Infantilising or empowering: the 'universal girl'


Charlotte Legrand (she/her) explores how the feminist origins of 'girl' trends redefine girlhood

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Image by marybettiniblank via Pixabay

By Charlotte Legrand

From ‘girl maths’ to ‘hot girl walks’, ‘girl dinner’ to ‘girl’s girls’, the internet has begun to universally embrace girlhood. With each scroll, my TikTok algorithm introduces a new ‘girl’ trend, reframing everyday activities into a relatable, often satirical, collective feminine experience. For example, ‘girl maths’ rationalises spending such as money refunded or spent on reaching the free shipping threshold as ‘basically free’. ‘Girl dinner’ validates a taste in haphazardly put-together meals of strange combinations, and ‘hot girl walks’ encourage exercise to music dedicated to gratitude and self-love.

The language of the universal girl feels similar to that of the 1990s ‘girl power’ movement. Encouraging unapologetic confidence and independence, the phrase was inspired by the Black Power slogan and coined by the punk rock band Bikini Kill. The band also contributed to the ‘riot grrrl’ subculture, aiming to re-claim the word girl through the production of zines, art, and music. Around the millennium, the Spice Girls’s emphasis on strong female friendship and empowerment is comparable to the modern ‘girl’s girl’ – uplifting other women without pettiness or jealousy. As third-wave feminism sought to redefine society’s ideas of sexuality, femininity, and beauty, the girl power movement sought to redefine girl-hood. This definition was also growing more universal, with the rise of intersectionality and class consciousness within feminism encouraging mass female solidarity towards a universal girl.

Moving into the 21st century, girl power developed into a new phase of ‘girl boss feminism’. Encouraging female infiltration into traditionally male-dominated industries, the girl-boss would break through the glass ceiling with unapologetic confidence and femininity. Pop culture hailed Elle Woods, Katniss Everdeen, and Kill Bill’s assassination squad as 2000s icons, achieving the perfect combination of femininity and power. However today girl boss feels more like an insult than a mark of female success and independence. Swallowed by capitalist motivations of competition and exploitation, figures such as Margaret Thatcher soured the girl boss image by pursuing individual career goals at the expense of feminism. The girl boss became the antithesis of the girl’s girl – willing to step on fellow women to chase personal, and often financial, success.

There’s a similar contemporary need to reclaim girl as a positive term, combating the word’s assumptions of immaturity and unprofessionalism – feeding into infantilising gender roles. ‘Girl maths’, for example, plays upon and makes fun of the patriarchy’s assumption that women are worse at maths. By labelling clearly satirical financial decisions as ‘maths’, women are re-claiming and making fun of sexist stereotypes.

Referring to fully grown women as ‘girls’ is harmful as it plays into the patriarchal idea that women are less mature, responsible or professional. Especially in the working world, these childlike qualities don’t align with strong leadership – with a lack of a male equivalent. Therefore, maybe the weight and meaning of ‘girl’ depends on its context. Coming from others in a professional setting, a woman is ‘just a girl’. In contrast, referring to yourself as ‘still a girl’ feels like an act of reclamation, redefining girlhood in a positive light. If women lose power as they age, a universal girlhood becomes a denial of ageist misogyny. Therefore, today’s use of ‘girl’ in a satirical and informal way breaks down its impact as a word used to demean or exclude.

However, this logic has been critiqued as harmful to womanhood. Labelling activities done by women as ‘girly’ could assume there is something wrong with womanhood, some kind of dullness that comes with women growing up. There is a fear that even acknowledging and using infantilising language contributes to the stereotypes women are trying to reclaim. Yet, even if ‘girl’ trends are just re-packaged stereotypes, they are being repackaged in a context without the word’s exclusionary weight. The fun and light-hearted sentiment of ‘girl’ trends can be translated to womanhood, removing the possibility of infantilisation and making the jump to adulthood less daunting.

Therefore, maybe today’s ‘girlification’ comes from a need to re-modernise society’s approach to womanhood, to again reclaim the word girl. Rising costs of living, endless job-hunting and an intimidating housing market are making the transition to adulting more daunting than ever. Repackaging adulthood into a series of smaller ‘girlified’ experiences makes growing up more approachable, and simply more fun. Fourth-wave feminism’s use of social media has made the creation of a mass movement possible, allowing the universal girl to be more relatable and accessible than ever. Participation in these trends, and therefore there claiming of girlhood, is widespread, and constant. Even when writing, discussing trends of not even six months old feels out of date, proving how quickly today’s trend cycle develops and reinvents itself. However, despite the short life of individual trends, the sentiment of universal girlhood seems to be a more permanent one within social media, and within feminism.

Despite the positivity surrounding the universal girl, there is a reactionary trope of being purposefully detached from this collective, being ‘not like other girls’. The rise of the YA and dystopian genre came with a flock of new, strong female characters- Katniss Everdeen, Tris Prior, Clary Fray. Although it was refreshing to see women in the media loved for their independence rather than their beauty, innocence, or relationships with men, it sometimes feels like these characters rejected femininity to the point of rejecting womanhood. For example, The Hunger Games’s protagonist Katniss Everdeen describes how “Other girls our age... talk about boys, or other girls, or clothes. Madge and I aren’t gossipy and clothes bore me to tears.” She feels a touch of superiority towards her difference from her peers, disapproving of conventional feminine conversations in favour of her more masculine interest in hunting. This also seems hypocritical, considering her gushing over Cinna’s (her stylist) designs of her ward-robe later in the series. YA heroines try so hard to be masculine, that anything seen as ‘girly’ is regarded as weak and lesser. By denouncing traditional femininity as trivial and boring, Katniss is isolating herself from girlhood. Over-asserting her difference brings the question, what is so wrong with being like the ‘other girls’? Therefore, there’s a refreshing pride in femininity that comes with ‘girl’ trends – finding universality in the niche and the mundane, in shared everyday experiences that could be as small as a meal or a purchase. Most recently, the internet has responded to ‘girl’ trends with a series of opposite ‘boy’ trends. To clap back at men making fun of ‘girl maths’, ‘boy maths’ has emerged as a satirical justification for male habits. For example, ‘boys maths’ could be a 5 ft 10 man ‘rounding up’ his height to 6 ft, using three-in-one shampoo to ‘save money’, or having a 70-inch television but no dining table. The trend has mainly been attributed to and fed into by women to call out and make fun of men’s hypocritical behaviour, rather than holding a wider social significance. However, politics have been bought into the conversation on X, with US Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez adding ‘Boy math is needing 15 attempts to count the votes correctly to become Speaker and then shutting down the government 9 months later’ in response to Re-publican Kevin McCarthy’s push to shut down the government over the passing of a spending bill. On the whole, ‘boy’ trends don’t carry the same social weight as ‘girl’ trends, as there is no similar issue of referring to men as boys. Instead, it provides a mocking extension to ‘girl’ trends- a space to satirise gender stereotypes in a light-hearted way.

As to be expected, ‘girl’ trends haven’t come without criticism. ‘Girl dinners’ have been ex-posed as normalising eating insufficient and unbalanced meals, and ‘girl maths’ criticised for encouraging unnecessary overconsumption of often trendy items. It feels like these criticisms, although often valid, should be targeted more specifically onto the roots of the trend itself –rather than its associations with girlhood. It’s no secret that the internet’s rapid trend cycle and addictive algorithms can lead to unsustainable consumer habits and worsening mental health. But, if anything, many of the trends within the girlhood movement encourage sustainability and healthy lifestyle choices. For example, ‘girl maths’  justifies clothing purchases through an intention to re-wear – if a pair of jeans is £40,and you wear them 40 times, they only cost £1per wear. ‘Hot girl walks’ encourage exercise purely for the sake of mental health, without an ulterior motive of aesthetic physical goals. Regardless of the name, the positivity surrounding these trends is hard to criticise.

Reclaiming the word girl is a reclaiming of linguistic power, allowing girlhood to be defined free from patriarchal stereotypes. The unity and embrace of girlhood that has come through the wave of ‘girl’ trends is definitely a step in the right direction towards a reclaiming of womanhood, and the creation of a new universal woman