Saturday, September 14, 2019

The Girl on the Cover


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You go to the bookstore. 

You see the array of books on the “this just in” or “new releases” shelves—and what might you notice? There’s a certain word that seems to appear again and again.

And Elizabeth Zelvin has one word for that word. She says: Enough. And her new short story anthology is not just an illustration of her frustration—she hopes it’s the beginning of a solution.



The Girl Book Conspiracy


I’ve had a revelation about the spate of Girl books in the crime fiction market: Gone Girl, Girl On A Train, Girl in the Window, The Girl Next Door, The Lost Girls of Paris, gathering momentum ever since The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I don’t think it’s simply the marketing ploy that many have called it, with publishers jumping on the bandwagon of one megahit with more of the same. 

As a Second Wave feminist—“Really? I studied you in school!” an awed young person told me recently—I remember how hard we had to kick and scream to get everyone to stop calling those of us who weren’t fifteen and under “girls” and start calling us “women.” Yet all of a sudden, on the covers of books in airport bookstores and big box stores—which as every author knows, means hundreds of thousands of copies sold—they’re calling grown women girls again. 

Oh, but they didn’t mean it that way! They’d never do that! As a brilliant therapist, (not me), once said, unconsciousness is no excuse. So what’s the big deal? For one thing, books are culture bearers, or in the pop-up vernacular, influencers. And the titles of bestselling books have exponentially more influence than the books themselves, because, through word of mouth and the media, they reach so many people who never read the books. 

I’ve never read Gone Girl, because even its greatest admirers assure me I'll dislike the protagonists. I don’t do unlikable protagonists, not if I see them coming. But I’ve heard the book mentioned hundreds of times and participated in dozens of conversations about it, each reinforcing the concept that a grown woman is a girl, girl, girl.

But why does “girl” vs. “woman” matter? What difference does it make? I say it makes a huge difference in our unconscious assumptions and biases, which is why we fought so hard to change it in the first place.  Girls are—supposedly-- immature. They’re naive and weak. They don’t know much. They need things explained to them. They can be dismissed and patronized. They can be manipulated. They need authority figures to make decisions for them. They need to be protected, i.e. controlled “for their own good,” --which I think we figured out fifty years ago was how the patriarchy disempowered us while feeling good about themselves. Some of those generalities may work if the girl is ten years old and the adult responsible and ethical. But it’s not right to make such assumptions about grown women.

I'm not asking anyone to abolish the word “girl,” of course. Just use it when you’re talking about real girls! When I planned Me Too Short Stories: An Anthology, I was looking for stories about women. But girls as well as women showed up. The cycle of abuse is ongoing unless we find ways to break it. Some of the girls whose voices you can hear in these stories have experiences that may seem unimaginable to women who were nurtured and protected during childhood. Yet others may hear such voices and, as in the #Me Too movement, recognize parts of their own experience that they have never dared to examine. These are girls whose stories we need to tell, so readers can hear and believe them.

As a therapist in my "other hat," I know these stories are common in real life. Yet they seldom show up in short crime fiction, even in the darkest e-zines. Maybe they don't realize that young survivors can change the story. When I myself wrote a short story about such girls and the women they grow up to be, I couldn't think where to submit it. So I created a market of my own and invited other women writers to join me.

What do you think when you see “girl” on a cover?  

HANK: I will confess to loving my title THE WRONG GIRL—that book came out in 2013.  It is, however, about an infant daughter.

What do you think, Reds and readers? Is "girl" more than a word?

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Me Too Short Stories: An Anthology—crimes against women, tales of retribution and healing—is editor/ author Elizabeth Zelvin's plan to strike a blow for abused and intimidated women and girls in short crime fiction, making them the protagonists of their own stories. Fifteen women mystery and crime short story authors created fictional sisters who take charge of their destiny.


Elizabeth Zelvin, three-time Derringer & three-time Agatha nominee  
OUT NOW!
Crimes against women, tales of retribution and healing
Editor, Where Crime Never Sleeps: Murder New York Style 4 

61 comments:

  1. Personally I made the choice not to read books with "Girl" in the title unless the story is about an actual girl, meaning one under the age of 18, according to the Associated Press style book. At least that was in the AP style book I studied in Journalism school. Calling women girls has galled me... forever.

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    1. Did you start by boycotting the very first girl book, or was it a cumulative thing?

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    2. I'm with you, Ellen. The last (only) Girl book I tried to read was Stieg Larsson's and I'm still trying to slog through the first 100 pages. Hub assures me it's worth it but life is short and I have no time for slogging. So, yes, I've missed most (all?) of the "Girl" books. Still waiting for a "Boy" book to appear...and waiting...

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    3. I haven't read them, either, Jenn, except for Hank's (which as she mentions, is about an actual girl, a baby) and I did read the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

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  2. Great post! The only novel I have read and liked was Girl with a Pearl Earring. Even if the Girl was a servant, she was still a kid. In the 21st century, she would be considered a teenager. Not a grown up yet. Not sure if the word "teenagers " existed at that time in history.

    To me, the word "woman" with the "man" in the word reminds me of Adam's rib story from the bible. I wonder why "lady" is not used instead of woman?

    Tried to read Gone Girl and I could not get into it. Until you mentioned it, I had not noticed there were so many titles with "Girl". Was it the author's decision or the editor's decision? I am laughing because when I see "girl" in the title, I wonder if it is a novel about children? Why are grown up women called "girls"? Never read Girl with a Dragon Tattoo, though I saw the trilogy of the Swedish films with English subtitles. Not a book nor movie for kids, though.

    This also reminded me of an author complaining that the New York Times Book Review often reviews male authors instead of female (another word with "male" in it) authors.

    Do we, as readers pick lady authors or male authors without knowing it? Or do we pick novels because we like the writing?

    Diana

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    1. It’s a great question, and one I often think about. If I make a list of my favorite books, I don’t think about gender, and it comes out about 50-50. And often we don’t know if we like the writings until we read it, right?
      What do you think?

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    2. You ask why “lady” isn’t used..... could it be because in some places it still denotes class? Lady Mary from Downton Abbey for instance?

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    3. You remind me of Sojourner Truth's great "Ain't I a woman?" speech: "Nobody helps me into carriages or over mud-puddles, and ain't I a woman?"

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    4. Hank, thanks! I did not think about gender until that fuss about the New York Times Book Review.

      Smith, interesting because I remember that I learned the word "lady" before I learned the word "woman". Any woman would be called a "lady", regardless of race or social class. I did not learn about titles until I was a teenager. I remember Princess and Prince from storybooks.

      Elizabeth, I remembered something else. I thought that girls did not become women until age 18? I remember when I started high school (we were not 18 yet) that I was surprised when girls were called young women and boys were called young men. Thank you for sharing Sojourner Truth's speech.

      Diana

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  3. Thank you for your illuminating post, Elizabeth. I’ve certainly noticed all those “Girl” books out there. After a while, I find I tend to think of them as being the same and look right past them. It’s a tad disconcerting when you realize that most of those “Girl” books are actually stories about women . . . .

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    1. Exactly. I’m trying to think back to 50s and 40s movies and books, did they use girl?

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  4. You go, Liz. I am in complete agreement, and was part of that fight long ago to call adult women, well, women. I'm looking forward to reading these stories.

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    1. It’s a really good anthology, Edith. There’s a story about the photographer Bill Cunningham that still haunts me.

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    2. Thanks, Edith. And Hank, I'll pass that on to Rona Bell, who wrote "The Call Is Yours." She's an amazing writer with a voice unlike anybody else's.

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  5. I remember the fight, decades ago, to call adult females "women" instead of "girls". I think it's part of what got us out of the typing pool and into the corner office. But still the world wants to make us girls again. You're right on, Elizabeth! Now, could you please start spreading the word to the art directors who do romance and "chick lit" (how dismissive can you be?) covers that we'd like our heroines to have heads, please. I really hate the "headless woman" covers on a lot of romance novels.

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    1. Headless women! Or… Body parts, you know? Oh, now I am wondering. Are there books with headless men? I don’t think so!

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    2. Gigi, this is right on target for why I did the anthology. I'd written the story I didn't think I could place, but I was going to try a noir e-zine that had announced it would have a special issue by and for women with a woman guest editor, so I went over to its website. I found they hadn't yet picked an editor, but they had designed a cover: a waist-down woman on her back, kicking up her legs in stiletto heels! That was the moment ME TOO SHORT STORIES was conceived. :) (The issue was eventually published with a different cover—I assume that was the woman guest editor's doing.)

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    3. Hank, great question! I think Legend of Sleepy Hollow has a headless man?

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    4. Headless men, Hank! What a great question! And I don't ever remember seeing one on a book cover.

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    5. SO interesting. xooxoo

      And Yay, you, Liz, for saving that cover!

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  6. Right beside you, Elizabeth! I haven't read any of the girl books, don't plan to do so. And here's another variation that has all kinds of connotations--'girlfriend.' I have friends. I don't usually group them by gender. I'm thinking your book will be hard reading, but sometimes hard is necessary.

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    1. Yes, I wonder about girlfriend and boyfriend. Girlfriend “means my friend who is a woman,” right? But boyfriend means something else entirely. And I don’t think a man would ever call a male pal “my boyfriend” unless it had a romantic connotation.

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    2. I don't know about "hard reading." Hank said the book was "empowering, inspirational, and sometimes wickedly funny." I guess it depends on if you already know that such things happen or not. I read a suspense novel yesterday that referred to dissociative identity disorder (multiple personality), which comes from severe child abuse (acknowledged in the book) as "rare." It's not, because severe child abuse is unfortunately not rare. That bothers me in a book the same way gun mistakes bother cops who read crime novels.

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  7. I so rarely look at covers and barely remember titles these days, so all this girl business goes right over my head. But if I’m insulted or irritated by a marketing tool, I don’t buy the product. I suspect that is the way of most of us. When that happens, marketing develops a new eye catcher.

    I too was part of that movement in the 70s, to be called a women instead of a girl. For the most part it worked I think. Although I do hear older women calling each other girls. Not much to be done about that.

    What I do adore is when my gay male friends call me “girl.” Or when they call each other that. It always makes me laugh. I have cookie sheets older than most of them.

    Right now I’m in Provincetown, overlooking the water, smelling the salt air, and about to go out and mingle with the masses of my “boys.”

    I haven’t been anywhere this gay since the Castro!

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    1. Yes, the ironic use is a whole 'nother thing.

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    2. Yes, I agree, if a friend of mine calls me girl, like girl, you’re in trouble now! That’s fine.

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    3. I tend to call my male friends my "guy" friends, to differentiate from "boyfriend." So interesting, these underlying assumptions in word choices. I wonder if it is the same in other languages?

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  8. Titles go in spurts. There's also a ton of "The woman..." titles right now. And for a while "Train" kept showing up one book covers. I know how publishers obsess over titles, trying to catch the wave. A piece of it is one book breaks out. HUGELY. And publishers want "the same but different"... in other words, repeat the magic, because no one really knows what did it so they latch onto a word in the title. I've read Gone Girl. The Girl with the Pearl Earring. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. The Good Girl. I liked/admired every one of them.

    There's a several-year-old piece in TIME talking about research that found:
    "...79% of the authors of “girl” books were women and 85% of the time, the “girl” made it through the novel alive. But, St. John Mandel added, “If a book with ‘girl’ in the title was written by a man, the girl is more likely to end up dead.” Using her data, St. John Mandel discovered that girls end up dead 17% of the time in books written by men, whereas only 5% for female authors." Not sure what it means, but it's interesting. You can find the article https://time.com/4551310/girl-book-titles/

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    1. I can live with "Woman" in the title - starting all the way back with Wilkie Collins's The Woman in White. Imagine if it had been "The Girl in White". *shudder*

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    2. Hallie, great news that in California they just passed a bill that women's sports team will earn equal pay as men's sports team earn!

      Diana

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    3. I'd forgive Willkie Collins better than 21st century authors, he wrote the book in 1859 . ;)

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  9. You don't see this being done to men the way it's done to women (except as a racial thing). To me, that confirms that it is another form of belittlement or infantilizing. Not that every author or publisher has that as a goal, but they're participating in it.

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    2. (Previous comment deleted to edit) Yes, Jim, I think that needs to be the touchstone: If it's unacceptable to call a grown black man "boy"—I saw "To Kill A Mockingbird" on Broadway two nights ago, so I was reminded of what power it had not that long ago—it should be equally unacceptable to call a grown woman "girl" except as a term of endearment.

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  10. Yes, I think it's time again to raise consciousness about this issue. Except for guys like Jim Collins, who is clearly more highly evolved than most men. Thank you, Jim.

    It isn't just book titles, I'm afraid. In the 18-month long process of planning for and building our new home, there were just five women, besides me, involved. The architects we hired are a husband/wife team, but we saw the female partner only twice, both times she was delivering plans or picking up checks. I bought the cabinets from a friend who owned a hardware store, and she and I worked out the kinks in my design together, but she was only on site once.

    The other three women were referred to as "girls" by our builder. He hired some "girls" to final clean for us. When they showed up I was stunned to find that, instead of the high school-age kids I expected, they were 50's-something, chain smoking, bleach-blonde sisters. No more girl than I am. The concrete crew that created the drive apron included a 30-something woman who was an artist with the float finishing. Rick also kept calling her a girl, and he was impervious to my mild corrections every time.

    I should have known, though. In an early conversation with the architect, both he and Rick said they had rarely seen "girls" on construction sites. When I said that was too bad, they both wanted to know why, and Rick actually scoffed when I suggested that women's attention to detail and more advanced fine motor skills might be an asset.

    Just as we have a long way to go with racism, sexism will also continue to exist, I'm afraid.

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  11. Thought provoking, Liz. I was talking with author and friend of the Reds Brenda Buchanan recently, and she told me about a survey done on behalf of International Thriller Writers. One of the questions was "What topics would you never touch on in your fiction?" Pedophilia/child abuse was the most frequently cited. Unfortunately, the survey didn't drill down and ask why? Personal discomfort? Feeling it would turn off readers? We deal with so many dark realities in crime fiction, but this (and killing animals, of course) seems to be a third rail.

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    1. Julia, I was requested to keep this post on the light side, and we certainly have plenty to discuss! But the Me Too Short Stories authors and I have some virtual panel discussions coming up on SleuthSayers in October where we discuss that very thing, and it's part of why I decided to do the anthology.

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  12. I loved Gone Girl. And girl with the Dragon tattoo, and The Good Girl. And I am very fond of my own book, The Wrong Girl. I Think it is a question of editors latching onto what works, and trying to let readers know wow, you liked that book, you’ll like this one too. So there’s a lot to discuss.

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  13. I think much like any other "thing" that is successful spawning copycats, the success of one book with the word "Girl" was bound to give birth to a subgenre of books with title bearing some similarity to its successful predecessor.

    You see it in music and sports a lot. Have a successful music sound or artist and here comes a deluge of similar sounding artists. Have a successful type of offense in football and other teams will jump on the bandwagon. As for the book world, don't get me started on the "Female Wants to Have Sex with a Vampire" genre started by those ridiculously stupid Twilight books.

    I think that as a guy, I'm probably not nearly as attuned as people might want or expect me to be to the points that Liz makes in her piece.

    However, for me after watching the movie Gone Girl and being so thoroughly turned off by it, my problem with the whole "Girl..." books scene is that for the most part, they are just BAD books. Or perhaps because of the similarity most of these books share for their narrative they do nothing for me.

    Trends aren't necessarily a bad thing when they work and are of good quality. But the thing with trends is that they always downturn into oversaturation and then it burns out into self-parody.

    These days, if I see a book with "Girl..." on the cover (assuming it isn't by an author I like already and know it isn't going to follow the same storytelling path of certain books), I don't even bother to pick it up. But I don't see that I would've picked up Gillian Flynn's "Gone Woman" either.

    So I'm going to post this comment now but I'm not sure that I've answered the question posed by today's post or even really added much to the overall conversation either.

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  15. Hank, thanks so much for having me on Jungle Red and facilitating this lively discussion. I just read the post and all the comments to my husband by request—he's one of the good guys too. :) You ask about 40s movies. Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday, for one—and she's an investigative reporter like you!

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    1. oh, right! Good memory! And girl Friday, as a phrase… Wonder where that came from?

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    2. Robinson Crusoe, of course. Only, a "girl".

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  16. Another retro-racist reference: Crusoe's Man Friday was a "savage," so of course subordinate. It's subtle, and I think we underestimate how these things slip into our collective unconscious and influence our thinking and how we behave toward others. Some of us walk around with a lot of personal power, and we forget how pernicious it can be. It's hard to patronize me, and I think that's because of my education and class and that I've lived my life in New York City. ;)

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    1. Huh. How about Joe Friday on Dragnet? Ah...hmm. And Bertie Wooster's man Jeeves? There's a lot that goes in to all of those names --some of it benign, some of if old-fashioned, some classist. some of it ironic.

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    2. Ah, the British "man" as "manservant" is something else. And then there's the gentleman's man of business. I once saw a dumbed-down library edition of an Elswyth Thane novel, set in London around World War i, where the editor changed someone's reference to his "man" (meaning the person who managed his business affairs) to "handyman." The bottom line is that I've never heard or seen "boy" used derogatively of a grown white man. Good ol' boys, "the boys," and "Come on, boys" are all positive.

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  17. It's similar to the use of "boy" for grown African American men. It emasculates them and makes them impotent infants.

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  18. In defense of the ‘girl’ in the title, as opposed to ‘woman’: I think from a crime writing perspective it implies she is weaker and therefore is in peril, where’s ‘woman’ has more strength. And as so much crime fiction has women in danger it’s no surprise that would crop up more often.

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  19. That was Julia Pomeroy writing. Don’t want to hide behind other Julias.

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  20. Coming from the UK and a different era, the distinction was the politeness between women and "ladies." It wasn't until I reached the States that women / girls gave me headaches. I suspect it is the same difficulty on both continents now.

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  21. I think context matters a lot. I don't mind being one of the girls if the person saying that loves and respects those "girls." Especially if he is deferring to their wishes graciously. I refer to the men in my life as the "boys" in the same context. Love and respect. I certainly don't wish to be referred to as a girl by someone I don't know. That smacks of disrespect and disregard. I had enough of that crap back in the 70s and 80s.

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  23. For me, using the term "girls" is all about context, and I think that my age also plays a role. For example, a male employee or boss referring to female employees as "the girls" is absolutely condescending to my ears and mind. In fact, it's really rather difficult for a man to use the term girls where it doesn't raise some negative connotations. However, I think when a father calls his daughters his girls, it's more of a term of endearment, because sentimentally speaking they will always be his young girls. Of course, a father also owes it to his "girls" to tell them he is proud of the women they've become.

    At 65, my girlfriends, and that to me isn't a bad term, with whom I graduated from high school and whom I still see and do things with when I visit my hometown are known to each of as "the girls." Maybe it has something to do with the fact that we started out being friends when we were actually girls, but to the old ladies (hehehe) we're on the way to becoming, "the girls" connotates a youthful love of life and being together.

    Now, for book titles, I admit to being weary of "girl" in titles, but that doesn't mean that it hasn't worked for books, especially ones such as Hank's The Wrong Girl. But, I do believe it's run its course and then some. I rarely stop to find out more about a book with "girl" in the title
    these days. As for it being insulting, well, I can see that if it's about a grown woman, it certainly can be construed that way. and I'm likely to feel less enthusiasm about reading such a book. I think about it wouldn't be titled Boy on a Train, would it? So, I feel the sting of girl in a title, even while my aging self might think of a 20-something as a girl.

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    1. And Boy on the Train makes you think--oh, this must be a young person. You'd never think it was an adult man.

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  24. A fascinating post, Liz. I've never resisted books with "Girl" in the title (I loved Dragon Tattoo), but I do look twice at people who call women girls in conversation--it's often men who do it. On the other hand, I often find it pleasing if two women refer to one another as "girl" in an affectionate sense, perhaps as a reminder of a shared youth. I can't think of a context when it would be okay for a man to do it, unless he's remembering fondly the girlhood of his wife or sister or daughter.

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    1. Agreed--I don't either, excerpt sort of to feel sorry for the author, who might not have been on board..:-)

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  25. Many of the males in my work place protected their wives by making sure they knew where they were at all times and complained when they called about small matters because they wouldn't make a decision without their husband's input.
    Economic abuse was rampant, but they protected their "girls" and their property.

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  26. Look! here’s an article about books with “Wife” in the title! https://shereads.com/books-with-wife-in-the-title/

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