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It’s a ‘Girl’ Thing for Women

TIMES STAFF WRITER

When law professor and commentator Susan Estrich sent off her female research assistants after a long day of work, she cheerfully banished them with “Get out of here, girls.”

When Richard Riordan’s press secretary, Noelia Rodriguez, told a TV station official that she was finally taking a week’s vacation, the woman executive exclaimed, “You go, girl!”

And in Spin magazine’s special November issue on women in pop and rock music, the editors didn’t mince words: On the cover they proclaimed it “The Girl Issue.”

There was a time when Estrich wouldn’t have dreamed of referring to any female adult as anything but a woman. Rodriguez has never used “girl” in her job, and would be stunned if the word ever passed the Los Angeles mayor’s lips. And virtually all of the musicians featured in the Spin issue are highly paid adult (or at least post-teenage) women.

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So what’s with all the girls?

With a significant degree of female equity and parity established in the workplace and other institutions, there has been a gradual social warming among women to the once-ostracized “girl"--a curiously defiant celebration of a word formerly fraught with oppression.

“We’ve taken back the word and are using it the way we want--girl power, girl talk,” said Jane Pratt, the 34-year-old editor of her eponymous new magazine, Jane. “It’s about girls supporting each other and reveling in what’s fun about being a girl. . . . Girl power means something different from feminism.

“It means finding the strength and expressing the strength that’s girlie--everything from the way that girls talk to each other to having fun with makeup,” Pratt added. “And, most importantly, it refers to girls or women supporting each other or choosing not to put a man first.”

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This is not the old-school, coffee-making, office-slaving, husband’s-credit-card-borrowing girl--although the word incorporates a dollop of old-fashioned girlishness.

“Girl” has been reborn in the image of a modern woman: It borrows the youthful vigor and spontaneity of female adolescence and discards the meekness of the old-fashioned office girl.

“I think women use it in a jocular, almost swaggering way,” said Susan Faludi, author of the critically acclaimed “Backlash,” which examined society’s resentment of feminism.

“It always implied somebody weak and feeble and ineffectual,” said Barnard College professor Donna Gaines, who teaches about the sociology of youth and has written about the changing usage of “girl.” “It’s been appropriated as something very vital and strong.”

Gaines says that use of the word has evolved among women in the same way that members of other groups sometimes convert an offensive term to an affectionate, even proud expression--the way, for example, that some gays use “queer.”

The new “girl,” while beginning to crop up in the conversation of women of all generations, is still in limited run.

Pratt considered calling her new, slightly edgy fashion and beauty magazine--geared to women ages 18 to 34--Girlie, as a way of reclaiming that term from the subculture of smut. The world wasn’t ready for that. “The irony was lost on every focus group, every mall test group.” She also tested Girl as a title, but people thought it meant that the magazine was literally for young girls. “It’s still a little too cutting edge.”

Barbara Findlen, executive editor of Ms. magazine, will only use the word as a sort of salutation.

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“I might say, ‘Girl, you are going too far.’ I won’t say, ‘There’s that girl.’ It feels disrespectful to use that word about a mature woman,” she said.

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But other mature women are more willing to be called girls than the generation that preceded them.

Publicist Jill Sandin, 39 and married, said that two decades ago, “I was very, very careful to use the word ‘woman.’ I wanted the world to respect my budding independence. I would refer to my women friends. Now that I’m a mom and everything, I think, now, I want to be a girl.”

When Rolling Stone magazine recently asked entertainer Bette Midler why she named her movie company All Girl Productions, she said: “I say ‘girl’ because I love to annoy people. . . . I hate that whole ‘Don’t call us girls anymore.’ . . . I don’t just want to be called a woman. It sounds like someone with a mustache.”

Sometime around the rise of feminism and Ms. magazine a quarter of a century ago, “girl” was banned from the vocabulary of smart-thinking men and women when describing any female over 15.

It went the way of stewardesses and poetesses. There were no more office girls fetching coffee, no more college girls getting degrees or career girls working up the job ladder; no more girl Fridays, script girls or hatcheck girls.

So why are “girls” back?

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“Often after a social movement has been established for a while--like feminism--you can play around with certain terms,” said Lynn Chancer, an assistant professor of sociology at Columbia University who studies feminism.

Some women say that using “girl” is a reaction to decades of implied pressure to use “woman” ceaselessly.

“I remember going to college and there were no girls at all. There were the women down the hall,” said editor Pratt. “Women, women, women. It started to feel equally repressive.”

Asked Estrich: “Do you remember when people used to send out birth announcements saying, ‘It’s a baby woman’? You were bending over backward to be taken seriously.”

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Now, there is some relaxation of the need to remind people constantly that you are a woman--the same way that some younger women do not feel the need to remind people of their autonomy by retaining their surname after marriage.

Then there’s the fact that “girl” is just plain hip these days.

There is little doubt that the current rage for saying, “You go, girl,” was plucked from the black community, where “girl” has been a staple of conversation among women of all ages for decades.

“My favorite word!” laughed novelist Wanda Coleman, who is black. “At least in the black subculture, ‘girl’ has never gone away. ‘Girl this,’ ‘Girl that,’ ‘Girl, let me tell you. . . . “

In the early 1990s, small groups of musicians and artists appropriated “girl” for very political reasons.

So-called “guerrilla girls” were masked women who appeared at art shows--identifying themselves by noms de guerre--to protest the plight of women artists neglected by a male-dominated art world.

Similarly, the “riot grrl” movement sprang up in the early ‘90s in the Pacific Northwest, playing a kind of hard-edged music whose purveyors dressed in a coquettish, girlish way but belted angry lyrics about the victimization of women. They reveled in the contradictions--part girl, part angry woman. And they paved the way for a flock of mainstream singers such as Alanis Morissette, Gwen Stefani and Tori Amos, all of whom sing about hurt and anger--and often do it in the midriff-baring baby T-shirts popular with young women.

Spin magazine was so taken with the notion of young women dominating both the stage and the audience--as well as driving record sales--that it devoted much of its November issue to analyzing what it calls “girl culture.”

“ ‘Being a girl’ means taking pride in the very qualities denigrated by both sexists and doctrinaire feminists,” writes Ann Powers in the “girls” issue. “For young women, these include pettiness, brattiness and sexual flamboyance.”

Now “girl” crops up throughout pop culture. “Girls rule” emblazons T-shirts. A college women’s crew scrawls, “You row, girl” on the side of the team van. The clothing store X-Girl, in Los Feliz, is a spinoff for women of the hip-hop store X-Large.

“X-Woman would sound pretty retarded,” said Adam Silverman, 34, who along with his partner Eli Bonerz, 31, has created a small clothing empire.

Silverman said his X-Girl customers range in age from 14 to 45. “We definitely have people who are technically women who come here to buy their girl outfit to wear when they’re out being a girl,” he said.

Still, “girl” sits uneasy with a lot of women. Is it the beginning of a slippery slope back to the time when men were men and women were girls?

“I know what ‘girl’ was in the past and I’m afraid of it becoming that again,” said Rosalie Maggio, a self-described “wordsmith” who wrote the “Bias-Free Word Finder.” “Are we going to have to be down the road fighting the same battle?”

Susan Faludi said she doesn’t “outright condemn” the word. “It depends completely on the context. But it depresses me to the degree that it’s part of this large picture in which women are afraid to be political except in this tiniest safest, soft-corest way. . . . Nobody can say they’re a feminist anymore,” she said. “So now they’re saying they’re a girl. And they’re saying it with a little oomph and grit, and that’s the best they can hope for.”

Faludi said she was surprised, after living in New York and San Francisco, to move to Los Angeles four years ago and hear men and women referring to adult women casually as girls.

“It really struck me,” she said. “I noticed among a certain circle--people in the entertainment industry--they used the word ‘girl’ to refer to older women. And that’s probably because Hollywood views all women as girls, or not worthy of inclusion.”

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Faludi was experiencing the fact that Hollywood’s youth-obsessed culture prizes young women and never stopped calling them girls. It is one of the last businesses to have a job description still in some use that employs the word: “D-girl” historically refers to women who search for and develop movie projects. (Formally, the job is more likely to be called director of development or creative executive, and the expression “d-boy” has yet to be heard.)

But Jennifer Todd, one of the producers of the movie “Austin Powers,” says that’s changing. “I don’t know who refers to people as ‘d-girls.’ I was a vice president of development for Bruce Willis, but nobody ever called me a ‘d-girl.’ Thankfully,” said Todd, 28. “There are plenty of men doing that job too.”

As murky as the new “girl” may be, it comes with some rules.

One is that the conversation should be casual. Neither men--nor women--should be saying, ‘I’ll have my girl call your girl.’ And no woman wants to use it in a serious office setting--or around impressionable minds.

“We have this ‘Take Your Daughter to Work Day,’ ” said Robin Kramer, Riordan’s chief of staff, “and the young women range in age from 7 to 17. Listening to both informal conversations and speeches, even those little ones are referred to as young women.”

A second rule is that it’s generally a woman’s prerogative to use the word. Men treading into “girl” territory enter at their own risk.

“I don’t see a guy coming into an office of a bunch of women and saying, ‘Hi, girls,’ ” said feminist word scholar Maggio. “People say, ‘Well, how am I supposed to know?’ Oh, excuse me--you know.”

Sometimes a gentle reminder is all it takes to separate the women from the girls.

Ms. magazine editor Findlen recalls a recent conversation with a man in which he referred to someone as “the girl who owns that business.” “I said, ‘God, a girl owns her own company! How old is she?’ He laughed. He got it.”


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