Move over, lads! How the world turned girly

Yesterday I put on a Cherry Girl outfit (a normal outfit, but with red lipstick) to go for a Hot Girl Walk (like a walk, but with a curated soundtrack). I got myself a coffee (hello to my pumpkin spice latte girls!) using Girl Math (if you get the coffee on your Pret app, it’s basically free!) and came home to make Girl Dinner (a plate of whatever is in the fridge).

I am 50 years old. I am an adult woman. But in 2023, girlhood is where the party is, and you don’t have to be young, or even female, to be invited. Megan Thee Stallion, whose 2019 song Hot Girl Summer is the international anthem of modern girldom, says her song “is basically just about women – and men – just being unapologetically them, just having a good-ass time”.

Like lads in the 1990s, the girls have main character energy in popular culture right now. In 2012, in the very first episode of HBO’s Girls, heroine Hannah, played by Lena Dunham, told her parents she thought she might be the voice of her generation. (“Or at least a voice. Of a generation.”) Where Sex and the City worshipped at an altar of success and sophistication, high heels and walk-in wardrobes, the girls of Girls were not quite grownups. They had clumsy sex and got sauce on their chin at dinner. The same year, Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl remade the classic good girl/bad girl trope as the plot-twist of the decade, and sparked a publishing gold rush of books with “girl” in the title. (Your holiday read for 2015 was almost certainly Paula HawkinsThe Girl on the Train; the following summer you probably packed Robin Wasserman’s Girls on Fire, Emma Cline’s The Girls, or both.) Under the tutelage of ultimate girlboss Emily Weiss, founder of beauty empire Glossier, we’ve done Clean Girl Beauty (double cleansing). A holiday wardrobe is now your Tomato Girl Summer look (carrying a basket instead of a leather bag). This year’s biggest cultural touchpoints are a film (Barbie) and a stadium tour (Taylor Swift) that are both, at heart, about celebrating and questioning what it means to be a girl. Next up is Priscilla, the hotly anticipated Presley biopic by Sofia Coppola, who has been making films about girls navigating a world that judges and limits and underestimates young women since The Virgin Suicides. “Girl culture is the dominant culture,” Samhita Mukhopadhyay, a former executive editor at Teen Vogue, told the New York Times recently.

Megan Thee Stallion wearing a leather corset and fur bolero on stage at Glastonbury
Megan Thee Stallion’s Hot Girl Summer is the anthem of modern girlhood. Photograph: WireImage

Sometimes, this feels a lot like misogyny just got a cute new name. The cult of the “girlboss” played on the idea that femininity and leadership is a taste-confounding combination – the peanut butter and gherkin sandwich of the business world – and celebrated successful women who were attractive and whose success was built on making or selling something that was still within the guardrails of girl stuff, like lip gloss or scented candles. Don’t get me started on “Girl Math”. Lol, ladies can’t get their pretty heads around money! That joke never gets old, right?

“If it’s not a situation where you would substitute boy for man, then you shouldn’t say ‘girl’ when you mean ‘woman’,” says Susan Madsen, professor of leadership at Utah State University. “The word ‘girl’, to most adults, has associations of ‘less than’, of ‘weaker than’. We need to pay attention to language – to how it makes you feel, to how it makes other people around you feel – because it is a real part of the invisible, everyday sexism of our world.” Madsen recently led a study of 1,750 sexist comments, reported by women in Utah, which concluded that the word “girl” “has a clear negative impact on credibility and confidence”.

“Actually, I like being a girl,” says Hannah Martinson, a 25-year-old intern at a television company. “It is a bit old-fashioned to think that being a girl is some kind of insult. Girl isn’t, like, a waiting room to proper adulthood, where you get to be a wife or a mother or whatever. I don’t see myself ever not being a girl.” Girlhood has always presented an alternative to the tradition of the “marriage plot”, where books and films tell stories whose narrative arcs inexorably towards a wedding. From The Golden Girls (four older women living together) to Gilmore Girls (single mum and daughter Lorelai and Rory) the word “girls” signposts sorority as a lifestyle choice.

On the internet, these days, anyone can be a girl. “I’ve got groups of girls for different things I’m into,” says Martinson. “I’ve got my book-club girls, my going-out girls, my film-nerd girls. They are all little communities. And not all of them are female, by the way.” For generation Z, girl has become a gender-neutral term, a cipher for fellowship and support and intimacy and in-jokes, a sisterhood for all. “The ‘girlboss’ thing was this very privileged, vertical idea of success among millennial women,” says Lucie Greene, founder of Light Years, a trend-forecasting agency. “But now, the whole girly thing has become less about ambition, more empathic. It celebrates an optimistic stage of life.” In contrast to everything the patriarchy stands for, there is no hierarchy to being a girl.

When I began writing this article, I thought I already knew what I thought. I love being a woman. Being a woman has a rich history of culture and history, a tapestry of names from Cleopatra and Boudicca to Tracey Emin and Nina Simone, from Emily Brontë to Billie Jean King, from Gloria Steinem to Marilyn Monroe. So my kneejerk reaction was to feel irritated with a younger generation who reject all this in favour of being girls, just because the word woman makes them think of icky things like wrinkles. But now, I’m not so sure. I found myself on a journey, as the young people say, which may or may not be related to the fact that on the Saturday night when I was halfway through writing this, I went to see Taylor Swift’s The Eras Tour at the cinema.

The organising principle of Eras is that it is a journey through the chapters of Swift’s life to date. The novelist Taffy Brodesser-Akner wrote, after a night under the IRL spell of Swift at the Levi’s stadium in California: “You could watch this concert – you could watch this entire phenomenon – through the eyes of the idea that Taylor Swift frees women to celebrate their girlhood, to understand that womanhood is made up of these microchapters of change.” Swift’s journey is not about leaving girlhood behind. Even the songs she has written as a thirtysomething retain a Dear Diary goofy teenage energy. And once you have watched 70,000 people sing along with her in a glorious Swiftie communion, it is hard to see the girlhood she celebrates as “less than”, in any sense. This is the imperial age of the girl.

Jess Cartner-Morley wearing navy trousers and a Girly Girl T-shirt, styled as a doll being held in a hand
Jess wears bow hair clip, Trousers, T-shirt, stylist’s own. Sandals, Earrings, Jess’s own. Styling: Melanie Wilkinson. Hair and makeup: Sophie Higginson using Oribe and Victoria Beckham Beauty. Photo assistant: Georgina Wilding. Photograph: Dan Matthews/The Guardian

When Phil Neville referred to the England women’s football team he had just been hired to coach as “girls”, critics including former England goalkeeper Pauline Cope chastised him for a patronising use of words. But the Lionesses themselves made it known they were “fine” with being called girls. (Millie Bright and many of the other players routinely refer to their teammates as “the girls”.) Even being part of a football team that, in England captain Leah Williamson’s words, has “change[d] women’s place in society around the world” does not preclude being one of the girls, these days.

“I’m in my 40s now, and for better or worse I no longer worry whether I count as a grownup”, says Wasserman, who also wrote 2020’s Mother Daughter Widow Wife. “But when I started writing Girls on Fire I was in my early 30s, and really grappling with the question of what it meant to be an adult, and whether thinking of myself as a woman rather than a girl was staking a claim on empowerment – or the lack thereof.” The title of the book, which placed it at the centre of the Girl Story literary phenomenon “came to me right at the beginning. And the more I wrote, the more meaning the title took on for me. ‘Girl’ has always been a loaded word with contrary meanings: the bad girl and the good girl. I grew up an extreme good girl, but I worshipped the bad girls. Why was I judging either of us on this spectrum? Girls on Fire was my way of asking that question of myself. There is so much going on in the word ‘girl’.”

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Young women have always been ahead of the curve when it comes to changes in how we use words. In 2003, two linguists at the University of Helsinki, Terttu Nevalainen and Helena Raumolin-Brunberg, published a study of 6,000 letters written between 1417 and 1681. They found that in 11 out of 14 cases of changes happening in language over that time – things like the switch from ye to you, from hath to has, from maketh to makes – female letter-writers adopted the new form faster than than men. Gretchen McCulloch, internet linguist and author of Because Internet, wrote in 2015 that uptalk – where you end a sentence on a rising note, as if you’re asking a question? Even though you’re not? – began with teenage girls in California in the 1970s, but is now regularly used by young men. “In other words, women learn language from their peers; men learn it from their mothers,” says McCulloch.

One of touchy issues here, for women, is age. For someone younger to reject the identity of woman in favour of staying a girl feels destabilising – even disloyal – to many older women. “Girl” is “a word that exposes generational differences”, says Molly Logan, 50, whose “global braintrust” agency Irregular Labs connects brands with generation Z. “Older generations struggle with it because it feels like the opposite of everything that they understood they were fighting for – for women, for feminism.” On sections of the internet, it feels like the word “woman” is being rejected for representing fixed ideas, outmoded notions of identity. This isn’t just about the rows that happen deep in the weeds of gender politics, but on the bubblegum side of culture, too. Girls – or sometimes “girlies”, an even girlier name for the girls – are having fun bonding on TikTok while the women are stuck on Instagram, getting served endless dull posts about prosecco-themed wall art for kitchens.

Taylor Swift on stage in a beaded top and skirt during her Eras tour
‘Taylor Swift frees women to celebrate their girlhood,’ says novelist Taffy Brodesser-Akner. Photograph: Getty Images

My daughter is 17. Pearl and her friends embrace girlhood as an identity, not because they don’t know or care about feminism but because, on the contrary, they are all too aware. “Woman is the word people use when they talk about the rights of women, the struggle against the patriarchy. It doesn’t sound much fun, Mum, to be honest,” Pearl says. Girlhood, on the other hand, is “a romanticised fantasy, nostalgic for childhood and for noughties films that we love, like Mean Girls”. There is a power, and humour, in reinventing girliness as an alpha identity. “Girly has had all those connotations of being a bit pathetic – like when people say, ‘You throw like a girl’ – but now it is a word that makes you think of fun, that you want to be part of.”

Women have always been outnumbered by girls in the sparklier parts of culture. The love object in a pop song, after all, is almost always a girl. (A song like John Lennon’s Woman, written for his wife Yoko Ono, is one of the exceptions that proves the rule, and the word seems to be there to make the song sound grownup, not teenage. Rarely has pop sounded so stately.) As Steinem reminds us, women “lose power as they age”. Understandably, many women find this quite annoying. A big tent of girlhood in which everyone is welcome can be a way of allowing more of us to align with all the positive associations of youth – being fun, being attractive, being vital. Who knows? Maybe girlhood-for-all can be both an infuriating symbol of our ageist culture and a well-meaning gesture at the same time.

“There’s a young guy I work with, about 20, who called recently because he was heading to the city where I live, and he was like, ‘Shall we have a girls’ dinner?’” recalls Logan. “I was struck that he used that phrase, so I asked him about it. To him, it just meant a casual meet-up, just a hangout, with no work agenda. To him, the word ‘girl’ isn’t a gender, it’s a vibe.” Girliness – using the word, or wearing a pearl earring, or carrying a handbag – can be, to some of generation Z, as much a badge of being young and free as a statement about gender. “I use ‘girl’ as an endearment, and it is kind of a way of saying – you and me, we are the same tribe,” says Martinson. “It’s casual, but there’s an intimacy to it. I guess in a way I’m saying – I see you. I’m here for you.”

Girlhood sells. From the Barbie box-office gold rush to Taylor Swift crashing Ticketmaster, the girl industrial complex is a bright spot in a bleak economy. Brands, inevitably, have latched on to the girl, stamping the word on everything from pyjamas (“Get your Cosy Girl Fits!”) to snack bars (“Made for the busy girlies”). You can give almost anything a girl label right now and make it sound like a zeitgeist-surfing trend, right now. Girl Dinner, after all, is basically meze, or a ploughman’s lunch, which are neither new nor particularly girl-oriented. “The brands will grab hold of ‘girl’ and they will kill it in the end,” predicts Logan. “But for now, it is a kind of magic dust, a between-us word. And the fact that older generations don’t get it is part of the appeal. ‘Girl’ feels warm and cosy, but there’s no point trying to pin down exactly who it’s for, or what it means. To be honest, that’s kind of old-fashioned.”


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