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Reflections on girlhood
A rejection of womanhood?
When I think about girlhood, it evokes feelings of femininity and freedom. There’s something about the word that feels quite lovely, despite its complexities.
“If the absence of a spouse or child is the condition of being a girl, then it’s hardly surprising that so many modern women are referring to themselves as such. More of us are free from the assumption that traditional womanhood is something worth aspiring to. “Woman dinner” is sad; the phrase evokes an image of a tired lady, having already fed her spouse and children, eating the last scraps of whatever was left over before shoving the plates in the dishwasher. Nobody wants to eat “woman dinner.” “Girl dinner” is, crucially, fun.” — Rebecca Jennings, Vox
Building off Jennings’s thoughts, I think we could go as far as to say that the growing tendency to embrace girlhood (and girl trends online) could actually be our collective rejection of traditional womanhood. Biological age is irrelevant when it comes to ‘girl’ activities, like eating a snack for dinner, embracing Barbie-core, or making friendship bracelets for the Eras tour. While rebranding walks to “hot girl walks” and summers to “feral girl summers” can come off as juvenile to some, perhaps it’s more of an expression of freedom. On the flip side, I especially enjoyed Kate Lindsay’s take on this trend in her essay, ‘Are the girls okay?’:
“Sometime earlier this year, ‘girls’ took a nosedive. They started listening to sad girl music while having a ‘feral girl summer.’ They began ‘girlrotting’ in their beds…[this] is clearly a reaction to the unrealistic aesthetics of girlhood that proliferated online in the early 2020s, and a way to excuse ourselves from inhabiting gender roles. I also wonder if it’s a response to society's regression over the past few years—the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade, Twitter paying accused human trafficker Andrew Tate, etc. If men are going to be trash, then girls are going to be disgusting.”
I question why men don’t refer to ‘boyhood’ with similar fervor. It’s probably because society allows men to continue their independence (and sometimes, childlike behavior) despite who they attach themselves to (wives, children, etc). Why create internet trends to reclaim your boyhood when that freedom never went away?
The memification of girlhood got me thinking about other ways we use the word ‘girl’ in place of womanhood. ‘Girl power’ comes to mind, a term that obviously counters the default, masculine connotations of the word ‘power’. The term itself was popularized by the punk songs of the Riot Grrrl movement in the 1990s (created as a rejection of the male-dominated punk landscape). ‘Girl power’ was then adopted by The Spice Girls, which cemented its place in mainstream pop culture where it evolved into a more political slogan. Jennings wrote that defining a woman’s power as ‘girl power’ feels more fun, and perhaps more rebellious. Personally, it reminds me of how completely carefree I felt as a girl before the inevitable insecurities crept in.
Unsurprisingly, capitalism also impacted our perception of girlhood. Back in the 1950s, advertisers began marketing to baby boomer girls as a distinct group with their own unique needs and interests. But despite girls’ growing consumer power and influence on pop culture, girlhood was still rarely taken as seriously as boyhood. Commercials, magazines, music and movies often depicted boyhood as a period of adventure, rebellion, and independence, whereas girlhood was a state of frivolity, dependence, and unimportance.
This summer, Beyonce, Barbie and Taylor Swift demonstrated the opposite—there is so much money to be made from unmoored millennial women living in a girlhood state of mind. Girlhood is escapism from the realities of being a modern adult woman, and fan girls epitomize that mindset. They demonstrate that girlhood can define culture and command literal economic power, and yet they are still not taken as seriously as their male counterpart (sports fans). As Kaitlyn Tiffany expertly put it—“a fangirl still exists in contradiction to the dominant culture. She’s not considered normal or sane; her refusal to accept things the way they are is one of her defining characteristics.”
Crucially to this whole conversation, the commodification of ‘girlhood’ is only okay if the girlies themselves are doing it. It feels like a coded language in that way. In Robin Wasserman’s “What Does It Mean When We Call Women Girls?” article from 2016, this quote summarizes my perspective:
“If there is a thematic message encoded in the ‘girl’ narratives, I think this is its key: the transition from girlhood to womanhood, from being someone to being someone’s wife, someone’s mother. Girl attunes us to what might be gained and lost in the transformation, and raises a possibility of reversion. To be called ‘just a girl’ may be diminishment, but to call yourself ‘still a girl,’ can be empowerment, laying claim to the unencumbered liberties of youth. As Gloria Steinem likes to remind us, women lose power as they age. The persistence of girlhood can be a battle cry.” — Robin Wasserman
Despite running the risk of further ‘othering’ women through girl activities, as an almost 30-year-old woman, ‘girlhood’ certainly feels like an embrace of femininity, rather than the infantilization of myself. To me, girlhood conjures the idea of crafting my own path without interference from the patriarchal standards placed on womanhood. It does feel like a rejection of things I’m told I am supposed to want on the cusp of my thirties. It feels like only women could blend a political statement with a sense of silliness, play, and autonomy. To that end—what does ‘girlhood’ mean to you?
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