“Like a Girl”: Why our Words Matter

March 2, 2015

One of the more interesting commercials during this year’s Super Bowl asked both teenagers and young kids what it means to walk, throw, and fight “like a girl.” The point of the commercial is to suggest that something happens between childhood and adolescence that affects how boys and girls understand gender. When told to act “like a girl” the teenagers fell into gender stereotypes, while the younger girls focused on running, throwing, and fighting. So why does this matter?

Some argue that gender is closely related to biology, which means body parts and brain chemistry hard wire us for specific roles and cultural tasks. Others, however, see gender as socially constructed, believing that different communities give meaning to biological differences through language and cultural patterns that shape our understanding of gender by modeling what it means to be a man or a woman. As Christians influenced by the reformation we’re used to taking words seriously. We believe that God created (constructed?) reality by speaking—“And God said”—all things into existence. Early on in the biblical story we read about the struggle over the authority to speak words. In Genesis 11 we read about the Tower of Babel and how humans asserted the right to construct a way of life for the purpose of making “a name for ourselves.” Babel symbolizes the inward turn of sin as human beings imposed their own cultural experience as “objective reality” or the way the world should be.

In her book Counseling Women, Christie Neuger frames the issue of gender in a way that connects with the distorted culture of Babel. As a pastoral counselor she regularly hears about how words affect the way women and men experience gender. In particular, she sees how women are conditioned to interpret their own gendered identity through the lens of “male-ness”. Neuger describes how women lose their unique voice as they take on the dominant cultural view of gender that is shaped by a narrow view of male power.1 This is what the “Like a Girl” commercial communicates—how susceptible we are to a Babel like cultural narrative that works very hard to “name” us.

In Genesis chapter 12 God calls Abraham in response to the problem of Babel. God tells Abraham, “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great.”2 God’s response to the oppressive culture of Babel was to claim a person and then a people through whom God would reveal God’s will for the world. God promises to make Abraham’s name great; Abraham’s identity is given to him, not by human effort or cultural categories, but by God’s grace. In his letter to the Galatians Paul challenges the ancient cultural categories that determined a person’s identity and his or her place in the social hierarchy. He writes, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”3 Paul uses the story of Abraham to remind the Galatians that in Jesus Christ God breaks open every cultural category humans use to define each other. He reminds them that they have been given a new name and a new identity. “So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God.”4 As the Christian community we need to reclaim the power of our words to open young people to the presence of new creation in the world. We need to remind young people that the cultural categories that bombard us with messages about what it means to be male and female no longer hold power over us. Like Paul we are called to remind them of the Word God speaks in Jesus Christ, a Word that does not merely affirm the way things are, but calls us to live in the promise of new creation. This means cultivating a way of speaking about gender that celebrates and affirms the beautiful mystery of being made in the image of God, male and female, as brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ. This means helping young women and men discover their own unique voice in the face of oppressive cultural stereotypes. This means taking our words seriously.

About the Author
  • Jason Lief is a Professor of Biblical and Theological Studies at Northwestern College in Orange City, IA.

  1. Neuger discusses a five step process to help explain how women lose their unique voice:
    Humiliation – The demeaning and devaluing of female identity
    Inculcation – Teaching the cultural rules about what it means to be female
    Retribution – Punishment for breaking the cultural rules about what it means to be female
    Conversion – Believing that what is taught about being female is true and natural
    Conscription – Women persuading and converting other women into the patriarchal paradigm 

  2. Genesis 12:2 

  3. Galatians 3:28 

  4. Galatians 4:7 

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  1. Prof. Lief here seems to make, if I’m not mistaken, what has become a common error in interpreting Galatians 3:28, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Also, I don’t see the word “longer” in the verse, but we’ll leave that as it is for now.) First, nowhere does the verse say nor imply that “in Jesus Christ God breaks open every cultural category humans use to define each other.” Certainly, God does break down false cultural categories in the Bible, but this verse only speaks of one category that breaks down, as I hope to explain in a moment. Second, his translation of Gal. 4:7, “So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God,” uses the word “child” where it appears the word “son” would be better.

    The entire context of Gal. 3-4 is speaking of covenants and inheritance. Thus, Gal. 3:28 is speaking of how in the past, in Israel, inheritance went primarily to free, Jewish males–but not in Christ, where inheritance is for all believers (including Greeks, females and slaves). We have equal inheritance, so we have equal access to God. It seems Paul reinforces the statement of equal inheritance by saying not merely that we are all “children” of God, but that we are all “sons”–that is, we have all taken on the identity of those who receive an inheritance. We have done this because we are clothed with Christ (3:27), the Son and Heir, and thus we become sons and heirs.

    As for the matter of breaking down cultural categories, people may be tempted to take this verse into other realms outside its context and to say that, for example, there is no longer any headship-authority of a man in marriage toward his wife, or to say that maleness is not a requirement for church office. However, the context of this verse does not offer any such justification. (I also believe both conclusions are mistaken, and I am concerned about how readily people carry this verse outside of its context.) Gal 3:28 speaks of equal inheritance, and equal inheritance does not imply that all social differences disappear. For example, there are genuine differences between boys and girls, and we should not pretend there are not.

    So I do not believe that Gal. 3 and 4 support your argument. But your overall point is a good one–God made man (God uses the male term inclusively, Gal. 5:2) male and female, both in his image. We should not demean girls as girls or boys as boys, because God has made them both as they are. We should not insist on specific gender roles/activities in realms where these are not justified, and we should not discourage anyone from pursuing a joyful life before God in a capacity he has gifted them for if he has given them the liberty to pursue it.

    1. All true but keep in mind that “maleness” in the biblical context, especially in the early church and Israel, would mean married men who have produced children. Should we follow this rigidly forever?

      “We should not insist on specific gender roles/activities in realms where these are not justified” is what every culture agrees with and then defines “not justified” differently.

      1. What is your evidence that “maleness” in the Bible would refer to married men who have produced children? When the Bible says God made man “male and female” (quoted in the New Testament as well), there appears to have been no implication of the male being the father of children already.

        As to “not justified,” you are correct. Different cultures dictate different roles for boys and girls, and no doubt many of those distinctions are not biblically justified. Boys and girls should act differently–because they are growing into men and women, who should act differently–but they should not necessarily act in the way every culture dictates. I do not think Prof. Lief has provided much rationale to say why particular patterns are wrong, and he hasn’t really given any guidance on how male and female differences should be appreciated in the actions of boys and girls.

    2. Sorry, I see I included an incorrect reference. “Gal. 5:2” should have been “Genesis 5:2,” where God uses the term for the man inclusively.