It’s probably one of the first things that anyone who converts to feminism realizes, and so it may be somewhat trivial, but the word “girls” used to designate grown women is pretty infantilizing. Adult females are women, not girls or chicks (newly hatched birds), and they should be called women.
That much is obvious, but there’s a lot more behind these words. There is a whole ideology of infantilization, and this is only the most visible manifestation of it. It is also one of the least significant, especially since these words have changed in meaning over time, like all words do. The words are symbols emergent from a disease, not the disease.
The infantilization of women takes many forms, from BDSM and DD/lg to mansplaining, the association of women with frivolous pursuits like shopping and shoes while serious things are associated with men, the belief in women as emotional and pre-rational beings, and so on. I have commented about most of these issues on this blog, so I will not repeat myself here.
Infantilization doesn’t just mean equating women with children. As I’ve discussed on the issue of childism, children are associated with wildness, and the need to be tamed and pacified so they can fit within society. Likewise, women have been associated with wildness, although in their case wildness means sexual depravity. So we get things like “girls gone wild,” and the association of “savages” with being oversexed and animalistic.
Some women have reappropriated this and have associated wildness with courage, adventure, and independence in general. But liberal feminists still associate women with being oversexed, by calling all women sluts and whores through the use of the terms “slut-shaming” and “whore-shaming.” Men, of course, also love to link women to oversexed terms, even women who refuse to have sex with them.
But infantilization is not strictly a gender thing. Think of Catholic priests, “fathers,” calling everyone “my child.” God being the “father” of all mankind, and humans as “his” property to dispose of as “he” wills, with violence if “he” finds it necessary. Citizens being the sons and daughters of the motherland/fatherland. People seeing pets as their children. The infantilization of people of color, especially indigenous populations. The paternalistic State. “Childish” being used as an insult: to be like a child is to be “immature,” that is to say, to not conform to social norms, to be disobedient, to remain “wild,” to not be serious or responsible. And while, clearly, not all abusive personal or social relationships are infantilizing, most abusive relationships have some elements of infantilization (e.g. “I really know better than you, so just do what I say”).
You don’t really hear anyone talking about any of these things as childist phenomena, or even as specific phenomena worthy of note (except for the infantilization of people of color, which has been analyzed in The Culture of Conformism, by Patrick Hogan, and probably others places I don’t know about). Childism is the very first hierarchy we experience, albeit not completely consciously, and a case can be made that that experience is where we derive our hierarchical dynamics, with the metaphorical father as the strict dispenser of “discipline” and punishments.
I think childism fits well with other hierarchies because there is no doubt in everyone’s mind that children are actually biologically and mentally inferior. Therefore, treating women or POC like children reinforces the belief that women and POC are biologically or mentally inferior, even to people who may not hold this belief consciously. Likewise, being treated like a child by a superior, whether explicitly or implicitly, is likely to make you feel inferior, incompetent, or irresponsible. And there’s the added bonus that, because we are so unconcerned by childism, infantilization most often passes under the radar. Being treated paternalistically may make you feel frustrated or want to escape the situation, but you’re not likely to jump from there to the concept of infantilization or childism.