Let's Rethink the Term "Like A Girl"

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I thought about the following (which I first posted to my personal blog in November, and then re-upped in March) when I learned of a hurricane hunter (yes, that’s a real job) in the US Air Force Reserve named Capt. Nicole Mitchell. She flew back and forth and back and forth through Hurricane Irene a couple of weeks ago, in order to gather data as the storm was unfolding.

Then I thought about it again in the lead-up to the 9/11 anniversary, when I learned of then-Lt. (now Maj.) Heather “Lucky” Penney, one of the two F-16 pilots who had taken to the sky that morning in order to bring down Flight 93 — by ramming their own planes into it. Which is to say: Before the Flight 93 passengers sacrificed their lives so that the terrorists’ mission would fail, Lt. Penney and her commander were offering up their own.

A third plane hit the Pentagon, and almost at once came word that a fourth plane could be on the way, maybe more. The jets would be armed within an hour, but somebody had to fly now, weapons or no weapons.

“Lucky, you’re coming with me,” barked Col. Marc Sasseville.

They were gearing up in the pre-flight life-support area when Sasseville, struggling into his flight suit, met her eye.

“I’m going to go for the cockpit,” Sasseville said.

She replied without hesitating.

“I’ll take the tail.”

So. The next time someone says “like a girl” to me, I think I might counter with “oh, you mean like an F-16 pilot willing to sacrifice her life in defense of her country?” And the next time some clothing company sells dreck like this (as Forever 21 is this fall, if they haven’t yet responded to numerous requests that they stop)

I think I’ll sneak out in the dark of night and cover their mannikins, guerrilla-style, with truth like this

because pilots are badass, and badass girls use their brains.

…like a girl.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately, for reasons I’m not entirely clear on, about the ways we use words that mean “female human” to insult each other.

There’s “scream like a little girl,” of course. (OK, little girls can be high-pitched.) It’s meant as an insult, but there’s some grain of reality to be found in it. Perhaps I will someday “scream like a linebacker” or “like a South Pacific Islander.”

But once you get past “scream,” there’s:

  1. Throw like a girl.
  2. Run like a girl.
  3. Hit like a girl.

Not to mention:

  1. Pussy out.
  2. Be a pussy.
  3. Be a little bitch.
  4. Be X’s bitch.

And so on.

In the largest, broadest sense, I believe that these kinds of insults hurt us all, male and female alike. The recent bullying-related suicides of several gay or maybe-gay boys have their roots deeply buried in our fear of males behaving in anything but a socially approved, manly fashion. Witness the clear discomfort experienced by adults when five year old boys choose to wear girls’ clothing.

Witness that, and then think about women in pants suits, or girls in jeans. When women adopt and co-opt a traditionally male form of dress, we are empowering ourselves. When men adopt and co-opt a traditionally female form of dress, they get beat up. Because we do not value women as we value men, and we are frightened when men choose to give up the prerogatives of their gender. So, yes, everyone suffers when we continue to maintain and perpetuate misogyny.

But women and girls suffer more. Because we are the ones you shouldn’t be like.

I’m not new to noticing misogyny. I’m not new to feeling its sting and pushing at its edges. But it’s suddenly struck me how powerfully we telegraph our contempt for women merely by opening our mouths and starting to talk.

You throw like a girl. Don’t pussy out on me, bro! I’m gonna make that job my bitch! Close your eyes for a moment, and substitute any other person-naming noun/pejorative for the words “girl,” “pussy,” and “bitch.”

You throw like an Asian. Don’t Hymie out on me, bro!

Suddenly, the mind reels a bit.

But absolutely stand-up folks, men and women alike, without an otherwise bigoted bone in their bodies, will insult each other with words that describe me and my body, with nary a second thought. They will do it loudly, among friends, in print, on television, in movies. It’s just, you know, the way we talk.

But I cannot help but believe that when women and girls hear these things, they go in and twist and burrow into us, and they damage us. They leave vapor trails in our thoughts and scars on our hearts. They tell us, day in and day out, that we are weak, we are not worthy, our bodies are the stuff of mockery.

When you’re someone’s bitch? You’re under their violently-wrested control. When you’re a pussy? You’re untrustworthy. When you’re a girl? You are just plain weak.

And who the hell would want to be any of that?

surfer girl

Credit Image: Casch52 on Flickr


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