I’ve been meditating on the “girlifying” of adult women since the Season of Zooey. Oh, the Season of Zooey was that time in late 2011 when everyone was talking about actress Zooey Deschanel in anticipation of her new FOX sitcom, “The New Girl.” And much of the talk centered on whether Deschanel’s quirky, wide-eyed, kittens and rainbows brand spells good or ill for womankind. Now, some Zooey fans pushed back that the endless critique reflected a cultural bias against the feminine. Our culture is biased against women, alright, but ambivalence over Zooey Deschanel is no illustration of the problem.

Traditional femininity is cool with me, if that’s your bag. And I am all for quirk. I’m a nerdy girl myself and I stan for Issa Rae’s Awkward Black Girl. It’s not the “dork” part of the “adorkable” descriptor, coined just for Zooey, that rankles me. What concerns me is society’s habit of equating childishness with femininity, of finding women more charming when they are adorable “girls” rather than grown ups. In a post about the topic on What Tami Said, I wrote:

Our society has a history of associating childlike qualities with women. The cult of true womanhood that emerged in the 19th century dictated that white women possess the childlike qualities of purity and submissiveness. (Women of color were left out of this idealization then, as they are now, which is one reason there is no black Zooey Deschanel.) Susan Faludi said, “The ‘feminine’ woman is forever static and childlike. She is like the ballerina in an old-fashioned music box, her unchanging features tiny and girlish, her voice tinkly, her body stuck on a pin, rotating in a spiral that will never grow.”

Look even at the words we use to describe extreme femininity vs. the ones we use to mark extreme masculinity. A woman who is hyper-feminine is not a “womanly woman,” but a “girly girl,” emphasizing unencumbered youthfulness. A man who is traditionally masculine is, well, a man–a “manly man,” very much an adult and in charge.

I was reminded of this the other day, while flipping through a local magazine that profiled Maggie Lewis, the executive director of the Dove Recovery House for Women in Indianapolis and Circle City’s new City-County Council President. Lewis is doing amazing things as a non-profit executive and a public servant. But note in the picture above how the magazine labels Lewis’ snagging of the top City-County Council spot. They call it “Girl Power.”

The Spice Girlian concept of “Girl Power” is cool enough as a rallying cry for tweens, but attaching it to the achievements of a 39-year-old sister, who is blazing trails, seems somehow diminishing. Do we write about men in this way? When Rahm Emmanuel was elected mayor of Chicago, did we file his win under “Boys are Rad!”?

The girlifying of powerful women doing great things happens all the time. Check out this article in the Daily Mail about Nobel Prize award winners Liberian Leymah Gbowee, who mobilized women against civil war; Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, who is Liberia’s president; and Tawakkul Karman, a Yemeni activist. How does the Mail categorize these women’s achievements, which include leading an entire country? Note the cutline on the accompanying photo: “Girl Power.”

I don’t think this is just semantics. Words mean things. It was not harmless when society made a habit of calling grown black men “boy.” It was disrespectful and infantilizing. It was a symptom on racial inequality. How can it mean anything different if adult women remain “girls” while men are men?

I’m sure I’ve been guilty of lazily referring to women as “girls” at some point, but lately the word sticks firmly in my craw. I’m longing for the day when the answer to Who run the world? is an emphatic: WOMEN!

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  • Candy 1

    I get the point of this article, but wanted to point something out that I feel is true. Women have more flexibility in their being than men. While it might be insulting to many of us that people tack labels such as ‘girly’ or ‘cutesy’ on us (and expect us to behave as such), we can also be feminine and mature, sexy, intelligent, smart, sophisticated, witty, like video games, have off-beat qualities, be into sports, etc. we have the option to be what we want and still be accepted and loved (within limits, because we all know certain types of womanhood are not accepted), which is not something that can really be said for men.

    • Grasshopper

      I see what you mean here. Women can, to an extent, opt to buck the docile and fluffy mold without too much opposition but when guys step outside of their socially-sanctioned identities it’s easier for them to be labeled TOO ‘effeminate’.

    • D

      Candy, this is the way I’ve always felt about being a woman. I can be androgynous, boyish, girlish, womanly, like an older, Bette Davis/Katharine Hepburn archetype of a woman, or anywhere on the spectrum I want. I myself am awkward and somewhat more girlish at 25 than the high powered woman in pearls and a blazer that Jezebel often pitches. My problem is I can’t seem to do sexy :) Kinda more Ally Sheedy in The Breakfast Club. I think if girlishness was somehow a blocked option to me I would feel encumbered in my self expression. (I’m not “girly,” though, especially in the way Zooey Deschanel is, too functionally inept in making myself look decent, clothing-wise.)

  • chanela

    speaking of women being expected to act “youthful” is anyone else creeped out by the fact that a high school cheerleader and/or a schoolgirl is considered sexual nowadays? wtf? why does noone see men as complete pedobears? why are you sexualizing little girls?

    just imagine how they must feel about the reverse with toddlers and tiaras. SMH

    it also disturbs me how in porn they use the word “teen” a lot to refer to women. “hot teen gets banged by 349028490238 guys” wtf? am i the only one shuddering in disgust at that?

    • So Over This Ish

      I agree 100%. But I’m dying over the term “pedobears”! LMAO!

      The concept of schoolgirls and cheerleaders being sexualized goes back pretty far. It’s nothing new.

    • D

      I also agree with you 100%. I think the way Zooey Deschanel gets processed in the male mind is “ooooh, so youthful and sexy.” A lot of men might not process the quirky stuff, but I notice that quite a few are highly, highly into her, in a sexual way. I myself find the girlishness and the fact that she seems like a celebrity who genuinely keeps her clothes on and would lose it if naked pictures of her were ever found kind of refreshing. Usually the youthful archetype is sexualized and made womanly without that kind of modesty. It’s just “hot young co-eds” and pictures of women provocatively dressed. Because she doesn’t get naked, I think that men frequently lump her in the wife/dating material, like some, interestingly, do with Ellie Kemper.

      And I think it’s true that men have been sexualizing young, young women for a long time. Pieter Paul Rubens wanted to marry a 16 year old at 35 because anything older would be just too old. Women used to be forced to “mature” earlier/had a terrible life expectancy and as a result have a sell by date stamped on them that was very much earlier. Some guys dump this preference on “biology.” Men sexualize younger women now and we see it all the time, 50 year old men hitting on 18 year olds, etc.

  • Emily

    I agree with everything but the video and the statement immediately preceding it.

    “I’m longing for the day when the answer to Who run the world? is an emphatic: WOMEN!”
    I don’t know if what you said is what you were going for, but it comes off as one of those evil feminists who hate men and think that the tables should be turned in our favor rather than the playing field be leveled.

    Also, Beyoncé says that girls run the world. This touches on my previous point, but also on the fact that she keeps saying “girls”, not “women”. Not one person in that video was a child; there were no girls! Also, did she and her gang just West Side Story the opposing gang? LOL

    Wait. No, I don’t remember the Jets dancing seductively and objectifying themselves to beat down the Sharks. This must be a new type of fighting. The kind where you give your opponents disabling hard-ons so they can’t fight you. You can’t manage much else, right?

  • Brooklynista

    As I read the article, several black “free spirit” characters came to mind: Freddie and Denise from A Different World, Sinclair from Living Single, Beneatha from the play A Raisin in the Sun (she’s the earliest black hippie I’ve come across in pop culture), Lynn from Girlfriends, J from Awkward Black Girl (she’s more angsty though, not so much free-spirited, but definitely quirky), so I disagree with the writer about her assertion that there are no black equivalents to Zooey. None of them were perpetually child-like though. They still had grown-woman swagger when situations called for it.

  • I love Zoey Deschanel. Period!

    She is very refreshing in a Hollywood where every young girl wants to take off her clothes at the first opportunity and talk about how edgy she is when the only edge she knows is the one around the fence of her gated community.