In 2023, the market conspired to sell us one thing, rendered every which way, and that thing was: girl. Online, she was ubiquitous, gender neutral, performing campy femininity, and going on hot walks and having non-nutritional dinners. In fashion, she had bows in her hair, on her mary janes, and everywhere else; she was Miu Miu for the luxury shopper and Simone Rocha and Sandy Liang for the downtown set. And as the critics heralded the return of monoculture — budget-busting, inescapable mass spectacle in the forms of Taylor Swift and Barbie — there she was on the front lines, blonde and newly empowered but still, definitely, always girl.
It’s tempting to see the girl as being foisted on us — just another wicked instrument of the patriarchy. That might be true, but it’s also too easy. It’s women who are dressing up in pink and chirping “Hi, Barbie” at each other at the movie theater; women who are spending thousands on coquettish schoolgirl skirts and ballet flats; and it’s a woman whose protracted adolescence is fodder for a concert tour that’s on track to be the biggest in history, thanks, of course, to the spending power of other women. Like girlhood itself, the fad is innocent enough. Still, the fervid enthusiasm of grown women to participate in the veneration of girlhood raises a slightly unsettling question: What is it, exactly, that’s so uninviting about being an adult woman?
The thing about girlhood is that it’s a before time: before puberty, before life, and, importantly, before feminism. Although in reality, girlhood can be (often disturbingly) pierced by the politics of the adult world, it’s a period that precedes those choices that feminism has always concerned itself with — choices about marriage, child raising, career building, homemaking, sex, sexuality, and caretaking. It’s also a time that’s free from the consequences of those choices. In girlhood, we’re not yet even ourselves.
Why does this appeal? The reality is that in 2023, mainstream feminism is a bit adrift. The corporate girlbossery of the 2010s has proven to be vacuous at best, and a sinister, capitalist plot at worst. Socialist feminism, which thrillingly broke through to the mainstream during Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign, has receded back into the margins. The reactionary elements that have sprung up to put a new spin on an old trope — women who call themselves “tradwives” — might traffic in the language of liberation, but what they offer is, at its core, too conservative to be seriously construed as feminism. Even Dobbs wasn’t able to galvanize a large-scale feminist coalition. Atomized and disharmonious, contemporary feminism might appear to offer bad options only.
It doesn’t help that the major touchstones of the past several years — MeToo, Donald Trump, COVID, Dobbs — are fucking miserable, and the cultural objects that accompanied them have tended to be correspondingly somber or pedantic. We’ve seen an explosion of rape-revenge plots, and cynical, emaciated protagonists dissociating through their lives. Even those things that we loved because of their playful depictions of adult womanhood have since turned dour and awkward (I am, of course, talking about the Sex and the City reboot). And thanks to the flattening tendencies of the internet, other figures who once seemed like they were genuinely engaging with womanhood have since been claimed by “the girls” (see: “Sandy Liang presents Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette”). In 2023, the only way to have fun, it seemed, was by turning away from adult womanhood wholesale and toward a breezy, bright alternative.
Instead of politics, can I interest you in some blissful, childlike ignorance? In Vanity Fair, the writer Delia Cai asks, “Is it reactionary or radical … to don the pink dress and beribbon ourselves in spite of what we know?” The answer is: Neither, and that’s exactly the point. Finding an answer to that question is the purview of womanhood. Girlhood, instead, is an opting out of the whole calculation, a low-risk way to participate in mass cultural femininity.
So girlhood was prettily packaged up, all tied up in a bow, and sold to us. And we were eager to buy — no more so than in the summer of Barbie. But despite all the endless litigation over Barbie’s feminist bona fides, the line that got the most laughs was deeply telling: When she’s confronted by a crabby Zoomer who calls her a fascist, Barbie sobs that she couldn’t possibly be one because she doesn’t “control the railways or the flow of commerce.” The joke here is the absurdity of bringing politics into this context, where we all know it doesn’t actually belong. The world Greta Gerwig built for Barbie is too ill-equipped for all that.
Perhaps part of what’s going on is that, while there are countless ways to be a woman, girlhood just feels more universal, full of legible markers. It makes sense that only a few broadly painted depictions of girlhood would resonate with so many on the level of mass culture. But maybe the compulsion to “girlify” something in order to anoint it as worthy will go away. Maybe, in 2024, we might be able to find some joy and lightness in growing up as well. Maybe we don’t need to put a bow on everything.