Girls, Girls, Grrrls

gone-girl-screencapHere she comes again. She’s been interrupted. She’s been left behind. She’s worn a pearl earring and had a dragon tattoo. She’s played with fire and kicked the hornet’s nest. When she’s not the other Boleyn, or working in the shop, she may be your #Boss. She’s not that kind, and she’s been gone. Only not far enough gone, because here she comes again, on the train.

You know who I mean. The Girl. The Title Girl.

Of the hundreds of books listed on Goodreads with the word Girl in the title, several dozen have been on the best-seller list. Not the children’s or young-adults’ bestseller list, but the adult one. Nor do these eponymous girls inhabit childhood or adolescence, as did Anne Frank of The Diary of a Young Girl or Hans Christian Andersen’s Little Match Girl. These girls have sex, plot murders, do drugs, and experience full-blown existential crises.

And the boys? Well, there aren’t so many of them. There’s the Boy in Striped Pajamas, but he is clearly a boy, 9 years old, and his story is directed at “Grades 9 and up.” There are the Boys in the Boat, a college crew team engaged in patriotic sport. Let’s set the boys aside for now.

Because what is it with the word girl and the title of a best seller? Stack Exchange tried valiantly on this one. A polite reader had inquired: “There is a recent movie entitled Gone Girl. You may have seen it. I wonder why they used the noun girl instead of woman in the title, as the age of the girl, who is the subject of the movie, is about up to 30 years old?” Before closing the subject as “off-topic” (“It is about a film title and not the English language”), the site allowed two answers, both of which struck me as odd; e.g., “It is a common idea, to never ask a woman her age, so again girl is more complimentary than woman or lady.” In addition to wrongly placing the onus of the title on the author, Gillian Flynn, the respondents attempting to answer the question concluded that the “two G’s give the title a jaunty feel … more rhyming, catchy, and memorable.”

For the record, as many readers of this blog know, authors do not necessarily choose their book titles. Half the titles of the books I’ve published have been the dream children of the publisher, to which I have acquiesced with varying degrees of grace, since the contract leaves the final decision in the publisher’s hands. And publishers are loving the word Girl, with all it implies. Not, I would suggest, a compliment paid to a female striving to look younger than her years. Rather, one combination or another of vulnerability, deceptiveness, sexual allure, chutzpah, mystery, entrapment, and lack of gravitas makes the word seem an early augury of best-sellerdom.

Feminists have long railed against the inappropriate use of girl; in 1983, Francine Frank and Frank Anshen wrote in Language and the Sexes, “We recognize that some adults refer to their friends as a group as girls or boys and find nothing belittling in such usage. However, in many contexts, the use of girl or girls for adults implies immaturity and relative unimportance.” More recently, we find the word getting reclaimed as gurrl, gurrrl, or simply grrl, defined by Urban Dictionary as “a womyn with attitude.” Whether Lena Dunham’s TV series Girls, with its immature twenty-somethings of both sexes, participates in that reappropriation or joins the Girl party that includes The Girl on the Train is a subject open for lively debate. And my colleagues Anne Curzan and Ben Yagoda have weighed in on different facets of the girls/guys/ladies/women conundrum. So I would disagree with Stack Exchange: The explosion of titles using Girl unironically to refer to adult women belongs in a discussion of the English language as we are using—and arguing about—it today.

Many years ago, shortly after it had gone coed, I spent a year at Phillips Exeter Academy, where etched in stone above the administration building was the motto They come here boys; they leave here men. We used to joke about adding the second sentence, They come here girls; they leave here women. The joke lay in the different implications of those two transformations. With Girl titles abounding, I wonder if we should have pondered the alternative: They come here girls; they leave here Girls. I’d like to think we can do better than that.

[[photo: Screen shot from the movie Gone Girl]]

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