The ‘Girlification’ Of Online Life Has A Dark Side


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It’s a girl world and we’re all living in it!

The descriptor “girl” is in more places than ever. From girl dinner, girl maths, to girl rotting, all the various girlies and beyond – girlhood is everywhere. Even Barbie has folks reclaiming their “girlhood,” calling themselves Barbie girls all over Instagram and Twitter. In these instances, “girl” isn’t just an identity, but also something one does. But what does that mean for people who aren’t girls? And why “girl” and not women? Is this all just adulting rebranded?

The ‘Girlification’ Of Trends

The latest trend munching its way through TikTok, Twitter and Instagram is “girl dinner”. The trend sees women making up unconventional plates of nibblies and snacks, cobbling together the leftovers in their homes and naming it their girl dinner. Women all over social media have been sharing their various versions of girl dinners – from packets of Doritos to colourfully composed charcuterie boards.

Since the original TikTok was posted in May, the trend has taken off with such ferocity that there’s even an unofficial viral TikTok tune. Girl Dinner, however, is not new. As Junkee writer Talecia Vesico has pointed out, the trend is a reinvigorated and rebranded version of the “depression meals” meme.

This gendering of everyday activities into some variant of girl activity is everywhere. Even rationalising non-essential purchases, something almost everyone of any gender does, has been dubbed “girl maths”.

Fitness and health have also been dubbed a girl activity. In 2022, the health and wellness influencer aesthetic was rebranded into the “that girl” trend. Under the trend, TikTok users would take the challenge to become “that girl”. Who is that girl? Essentially someone who works out, eats “clean” and lives the manicured lifestyle of a wellness influencer. Becoming “that girl” was essentially synonymous with looking skinny and flaunting the privilege it would take to afford such a lifestyle along with the best skincare products on the market.

What Do People Actually Mean When They Say Girl?

The uses of girl on the internet are legion. There’s numerous “for the girls” and “girls when…” memes too. Not to mention being a fan of anything these days inspires referring to oneself as a “girlie”. Do you like Succession? You may be a Kendall Roy girlie. Short on money? You may be a broke girlie.

In all these instances of use on social media, “girls” and “girlies” are signifiers of collectiveness. They mark one’s feelings as being in solidarity with others, and identifying with people who feel the same way you do. Ultimately made shareable under the identity of “girl”.

But the use of girl in the way that it is used on social media, as with most online slang, originated in African American Vernacular English, or AAVE. Using “girl” as a mark of solidarity between women was originally used by Black women to mark solidarity between one another.

This specific use of “girl”, along with many other words and phrases like “sis”, “pick me”, and “cap”, etc, has been appropriated into “internet slang” or “TikTok slang” and divorced from its AAVE roots. But it’s important to acknowledge and respect its origins.

Why Girl Dinner And Not Women Dinner?

As empowering as it is for many women to find solidarity in the shared experiences of eating snacks for dinner, I cannot help but wonder why so many adult women within these trends insist on girlhood. To me, it seems to represent the inverse of the cringe millennial catchphrase “adulting” with an insidious dash of consumerism and toxic gender essentialism.

Girl maths, girl dinner, and its girlish variants echo the same precarity as adulting, only instead of clinging to fleeting moments of adulthood, women in these trends are clinging to their girlhood. Almost as if they’re infantilising themselves to cope with the challenges of a precarious adulthood under capitalism where more traditional milestones of adulthood such as purchasing a house and a liveable wage have become unattainable, while finding community in others who wish to do the same.

Capitalism And Girl Trends

Girl trends and memes are the perfect marriage of internalised misogyny and the destabilisation brought on by late capitalism. Under patriarchy, women have accepted that their youth has far more social capital in a world where men have made youth synonymous with beauty. In combination with the normalisation of what psychologist Erik Erikson termed, “extended adolescence”, that many young people are waiting, either by choice or necessity, until later in life to attain traditional markers of adulthood. The result of this combination is a feeling of perpetual girlhood incongruent with society’s expectations. Is it a bad thing to find comradery in such existential dread? Not necessarily, but the performance of it online complicates things.

The underlying consumerism built into girl trends needs acknowledgement, for instance. To be “that girl” requires expensive gym memberships, fresh foods, athleisure wear, and beauty products that most can’t afford. Girl maths is literally the act of rationalising consumerism under capitalism, rebranded as a cutesy girl activity. While many girl dinners are about showcasing and even romanticising the art of cheap and lazy meals, the overly aestheticized nature of many of the videos push specific standards of beauty, lifestyle and femininity that encourage comparison between lifestyles as well as disordered eating. While the chumminess of girl trends may feel subversive, how subversive can something using gendered solidarity to rebrand toxic standards really be?

Girl trends also seem to reinforce dangerous gender expectations surrounding body image and eating habits. “The term of ‘girl dinner’ [seems] very rooted in how girls ‘should’ be eating less,” says Rebecca Ditkoff, a registered nutritionist. Other girl trends, like “that girl,” also reinforce that women should aspire to look and be in ways that adhere to unattainable standards of beauty. According to psychotherapist and social worker Hannah Tishman, “Comparison on social media can bring up feelings of inadequacy, fatigue, sadness, loneliness, and anxiety. It can increase disordered eating behaviours and an unhealthy relationship with food and exercise.”

Of course, not every video under these trends aims for this outcome. Nevertheless, intentions don’t outweigh impact.

Girl Trends Reinforce Toxic Gender Binaries

Cast the net wider and this girlification goes beyond meme and influencer rebranding. The Barbenheimer phenomenon essentially boiled down to a competitive gender binary of a “girl” movie and “boy” movie. Many made memes attempting to subvert or parody the inherently gendered dichotomy with the “Barbie boyfriend/Oppenheimer girlfriend” meme. However, these ultimately still enforced a gender binary, as did the Barbie movie itself.

In the film, the Barbies are blatantly stand-ins for all “girls”, with Ken a stand-in for men, and no characters who challenge this cis-binary. The film’s final scene sees Barbie attend a gynaecologist appointment – moving to the real world has given her a vagina, a sign she’s finally worthy of womanhood. Never mind that in reality, plenty of women don’t have vaginas and plenty of people who aren’t women have them.

As a non-binary person, my experience of this new wave of essentialist girlification has been alienating. Correcting people’s endearing “girlie” or “girl” because I am neither is becoming more and more common, making my interactions more awkward than necessary. Only last month, a friend told me I had a “lazy girl job,” meaning I worked from home. If you listen closely, in so many of these girlie terms is an undertone of condescension. I am neither lazy, nor a girl. While gendering me with a little “girl” or “girlie” is often rooted in affection and solidarity, I am still not a girl. Lots of people aren’t girls, in fact.

I can’t help but observe these (often binary gender) girl trends in relation to the rise of transmisogyny around the world too. Only this year did the Australian government allow transphobic activist Kellie-Jay Keen-Minshull to hold her “let women speak” rallies in Melbourne and Sydney – one of which featured actual Nazis holding up a banner that read “destroy paedo freaks”. In the US, over 500 explicitly anti-trans bills that specifically target trans women and children have been proposed. Even in the worlds of competitive chess and swimming, trans women have been either barred from competing altogether or segregated into their own category.

The constant reinforcement of rigid gender binaries, even ironically, only emboldens discrimination against those who complicate it. Transgender people, whether they be genderqueer, non-binary, trans women or trans men, wear the consequences of gender essentialism – along with anyone else who isn’t deemed thin enough, white enough, or able-bodied enough to fit gendered standards.

I can hear people angrily typing, “Why can’t we have fun?!” The answer is you can. Keep having fun. But it never hurts to ask what the underside of that fun might be. If this is a girl world and we’re all just living in it, is it necessarily a better one? Is it even for everyone? If you could create something fun that didn’t enforce harmful ideas of gender that exclude people, wouldn’t you?

Merryana Salem (they/them) is a proud Wonnarua and Lebanese–Australian writer, critic, teacher and podcaster on most social media as @akajustmerry. If you want, check out their podcast, GayV Club where they yarn about LGBTIQ media. Either way, they hope you ate something nice today.

Image credit: Canva