Though Laura Ling and Euna Lee, the American journalists imprisoned in North Korea, are 32 and 36 respectively, Ling's sister Lisa keeps referring to them as "girls" during her media appearances. (Mashup clip at left.)

Lisa Ling, also a journalist, has been referring to her sister and her friend Euna as "girls" in public statements for several weeks. She told the May 31 edition of People, "We desperately hope that at the conclusion of the June 4 trial, the government of North Korea will show clemency and allow the girls to return home to their families. [...] We would like to thank all of those individuals who are organizing to secure the release of the girls." But her use of the word has intensified in a PR blitz following new claims by the North Korean government that Ling and Lee have confessed to intentionally crossing into North Korea to record footage for a "smear campaign" against the country.

On this morning's Today show, Ling said, "it was obvious that the girls confessed to the charges that were levied against them [...] we now hope that the North Korean government will show compassion and allow the girls to come home." And on CNN last night, she called Ling and Lee "girls" at least six times. She reiterated that, "the girls have admitted to whatever charges were levied against them" adding, "we now hope that the North Korean government will just show compassion and leniency and let the girls come home." Asked if she had any message for Ling and Lee, she said,

I would just tell the girls to please stay strong, and know that we are trying to do everything we can, our government is trying to do everything they can, to try and bring them home, and just focus on the day when we can all be together again, is what I would say to the girls.

Laura Ling's cousin Angie Wang also called the two detained journalists "girls" on CBS this omrning, perhaps suggesting a family-wide rhetorical decision. It's possible that the family believe that referring to the journalists as "girls" rather than "women" will make them less threatening to the North Korean government, and perhaps more deserving of compassion and forgiveness. Repeatedly saying "girls" probably goes against much of Ling's journalistic training — in most of her professional TV appearances, the word "women" would be more appropriate — so her choice seems especially conscious.

All of Ling and Lee's supporters appear to be choosing their words extremely carefully to avoid offending the North Korean government and make a quick release more likely. North Korea's claims are bizarre — it says Ling and Lee have confessed to "criminal acts ... prompted by the political motive to isolate and stifle the socialist system of the DPRK by faking up moving images aimed at falsifying its human rights performance and hurling slanders and calumnies at it" — and any confession seems likely to have been obtained under duress if it was obtained at all. But the families of the journalists have studiously avoided criticizing North Korea or questioning the confession in any way. They merely reiterate that the "girls" are "sorry," and ask North Korea to relent and send them home.

It's interesting that supporters of Ling and Lee have this particular rhetorical tool at their disposal. If the detained journalists were men, no one could ask North Korea to release the "boys." Of course, it's not uncommon to refer to grown women as girls — we've certainly done it, particularly in pop culture stories. Still, the fact that women can still be infantilized well into their thirties, when they have families and established careers, is ordinarily an unfortunate one. In this case, however, if calling Laura Ling and Euna Lee "girls" helps get them home faster, we can't help but support it.

Thanks to video intern Joanna Farah for putting together the clip.

Jailed Journalist's Sister: Show Compassion [Today Show]
Video: Families Plead With North Korea [CNN]
Journalist's Family Speaks [CBS]
N. Korea: U.S. Journalists Were Creating 'Smear Campaign' [CNN]
Families Hold Out Hope For Journalists Detained In North Korea [ABC]