women and femininity a lot recently, partly because of a story I want to write and partly because I want to find out what being a woman means to me. I've been thinking especially about the stages of women's development, from adolescence through adulthood, which is where the whole issue with the word "girls" comes from.

It's not that I don't like the word--I'm far more comfortable saying "girls" than I am with "women." I'm just wondering what the word means. And I don't think it's just me that's uncomfortable with "women"; I know I've had discussion with other females my age--all of us hovering around thirty, mostly married--about the fact that we refer to each other as "girls" and that we know guys (I say "guys" instead of "men" too) who refer to their girlfriends, or even wives, as "girls." For that matter, I know a lot of older women who refer to themselves and others as girls--"Golden Girls," anyone?

So, my question is: what's a "woman," and how and when does it differ from being a "girl"? To be honest, my conception of the word "woman" has a good deal of matronliness about it. I am far more comfortable using "female" than "woman" as an all-purpose word for female adults.

I never bothered with Women's Studies courses in college because I thought it was kind of backwards at the time to study Women if the ideal was to be genderless People. So I missed all of those discussion back then. But if I'm to think meaningfully about what it means to be a woman today, I need to know what a woman is. How do you define it? What makes someone a woman or a girl to you? Are there appreciable differences between men and women to you, or does it just come down to differences in physiology?

And finally: where do you see these conceptions/definitions going in the future? What will be the same about being a woman 500 years ago vs. today vs. 500 years into the future, and what will be different?


Blogger gordsellar said...

I've probably noted before how students in Korea seem to love the dichtomy, "man" versus "girl." I correct them on it, but it takes months to really sink in.

Thing is, women here are more girly, in a way not quite like what I saw in Japan and far from what I've seen in North America. It's not unusual for a young adult woman to act like a kid. Today, I saw an office woman crying out "Oh, elder brother!!!" in glee and running sideways at her boyfriend (?) with a little-girl mischievious grin on her face.

This is not only interesting because it fits behaviorally, but because Korean is much less gendered than English, let alone French. People as often as not specify an individual as "that one" or "that person" as they might "that female" or "that male."

The gender kicks in when hierarchy kicks in: that one, or else, "That woman of likely marriage age," or "that man of grandfatherly age." Elder brother: there's one word for men to use, one for women. Same with elder sister.

I'd like to say I was raised not to consider the biological sex of an individual important, but it's not true. Boys don't hit girls. Boys shouldn't cry. Girls should be careful. And so on...

For what it's worth, though, I think there are inherent wiring differences between males and females -- generally speaking. This is not a better or worse thing, or a you-versus-us thing, or an "all of y'all are the same" thing, even. I know I deviate from the norms, and I think in general smarter people do... but I too-often hear women and men make the same complaints of the thought processes and behavriours of the opposite sex not to believe there are, evolutionarily speaking, some hardwired tendencies toward sex differences.

The other weird thing is that it seems the more wealthy Asian countries get, the more celebratory the less forceful the feminist critique becomes and the more attractive traditional gender roles seem to become. The kind of widespread feminist consciousness that took hold of college-going women in the 1970s -- where many Korean women apparently refused to use "girly" language and used the man's word for "Elder Brother" to address elder male classmates and friends -- seems almost wholly gone, and young women not only act girly, but use the girly language as much as possible.

(Their academic revenge takes other forms, mind. The exam period is a period of miniskirts, to the point where male students complain that they cannot keep their mind on their studies because of all the distracting bare legs around them.)

It seems to me that dying out of feminist militancy needn't be bad, but in the US, it seems to have been replaced with something else I'm not quite sure I can put my finger on. Something not altogether egalitarian either.

Anyway, on a side note, I'm very curious what you'll have to say about one of my write-a-thon stories, in which this very subject (along with race) is a minor theme.

Dec 8, 2007, 8:01:00 AM  
Anonymous jd said...

What about "lady"?

Just that here in the UK, I've known a number of females who prefer "women" to "girls", but will get extremely annoyed if any of us blokes refers to them as "ladies".

Dec 9, 2007, 8:22:00 AM  

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