Saturday night out with my writing group, we got to talking about the show, “Girls,” and fell into two old conversational chestnuts: where did the words “man” and “woman” go, and what are you supposed to call the person you’re involved with, romantically?
We started with the title of the show: when did it become okay again, the oldest among us wondered (his mind ranging back to the 1970s when it became not-okay) to call women girls? To which the universal response was: it’s okay again not because suddenly it’s okay to infantilize women relative to men, but because it’s not okay to call anybody a grownup. We’re all “guys” and “girls” now – there are no “men” and “women” except when the relationship has an exclusively formal dimension (“there’s this woman I work with” is correct, but “there’s this woman I’m seeing” feels somewhat less likely) or when you intend a particular commendation, often, but not exclusively, of a sexual nature (“now that is a woman“).
I don’t expect the formal casualness of our society – first names and jeans for everyone – to fade any time soon, and I don’t really want it to; I’m comfortable with it. But there ought to be a way to be casual without being infantilizing. Personally, I’ve been on a one-man crusade to resurrect the archaic term “gal” as a counterpart to “guy” and an alternative to “girl,” so that we have some way to refer to women casually without lumping them in with nine-year-olds. But my campaign hasn’t won many converts, not even in my own house (my wife finds “gal” at once affected and obnoxious). I’m not giving up, though.
By the same token, we need a better term to replace “boyfriend” and “girlfriend” so that we can distinguish adult romances from the storms of adolescence. “Partner” is sterile, and “lover” is comical in its blatancy. Anyway, we came up with one term that fit the bill: casual without being infantilizing, intimate without being blatantly sexual, and with just the right degree of retro irony.