The message is that women are past it while girls are dynamic

A decisive victory for the girls at the weekend, when they captured the top five slots in the Sunday Times best-selling paperback fiction list. True, three of the five titles invoking girls were alluding to the same one – Lisbeth Salander from Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy. But the other girls – Kit from Jane Green’s Girl Friday, and Annie and Kate from Martina Cole’s Hard Girls – were considerably older than young Salander, who is styled “girl” ironically, precisely because her character is a rejection of feminine stereotypes.

Are the two female authors in this list using the word “girl” ironically too? Their characters have all left their youth decisively behind, and are in positions of some success and control. In the 1970s, there was a groundswell of opinion suggesting that “girl” was a highly pejorative way of describing a female who was over 18, used to belittle her and rob her of status. Yet these books all lay claim to celebrating female power. Perhaps “girl” is being reclaimed, like the n-word before it.

Except that it’s not really, is it? There is no sense of confrontation in the appropriation of the word “girl”, no hint that it is a baleful challenge to something that is ugly, like racism, like sexism. It’s more of a signal that even strong women are not above keeping a useful part of their identities immature and malleable, frivolous and unthreatening. Hard Women. Woman Friday. Perhaps both authors felt that the alternative styling did not sound tremendously inviting, terribly glamorous. If so, that’s sad, especially because these books are catering largely to female readers.

The message is that women are dreary and past-it, while girls are dynamic and exciting. The queasy worry is that in a big swath of popular culture, women are still being infantilised, and that they prefer it that way. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds