This is really interesting! From “What does it mean when we call women girls?” by Robin Wasserman in Literary Hub.
Here’s how Louis CK draws the distinction between girl and woman:
[22-year old girls] might say, I’m 22, I’m totally a woman… Not to me, sorry. To me you’re not a woman until you’ve had a couple of kids and your life is in the toilet… when you become a woman is when people come out of your vagina and step on your dreams.
If it’s easy to see how the girl label attaches to unmoored millennials, it’s less evident how it applies to women firmly rooted in the adult phase of life. But it makes sense if we read the “girl” narratives as corrective to the Louis CK threshold, the “girls” as women who refuse to let a little thing like people coming out of their vaginas ruin their dreams.
All the Single Ladies, journalist Rebecca Traister’s recent take on the rise of the single woman, opens with her childhood conviction that the marriage plot was less fairy tale than Shakespearean tragedy. “It was supposed to be romantic, but it felt bleak,” she writes of the nuptial trajectories of her girlhood literary heroes. “Paths that were once wide and dotted with naughty friends and conspiratorial sisters and malevolent cousins, with scrapes and adventures and hopes and passions, had narrowed and now seemed to lead only to the tending of dull husbands and the rearing of insipid children to whom the stories would be turned over.”
The girl books crowding the nonfiction shelf are written by and about women who insist on sticking to that wide path, women who refuse to Jo March themselves into a supporting role in their own life: girlhood as a state of mind.
The word attaches itself with special frequency to women in music and the sciences—not as diminishment of their achievement, but as its trophy. Girl in a Band, Lab Girl, Hunger Makes me a Modern Girl, Rise of the Rocket Girls: these are women who followed their girlhood passions into male-dominated fields and triumphed. Their stories speak of subverting gender expectations, breaking barriers, and—at least on the page—prioritizing work and art over the role of domestic caretaker.
In Girl in a Band, Kim Gordon pauses—briefly—in her tale of Sonic Youth’s rise to acknowledge the birth of her daughter: “Yes, she changed our lives, and no one is more important to me. But the band played on.” Gordon spent the first half of her career answering journalists’ inevitable question about what it was like to be a girl in a band; the moment she gave birth, they instead wanted to know: “What’s it like to be a rock-and-roll mom?” Her daughter might well be the most important thing in her life, but she’s nearly irrelevant to this story, which is about music, ambition, and the need to create. Gordon writes about her difficulties expressing her true self, relieved only by art: “For me the page, the gallery, and the stage became the only places my emotions could be expressed….Art, and the practice of making art, was the only space that was mine alone.”