Is a young woman a girl? When I started writing Escape Sequence, my very first paragraph introduced someone who was referred to as “a girl”; but we soon learn that she is 24 years old, and it quickly dawned on me that I might be breaking rules and even offending some people if I called her anything but a young woman.
Or would I? It’s hard now to know what is acceptable. The other day I was browsing through a book written in the 1950s by Hammond Innes, and noticed that his heroine (a person in her mid-twenties, I think) was constantly described as a “girl”. Years ago, when I read that book as a boy, I’m certain I saw nothing wrong with this, but now it seems slightly awkward.
Yet I evidently sat down in recent times and started calling my own heroine a girl. What kind of time warp blinded me to political correctness I had been absorbing all these years?
Part of the problem is that society doesn’t seem to have reached a consensus about the right terminology for this situation. How young does a young woman have to be in order to qualify for being called a “girl”? Twenty? Sixteen? Five? Or to look at it the other way, how old could she be? Thirty? Forty-five?
In my teens I once had a holiday job in a laundry, and a wonderful old character who worked there as a part-time driver used to call the women in the factory “girls” to their faces. They all looked over sixty to me, but they all seemed to love it. Would their reaction be so different now?
Sometimes, calling an adult woman a girl conveys something very specific about the person who is using the term – especially when it’s a man. If so, he more than likely means that she is attractive – potentially, anyway. The word invokes a certain kind of sensuality that goes a long way beyond gender. It doesn’t in itself summon up any specific age, but obviously there is an implicit sense of youngness, which is being equated with desirability.
And yet … I can’t help feeling I’m bending over backwards here in pursuit of political correctness. After all, women as well as men often seem to use the term “girl” in this way. In fact I seem to hear the word being applied all the time to women of almost all ages. It still seems to come naturally to many people’s lips. So for Alternative Outcome (my next book, but the first one I’ve published), I’ve decided to go with it. I would argue that that if it says something about the person who is having the thought (whether in the first person or courtesy of the authorial voice), maybe it’s valid after all.