While 'girls will be girls’ is seemingly void of meaning, ‘boys will be boys’ is widely understood, and widely detrimental.Wikimedia Commons

If boys will be boys, what becomes of girls? The short answer: it does not matter. A longer answer: it does not matter to a society which at every turn privileges one sex over another.

It cannot be denied that the all-too-widespread idiom ‘boys will be boys’ conjures various associations — be it carelessness, stubbornness, aggression or dominance. While ostensibly these may seem to be offensive attributes, demeaning towards men, beneath the surface lurk more serious issues. Indeed, the Cambridge Dictionary explains that the idiom “emphasise[s] that people should not be surprised when boys or men act in a rough or noisy way because this is part of the male character.” Essentially, the phrase becomes a metaphorical ‘Get Out of Jail Free Card’; it is used to justify rough, oppressive — even criminal — behaviour.

Beyond justifying such behaviour, the phrase perpetuates criminality. In response to the then presidential candidate Donald Trump’s comment that women are to be “grabbed […] by the pussy”, his wife, Melania, justified his behaviour by insisting that his remarks are to be dismissed as “boy talk”, calling on the entrenched rhetoric of ‘boys will be boys’. Consequently, if rough acts are “part of the male character”, to oppose them would be going against the natural order of things. However, the problem with this is that this natural order is far from natural, instead being heavily (if not entirely) socially constructed. In this way, ‘boys will be boys’ transforms itself from a metaphorical ‘Get out of Jail Free Card’ to an actual one, as presidential candidates who incite sexual assault become presidents, and criminals are not held accountable.

Additionally, it is worth mentioning that ‘boys will be boys’ is derived from the Latin proverb: ‘sunt pueri pueri, pueri puerilia tractant’, translating to ‘(Male) children are children, and children do childish things.’ While it may not be surprising, that in the Latin language the children are specified to be male, it should be more shocking that this idiom continues to endure, as civilisation has no doubt moved on from the days of using blood as medicine, or imposing an identity onto women that is inseparable from that of her father or husband – or so one would have been led to believe.

In contrast to the all-too-widespread idiom ‘boys will be boys’, a sombre silence accompanies the phrase ‘girls will be girls’. Regardless of the purportedly offensive attributes in association with ‘boys will be boys’, there is little to be more offended by than not being attributed anything at all — after all, who knows what ‘girls will be girls’ means? To this effect, the main internet search result for ‘girls will be girls’ is a page dedicated to a movie which goes by the same title. The plot itself is summarised in one sentence as follows: “An ageing actress (Jack Plotnick) takes as a housemate the daughter (Jeffery Roberson) of a now-dead starlet who was once her rival for a movie role.” From the get-go there is an immediate focus on female rivalry, and the ageing woman — all portrayed through the lens of male actors; it is truly fascinating how much misogyny can shine through even in one sentence! What’s more, unlike its counterpart, ‘girls will be girls’ is not defined by the Cambridge Dictionary, and if at all mentioned, other dictionaries describe it as ‘derived from boys will be boys’. Herein lies the real problem. Though we would like to believe that civilisation has moved on from the Roman days when women lacked an identity of their own, even in the modern day women’s identity continues to be shadowed and encroached upon by men.

Assuming that girls and boys are so drastically different to the point where ‘boys will be boys’ warrants its own phrase, it follows that ‘girls will be girls’ takes on the opposite (purportedly negative connotations) of the aforementioned phrase. Perhaps the opposite of carelessness, stubbornness, aggression, and dominance would be something along the lines of caution, compliance, passivity, and submission. I will let you decide which attributes are more negative. Taking this further, these attributes can be ordered into two categories: oppressor and oppressed. If men are the oppressors, it follows that women are the oppressed, reinforced by the very fact that they do not have qualitative attributes in themselves.

Crucially, the silence which accompanies ‘girls will be girls’ does not point to a lack of meaning; instead, the pervasive silence becomes its meaning, conveying the way in which women are backed into silence, and expected to be be blank canvases, passively waiting to be transformed by the male artist. Further to this, while men are ubiquitously equated to mankind or humanity as a whole, women are equated to women, as the very notion of equating men to humanity, depersonifies women, forcing them to exist in a category of their own, which is categorically sub-human — or equally, sub-man. In this way, the phrase points to the duality of society’s sexism: not only branding women in relation to men, and thereby depriving them of an autonomous identity, but doing it with such subtlety that it is hardly detectable. What’s more, society’s sexism is cunningly self-perpetuating; the very act of pre-determining women’s relational identity both hinders them from actively forging their own path as well as making any attempt at speaking out all the more challenging, having been relegated to silence.

How do we rectify this? Though Wittgenstein suggests that “the meaning of a word is its use in language”, it is not enough to (re)instate the words ‘girl’ and ‘woman’ with their own authoritative associations. While reclaiming language is necessary, it is by no means sufficient. For as long as boys are ‘dominant’, it will be challenging (dare I say impossible) for girls to be anything other than ‘dominated’. Following this, it is necessary to deconstruct the vastly outdated male-female binary. This is not only the case as a dichotomous perception of gendered identity erases a broad spectrum of gender, but also because it breeds oppression, as a dichotomy is, by definition, oppositional. That is to say that as long as boys will be boys, girls will only ever be girls, not people.


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How exactly we go about deconstructing deeply entrenched aspects of civilisation goes beyond the scope of this article. Yet, if “language shapes our perception of reality”, as Whorf argues, it becomes apparent that a necessary step is reflecting on the correlation between what we say and what we want it to mean versus what it comes to mean. Indeed, it seems ironic that in an age of individualism people continue to be confined to the antiquated commonalities that are rather more prescriptive than descriptive. Looking to the future, perhaps the oppressive silence which accompanies ‘girls will be girls’ can come to represent a glimmer of hope. Instead of being a blank canvas awaiting to be transformed by the male artist, the nothingness of the phrase can come to embody a Lockean tabula rasa, enabling the protagonist to create her own, singular identity.

Therefore, in answer as to what ‘girls will be girls’ should come to mean, my short answer remains that it does not matter. My longer answer, however, is that any attempt of prescribing meaning onto what should be a blank slate would be reverting to the oppressive silence of the phrase. Tedious as it may seem, the only things that girls will be is people.