Stop Calling Women “Girls” (Including in Fiction Writing)

It’s not okay to call a woman a “girl” in most cases when writing fiction (and, you know, in life in general)

smiling woman with red hair and red lips

Look at this woman / human / person / lady.

It used to be that men got away with calling women a lot of offensive terms—in the office, on the street, and in their own homes—on a range of intolerability. Now, thanks to #metoo and empowering each other through a global online connection of sisterhood (rah rah!), women aren’t tolerating any of these words any longer.

Sometimes change is made most effectively through education. There are words all people know are offensive, and there are others they have to be taught are.

This is where “girls” comes in. I know personally that a lot of male authors (and some female ones) don’t realize calling a woman a “girl” can come across as offensive, and polite and respectful education can really make a difference here. So, as part of a general sensitivity read I conduct while editing, I will change the word “girl” to “woman” (or “girls” to “women”) when I come across a situation that warrants change and explain, respectfully and professionally, why I did what I did.

 

When it’s not okay to use “girls”

Most of the time, when a character or narrator refers to any female person who is older than eighteen, it is not appropriate to call them a “girl.” This is especially true when there is a power dynamic that puts the man on top, such as when he is talking to an underling at work.

When it is okay to use “girls”

Obviously when a character or narrator is referring to a child, “girl” is the correct option. But there’s another case when I keep an author’s use of “girl” while editing.

When an adult female character is talking casually with another adult female character, I find it okay for them to call each other “girls.” There are several words in the English language that are defamatory in general but are accepted in use within a specific group, when the group has inverted the negative connotation. But the key is the word can only be used by a member of that particular group about a member in the same group.

This means a woman can call another woman a “girl” and it be okay.

Think about a woman (in real life or fiction) saying to another woman:

“I could really use a girls’ night.”

“Wow, girl, you are looking fantastic!”

“Girl, don’t you wish we made the same amount of money as men for the same work and that wrinkly, old white men would stop trying to legislate what we do with our own bodies?”

“Yeah, girl, I know.”

All of these statements (and similar ones) are acceptable between one woman to another.

A third time when it’s okay to use “girls” is when the character or narrator intends to be offensive. If you’re writing about a creep or a lecherous jerk, then it would make sense that they would call a woman a “girl.” My aim in this post is to help writers avoid situations when they would be unintentionally offensive.

Alternatives to “girls”

Don’t worry. There are lots of other words you could use instead:

· gals

· ladies

· friends

· folks

· people

· humans

· or just their names

There you go! Such a small change can go a long way to making your readers feel respected, and making you look (and feel) good in the process.

This is a cross post with the Dot and Dash blog. While you’re there, you can read my other posts about writing and check out my book editing and author coaching services.

 

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5 thoughts on “Stop Calling Women “Girls” (Including in Fiction Writing)

  1. Hi, Erin –
    Hmm… I can get behind this (and already have, actually: https://thebettereditor.wordpress.com/2015/07/30/females-or-women-why-your-choice-matters/ ) except for one thing. You’ve stressed that this shouldn’t be done in *fiction.* But fiction is frequently the exception to the rule, isn’t it? This line is particularly puzzling: “when a character or narrator refers to any female person who is older than eighteen, it is not appropriate to call them a ‘girl.’”
    What’s appropriate for a character or narrator to say is…exactly what is appropriate for that character or narrator to say. If a character is the kind of character who refers to women as girls, then he (or she) should do that. Or if they’re in a time period, or an environment, where that language is appropriate, then that’s what should be used. The consequences of denying that element of a story’s reality can’t be good. And it would be an error of editorial judgement to impose that sort of restriction on a work of fiction.
    I totally agree that in speech, journalism, academic writing, business documents, other non-fiction, and what have you, “girls” will be inappropriate in most situations (unless referring to children). Extending that to fiction, though? That would also be inappropriate.

    • Thanks for your comment. I usually give a caveat saying if it’s in the character’s nature to say such a thing, then it’s okay. It was a total oversight this time, and I’m glad you pointed it out. I will add that to the post.

  2. I fail to see that “gals” is significantly different to “girls”. It sometimes fits in with a common idiom applied to a lady of mature years, as in “Camilla, she’s a good ol’ gal” and in reported country speech. There is of course that veddy upper class term applied often though pursed lips “gel” (pronounced with a hard g), as in, “She is the merest slip of a gel” but all these alternatives seem to be much of a muchness.

  3. “Girls” is proper in many contexts. For example, when the individual is a young adult. The terms “college boys” and “college girls” are quite common because of the age of the persons at issue. In addition, when dating a person over age 30 it is common to describe the person as a boyfriend or girlfriend.

  4. I think “gals” (or “gal”) is in the same category (undesirable) as “girls/girl”, with “ladies” not far behind. “Women/woman” is preferred, I think, which interestingly wasn’t in your list of alternatives!

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