Is it offensive to call women 'girls'?

Robin Thicke, rapper T.I. and Pharrell Williams performing <i>Blurred Lines</i>.

Robin Thicke, rapper T.I. and Pharrell Williams performing Blurred Lines.

Last week Pharrell Williams defended himself against accusations that 'the worst song ever' Blurred Lines made light of sexual assault. After giving his version of events, (it's about rejection, repeat to fade …), Williams said he considered himself a feminist. As a visual flourish of sorts, he turned around to show the back of his jacket which read 'girls are everything'. But … Williams is 44 years old. Is it OK for a man of his age, a man who says he supports equality, to call an album GIRL? And if it's not, well why is it permissible for Beyonce to proclaim that 'Girls run the world'? And for Amy Poehler to call her web series 'The Smart Girls at the Party'? And hey, for the love of political correctness, what about Lena Dunham?

What about those times when women - real, human, grown-ups with Facebook accounts - have said to one another, 'Let's organise a girl's night out' and everybody knew that did not mean children. And do we dare confront the thorniest question of them all: the Ryan Gosling 'Hey Girl' memes? I mean, are we human or are we DANCER?

When I first started working as – soft brag alert - an editor at Fairfax media I was told to familiarise myself with the stylebook. One of the top rules was this: Under no circumstances are writers to refer to any woman over the age of 18 as a 'girl'. So, if the stylebook of a large, mainstream media company can lay down the law, surely it's ok to question what the hell is going on when men as old as Williams are using it … willy-nilly?

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It's not simply that the word is reductive, (which it is). But that, as sociology professor Lisa Wade pointed out last year, 'The sexualisation of girls and the infantilisation of adult women are two sides of the same coin. They both tell us that we should find youth, inexperience, and naivete sexy in women, but not in men."

But it isn't always so loaded or malevolent. When 'girls', is used by a woman, it infers fun times, (possibly involving alcohol). Although, when the plural is used by a man, particularly in reference to women who are strangers, it can get gross. There is a reason most adult entertainment venues say it three times: Girls, Girls Girls. They're limitless, you see! That many girls are performative, ornamental, purchasable - anything but what they really are, which is human. Pharrell sings about girls in many of his songs, often in regards to quantitative sex. He's not alone.

I get that when some dude croons or says the word 'girl' in a song it's meant to sound flirty, intimate. But I dry heave when I hear anyone from Bieber to Timberlake whisper-sing it in that pleading tone - like a sexy admonishment, as if there is such a thing.

So ... what's the answer? Well, we could start by putting a blanket ban on all spoken word lyrics, especially when the man sounds like he wants to make slow love to the mic. 

I digress.

The answer, ladies and gentleman, is not that difficult to discern. It all depends on who is speaking and what their motivations are.

When Beyonce is doing her call-and-response 'Who run the world? Girls!' in the song, she's re-appropriating the idea of a 'girl' being diminutive and powerless. By subverting language, Queen Bey is telling us that women and girls can indeed run the world.

Amy Poehler's web series 'Smart Girls' is aimed at teenagers, so she gets a pass. But even if she used it in regards to other women that's ok. Because she is a woman. Which means that Dunham gets a pass too. But as we know that there's nothing Dunham does that's accidental, it's obvious that by calling the show GIRLS she's saying that these women are still unformed, despite what they claim. (Artistic irony!) I mean, come on, you could conduct your own drinking game based on the number of poor life choices each character makes per episode.

Now the Gosling meme is self-referential Gosling's 'brand' is one rooted in sensitive hipsterisms that borrow heavily from black and urban communities, (as most cool words do, including my personal fave, 'girlfriend'). But I don't think it's an accident that the very first meme of Gosling was created by a man. Not many women call out to men 'hey boy' despite what the Chemical Brothers would have us believe.

So, look. As playful as 'girl' can seem when used, (by women), it's still limiting. This doesn't automatically render it offensive. But the next time a 44 year old man wants to put his hand up for gender equality, he might choose his embroidered jackets - and his words - more carefully. Sound it out if you need to, Pharrell: Wo-m-a-n! See?

Not that hard.