whoever you want to be…

How do you feel about “girls”? Plus bitches, liars, housewives, and TV’s other names for women, by Diane Shipley

Girls are everywhere on TV these days, comprising the title of Lena Denham’s much-hyped HBO show:

popping up in the names of new and returning programmes like New Girl, 2 Broke Girls, and Gossip Girl, and oh yay, the creator of teen drama Awkward is developing a show about adult women for MTV called  Dumb Girls.

A lot of people hate the word when used for grown-ups, while others think it’s no big deal and feminists should focus on more important stuff. I can certainly understand the latter point of view: there are more urgent social justice issues than semantics.

But words matter. They affect our perceptions, demonstrate how we see the world, and even reinforce prejudices. TV, to some extent, aims to reflect reality (because if we couldn’t relate to it, why would we watch it?) and, like other media, its portrayal of gender (and race, class, and disability) can subtly and subconsciously affect our real-world expectations.

So it’s probably not insignificant that women in show titles are rarely referred to as women.

I might be projecting, but I think Lena Dunham’s Girls is purposely named. Her characters are all in their early twenties, with immature emotional outlooks. As the lead character, Hannah, Dunham expects her parents to bankroll her while she waits for the world to bend to her will, bestowing her with a job in the industry she wants to work in plus enough free time to finish her book of personal essays and hang with her horrible (horrible!) boyfriend and equally feckless friends. It’s a show about Gen Y growing up. The same could be said of the eponymous Broke Girls, although those characters seem more like independent women (albeit ones who are floundering in a badly made programme).

At the opposite end of the age spectrum, premiering when Dunham and co. were still in nappies, is The Golden Girls, which is obviously a modern (often feminist-y) classic and to which you could try to attach some of the same claims: they were free-spirited! Having a second adolescence after their kids had moved on/their boring old husbands were gone! Plus, alliteration! But… is that really why it had “girls” in the name? Older women are often patronised in this way, “girls” making them seem unthreatening, unintelligent, and desexualised. None of these things were true about the show’s characters, but would as many people have tuned in if that had been made clear upfront?

My problem isn’t so much that grown women are sometimes referred to as girls, it’s that “girls” has become TV’s default term for us, which suggests it’s the default way TV (and the society it reflects) sees women: childish, in need of looking after, not fully formed. Or that TV (and the society it reflects) wants us to be that way, to not be mature and strong and sexually confident and thus potentially threatening to outdated masculine ideals.

Some more examples from TV titles: That Girl, Lost Girl, Gilmore Girls, The Girl with Something Extra, The Girlie Show, Girlfriends, Girls Behaving Badly, Girls Club, Good Girls Don’t, All-American Girl. Girls, girls, girls. And almost all of them white and heterosexual, all of them able-bodied and cisgender, so as not to risk challenging too many audience or advertiser expectations.

When men are referred to in programme titles, it’s usually as men: Last Man Standing, Man Up!, Men of a Certain Age, A Gifted Man, How to be a Gentleman (fancy), Mad Men, Men in Trees, Men Behaving Badly, 2 and a Half Men, the upcoming Men at Work… and those are just a few from the top of my head. This taps into existing masculine stereotypes, implying the characters are strong (even dominant), independent, and nobody’s fool.

Designing Women, The Bionic Woman, Police Woman, Dr Quinn Medicine Woman, Women’s Murder Club,  and Loose Women are the only shows I can think of with “woman” or “women” in the title — and in three of those cases it’s there for “OMG, a WOMAN is doing a traditionally male job!” purposes; in one it’s using (reclaiming?) a phrase traditionally used as an insult. And only one of these shows is still on the air.

But “girls” is actually one of the more complimentary things we could be called. Regardless of their content, other show titles define us by our relationships with men (Desperate Housewives, The Good Wife, Cougar Town), our stereotypically feminine interests (Cashmere Mafia, Sex and the City, Lipstick Jungle), or what conniving cows we are (Pretty Little Liars, Devious Maids, I Hate My Teenage Daughter, Don’t Trust The B in Apt 23, and GCB) — in those last two, B stands for “bitch”, of course.

It’s not that I mind flawed female characters, but I mind that the default in TV show titles is to insult or infantilise women, and considering the equivalent is much less true when it comes to men on TV, it reinforces gender disparity in an insidious way. Maggie Furlong of HuffPo wrote an entire article about how 2011-12 TV titles were all about women vs. men, seemingly without realising that it wasn’t women vs. men, it was girls vs. men, children vs. grown-ups. “Man” is the biggest compliment you can pay a guy, whereas “girl” is one of the biggest insults (the others being synonyms for women’s genitalia.).

Of course, the ideal situation would be for women and men to play a variety of roles where their gender is the least interesting thing about them. Drawing attention to it in show titles can only reinforce the idea that gender is essential to our identities and viewing choices, and even that certain characteristics (variously described as “being girly” or “being a man”) are biologically determined (a big old lie!).

But where TV does call us something, I’d rather it be “women” more often than not.

Is that too much to ask?

Images via: 1, 2, 3, 4.

About Diane Shipley

Freelance journalist (books, tech, TV, health), inveterate blogger and long-time tweeter (@dianeshipley). Loves memoirs, cats, and pictures of dachshunds.

15 comments on “How do you feel about “girls”? Plus bitches, liars, housewives, and TV’s other names for women, by Diane Shipley

  1. Jacqueline Christodoulou
    June 25, 2012

    Great post, Diane, and something that often slips past my consciousness, I’m probably completely conditioned to it.

    • Keris
      June 25, 2012

      I thought the same. I’d noticed a few ‘girl’ titles, but had completely missed the lack of ‘women’ titles or that all the men get, um, ‘men’.

      • diane
        June 25, 2012

        Thanks, guys! I mean girls, I mean women… Um, people. (Phew.)

        Yep, it was all the talk about “Girls” that got me thinking about this, and it really struck me that I couldn’t find or think of an example where men are called boys, even where they’re caricatured as buffoons.

  2. mallymon
    June 25, 2012

    Great post!! As always… biased, moi??! :) xxxx

    • diane
      June 25, 2012

      Thanks, Mum! Maybe just a little bit… xx

  3. Anne-Marie
    June 25, 2012

    Yes, brilliant post Diane – I’d never noticed before but it’s startlingly condescending, isn’t it? Also, what are your thoughts on Don’t Trust the B…?

    • diane
      June 25, 2012

      Thanks, Anne-Marie! It really is. Mixed thoughts on DTTB to be honest… I like the performances and it has some weird and funny moments, but it’s pretty uneven and I think deteriorated. Have you watched any?

      • Anne-Marie
        June 25, 2012

        Yes, I’ve been watching and those are pretty much my thoughts too! It is irritatingly uneven, but amusing enough to not give up on it just yet….

  4. Ooo this is so interesting…I recently used ‘girls’ in a blog post title but found myself umming and ahhhing before hand. I think i used it because it sounded better in the title but I used ‘women’ throughout the article.

    I love the word ‘woman’ and I love being a woman. I love being a ”mature and strong and sexually confident woman”

    Wowzers, how exciting to write that. I love being a mature and strong and sexually confident woman.

    But it’s taken me quite a while, and a fair bit of looking at myself to get to a point where I could describe myself in such a way. I think I’ve grown up confused by the fact that men and women were ‘equal’ and yet in all the relationships i saw the woman ran around after the man, and that was reiterated on telly, film, in magazine..etc etc etc

    I was confused. How do you become a ‘mature and strong and sexually confident woman’ when you’ve never really known one, or seen one? Well, in my case you start asking questions and thinking aloud on a blog. And i suppose what we’re seeing now is women winging it as they redefine what it is to be a woman nowadays.

    And I suppose what this very long comment is trying to say is that we’re still very much in transition, we’re still finding our power, and how to articulate it. But we definitely are finding our power and how to articulate it, Bea and this awesome article demonstrate that beautifully. I think that the more we do this, the more TV will have to take note, and then we’ll see more ‘mature and strong and sexually CONFIDENT’ women on the telly.

    Sorry for going on and on! Your lovely article got me going!

    • diane
      June 26, 2012

      No need to apologise! I’m always interested in your thoughts (I like how you write!) and really appreciate your taking the time, and I think you make a really important point — that hopefully as we see ourselves as more confident, we (and others) will be more interested in portraying us that way.

      “I love being a mature and strong and sexually confident woman” does feel like a daring statement, doesn’t it? Especially in a world where “woman” is still seen as a ruder alternative to “lady” or “girl”, a concept that’s never made any sense to me.

      • Keris
        June 27, 2012

        That’s what I still struggle with. When I’m talking to Harry and Joe in particular, I quite often chicken out of “woman” and say “lady” instead. Weird, isn’t it?

  5. diane
    June 27, 2012

    It is weird! I don’t chicken out when I’m talking to most people, but with older people, I often do, because I’ve seen the look of horror “woman” can inspire. Bizarrely.

    • Keris
      June 28, 2012

      Yes, that’s what I meant, actually. If I’m just talking to Harry and Joe, I say “woman”, but if I’m talking about a woman who is in earshot, I quite often go with “lady”.

      • diane
        June 29, 2012

        Ha, yes. It feels so transgressive to say “woman” when the ladywoman is standing right there, and that fear is not unjustified! And yet we’d never be all, “Go and ask the gentleman at the counter.” I mean, we could, but if we just said MAN, no one would blink. Sigh.

  6. Pingback: Talk about a “Scandal”: Bunheads, the whitey-whiteness of TV, and why Shonda Rhimes is a goddamn hero « Bea

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This entry was posted on June 25, 2012 by in Bea Box, Bea Entertained, Bea on TV and tagged , , , , .
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