In today's Guardian, Deborah Orr notes that when it comes to book titles, "Girl" is in. "Woman," meanwhile, is totally passe.
Orr's meditation is prompted by Stieg Larsson's ubiquitous Girl with a Dragon Tatoo trilogy : as she points out, Larsen uses the term ironically - but couldn't do so were this not a common literary trope. And when you think about it, she's right: the bestseller lists are filled with girls with pearl earrings and dragon tattoos; girl Fridays and big girls; girls playing with fire and gossiping; Shanghai girls; girls in translation; some girls; Boleyn girls; loose girls and girls, interrupted - and that's to say nothing of the skinny girls and hungry girls who inhabit the self-help universe.
"Woman," by contrast, tends to turn up in more earnest contexts: Woman: An Intimate Geography and Women, Food and God give the term a weighty universality that doesn't exactly suggest a beach read. Of course, "girl" is an easier word, flippant and pliant and short. When James Patterson tries, gamely, with "The Women's Murder Club," it doesn't roll off the tongue. There are words that sell: "clubs" and "societies" and "daughters" and "sisters" appeal, for whatever reason, to the female book-buying demographic.
But is that all of it? Why should the mature, seemingly neutral "woman" feel loaded and specific, while the ultimately more problematic "girl" stands in for all femininity? Is "girl," these days, just the fun version of "woman?"And if so, what does that say? A group of women sounds serious, possibly even political! A meeting of "the girls?" Bring on the Cosmos! Plenty of people have pointed disparagingly to the aggressive use of the term in Sex and the City 2, seeing it as proof of discomfort with age and maturity. Concludes Orr, "The message is that women are dreary and past-it, while girls are dynamic and exciting. The queasy worry is that in a big swath of popular culture, women are still being infantilised, and that they prefer it that way."
I take a slightly sunnier view, if only because I'm always looking for a fresh opportunity for my word of choice, "gal," to re-enter the lexicon (ideal for those not a girl, not yet a woman.) I do think titles like Larsson's are serving as tools of reclamation. I also have an affection for mid-century career romances that still leads me to think of "girl reporters" and "lady doctors" as spunky pioneers, even as the adjective served as a societal qualifier. But it is interesting to note to what extent girlish titling is a modern phenomenon: The Woman in White is about a young lady in her late teens; if we heard that title in a modern novel, we'd automatically ascribe more maturity to her - after all, wouldn't anyone young be a "girl?"
But where there's ubiquity, and norms, there's material. Recently, a poetry anthology was released: Gurlesque, a new genre that plays on notions of femininity, performance, and politics and combines it with the traditionally unfeminine grotesqueness. Now, that's what I call reclamation.