Language needs a few new relationship words. Particularly boyfriend.

I’ll allow the issue of boy having a troubled history to speak for itself. Except to add that Black jazz musicians in the 40s began calling each other man because of the Jim Crow practice of referring to them as boys. This then is the root of the all-encompassing pronoun-slash-exclamation man used by most musicians, then bleeding into beatniks and out to many other bonded male groups: athletes, actors, (poets?).

But also, while women don’t mind (even, in my case, prefer) to be called girls, men don’t usually refer to themselves, individually, as boys. As in I’m a boy who likes ___. Yes, there’s the old standard one of the boys. Or boys’ night out. Or even my boys (although that could mean the male anatomy that comes in a pair, but I’ve never heard a woman refer to her breasts or ovaries as “my girls.”)

A few years ago an algorithmic analysis done by wired.com discovered that women seeking a relationship with a male at the two analyzed online dating sites received 16% more contacts if they referred to themselves as a girl instead of a woman. But men seeking a female relationship were 28% more likely to get “hits” on their post if they referred to females as women as opposed to girls.

There was no number-crunching for men seeking heterosexual relationships who referred to themselves as boys. I suspect gay men do not refer to themselves, nor the partners they are seeking, as boys.

There’s an intellectual argument made for why women should reject being called girls. I don’t know why I prefer girl to woman. It doesn’t, I don’t think, have to do with age. I don’t dress like my college students, but I think I also don’t dress like a woman.

Those words like a woman reverberated in the air for a few minutes, sending me here:


She takes just like a woman,
She makes love just like a woman,
And she aches just like a woman
But she breaks just like a little girl.


Bob Dylan’s critics over the years debated whether he was being misogynistic in “Just Like a Woman.” The New York Times: “there’s no more complete catalogue of sexist slurs,” and “defines women’s natural traits as greed, hypocrisy, whining and hysteria.” Allmusic: “There is nothing in the text to suggest that Dylan has a disrespect for, much less an irrational hatred of, women in general.” Admittedly, the first quote from a woman (Marion Mead) the second by a man (Bill Janovitz).

Yet the misogyny never occurred to me. I always both wanted to be the person Dylan was singing about, and knew I was at best only half of her. The takes part I assumed was related to the makes love part, assuming both had to do with intercourse, because I was first listening to the song as a skittish virgin, and then as a recently not-virgin-any-longer but one for whom sex was difficult; the next line, aches, was my experience with sex (although ache too soft a word for my pain). I did not take nor make love like any woman I’d ever read about or seen on a screen, but it did hurt plenty. So I recognized I broke like a little girl.

Further evidence for me that this song was about my sex life:


And your long-time curse hurts
But what’s worse
Is this pain in here
I can’t stay in here
Ain’t it clear that.
I just can’t fit
Yes, I believe it’s time for us to quit


I might add here that I thought the words to the jazz standard “The Nearness of You” were:


It’s not the pain– oooo

That excites me

That thrills and delights me, oh no …


(In case anyone wonders: “It’s not the pale moon …”)

So girl has never affronted me. I don’t have children, I don’t have a little black dress, I don’t have either heels or pumps or flats. I have some make-up I haven’t attempted to use for 15 years (I think old make-up decays. I should check). I do go to a hair stylist. Usually, at the end, when she asks if I want any stuff in my hair (hairspray, styling product, etc.) I decline. These places used to be called beauty shops. Where one, I suppose, bought beauty the way one bought meat in a meat shop.

Basically, I say I’m a girl, or I’m female. I might ask “Why are there no women writers listed here,” and yes, I’ll include myself in the absent names. The term women’s literature is one of the greatest affronts of all. Because there hasn’t been a category of men’s literature.

But personally, being a girl is okay. And as long as I can still sit on the floor cross-legged and stand up directly from that position, I’ll take it. So, girlfriend; that’s okay too, and, after all, for all female friends, does anyone say “she’s a womanfriend of mine”?

But at what age can a man still be comfortable with boyfriend? Unlike girlfriend, boyfriend never for a man means his male buddies. For gay men in their 40s and 50s, if they’re still unmarried, how do they refer to their partners? Yes, some still use partner. I like partner too. But I can also have partners in other kinds of ventures and sub-sets of life.

A man I’m seeing has come into use. When I tried it, my partner cringed. “You’re seeing me? Is that what we’re doing?” Sharing a house, a bedroom, a bed, meals, clean-up, TV shows and movies, snow-shoveling, dog-poop pick-up and lawn-mowing, grocery shopping and exercising. Everything. Plus reminiscing. But if I say he’s my man, then I’m back to contending with being his woman. That word again, but adding troublesome possessive pronouns. The aggravating aura for me is not, like for feminists in the 70s and 80s, the word man appearing in woman (so they changed the spelling to womyn). For me, maybe, it’s the implied womb in woman. And at this point my knees should be buckling at the edge of an analyst’s sofa.

Except I also loathe lady. Who doesn’t?

Dylan went from “Just like a Woman” (1966) to “Lay, Lady Lay” (1969). Given my lifelong sexual issues, I did not ever wish to be associated with the subject of the later song. Nor would it have been better Lie, Lady Lie, which is grammatically correct (considering Dylan denied that the lyrics were sexual).

Other “women” in songs I wished I could associate myself with: the “She’s Always a Woman” in Billy Joel’s 1977 flipside to “Just the Way You Are,” and I preferred to put these two messages together, that I was always that woman (or girl) just the way I was. And Joel’s “Modern Woman” in 1986. “With a long cool stare she aggravates the tension …” My boyfriend (partner) says, yes, I did. But my song was the not-yet-written “Always a poser to you.”

And here my desiring to be the girl in a song might have ended. 1986. When my now boyfriend moved 100 miles away to marry someone else, because I was already married to someone else and he said it was killing him to stand around watching me be someone else’s wife. (Wife. There’s a word that needs looking at.) It took twenty-five years, but now he’s standing around watching me be his _____.

We’ll have to discuss the word baby another time.

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CRIS MAZZA’s latest book is Charlatan: New and Selected Stories. Mazza has seventeen other titles of fiction and literary nonfiction including her last book, Something Wrong With Her, a real-time memoir; she then became co-producer, writer, and lead actress for a feature film, Anorgasmia, a fictional sequel to that memoir. She is a native of Southern California and now splits time between the exurbs of Chicago and the Ottawa National Forest in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. She can be found digitally at www.cris-mazza.com

One response to “Like a Boyfriend”

  1. Sometimes this shows itself in a girl treating her boyfriend like a husband or a boy treating his girlfriend like a wife. She justifies it in her mind thinking, Well, eventually I do want to be his wife. He justifies it in his mind thinking, I want to show her what a great husband I would be. Pretty soon, she s doing the guy s laundry on the regular and cooking all of his meals. He s picking up her mom s dry cleaning, and they ve only been dating a couple months! The problem with this is that the level of their involvement in each other s lives is exceeding their level of commitment. They may think they re going to get married, but there s no ring. Until there s a promise of a lifelong commitment, you have to treat your boyfriend like a boyfriend or your girlfriend like a girlfriend. This is how you keep yourself and the other person safe.

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