You’ve probably seen them on shelves or on bestseller lists, if you haven’t read one or 12 in the past few years: Gone Girl, The Girl on the Train, The Girls. And what about wives? The Zookeeper’s Wife, The Paris Wife, The Tiger’s Wife.
Is there a collective noun for daughters? The King’s Daughter, The Queen’s Daughter, The Senator’s Daughter, The Senator’s Other Daughter. There are so many books with the title The President’s Daughter, they need their own collective noun.
According to Biz Hyzy, in her Booklist Reader blog post, there have been at least 188 books published in the U.S. adult market from 1991 to 2016 with the word wife or the word daughter in their titles. It’s not just a fad or trend; this is an era.
What exactly is the problem? If a book is about a woman who is, in fact, the daughter of a president, why not say so? After all, it tells you that the book likely takes place in the U.S., is political in nature, and that the daughter is the protagonist or figures prominently in the story.
The problem is that the title reduces the character to someone who is not a person in her own right, but whose consequence is tied to the most powerful male in her family. Similarly, “wives” are reduced to their husbands’ careers, as if their only value comes directly from their spouses’ livelihoods.
Even if we ignore the problems with daughters and wives, the more damaging titles, potentially, are those with girl in them. Station Eleven author Emily St. John Mandel, in her blog post for Motto, notes that 65% of the time, the girl in the title is actually a woman. In books written by men, the titular girls ended up dead three times more often than in books written by women. The more surprising statistic is that women themselves were responsible for 79% of the books with the word girl in their titles.
Why do women do this to other women? Why make women more vulnerable, especially in a culture in which toxic masculinity is already problematic? When we have a college athlete raping an unconscious woman but only sentenced to six months in prison because the judge felt the rapist made a “stupid mistake” and had his whole life ahead of him, why steal more power from women by turning back their biological clocks to return them to girlhood?
When Hollywood elites can allegedly demand massages and oral sex from any ingenue who walks through an office door, or politicians can “date” 14-year-olds and still be given a stamp of approval from party leaders, why pretend a woman is not a person in her own right, without her own agency?
When the #MeToo movement has hit even the children’s lit world with favorite authors being shunned from international organizations, dropped by agents and publishers, and erased from bookstore shelves nationwide, why is it okay that women are not the lead in their own stories but must somehow be second to the male, who is, in actuality, not more important in the narrative?
The #MeToo movement on social media highlights why this is important to talk about. To call a female who is past puberty a girl is to disrespect her life experience, her strength, and her womanhood. To reduce a woman solely to her role as wife or daughter is to turn her into a subjugated caricature and deny her personhood. It promotes the idea that she is not an equal. If she is less than a man, she does not have the same rights to her mind and body, and can belong to someone other than herself. If she is not a person in her own right, she becomes merely an object, and a target.
The predators of the world (and the judges and others who decide that the predators are not really bad guys) already have an inordinate amount of power. Women fight against toxic masculinity every day, in ripped-from-the-headlines ways, and against garden-variety microaggressions such as catcalling and being told to smile, and everything in between.
If women could solve this problem of toxic masculinity, we already would have. But we can decide not to contribute to it. The men who consider themselves allies shouldn’t either.
Words matter. Language matters. Let’s let girls be girls. Let’s call them women when they’re grown. Let’s write about women with names of their own.
Jay Whistler has an MFA in writing for children and young adults from the Vermont College of Fine Arts and has taught college-level writing for 16 years.