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029 - Who run the web? Girls
How girlification took over the internet
A new, digitally-native antihero has emerged, one that occupies the ever-growing webiverse between Love of Huns, coquette, bimbocore and ‘girl dinners’. That is, of course, the ‘girl’. Online, girls aren’t just young women, but whoever identifies with the messy reality of having feminine qualities in a masculine world (read: everyone). It’s as pretty as it is gross, equal parts self-care and self-sabotage.
But why is the girlification of culture happening now? What does it mean for society? And brands? And the rest of us? Luckily MØRNING’s very own Ari has brought her brilliance to your burning questions…
I used to think of girlhood as pink, periods and pining over pretty boys with all looks and no substance. But girls and girliness have expanded in meaning, and the experts would agree too. If you’ve ever been on the internet (and god knows you have, you’re on our Substack) you’ll have noticed a rise in reports on the girlification of the web. Alex Quicho, researcher and Associate Lecturer at CSM, wrote for Wired about her research into the technologies of ‘girlification’, defining 3 categories of girlhood - symbolic, consumer and inhuman - while Merryana Salem and Mina Le have discussed the girlification of trends. Salem believes ‘represents the inverse of the cringe millennial catchphrase ‘adulting’’, whilst Le’s channel has gained popularity for exploring endless accounts of girl culture, including bimbos and hyperfemininty, girlbloggers and girly aesthetics. Since when is an Elf Bar and congealed pizza ‘girl dinner’ and not a symptom of the cozzie livs? Why is my water now a girl-drink? And why is my trululu delulu menty-b a girl problem?
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Our fascination with femininity is not new. From Audrey Hepburn and Britney to Alexa Chung and Iris Law, we’ve always looked to It Girls to act as beacon of light and inspiration. The feminisation of culture, therefore, is not unique, but social media is now mature enough for us to carve out these truths.
We derive immense comfort in nostalgia, so there’s no surprise why women are using the term girl as a way to cope with the perils of adulthood, especially at an age where inflation, baby botox and drunken mistakes become all-too real. Girls have built shrines to their existence before, but it’s the Internet that has made this phenomena all the more real. In the 90’s, ‘tween’ was dubbed to describe a new generation of spotty-faced consumers, then and in came Girl Power, a cultural zeitgeist spearheaded by a group of 5 archetypal women in platforms and spandex. In the 2000s, in stormed Tammy at BHS, Mizz and Groovy Chicks. The girls who grew up on a diet of pastel and premature dating advice later built digital shrines to the equally rebellious Lana Del Rey and Effie Stonem or even saw themselves in the GirlBoss and Rookie Generation.
The recipe for this contemporary phenomenon is simple; mix together a global pandemic that steals 2 years of people’s youth and forces them to confront their identity, with fast-paced social media apps like TikTok, which turbo-charge trends. The outcome: everyone goes on a hot-girl walk, gnaws at their girl dinner, self-identifies as a coquette, blokette, bimbo, clean girl, e-girl… a little birdie told me even onion girl is a thing now. I don’t know if she’s pungent or has layers of personality, but the sepia-tinted images tell me she loves the outdoors and dresses like a supermodel-come-lumberjack.
It’s not all ribbons and vegetables though; there’s a less innocent side that radically accepts - and borderline fetishes - the mental health challenges and troubling realities of being a ‘girl’. Shera Sparkle is educating the masses on hypergamy and princess treatment (*sprinkle sprinkle*) and a camp of machevellian female self-help gurus and down-right delusional meme pages (see @bimbofairy or @notthirsttraps for more) are colonising the algorithm. As TikTokker Carla Bezanson puts it; ‘If a friend calls you unstable, it’s a bit mean, but if they send you a meme or video that says the same it’s like “Oh my gosh they were thinking of me”’.
So what does ‘girl’ actually mean in this context? The concept of ‘girlhood’ isn’t just limited to young women. Our editor (and fellow lassie) Letty thinks ‘the reason the girl scene appeals to so many internet users is it embraces all the contradictory parts of being femme-leaning and being human - all the hotness and the grossness. It’s a subversive alternative to the narrow and non-inclusive traditional ideas of womanhood’. I also chatted to fellow babe Nathalie Gabrielsson, who likes to think of it as a gender-neutral term bestowing a ‘rose-tinted filter on our saddest, silliest and most delusional realities’. A girl is more than a person, it sits somewhere between a culture, an archetype, a lifestyle and a state of mind; a blush glaze to romanticise our fucked-up reality.
In a world where girlhood has been democratised, not only does it provide a sense of community to young women themselves, but people all over the gender binary. The internet has always been a playground for playing with our identities, so much so that our digital selves can mesh with our physical selves. Subcultures too have never been afraid of subverting gender - just look at Dandies, New Romantics, Drag Queens and even pop-culture legends like David Bowie and Freddie Mercury. And it’s not just the queer community that is using girl trends to tap into their vulnerable sides, even the most bearded and hardy of men can be babygirls - think Kendall Roy, Pedro Pascal and your best mate’s dad. It’s a method of survival, and girlhood is our defense against the batshit insanity of the modern world. Anyone who chooses to (or is deemed to) identify with this movement is attempting to (or being praised for) rebelling against the status quo.
It’s not all love and light, though. ‘Under girlification, we’re vulnerable to brands’, continues Letty. ‘By embracing our vulnerabilities, we’re also exposing them to corporations who might want to take advantage of them for profit’. Like many other fads, brands are too quick to sink their razor-sharp claws into this ‘trend’ and commodify the concept, all packaged up in a box with a ribbon on top and sprinkle of insincerity. I squirmed at BBC’s feature of the legendary Tube Girl - we know the media giant and the Tiktokker are both national treasures but let’s leave them apart…pretty please? Even Adidas’ release of lace-trimmed shorts makes my skin crawl, a rushed response to blokette-core under capitalism.
The brands who do it right, however, know their audience because they often ARE the audience. Think brands like Sandy Liang, Simone Rocha and even Lana Del Rey *ironically purchases pill case and pearl necklace*, who know that girlishness is frivolous, indulgent, layered and sometimes slightly chaotic. It’s no coincidence that Gen Z have been addicted to rewatching the mad and totally imperfect girls of Girls. Even Greta’s Barbie which, yes, wasn’t as progressive as some would have liked, succeeded by submitting to anarchic messaging and gold-star satire wrapped up in a pepto-bismol paradise, making it a box office hit. As Rocha herself explains, ‘theres the connotations of what people think are feminine… then there’s what’s beneath; the blood, the trauma, the guts, the practicality’. It’s that reality of being human that makes a girl a girl.
With all that said, brands, if you learn one thing from this: The girls that get it, get it, and the girls that don’t, don’t. MØRNING’s advice?
It’s the girl owned independent brands who speak to their own slice of the girl paradox that come out on top. Think accessible fetishwear from R M Leathers, or meme-coded sass from OG BFF, or rebellious spins on traditional girliness from Chopova Lowena. It’s the brands that know what girls want because they want it themselves that are able to speak with the right level of nuance.
You can you save your brand from public embarrassment by opting out of that tactic. I.e. don’t do a Popeye. And if you must get involved, at least take the risk of fully committing to the bit (a la Victoria Secret x Michaela Stark) knowing that it might not pay off… better a failure than a fake
Instead, use the girlification of the web to understand your consumer better: to bring your products and storytelling further in line with our even looser definitions of gender. To speak to consumer’s increasing desire to embrace imperfection. To become versed in the cynical silliness that’s defining a sense of humour for a vast swathe of consumers today.
What do you think about the girlification of the web? And which girl brands have we missed? Let us know in the comments or over on IG.
Til next time!
Words: Arianne Obi
Editor: Letty Cole