Gone Girl. Girl on a Train. Nowhere Girl. You can scarcely walk by a bookstore or scroll through Amazon without coming across a title with the word “girl” in it. Publishers, who like nothing more than riding the coattails of last year’s best seller, are churning out Girl titles left and right.
So what’s the problem? Most of these novels are not about girls. They are about women. And I think the tendency to call a girl a woman is about a lot more than the syllables in a word or the potential for alliteration. A girl makes a good victim – vulnerable, easily frightened, powerless. But a woman is an adult. She is powerful. She might get in your face and object to being called a girl.
This phenomenon transcends fiction. As I begin to write this, Tom Petty’s “American Girl” is playing on Pandora. What does it say about us that it took a Canadian band to write “American Woman,” and that was in 1969? And the Guess Who song was not, by the way, exactly an anthem for what at the time was called women’s liberation.
Some fine novels have “girl” in the title, and I blame not the authors but the Great Publishing Machine that determines titles, designs covers, and creates often artificial genres for its wares. Consider Lilac Girls, by Martha Hall Kelly. Of its three female characters, two start out as teenagers, but for the majority of the novel they are adults responsible for their own choices. Last year also saw The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane (Lisa See, who also wrote Shanghai Girls), The Atomic City Girls (Janet Beard), and The Girls (Emma Cline).
Some of the “girls” in the above titles start out as such, but they grow into women over the course of the story.
What about novels with “women” in the title? There certainly are some: The Woman in Cabin 10 being the most prominent recent example, as well as The Woman in the Window and The Women in the Castle. But can’t you picture some marketing team member suggesting that they change the title to “The Girl in Cabin 10” or “The Girl in the Window”?
It was not always thus. Can you imagine if Jane Eyre had been “The Poor Girl”? Or if Louisa May Alcott had called her most famous novel “Little Girls”? Or if Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca had been “The Girl in the Boat”?
It’s time writers stood up to this abomination and banished the word “girl” from their dust jackets.