Kathy and I are looking to buy a truck. Yesterday, when the salesman who swooped out to greet us introduced me to one of his male associates at the dealership, here is what he said, “And this attractive young lady is Pat.”
I’ll pause here and take a deep breath. Just repeating this for you makes me want to rip the guy’s throat out all over again. My inner angry feminist is in full battle cry over this, so be forewarned.
A little context is probably helpful. One, I am not young. I am 64 years old, for crying out loud and proud of it. I think it is also likely that I am older than the potbellied pig of a salesman who called me young. Whether or not I am attractive and certainly whether or not I give a flying Fig if he thought I was has nothing to do with buying a truck. Finally, I am no lady. I am emphatically not a lady. Ladies sip tea with their dainty little fingers lifted in the air. Ladies faint and fan themselves at the slightest exertion. Ladies are tiny and thin. They need taking care of. They blush and bat their eyes coquettishly when some bozo introduces them as an “attractive young lady.” I definitely did not bat my eyes. I wanted to bat him.
A little more context , which actually has more to do with this blog, I have been watching a lot of the winter Olympics this past week. And I. am. Sick. To. Death. Of. Hearing. Women athletes called “girls” and their athletic events classified as “Ladies” events. OK, we should not be surprised that the IOC calls the women’s events, “ladies” events, they are largely a bunch of old white men who are out of touch with the modern world of strong women. They don’t believe women can/should ski jump. They believe women lugers should compete on the shorter courses than the men, etc. But the TV commentators, both men and women and even the women athletes themselves calling women competitors “girls” is just making me crazy.
I can hear the hue and cry already from folks who think this is a picky, stupid detail to get upset about, but I beg to differ big time. I can remember having these conversations back in the early 80’s with coaches in a workshop on sexism in sport. I remember in particular one guy who screamed at me, with the veins in his neck standing out, his face red and contorted, that “it didn’t matter if he called women athletes ‘girls.’ It was just words.” Really? It seemed like it mattered to him quite a bit. Enough to risk a heart attack over.
Language does matter and who gets to decide what a particular social group gets called is about power. Calling women athletes “girls” or “ladies” is not only ridiculous – These are mature, strong, daring, committed, risk-taking, competitive world class athletes, not shrinking violets whose frailty and faintheartedness must be protected. They are not children who must be patronized or protected. Calling women athletes “girls” and “ladies” trivializes their accomplishments and infantilizes them. We would never called the men’s downhill the “boy’s” downhill. We would never refer to the men’s luge as the “gentlemen’s” luge. What makes it ok or appropriate to call the women “girls” or their events the “ladies” events? Sexism is what. Pure and simple.
When I get called a “girl,” often by men who are far younger than me, it completely knocks me off balance. Now I have to decide if or how to react to the comment. Is it worth going to war about? Should I just shut up and ignore it? Is there some clever response that will get my point across without making a scene? Should I just let ‘er rip? I don’t think most people who call women “girls” or “ladies” do it with the conscious intention of trivializing women, but the resistance to NOT doing it is something to think about. For the women who call other women “girls,” I think it is a way to mask or undercut their own power. It’s a way to avoid appearing too threatening, too strong, too challenging. Women have always needed to assure men that they are “feminine,” heterosexual and sexually available to men in order to be accepted as athletes. The willingness to pose semi-nude is part of this. Calling yourself a “girl” is just another way to achieve the same end.
Oh, you might be wondering what happened back at the car dealer ship. In my fantasy, I winked at him, hocked a loogie on his shoe, grabbed my crotch and told him he was not a bad looking little boy himself for a sleazy car salesman, all this before crushing his hand in my iron grip. Instead, Kathy and I took that baby out for a spin on the Mass Pike with Mr. Potbelly in the back seat (it was a dual cab), cranked it up to 75 and pinned him to the back window while we discussed engine ratios and drive trains. Does that sound like a couple of ladies to you?