There's a bit in Tina Fey's book "Bossypants" when she describes going to a women's group session in preparation for writing "Mean Girls." In it, she says, the instructor asked all the women, "When did you first realize you were a woman?"
Tina, being Tina, says it's when she yelled "Suck my dick" at a dude who catcalled her from a passing car. Similarly, most of the women who participated say that they realized they were a woman around early puberty, usually as a result of men making passes at them.
I was listening to it on the audiobook and tooling around town, as is my wont, and I remember stopping dead in my tracks and staring at the sidewalk.
"How'd she know?" I remember thinking. "How do any of them know?"
In retrospect, T and her acquaintance-friends probably meant "woman" as in "not a child anymore," which certainly would explain all the shouting about dick-sucking. But this question has bugged me ever since I turned 20 or so, when I started making a conscious effort to try to call my lady-identifying peers "women" instead of "girls" when talking about them in the third person.
This is ironic because in my conversational life, I can barely get through a conversation without calling a peer "Girl" for emphasis, regardless of gender. Which makes sense, actually -- I tend to use "girl" as a conversational icebreaker, something to subtly remind the person I'm talking to that everything's informal here, no big deal.
For this reason, it often slips out during fake fights that are bordering on a liiiiittle too real. It's the conversational equivalent of the "gentle platonic elbow touch:" just a tiny reminder that we're all just breathing humans on the planet and there's no need to get so worked up over the characters on "Archer."
If we've never met before and I'm calling you "girl," I'm definitely trying to bond with you over this crazy, mixed-up world where bars close at 2 and you can't get a burrito before ten. It also means you're making me a little nervous and I'm maybe trying to remind myself that you're actually on my level.
And that's the thing: I tend to think of "girl" as being a touch infantilizing in ways separate from the whole romance novel, "I was a girl before I met you, you damned fool of a man-wolf, and now you've made me a woman (by breaking my hymen)" cliche.
For me, it brings to mind someone who doesn't quite have their life figured out yet. She buys impulse plane tickets, stacks dirty dishes under the bed, tells everyone she's going on a date when in reality she's mainlining six hours of "Parks and Recreation" on OnDemand.
Consider, for example, the three shows on television right now with "Girl" in the title: They're not exactly hard-hitting political dramas. In fact, the one thing they all have in common is that they're about young women disastrously crashing into strangers, hustling through their financial straits, and getting into and out of shenanigans.
Similarly, phrases like "party girl," and "geek girl," which people seem to throw around these days as descriptors for young (or young at heart) people who are defined by their hobbies rather than by their careers or their families. And I definitely wouldn't appreciate being called a girl at work by anyone but my closest friends, and certainly not by my superiors.
Which is not to say this is a negative preconception. I mean, I just ran a 5k this last weekend called "the Dirty Girl Mud Run" with no small amount of pride. I'm still trying to hammer out the details on any semblance of a future, and when my dad recently asked me about my "backup plan" I almost had a full-fledged freakout. I will fully own that at this point, I would rather lie in bed eating grapefruits and reading the Dorothy Parker compendium rather than anything else.
When I occasionally try out calling myself a "woman," I feel like Xena: Warrior Princess sending a warning yell into the wilderness. Awesome, yes, but kind of a poseur.
This distinction isn't cut and dried, of course, and it's not like people just roll over from girls to women when they get a new job or get married or something. But "woman," at least for me, gives the impression that the person in question has made a space for herself in the world and that the world, in turn, has settled itself around her. And that's a pretty powerful position to be in.
As I've gotten older, I've started trying out "woman" on for size with my friends and acquaintances, too. When I talk about them to people who don't know them, I'll deliberately say things like "She's a really talented woman" and try not to giggle, because it always conjures up mental images of my bros standing majestically and stoically on a mountaintop or Congress or something.
I want to practice, though, because I fully believe that my friends are a handful of professional coups away from having conquered the universe.
Obviously, these are all just my own arbitrary criteria. Like with any other label, I'm not going to show up like a toothed menace in the kitchen window if you call yourself something that doesn't necessarily agree with my own brain-categories. Do what you want, I don't give a fuzz.
But they are interesting to think about, particularly if you play the word-switch game and consider your immediate response. "Cat girl" conjures up hugely different mental images for me than "Catwoman," for instance (and they're both worlds away from "cat lady").
Or maybe that's just me. When did you guys start calling yourselves "women"? Are you there yet at all? Does it ever stop making you feel like you're about to put on a breastplate and conquer your enemies? I'm genuinely curious, here.
Kate is channeling Xena on Twitter: @katchatters