The ‘Girlfriend’ Experience

Paris Hilton and dog.

Paris Hilton and her tiny dog.

Certain books are so brilliant in idea and execution that they are deservedly and repeatedly revised, eventually coming to be referred to by the author’s last name long after his or her death. So we now have new versions of the 1743 A Short Treatise on the Game of Whist: Containing the Laws of the Game and Also Some Rules; the 1828 American Dictionary of the English Language; and the 1926 Modern English Usage. We call them Hoyle, Webster’s, and Fowler.

I hope one day they are joined by Fussell—that is, a revised edition of Class: A Guide Through the American Status Systempublished by Paul Fussell in 1983. To be sure, much of Fussell’s mordant Baedeker of mores still resonates. To give some of its flavor,  I cannot improve on Sandra Tsing Loh’s precis. She notes that Fussell

believes there are actually nine classes (Top Out-of-Sight, Upper, Upper Middle, Middle, High Proletarian, Mid-Proletarian, Low Proletarian, Destitute, Bottom Out-of-Sight). His Heart of Darkness journey wends boldly past unicorns (High Prole), ladies’ thimble collections (Middle), men’s hobbies (“One must learn that fishing in fresh water is classier than in salt, and that if salmon and trout are the things to catch, a catfish is something by all means to avoid catching”), the Sunbrella hat (for which he reserves a timeless—and I think appropriate—ire), “parody” hats favored by the upper-middle class such as Pat Moynihan’s tweedy bog cap, and the perils of the dark-blue visored “Greek fisherman’s cap” as advertised in The New Yorker (New Yorker ads themselves being, Fussell explains, crucibles of middle-class high anxiety). God forbid you get that cap in black leather (“Only six things can be made of black leather without causing class damage to the owner: belts, shoes, handbags, gloves, camera cases, and dog leashes”). He even threads through the subtle lexicon of tie patterns—from “amoeba-like foulard blobs” (Upper), signal flags (Upper Middle), musical notes (sliding downward), to Oh Hell, It’s Monday (quite low), with special horror reserved for the southwestern bola (“Says the bola, ‘The person wearing me is a child of nature, even though actually eighty years old’”).

But a lot has happened, classwise, over the last 31 years, including the near dying out of tie-wearing. I not infrequently find myself wondering what Fussell (who died in 2012, and was a generous and friendly acquaintance of mine) would make of current preferences in, for example, dog size. This would seem to be inversely correlated to social standing, with Uppers favoring horselike crossbreeds that rhyme with “oodle” and the Proles going for cute tiny pooches, but then you see a tough guy walking (or being walked by) a gigantic guard dog, and Paris Hilton affecting a chihuahua in her purse. Of course, where, precisely, would you place Paris Hilton on the class continuum? It is a puzzlement.

Then there is class-in-language, a huge topic that deserves its own book. One term I often wonder about is girlfriend, that is, when used by a female to refer to a (nonromantic) female friend: “My girlfriend Kate and I are going out to dinner.”  There’s a certain logical flaw to the usage. That is, in none of the other three kinds of friendships—a male’s male friends, a male’s female friends, a female’s male friends—is the gender of the friend habitually, or pretty much ever, named. (It is true that males often use gender-implying words for male friends: mate in Britain, buddy among American bros.) My sense is that there’s a strong class-educational-political component to this. That is, to the extent a woman is an upper-middle-class liberal who went to Swarthmore, she is unlikely to say “my girlfriend Kate” unless she and Kate are dating. The direct address form, originating in African-American slang, as in, “You go, girlfriend!,” is another matter entirely.

Looking at the Oxford English Dictionary, I was surprised to find that girlfriend was initially used in the platonic sense. The first definition is “A female friend; esp. a woman’s close female friend,” and the first citation comes from Harper’s Magazine in 1859: “A demure little widow, much more gay and girlish than any of her girl-friends when she chose to forsake her rôle.” (The second definition, dating from 1892, is the common one today: “A female with whom a person has a romantic or sexual relationship.”) I was also surprised to read that boyfriend (or boy-friend or boy friend) has been used in a nonromantic sense, as in this quote from a 1938 biography of Mark Twain: “His boy friend Will Bowen, one of the Tom Sawyer gang, was in bed with the disease.” That’s the last citation, jibing with my sense that no one would use the word this way anymore.

But girl-on-girl girlfriend persists. The most extensive discussion of the issue I’ve found is the commentary engendered by this question on Yahoo Answers:

My 24 year old female coworker just said she was excited to drink tonight because it was her girlfriend’s birthday. Do straight girls say this when referring to friends? I am gay so I only say girlfriend when I mean romantic partner, but I don’t want to assume that’s what she meant.

No one really got into the class aspect, but interesting generational and regional issues were brought up, as in: “I’m from New York [where] females say girlfriend all of the time. It is just a word that doesn’t really mean girlfriend. It basically means that hey if my man decides to leave me or i leave [him] i’ve always got my girl.”

On reflection, I’d hypothesize that this girlfriend gained popularity in reaction to recent discourse about males and females and their roles. Specifying the gender of a friend says that the friend’s gender is important or telling: that there is some difference in kind between a guy friend and a girlfriend. Feminism, generally speaking, does not believe that to be the case, and thus female feminists don’t say girlfriend. Other women do either because the feminist message has not filtered down to them or because, on some level, they don’t agree with it. As for men, they aren’t required to specify friends’ gender because double standard.

I have no doubt that all this relates to class as well. Hopefully, we will one day pick up Fussell and read precisely how.



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