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An Alphabet of Feminism #7: G is for Girl

2010 November 15




And alone in the midst of all this lumber and decay, and ugly age, the beautiful child in her gentle slumber, smiling through her light and sunny dreams.
Charles Dickens, The Old Curiosity Shop (1841)

‘Twas brillig

Picture the linguistic landscape of the thirteenth century. Full of bastard Latin, Anglo-Norman, smatterings of Anglo-Saxon crudities, and a few words whose origins nobody knows. Sometime around 1290, the word girl appeared, used to signify ‘a child or young person of either sex’, alongside clarifying compounds knave girl and gay girl (‘boy’ and, er, ‘girl’ respectively). Like some tantalisingly similar words – lad, lass, boy – its provenance is unclear, although some cunning linguists would have it derive ultimately (via some torturous and dark history) from the Greek ‘parthenos’ (=’virgin’). But yes, uh huh, you read right: in its earliest incarnation, girl was ungendered. In fact, it was not until the 1530s that its more specific application to XX chromosomes surfaced, with girl meaning ‘a female child’ – and even then, it still had its enduring reference to ‘a roebuck in its second year’, with roebuck being, naturally, the male equivalent of roe (a deer, a female deer).

Dear, dear

john ruskin aged three and a half, by james northcote

John Ruskin aged three and a half, by James Northcote (1882), National Portrait Gallery, London (In storage: clamour for its return!)

So the Sylvanian Deer Family would be made up of a roebuck, a roedeer, and, perhaps a (male) girl. Not actually that uncommon: after all, we classify animals via male, female and child (calf, cow, bull; pup, bitch, dog) with a third, genderless young’un alongside their sexually mature parents all the time.

Here comes an art history aside to girl’s ambiguous beginnings: glancing, for example at Queen Victoria with her family, a  young prince of Spain, or even an English merchant family of the 1740s, the gender identities of the under-6s seem, well, fluid at best. I should add that, in the case of the Spanish Royal Family, the eldest prince (Baltasar Carlos) leaps straight from painterly petticoats to politically potent riding gear and full armour with apparently no mid-point whatsoever. Another prince, the young Charles II, appears in full armour aged twelve, although in his case there were excellent practical reasons for the switchover (lol revolution). There is also James Northcote’s portrait (right) of John Ruskin, art historian, antiquarian, arguable founder of the National Trust, patron of the Pre-Raphaelites and sometime author – aged three and a half. Manly indeed.

This could speak of a reluctance to bother gendering the child until that gender could be of socio-political relevance (something infant mortality could only have encouraged), but that is not to say it went un-bemoaned by the children themselves. The poet Rainer Maria Rilke complained bitterly of his mother’s reign of sartorial terror: ‘I had to wear beautiful long dresses, and until I started school I went about like a little girl. I think my mother played with me as though I were a big doll.’ I am also reminded of the story that hit headlines in Sweden about a couple who refused to gender their two-year-old at all, for fear of falling into gender’s traps.

Not yet a woman

Alice Liddell photographed by Lewis Carroll

Beggar children are in. Alice Liddell, photographed by Lewis Carroll.

But, as we may ask of this Swedish child, what happens to girl once its gender has been set? Well, one of its first gender-specific definitions is, as of 1668, ‘a maid of all work’; sweetheart or mistress makes its appearance towards the end of the eighteenth century (as in the popular song ‘The Girl I Left Behind Me’); and it appears in compound reference to prostitution – a kind girl, girl about town. These are all potentially belittling terms for female-orientated stations in life, which can nonetheless retain a flattering appeal ­– think Patsy Stone and her insistence on being referred to as ‘mademoiselle’; or, more psychotically, think Bette Davis in Whatever Happened To Baby Jane?

So, actually, as girl grows up, it sexes up: indeed, once gendered firmly female, its sexual identity becomes more complicated, and this is something that seems to go alongside a developing idea of what early youth actually is. It is only really with the Victorians that the ‘cult of childhood’ really came into being, upheld by luminaries such as J. M. Barrie, Ruskin himself, Charles Dickens and, of course, Lewis Carroll.

This is where whispers start snaking around history, and it feels fitting that the term paedophilia erotica did not come into diagnostic existence until 1886, for this was arguably the first time childhood was regarded with fetishism (as later underlines the actions of ‘poet and pervert’ Humbert Humbert, in Nabokov’s now-notorious Lolita). Girls suddenly become not simply small genderless adults, but (feminine) symbols of what adulthood is seen to lack: innocence, purity and beauty, as in Dickens’ The Old Curiosity Shop, whose Little Nell loves to say her prayers. Dickens’ adult females fare little better, of course, and the Victorian infantalisation of women proves girl in grown-up action, and a topic for another day.

This, then, is the context for Carroll’s photography, but it is important to note that, whatever their evidence for something darker, their subject matter was by no means original: Carroll’s contemporary, Julia Margaret Cameron, produced many similar images (worksafety check: mild nudity) that played on girlish simplicity for typically Victorian effect.

[She was] the most beautiful little girl that Tom had ever seen. Her cheeks were almost as white as the pillow and her hair was like threads of gold spread all about over the bed.

He wondered if she was a real live person, or one of the wax dolls he had seen in the shops.

– Charles Kingsley, The Water Babies (1862-3)

A strange journey, then: a word that commences genderless and ends sexualised and technically belittling (‘the checkout girl’), but without much perceptible backlash from the female population. Are we not all Patsy Stones?

Image: G is for Girl; illustrated initial G surrounded by little girls and a young deer

NEXT WEEK: H is for Hysteria

13 Responses leave one →
  1. Pet Jeffery permalink
    November 17, 2010

    Horses may be the only species other than our own for which we distinguish the sex of young creatures. A filly is definitely a young mare. And “filly” is an especially interesting word as it is a diminutive of the sexually-neutral “foal”. “Colt”, I think, is generally applied to a young stallion.

  2. Pet Jeffery permalink
    November 17, 2010

    A couple of years ago, I attended equality and diversity training. The trainer (and perhaps the organisation in general) seemed to have a definite discomfort with the word “girl”. The trainer considered the word correctly applied to female children below the age of puberty. I didn’t bother to argue the point, but I thought of several objections. One is that it is simply not the way the word is used (or, certainly, not the whole of the way it’s used). Another is that it is no part of the remit of people working for the organisation (Victim Support) to judge (or even consider) whether or not an individual has passed through puberty.

  3. Pet Jeffery permalink
    November 17, 2010

    A great problem, here, may anticipate your W. (If I may guess what it will be.) A lot of women are uncomfortable with the word “woman”. My mother considered it rude to call someone a woman, and preferred “lady”. The word “lady” (of course) raises class issues, which render it an uncomfortable word for many. Which leaves us with “girl” (with which a lot of women seem happy) but which carries implications of immaturity.

    It seems to me that the minefield presented by the words “woman”, “lady” and “girl” brings us to the heart of feminist issues.

    • Pet Jeffery permalink
      November 17, 2010

      Actually, I rather hope that the W will be “witch” (rather than “woman”). I recall seeing amongst the definitions “an old and ugly woman” and “a young and beautiful woman”.

      • Stephen B permalink
        November 18, 2010

        Interesting factoid on the women (and men) who were accused of being witches during the big ‘witch trial’ period in Europe: they were mostly middle-aged people who had political power and disputes with their neighbours. Some crossover with women who were considered to be too ‘nagging’ as well. There’s an interesting vein that suggests it was often used in a sexist way where ‘bitch’ might be today.

        Whereas when the choice of woman is driven by reports of what a witch DOES (historical documents of accusations, not fairy-tale version), it’s often young and beautiful women stealing other people’s boyfriends. Or old crones with curses. Less middle ground, as you said above.

        • Hodge permalink
          November 18, 2010

          Would comment on what W will be, except my brain only works short-term and I genuinely can’t remember if I had a witty and interesting curveball for that week or not ;) Will have to check my tatty sketchbook word-list.

          I will, however, be addressing the rather interesting question of women / witches and their familiars when we get to P. Which word will be possibly the most grindingly obvious gynocentricism of them all…

    • Hodge permalink
      November 18, 2010

      Don’t forget ‘female’, which, while rarely used in everyday conversation nowadays, has been firmly relegated to the realms of the straightforwardly opprobrious.

      One of the problems with ‘girl’ is that, I think, it also cuts into the heart of the preoccupation with youth, and fear of maturity, which, while not necessarily an exclusively feminist issue, certainly has some serious implications for women.

      Here, I think it is worth returning once again to the nickname issue, and perhaps throwing in the slightly strange habit many women have of speaking in fake dialect / accents when they’re saying something a bit controversial or unexpected (on this, see Hadley Freeman, for example – This to me seems to be an attempt to sort of belittle yourself in order to avoid confrontation or challenges.

      In the same way, while there may be a kind of fear in growing older (I still find it hard to remember I’m no longer a teenager, even though I’ve been in my twenties for a couple of years now, and stubbornly continue to refer to myself as ‘a girl’ because I simply can’t get my head around the idea that I’ve finally arrived in the realms of ‘women’), I think there is also something about *refusing* to own your maturity which is more of an issue than it would be for a man. No man my age would submit to being called ‘a boy’, for example.

      And don’t forget that one of the oft-cited reasons behind eating disorders (those most female of mental illnesses) has been a desire to remain a child, to refuse a developing body and all the pitfalls it represents. Which are often based around sexuality.

      Apologies if this is long and rambling. I hope it makes some kind of sense!

      • Pet Jeffery permalink
        November 29, 2010

        I think that makes a lot of sense, Hodge. I’ve been trying to think of something to add, but (so far, at least) can only nod in agreement.

        • Pet Jeffery permalink
          November 30, 2010

          I’ve been thinking that, properly to consider “girl” applied to an adult woman, we need also to take into account “boy” applied to adult men. I’ve thought of six such uses of “boy”, but there are probably more. I don’t where this takes us, but…

          1. Boy = adult African American. A patronising (at best) American usage, possibly now obsolete. We find it in: “Pardon me, boy, is this the Chattanooga Choo-choo?” I’m pretty sure that the question is supposed to be addressed to a black railway employee. There seems an implication that a boy is less than a man (and, by extension, we may assume that a girl is less than a woman). As far as I know, “girl” has not been used in a similar way for adult African Americans.

          2. “Good old boy”, an other American usage. My impression is that “good old boy” and “red neck” mean pretty well the same thing. If one dislikes rustic Americans one may call them red necks, using “good old boys” implies the opposite attitude. Here “boy” seems to be affectionate.

          3. In English usage the “old boys” of a school (former pupils). For once (thank the goddess) this seems sexually neutral. “Old girls” is used in exactly the same way.

          4. Another English usage for “old boy” (possibly regional) = elderly man. My mother used “old boy” in this way, seemingly affectionately, but perhaps a little patronisingly. I think that this usage was (is? I haven’t heard it recently) employed more by women than men. My father certainly used it on occasion, but more sparingly than my mother.

          5. Boyfriend = a man with whom one has a sexual (or potentially sexual) relationship short of intending to spend ones’ entire remaining lives together. I have heard the word used of men in their thirties (at least). Again, sexually neutral, “girlfriend” is used in the same way.

          6. Boys = soldiers or policemen (the latter as “the boys in blue”). “Support our boys” means “support our army” without any reference to the age of the soldiers (although only staff officers are permitted to remain the army until they become geriatric). I think the sense of “our boys” is that these (as a nation) are our sons. “Boy”, here, perhaps signifies a familial relationship more than it does anything to do with the age of the boys. I am uncertain as to the mix between senses 4 and 6 in the “Dad’s Army” signature tune: “We are the boys who will make you think again”.

          All of this seems to paint a rather confusing picture of the word “boy”, but perhaps we should try to make some sense of it, if we are to give serious attention to the word “girl”.

  4. Pet Jeffery permalink
    November 17, 2010

    Interesting that “gay girl” once meant “female child”. I don’t think that anyone, today, would use it other than as a synonym for “lesbian”.

  5. Pet Jeffery permalink
    December 19, 2010

    Thinking about the word “girl”, I’m wondering why I wrote something…

    In my novel “Jane”, my narrator makes a short voyage on the female-crewed warship, the Revenge. For this, I wanted female equivalents to “seaman” and “seamanship”, and coined “seagirl” and “seagirlship” I wonder now why not “seawoman” and “seawomanship”? Several possibilities occur to me. In the case of “seagirlship”, the most likely is that “seawomanship” doesn’t sound well, if one attempts to pronounce it. “Seagirl” may have been by analogy with “seagirlship”. Additionally, it may have been intended to reflect the youth of the sailors… and possibly I may have liked its sounding similar to “seagull”.

    Reasons for preferring “girl” to “woman”, in any given context, may be complex.

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