”Written byRaelee Seymour-Brown
Reaching Peak Girl and Hyper Femininity as Resistance
The girlification of our lives has finally peaked in the year of 2023; where phrases like “girl dinner”, “girl math” and “I’m just a girl” permeate our everyday speech patterns and saturate our algorithms. But who can really blame us with a year essentially dominated by Taylor Swift and Beyonce, two of the most powerful female artists of our decade selling out their world tours? Or maybe, it was the 1,68m, blonde, statuesque figure of Margot Robbie reincarnated as the societal standard of beauty that once traumatised us, coming back to let us know being pretty is not the rent we pay to exist as women that turned up the femininity dial? Either way, it is no secret that we worship our girlhood at the altar of pop culture.
We see this reflected in a flurry of bows and ribbons all over the runways of Fashion Weeks around the world this season, and with the ‘coquette’/‘soft girl’ trend blowing up on social media platforms, it seems this new era of hyper-femininity might be as empowering as it is omnipresent. At least according to the traditionally feminist camp, made up of mostly second-wave feminist ideals and concerns around intellectualism and infantilisation, apparently if women want to be respected, we still need to be viewed as intellectuals capable of having the same grown-up thoughts as men are, not just because we’re, you know, actual human beings or anything.
“Apparently if women want to be respected, we still need to be viewed as intellectuals capable of having the same grown-up thoughts as men are, not just because we’re, you know, actual human beings or anything“
You see, the issue many women have with the Girl trend is in the subtext – by slapping the prefix “girl” onto various words, women justify unhealthy eating habits, frivolous purchases, and romanticize mundane or “even harmful activities”(Billie Walker, Dazed, 2023). And therefore, by painting girlhood as fun and carefree it implicitly points to womanhood as sad and depressing: “The subtext underpinning the trend is that women can’t be lazy, unless it’s combined with a cutesy performative dig at their failed domesticity. In the case of the more problematic videos – where someone‘s ‘girl dinner’ comprises a Diet Coke and a vape – the trend seems to imply that disordered eating is a solely female issue, and that women should be preoccupied with being thin.” (Billie Walker, Dazed, 2023)
The quotation above illustrates that we are clearly not all ‘in’ on the same joke, and points to the reason so many are misunderstanding this era of ultra-girliness in the first place: none of this is supposed to be analyzed on a critical level, and the fact that we are conflating silly, fun videos women are making to be apart of a viral trending moment with that of actual disordered eating, or financial debt, or anything that causes actual harm to ourselves or others is quite literally the definition of a stretch. And not only is it a stretch, it’s also kind of the entire point of the joke; “girl dinner” is not relatable because of its poked fun at failed domesticity, but in spite of it. As we mature from girls to women in age, all of these domestic responsibilities are suddenly thrust onto us without much explanation or choice, and the beauty of the Girl trend is the rejection of these ideals in favor of something more selfish, even if it isn’t the idealized version of domesticity or womanhood that we were taught. “girl dinner” is an exercise in agency, “girl dinner” is for ourselves, ourselves only, and not for our husbands, siblings, or children… for once.
But maybe therein lies the core issue, the disgust is perhaps in the selfish woman. More and more women, many of them participating in these very trends, are choosing a child-free lifestyle, where they date around for fun (not necessarily for marriage) and subsidize their own means of income. Many of these things are in direct conflict with how we were taught a “good women” should make a life for herself. It’s funny then, that these very things that are the markers of independence and even success for men, are suddenly infantilising when it comes to women?
But instead of realising that things like the color pink, heart and flower motifs, and ruffles all over our clothes were the very things we were vilified for as being ‘too soft, too girly’, the Girl trend has been posited as “a refusal to grow up” as we refer to ourselves not as women but instead as “twenty something teenage girls” (Delia Cai, Vanity Fair, 2023). Maybe, just maybe this kind of terminology is less of an attempt to infantilise ourselves, but more of an attempt to reclaim our lost time if you take into account major world events that have huge socio-economic impacts like a deadly pandemic and ongoing late-stage capitalism. But hey, wanting to buy ourselves a little treat after a tough day and calling it “girl math” is what is unacceptable. Not to mention that as a result of these circumstances, very few of us are even capable of taking the next step into adult life, whether that be renting a place alone or getting a mortgage, so is it really so surprising we feel trapped as ‘girls’?
Ah yes, a tale as old as time… capitalism creates the conditions under which we resist and our resistance is immediately criticised as “No, but not like that!”. It is no surprise then, that our resistance manifests itself as nostalgia. I mean, look around, what do you see? Maybe it’s the 33-year-old woman who has upended the entire music industry with recreated heartbreak ballads from her youth, embarking on a literal tour of the eras of her former selves… or the movie of the year centering around the one common protagonist of all our childhoods… either way, our pop culture of the moment provides the perfect catalyst for the ultimate girlhood nostalgia resurgence blow out. This collective nostalgia sees us adopting girlification as a coping mechanism. Adults have to worry about rent, student loans, climate change, political demagogues, bodily autonomy; but “girls” don’t. Because, at the heart of this imagined girlhood, is an expression of femininity without consequence, an idealised freedom that our current realities have stripped us from – Barbie doesn’t need birth control, anyway.
As a logical result, finding safety and reprieve in the collective escapism of the Girl trend is where we’ve ended up, much as men often do with their own stories with the likes of Peter Pan, The Jungle Book, Bridge to Terabithia, Holes, Home Alone etc. However, when men’s nostalgia is centered and celebrated it is seen as charming, endearing, and even attractive at times. Why then, as soon as nostalgia for women is centered – for maybe the first time on as large a scale as Barbie, and as a group we collectively embrace it on our common grounds, it must be analysed, criticised, and broken down to see if it’s ‘suitable’ enough, ‘intelligent’ enough and ‘progressive’ enough? I don’t think many people realise it, but for the first time, the majority of the (especially) younger audience were hit with the realisation that our mothers, grandmothers, all of us are literally… just girls.
This kind of realisation, that “one of the girlies” is not a matter of gender or even age, or any other physical identifying factor, but rather, an inside joke, an identifying passcode for the carefree, unified and collective femme modality of the life we wish to inhabit has been deeply healing and important to the culture as a whole. My question now lies in why men get to celebrate their boyishness and manhood at every opportunity, in every medium available, no matter how ‘distasteful’? Because no matter how old they get, never forget that “Boys will be Boys”, right? Wrong.
The Girl trend is a direct result of utilising the current nostalgia resurgence as a celebration of our pasts, so that we may forge our futures with the understanding of the great collectiveness in the sacred experience we all share in. In this way, the Girl trend and its subsequent influence on the hyper-femininity we see expressed everywhere now becomes a powerful vehicle for resistance.The bow is arguably one of the most polarizing elements in fashion. While some bows exude a sense of saccharine girliness, others convey a more prim and preppy feminine aesthetic. Regardless of the connotation, the bow’s silhouette is laden with symbolism and never fails to elicit a strong response, both from the wearer and viewer, and they’re everywhere right now. From the runways of London to Milan, our TikTok feeds, and fashion influencers frantically tying ribbons onto everything they own, the bow is definitely having its moment, and it’s no coincidence either.
From pioneer Sandy Liang, to Simone Rocha and Miu Miu, to smaller houses like new arrival Tanner Fletcher, fashion weeks around the globe were brimming with ribbons and bows in every shape and form, evoking the whimsy of girlhood.
This has resulted in the virality of the ‘coquette aesthetic’, a direct descendent of the Girl trend, while simultaneously intersecting it at its point of resistance. While Oxford defines a “coquette” as a flirtatious woman, the fashion trend focuses on the romantic, playful aspect of the term directly reclaiming the things and symbols we were ridiculed for liking as young girls. Los Angeles-based stylist Marisa Ledford tells PEOPLE, “The coquette fashion trend is Gen Z’s take on flirty, soft, hyper-feminine style which references the Victorian Regency era.” She names whimsical staples like milkmaid tops, baby doll dresses, tights, ribbons and ruffles as hallmarks of the look. Although the bow’s popularity may lie in the easily accessible symbol for the current harkening back to girlhood and nostalgia, bows are also a symbol for rebellion, specifically against the rise of minimalism in the era of ‘quiet luxury’ and similarly, as a reclamation and celebration of our girlhoods. Right now, we’re seeing the opposite reaction to uniformity with hyper-personalization and customization with bows quickly becoming a uniform of their own. You see another person wearing a bow, and you’re wearing a bow, and it’s like ‘I get you’, and they immediately become one of the girlies, even just for the second you pass each other on the street. If that doesn’t define the power of the collective feminine right now, I don’t know what will.
Tanner Fletcher had genderless bow suits, Simone Rocha sent models down the runway wrapped like presents in off-the-shoulder bow dresses, and after Miu Miu’s AW22 runway show, the brand’s bow-adorned ballet flats quickly became the cult shoe of the season. And of course, we can’t forget about The Sandy Liang Effect. Thus the industry has been saturated with this symbol of complex girlhood – Simultaneously innocent and youthful yet peppy and sassy. Whether one likes it or not, the bow has come to represent more than a fundamental sartorial element. A token of innate femininity, the bow can be used by one and all to channel their inner Sofia Coppola character, the outgoing style they wished they could have worn when they were younger and therefore, most importantly, their girlhood.
The bow as a symbol of girlhood champions the escapism and nostalgia we have come to be berated for, while simultaneously speaking to the powerful resistance it embodies. Because currently, we find ourselves in a reality where many children are facing obstacles when it comes to accessing the books they desire to read, gaining essential historical knowledge, or receiving the gender-affirming care they require, girls now find themselves in a situation where their guaranteed reproductive rights, a privilege enjoyed by our previous generations of women, are no longer guaranteed. Is it possible, then, to think of Barbiemania and our current expressions of hypergirly theatricality as something more than just a flash in the pan?
As Barbie herself says, “By giving voice to the cognitive dissonance required to be a woman under the patriarchy, you’ve robbed it of its power.” And so here we are, staring down the barrel of the future of feminism’s gun, where we can either choose to embrace the collective divinity found in our own shared experiences of girlhood, no matter how imperfect that might look, or we can sit back and continue to let it be defined for us. Consider it, maybe, not as a statement, but rather an endless series of exclamation points at the end of a deep, guttural scream: That if they’re going to treat us like little girls, we might as well act the part.