Over the weekend, as part of an ongoing commitment to a cinematic, popcorn-and-booze Saturday brunch, we went to see The Girl on the Train.
I liked the movie. It’s a quite good adaptation of the book, and the film layers a gorgeous, delightfully moody New England scenery over the whole thing that nicely set the tone for the story, one of those shorthand things you can do with visual media and that can be so difficult to do on a page.
The title of the story, though, seems to be part of a disturbing trend, where we take deep discussions of identity and relationships and, most especially, the abuse and murder of women and cover them over with a mysterious cover and a cutesy title.
The Girl on the Train
And the title that (I think) started them all: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.
There’s something telling about American culture with that last one. I’m given to understand that the original title, translated from Swedish, is Men Who Hate Women. But here, to sell books, someone chose to reduce the main female character, Lisbeth Salander, to adolescence and comment on her appearance. The second bit of that is ridiculous, to some extent. One minuscule detail in a myriad of those conveyed throughout the narrative about Lisbeth’s physical appearance. It’s interesting and makes for a great cover design, but ultimately, it’s a throwaway comment in a sea of far more interesting prose.
The first bit is problematic on a much deeper level. The book was not titled Men Who Hate Women by accident. The entire book contains story after story of women who were refused agency and personhood by the men in their lives. Lisbeth’s own struggle centers around a state-imposed guardianship, one that essentially forces her to remain a child despite having successfully reached adulthood. While we would likely not all agree with her personal version of adulthood, we are left no doubt as to whether Lisbeth can care for herself.
And yet, despite that being the central theme of the book, someone, somewhere, chose to take that from her once again by retitling the book—and as a consequence, the entire series—using the word “girl.”
Now, some of you are already protesting. “Why can’t I say girl? There’s nothing wrong with it, it’s just a word. We call men boys, too. This is just political correctness gone amuck.” And so on, and so forth.
Hang in here a moment. Let’s unpack some words, shall we?
People who like to argue semantics like to point to strict definitions, so let’s start there. From Dictionary.com, we have:
girl (noun): 1. A female child, from birth to full growth. 2. A young, immature woman, especially formerly, an unmarried one.
boy (noun): 1. A male child, from birth to full growth, especially one less than 18 years of age. 2. A young man who lacks maturity, judgement, etc.
Now, theoretically, these two definitions should be essentially identical.
Notice how they’re not.
According to the dictionary (and hence, our oral traditions), the male of the species outgrows the term “boy” at age 18, unless he’s especially irresponsible (Or a person of color, which is not the specific focus of this blog post—that discussion is somewhat more complex than I’ve got time for today—but does merit observation.).
Female members of our species, however, don’t have such nice, defined lines. You might get to be a woman if you get married—a status defined wholly by its relationship to someone else. You can theoretically mature out of being a girl, but there’s no qualification for this. Responsibility does not appear to be enough by itself, and we live in a culture where “mature” is generally read as physically elderly, some might even use the word crone, and certainly not something to be desired.
No, in this culture it is best to stay fresh-faced, wrinkle-free, childlike and immature for as long as possible. At least, if you happen to identify as female.
In the book version of The Girl on the Train, the main characters do not refer to themselves or other women as girls (as I recall, at least, and a cursory review of the novel would seem to reinforce that memory). Rather, the word is imposed by the title, and is picked up in the film version of the story as Rachel, the primary point-of view-character, reflects, “I am not the girl I used to be,” a phrase that, especially given the weight of all that happens and has happened in the story, feels contrived and trite and out of character. Something that’s meant to force a tie to a title that already doesn’t quite fit, that seems designed to deliberately evoke reference to earlier, similarly-named works (and probably is).
(There is a comment to be made here about how literature featuring female leads is generally only marketed to women, and redundancy in titles is quite common, and really, do “they” think we’re that stupid? But I’m not going to make it.)
In Gone Girl, the use of the g-word is much more deliberate. Throughout the story Amy, the female lead, refers to various types of Girls, the people we, as women, are supposed to be, the straitjackets laced up around us to ensure that Order is maintained.
And it is precisely that issue that leaves me banishing the word altogether, at least when it comes to describing a female person over the age of 18 (Except perhaps by doting parents who, after all, will still be calling us things like “punkin” and “Suzy-Q” long after we’ve reached the half-century mark. They are our mums and dads, and herding us intact into adulthood should probably earn them a fair bit of leeway in matters of terminology.).
It is the word “girl,” with all it’s loaded baggage, that has us celebrating basic self-care as “adulting,” that has us all too eager to settle for long-term, unfulfilling relationships as proof we are truly grown-up. That imprisons us in a cult of youthfulness and irresponsibility. That tortures us into madness when we cannot keep up the charade. That allows the men in our lives to see us as mere playthings and possessions, dolls to be manipulated in whatever way they so choose.
Call me a woman. Call me Gretchen, or Gee. Call me any host of other things, good or bad. But for the love of all that is or is not holy, stop calling me a girl.