Fiona McCade: Careful with the word ‘girl’

Cynthia Rahming shows Mark Beaumont a thing or two about judo
Cynthia Rahming shows Mark Beaumont a thing or two about judo
Share this article
Have your say

Certain phrases may be used as a joke, but despite the row over BBC ‘censorship’ that doesn’t make it acceptable, writes Fiona McCade

My husband was in the garden with our eight-year-old son. I was inside, but I could hear him trying to get the wee one to hold a caterpillar he had picked up.

“Go on,” he was saying, “it won’t hurt you. Look, it’s walking all over my hand and I’m fine! There’s nothing to be afraid of.” Then, a short while later, when none of these encouragements had worked, I heard him blurt out in obvious exasperation: “Oh come on, don’t be such a girl!”

That did it. I was outside and I was angry. “Don’t be such a ‘girl’? What are you saying? I’m a girl – at least, I was – and I have no problem holding caterpillars. What’s being a girl got to do with anything? Since when has the word ‘girl’ been an insult?”

The boy scarpered, while the woman berated the man for calling people girls.

“What if we had a daughter? Would you say that in front of her? Would you be happy for her to think that boys are strong and brave enough to hold caterpillars and girls are not? You’re saying that there is a qualitative difference between what is expected of boys and girls, and implying that being a girl is inferior to being a boy. And also that the ability to hold a caterpillar confers upon someone the higher status of boy, or its equivalent. Well, not in my house, it doesn’t.”

By this time, I could tell that Mr Me was really wishing he’d left that bleedin’ caterpillar where it was. “I said it without thinking,” he spluttered. “It’s just what we used to say to each other when I was a kid. You know, ‘girl’ as in… ‘not a proper boy’.”

Oh dear, oh dear. He stopped talking after that, probably because he could see the steam coming out of my ears.

I know he doesn’t mean to slander my gender, but that’s exactly what he’s doing. He’s not simply saying that girls can’t hold caterpillars. Unwittingly, he’s sending out the message that girls are feeble compared with boys and, as both a female and a serial caterpillar-handler, I will not stand back and let him get away with it.

Thankfully, at least the BBC is on my side. In a recent documentary about the forthcoming Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, 31-year-old presenter Mark Beaumont – Perthshire’s favourite cyclist and all-round athletic adventurer – was definitively slammed to the ground by judo champion Cynthia Rahming. As he picked himself up off the floor, Beaumont joked: “I’m not sure I can live that down – being beaten by a 19-year-old girl.”

OK, it was a joke, and Rahming was fine about it, but when the programme was repeated last week, the word “girl” was edited out. Some people have howled about political correctness, but I don’t see it that way. I’m glad that someone objected on my behalf.

Like my husband, Beaumont was being light-hearted and he obviously meant no harm. Nevertheless, he’s obviously so used to using this kind of terminology, he’s never taken a moment to think that he’s disrespecting half the world.

The BBC weren’t censoring the word “girl”; at least, I hope they weren’t. They were censoring the negative way it was used, as though no man on earth should expect to be beaten by a girl, even if she is an expert in her field.

Did Beaumont honestly expect to win? Was he ever a judo champion? No, the 19-year-old woman was, and she deserved to be straightforwardly congratulated, not slyly denigrated by a so-called joke.

I’m happy to agree that, generally, men are physically superior to women, but this doesn’t mean that every man is superior to every woman, nor should they expect to be in every situation.

Skill and professionalism can tip the balance. As has often been pointed out, Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, but backwards and in heels.

If a 19-year-old “boy” had thrashed Mr Beaumont’s sorry hide, would he have been equally moved to mention his shame, along with the age and gender of the victor? Or is it always more acceptable for a man to be defeated by someone else with a Y-chromosome?

I suppose this puts into context how the English army must have felt in 1429 when they were defeated by Joan of Arc. “Oh no, we lost France and we were beaten by a 17-year-old girl! We’re not sure we can live that down!” Nothing less than burning her alive could make them feel better about themselves.

But we’re no longer in the 15th century, so why do we continue to allow our young females to be so casually slandered? Even Eurovision Song Contest winner Conchita Wurst will tell you that, culturally, we’re more likely to accept people who appear extra-masculine than we are to tolerate those who appear extra-feminine.

Thankfully, we’ve almost managed to stamp out the word “gay” as a term of abuse, but it looks like “girl” is still fair game.

If you’re rolling your eyes and wondering why this is such a big deal, let me ask you: how would you feel if the very thing that you are became a synonym for “weak” or “useless”?

If someone was squealing because they had seen a caterpillar, and I said: “For God’s sake, don’t be such a man”, would men mind?

“Indeed we would!” bellow the gents, in their deepest voices, “For we are not afraid of caterpillars!”

Well, I’m a girl (albeit an old one) and I’m not afraid of caterpillars either, and even if I were, I wouldn’t squeal. Why should I meekly accept that a word which describes me is regularly used as an insult?

Girls are great; girls are strong, brave and wise. Just like boys. Sure, some of us let the side down by screaming when they see caterpillars, spiders, mice, or One Direction, but joking aside, we deserve better than to be just another word for “worthless”.