Today I got into a fight on the internet.

Despite my fiance's amused grins, I swear I don't look for these things, because I don't enjoy them. I like debate, but I don't like name-calling and meanness. So generally I try to ignore stupidity on the interwebs, because it's one of the few truly unlimited resources in this world.

Today an acquaintance of mine posted the "bootstrap" quote from Martin Luther King Jr.: "It is a cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he must lift himself up by his own bootstraps." There was more to it, but that's the important part. Of course, a troll appeared, and to paraphrase, he indicated that these days the poor are "wearing $500 sneakers and need to pull their pants up."

Well, that's the kind of stupidity that I will ordinarily pass by. Arguing with bigots online is like trying to empty the Atlantic with a shot glass.

But someone else picked up the gauntlet and the joust began, which I read until it began devolving into namecalling. At one point, the troll replied to this woman by saying, "I don't know what planet you're on girl, but where I'm from, I see crap like that all the time." Sic

That's when I stepped in. "It would seem to me that you have an interesting definition of 'poor,' assuming that someone with $500 shoes must be on welfare because he's sagging. And it further seems to me that [redacted] is an adult woman, not to be dismissed as 'girl.'"

I know, I know. Why nitpick? I could have let it go - it wasn't my fight. But it bugged me, perhaps because I've been reading sociological crap all day and perhaps because it is one of my little peeves when men are dismissive of women in ways they don't even consciously register as diminutive. 

For example: my fiance and I went to a local credit union to open a joint savings account for our upcoming wedding. We wanted to choose a financial institution we didn't usually use, so that the money would be difficult to access and we would not be tempted to easily transfer it for frivolous uses. When we arrived, I told the teller we wanted to open an account. She turned to my fiance and asked his name. Not mine, just his. He gave it, and we sat to wait.

"Why did she just ask my name?" he whispered to me. I merely shook my head and smiled. Sure enough, a moment later the account representative stuck his head out of his office and said, "Jimmy? Come on back." It was as though I were not there. We shared a Look - me with resignation, him with actual perturbation.

I'd like to say we walked out. Actually, we did, after a glitch in the paperwork made it apparent we wouldn't be able to open an account that day... but after a brief discussion in the car, we agreed we would not return once the glitch was worked out. It wasn't my idea, either - it was Jimmy's. He was offended by the idea that they would only consider him as their client, and I was just an appendage. Our relationship is based on an equal partnership, and he was uncomfortable with their treatment of me.

What does this have to do with the troll calling the woman debating him a "girl"? It reminded me of the tendency in decades past to call black men "boy," regardless of their ages. It's not that being a boy is a bad thing, any more than being a girl is a bad thing. But once a man is of age, calling him a boy is an insult. Calling a black adult "boy" was a way to dismiss him, to make him less of a man, less important and more easily ignored - reminding him of his place.

That is how I feel when a man calls a woman "girl," especially me. I am an adult woman, the equal of a man, and deserve at least that measure of respect. Most of the time they mean nothing by it, too. I have often made it a joke, when someone refers to a female as "girl," I'll say, "You mean the adult woman over there?" And the guy will laugh, nod and adjust. A gentle poke and he realizes what he's saying. That's because most men are decent fellas.

But naturally, the troll was delighted. "Oh, I've offended the libber too!" And he called me "Liz," because of course he had to try once again to condescend to me. I had to laugh out loud - literally - at that one. I don't think I've ever been called a libber. I thought that phrase went out with my mother's generation. Sure, there've been plenty of words thrown at me over the years - feminazi, feminista, the inevitable questioning of my sexual orientation and the usual sexually-themed insults. Libber, however, is a rarity in the 21st century. Everything old is new again.

Still, it made me evaluate my feelings on the word "girl" - and my complicated relationship with feminism. I was never comfortable with the word, as it had mostly morphed into a political designation indistinguishable from the neverending debate on abortion and seemed to have little relation to the other issues involved in gender parity. Still, I recall deciding against using an insurance agent once when he referred to his cadre of three female secretaries - every one of them over forty - as his girls. When I opened a business, I automatically discounted any service that hit me up by assuming that because I was a business owner, I must be male, and addressed the letter to "Mr. Donald." Did that make me a feminist? Did my fiance's discomfort at that bank make him one?

To this day, Jimmy and I have a little game we play at restaurants. It began as a rueful musing and turned into a game, at least. I usually carry the debit card for our joint bank account, and we usually pay for restaurant meals from that account. 

When we receive the bill, however, the server will often assume that because he is the man, he must be paying. They hand the bill to him. Even if I have the debit card out and in my hand. Reaching toward them, in one notable occasion. Surprisingly, the most frequent offenders are at higher-end restaurants. And then they lose a dollar off the tip.

Why should the server assume that he is paying? Because he is male, he must have control of the money? Heaven forfend we helpless little women pay for our own food - or ... gasp! We could pay for the whole meal! Without emasculating him! It might be a shock for the Facebook troll, but women own 40 percent of the nation's private businesses and 90 percent of women are the primary financial manager for their homes.

Feminism is the radical notion that women are people, and are the equal to men. Even in restaurants.

But then I must reluctantly accede the flip side of this peeve: it doesn't offend me when another woman calls me a girl. Somehow there is a difference when a man says, "I'll be right with you girls," and when a friend says, "C'mon, girl, you can do better than that." Somehow when a word is used within a defined group, it does not have the same emotional impact as when it is used by someone outside the group, particularly one with a greater level of societal privilege. (And here I thought I could get through this whole discussion without using that word.)

It goes back to the knee-jerk response of the cornered racist, who says that it can't be a bad thing to call a black person by certain ethnic slurs, because they use those words among themselves all the time. But it is, and we know it, because words hurt. Words have power. Words draw blood.

When examining this, I realize that the impact of language is controlled by its perceived intent. The intent of the cornered racist in using an ethnic slur is to insult or provoke the recipient. The intent of my friend calling me "girl" is to indicate affection. The intent of the Facebook Troll was to condescend to the woman with whom he was debating, to counter her argument with the fact that she is female, and therefore can be dismissed.

I have no suggestions or answers. I don't know if the intent is enough to make "girl" appropriate in certain situations or if it is an acknowledged hypocrisy. I don't suggest that everyone should necessarily boycott the credit union that dismissed me, or cut the tip of the server who assumes your husband is paying. And if you want to feed the trolls, go right ahead - we all need a hobby.

But for me, I will continue to think of myself as a person, as the equal to a man, as a full partner in all things to my fiance. And maybe I'll just keep trying to empty the Atlantic with a shot glass.


  1. All I can say is that I agree. (I actually I could say more, but I'd just end up rambling on pointlessly.)

    [Blogger doesn't really accept a LiveJournal comment. It says my url characters are illegal.]


Post a Comment