When I was recently reading the media feeds that I typically frequent (and I apologize that I can’t remember which one boasts the origin for this observation), I came across a request for thoughts on the presence of so many smash-success books that used the term “girl” in their titles to describe full-grown female characters. The two most obvious examples are Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn and Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins, although others could be added to the list (see this 2014 listing from Vulture for more examples). Granted, it’s often interpreted that Stieg Larsson’s thriller series used the titular term “girl” with a sense of irony, but many subsequent titles certainly don’t.
Gone Girl is a thrilling read and a well-crafted book, but I didn’t get the sense that “girl” was used in any but a literal (and perhaps alliterative) way. I haven’t read Hawkins’ book yet (although it’s certainly on my summer reading list) and so can’t comment on it’s use of the term except to reflect that the summaries of the book I’ve read indeed seem to deal with real grown women with real grown women issues. So why the term “girl”?
One can assume that perhaps, from a marketing perspective, “girl” creates a different (and more commercially palatable) image of the primary female characters than “woman” does. Just try the simple exercise of inserting “woman” into the two best-selling titles above (or any from the Vulture article). Gone Woman. Woman on the Train. I know for myself that the images, emotions, and interest provoked by these titles were very different from those provoked by the original titles. Which one would I have bought? I’d argue an even important question is why would I have a preference for one over the other.
Deborah Orr observed this phenomenon over 5 years ago, noting that one possible interpretation is to see it as a “signal that even strong women are not above keeping a useful part of their identities immature and malleable, frivolous and unthreatening.” If “girl” is a term used to reduce the perceived power and capability of grown women in order to make them more palatable to the broader readership, then why are educated, cultured, and feminist women still drawn to these titles (and the sales figures and reviews certainly suggest that they are)? Better still, why are talented authors using this device (consciously or unconsciously) in their own work?
One option is to re-appropriate the term, as some past and current movements have sought to do for this and other loaded terms (#LikeAGirl #BanBossy or RiotGrrl). Another is to advocate for change in the way the term “woman” is perceived. We have a new Marvel film coming (hopefully in 2017) with our very own “woman” heroine. Until then, we can work as writers and readers to show more agency in our titular women, and see “girl” applied to those it was meant for: children.