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On Girlboss: “Girls?” “Women?” Either Way We Lose, Because Both Are Considered Diminutive



The term “girlboss” has come into the mainstream in large part thanks to Nasty Gal founder and CEO Sophia Amoruso’s memoir/how-to guide, Girlboss (upon which the Netflix show launching Friday is loosely based). As geeks, we’re no stranger to the addition of “girl” to certain words in order to assert a feminine presence: fangirl, geek girl, gamer girl, etc. But does the word “girl” do more harm than good?

I was having a conversation with friends over Facebook about this recently, most of whom were of the mind that the term “girlboss,” which they’ve heard used outside the context of the book/show, was sexist, because it’s diminutive. A sampling of quotes from the discussion:

  • “Somehow both infantilizes and others women who are bosses and leaders. So obnoxious.”
  • “It is both condescending and othering. I absolutely loathe it as a term for women and I don’t really think it is genuinely aspirational. It’s more like “you can be a boss and be cute, girls!” That’s what it feels like to me. Nothing like this would fly for men.”
  • “How about we stop calling grown women girls?”

Personally, I think there’s an interesting convo here beyond the “boss” thing. Because I often hear about how calling women “girls” is diminutive, and I agree for the most part. However, often we use “boy” or “boys” with men, too. We call Hollywood a “Boys’ Club.” We might say that our male partners are going out “with the boys.” A guy might refer to his friends as “my boys.” Women refer to both their husband and sons as “my boys.”

I’m not sure that the problem is using the word “girl.” I think the problem is the assumption that anything feminine is automatically diminutive no matter what it is. Hollywood’s “Boy’s Club” evokes power, whereas calling something a “Girl’s Club” has an automatic diminutive connotation. Saying you’re “going out with the girls” might have a more frivolous connotation than one’s husband saying he’s going “out with the boys.” “Boys will be boys” is used for males of all ages as an excuse for bad behavior, because “boys” deserve to do what they want.

Meanwhile, say you’re taking a “Women’s Studies” course, or going to a “Women’s Conference” and you’ll get your fair share of eye rolls. Using the word “women” doesn’t guarantee authority. That’s the sad part.

Further along in the conversation, a friend of a friend brought up the issue of context, and how it’s one thing to use “girls” and “boys” to describe adults socially, but that’s it’s quite another to use those words in a business or professional setting. I agree that context changes things. However, see the above example of Hollywood as “Boys’ Club.”

Women use that phrase to mark a place where they want entry, where they want a share of power. Women use the word “boys” in that context to denote the power that comes with male camaraderie. Whereas female camaraderie is seen as a given, because we go to the bathroom in packs, after all. Socializing with each other is what we do, so there’s no value placed on it.

Therein lies another rub. Hollywood “Boys’ Club” aside, there’s misogyny, too, in letting things slide socially that we don’t want to let slide in business. Because business is “Important.” Business is the purview of men. Whereas communicating socially is a female thing, and therefore less worth worrying about. I find it interesting that women might have a problem with “girlboss,” because it gets used regarding an important, male-dominated sphere, but don’t consider the other spheres where they reside equally important.

And so they’ll have no problem “going out with the girls,” or “hanging out with my girls,” but draw the line at “girlboss.” Is it because the men will see? And so what if they do?

I’ve always thought there’s something powerful about reclaiming “girl.” In making the conscious choice not to see the word as diminutive. If the word “boy” can evoke power, agency, adventure, and courage no matter the context, why can’t its opposite?

I’d love to hear what you all think. Meanwhile, I’ll definitely be checking out Girlboss on Netflix, which drops Friday the 21st.

(image: screencap)

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