The phrase “like a girl” is often added to a verb, such as “run like a girl” or “hit like a girl,” to denote a feminine, ineffectual act, usually due to physical weakness. Recently, a video has been making the rounds (already past 40 million views on YouTube) that challenges these phrases as insulting and sexist.
In the video, a director instructs performers (male and female) to carry out actions “like a girl,” including running, throwing, and fighting. All emote in a stereotypically feminine manner, running with knees together, fighting with low-powered slaps, and throwing from the elbow.
The performers are then challenged on why girls do things this way, but there is no real answer. The “kicker” comes when a series of young (around ten years old) girls are given the same instructions and perform to their full ability, with no sissy wimpiness in sight.
The message? Girls’ self-esteem “plummets” during puberty, allegedly in part due to this kind of “like a girl” sexist language that undermines their sense of self-worth and ability.
However, gender roles are much more complex than that. Is saying “like a girl” sexist? By definition, yes, since the phrase distinguishes between boys and girls. Does it harm girls’ self-esteem? If they want to be an athlete or enter a similarly physical career, then it likely would. However, you could just as easily say “like a girl” is a form of hazing, a phrase thrown at a female athlete to push her to do better, to overcome the (scientifically factual) physical handicap she has compared with boys.
But that is still too simplistic. “Like a girl” isn’t just a recognition of females’ lesser physical ability, it is part of a cultural mythos surrounding women and girls, part of their ingrained mystique just as much as cultural obsession with female beauty, sexuality, and nurturing. All have some basis in biology and human mating practices, but they aren’t all sexist constructs of the patriarchy used to oppress women. In fact, most aspects of their “mystique” are a net-benefit to women, and as such have been cultivated for countless generations by women.
That includes “like a girl.” To illustrate, we’ll look at some common examples of the phrase and the cultural mindset it reflects.
Run Like a Girl
Running is a basic survival tactic, either to catch prey or to save yourself from becoming prey. As human society has advanced, roads, domesticated animals, and now vehicles have hugely reduced the need for individuals to self-propel through their lives. However, running is key to many sports and is used as a common metric for measuring a person’s fitness and stamina, and in extreme cases (marathons) pain tolerance and dedication.
Even today, running well is a sign of fitness for survival, if only symbolically. For the most part, however, now or in the past, running is an individual activity; unlike more complex skills, it is more an indicator of your own survival than your ability to enhance the survival of the community.
Throughout history, it has been women who relied most on the community for their needs, rather than on themselves. Mate, family, and neighbors have historically been much more inclined to lend aid to a woman than to a man, giving women a more robust safety net.
In light of that, why should a woman bother to become a good runner? Remember, running represents an individual’s overall physical prowess and hardiness/survivability. If there’s always someone to help, why do it yourself? It’s not that women are lazy, but they can afford to run like girls because boys do the hard running (work).
If girls internalize this “run like a girl” rhetoric in puberty (as the video suggests), it’s because they have realized they don’t need to perform at their best physically. If that hurts their self-esteem, then they are just struggling with gender roles, which are not inherently misandristic or misogynistic.
Hit, Fight, Throw Like a Girl
Similarly, hitting, fighting, and throwing are all physical activities that have their roots in hunting skills. Hunting skills gave way to farm field skills, then to factory skills, and now to office skills. All these physical labors are the purview of men, so women know they don’t need to learn these skills. If they intentionally neglect these abilities, is it not fair to call them on that decision, just as men can be criticized for their life choices?
On a personal level, hitting, fighting, and throwing are also basics of self-defense, of repelling an attacker from your person. Going back to that communal safety net, we see that women have rarely in history been made responsible for their own defense. Husbands defending the home, predominantly male police officers, nearly totally male soldiers; men are bred and raised to defend women, even at the cost of their own lives.
Women know this, so not only have they historically not learned to fight, they have actively cultivated the image of a “girly fight.” As seen in the video, “hitting like a girl” is not likely to repel anything much larger than a squirrel. That petite arm-waving is, however, like catnip to white knights, chivalrous men who will gladly come to the aid of a flailing damsel.
If women fought to the whole of their ability, they would lose much of the protection from men they now (and have always) enjoy. If a cunning woman is told by a man that she “hits like a girl,” her mental response might be Yes, I do, so you’ll have to fix the problem for me.
Scream Like a Girl
Lastly is the widely recognized “scream like a girl.” Whether the horrifying wail of a 1930s starlet snatched by mobster or giant ape, or the comic, girlish squealing of a grown man in modern Hollywood, the distinctive way females scream is instantly recognizable and tends to invoke a strong response.
Let’s look at that second example: a man screaming like a girl. Why is this funny? Because he is showing weakness, which goes against his culturally mandated role of invulnerable protector, so it is humiliating for him, so it is funny.
But why is a female scream “weak”? Not just because it has a higher pitch; a man reciting poetry after inhaling helium is always worth a laugh, but a man’s feminine scream holds a special place in our collective funny bone.
The reason is due to the difference in gender expectations of fear. A man screaming like a girl isn’t funny because he is screaming like a girl but because he is screaming at nothing. That’s what a girlish scream is, an outcry of distress at an apparently minor threat. Women can and do of course scream more seriously; hence the use of female victims in horror movies to provoke a more visceral response from the audience. That is a real “oh my god I’m going to die” scream.
The difference is that that is the only way a man is supposed to scream. If a “man”—you know, a good, chivalrous, gentlemanly manly man—screams, we “know” (due to cultural indoctrination) that he is scared shitless by a real and tangible threat to himself or his loved ones.
Boys are taught from a young age to be tough and courageous. Girls, however, have much lower expectations on them and so tend to scream at more minor threats (bugs instead of snakes). A scream is basically a distress call, a cry for assistance from others because you know you can’t handle the situation.
God helps those who help themselves, but women aren’t relying on God. They have men. Girls are allowed to scream at every little thing because they will get the help they need. Boys are taught to not be sissies.
“Screaming like a girl” doesn’t mean screaming like a girl, but screaming “like someone who isn’t in control of their situation and is relying on others for protection“; not how men are expected to act. It’s like letting women dial 911, but making men dial 911-345-7920-01945-0156 for the same service. And no speed-dial, punks. If a man then dials just plain old 911, we’re going to think less of him for trying to collect female-reserved assistance, and when women dial 911 willy-nilly, it’ll get the response wanted but won’t be as “respected.” Which is a silly complaint anyway, since women get more help faster from more people, all the way back to crying girl infants being comforted more quickly than crying boy infants.
Women scream like girls because they know someone will answer even their most minor distress (since we know they can’t run or fight). Men have to deal with their own shit.
The myriad “like a girl” phrases aren’t an attack on female ability but a reflection of social norms and gender roles. For thousands of years, women have worked on their own behalf to cultivate their place in society, and that has included constant reinforcement to their mystique of nurturing fragility.
It is self-infantilization, and over the millennia it seems to have proven both successful and profitable. Women have built a facade of victim damsel, preying on male goodwill. If they don’t want to wear the mask they made any longer, they’ll have to start actually fighting their own battles. Men are shamed with accusations of girlish behavior because girls are still held to lower (easier) standards than boys. Telling girls they can do as much as boys won’t boost their self-esteem until they’re also told they must do as much as boys.
Self-esteem means self-respect, and respect has to be earned. Girls will stop being considered weak when they stop feigning weakness and when we start accepting biological differences and just let people be people.