When I think of Paul Hollywood, TV’s floury-haired fox and staunch upholder of a strong crumb, I think of a man who only ever seems to be one pint of bitter away from turning into your dad hitting the dancefloor at the end of a very long wedding. The Bake Off judge has been all over the tabloids this week – happily, not for wearing a Nazi uniform as fancy dress this time (it was an ’Allo ’Allo!-themed night and he’s sorry, OK) – but it was one particular answer in one particular interview that raised the bristles on my broad, lefty, feminista chest. You’ll remember that when the Bake Off moved to Channel 4, Hollywood was the only original host to stay with the programme, and for a while, he says, this made him the most hated man in the country. In his defence, he told the Radio Times this week: “I stayed with Bake Off. The girls abandoned it. But I was the one put under siege.”
The girls! The girls. Sue Perkins is 48 and Mel Giedroyc is 49. Mary Berry is 82 years old. Instinctively, the word made me wince. Of course it did! Naturally, as a feminist, I hate nice things, and fun. But there was something about this particular utterance of “girls” that stuck in my throat like an overdone sponge. Given that it seemed to carry some criticism of his former colleagues – “abandoned” is hardly a neutral word – it felt loaded. It sounded patronising and possessive. Sadly, I know far less about the inner workings of The Great British Bake Off than I would like to, so it’s possible that the show’s former stars quite enjoyed being called “the girls”, with its connotations of a giggling gang of teenagers, merrily holding hands and skipping through clouds of icing sugar. I know plenty of women of all ages who are perfectly happy to be referred to as girls, and I know plenty of women who would take it as a compliment, and a sign that the night cream is doing what it was sold to do.
But it made me think of the countless times I’ve been called a “girl” or one of the “girls” by an older man – and it usually is an older man – and the point in my life at which it started to bother me. For a long time, I didn’t mind at all, but around the age of 30, it started to become a mild irritant. It is about age and context as much as it is about gender – to be called a “girl” in a work situation feels infantilising to me, because it’s a sign of an assumed imbalance of power. It makes me feel as if I’m not on an equal footing. Curiously, I still don’t have a problem with “ladies”, which for many falls under the same gendered bracket as “girls”, but I think that’s because it doesn’t assume youth and inexperience. It also makes me imagine a suave lounge singer, crooning out their greatest hits, so I’m happy to be the audience for it.
This “girls” conundrum came up again this week at the Girls’ School Association’s annual conference in Manchester, which must have made any branding for the event tricky. The former children’s mental health tsar Natasha Devon said she would not refer to pupils as “girls or ladies” because it is “patronising”. She suggested that gendered terms are not useful, and that boys, as much as girls, are constrained by them. There have been some objections to this, and people have howled that it is the snowflake PC brigade getting their gender-neutral underwear in a twist for no good reason.
But those upset by her ideas might be interested in seeking out a fascinating documentary that was on BBC Two in August, called No More Boys and Girls: Can Our Kids Go Gender Free? It explored the idea that pupils were treated differently depending on their gender, often unthinkingly. One male primary school teacher called the girls “love” and “darling” and the boys “fella” and “mate”. It concluded, fairly convincingly, that it provides a better start for everyone if the language used for girls doesn’t imply that they are cute and small and sweet, and the language used for boys doesn’t suggest that they are strong and macho and stoic.
Crucially, of course, it’s all about context. Any debate around language will never succeed in black-and-white terms because it will always depend on the who, what, when, where and why. Recently, a man walked past me in the street and made himself jump with a loud noise, a noise he had produced from his own body. “Sorry, princess,” he said, immediately, and as we passed, both startled, I heard him shout to his friend: “I just popped one off in front of that girl.” In that instance, I did not mind being called “girl” or even “princess”, not one little bit, because he wasn’t patronising me, and he wasn’t trying to put me in my place – he was apologising to me for accidentally farting in my vicinity, and in that brief, passing moment, I felt like a princess. It was the funniest thing that happened to me all week.
Credit: The Guardian