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Are the girls okay?
The journey from girlboss to girlrotting to girl dinner.
Embedded is your essential guide to what’s good on the internet, written by Kate Lindsay and edited by Nick Catucci.
This one’s for the girls! —Kate
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Last week, the New York Times published a low-stakes trend piece about something women do, so naturally the internet went wild about it. “Girl dinner”—a phrase, coined on TikTok, to describe a meal cobbled together from little bites like bread, cheese, pickles, and chocolate—sent people in many different directions. Some accused the Times of whitewashing “mezze,” others, of glorifying eating disorders. As fun as it was to parse all that, something else about this discourse caught my attention: If online “girl” trends are anything to go by, then the girls are down bad.
Riot grrrls and Rookie girls came first, but it was the girlboss that pioneered that girl-as-internet-trend. I entered digital media in that era, when women in powerful positions were novel enough to give a (cutesy) name. This was the time of NastyGal, Lean In, Thinx, and Refinery29 (where I worked in various capacities for four years). But around the time of the 2016 election, in which 47 percent of white women voted for Trump, the affluent white women leading this feminist movement suddenly seemed less inspirational. The trend finally crashed and burned in 2020, when many of the CEOs and founders that helped usher in the girlboss era were revealed to have done so at the expense of their employees of color.
Meanwhile, Megan Thee Stallion’s rise to mainstream fame added a new phrase to our lexicon: “hot girl.” In spring 2019, she dropped the song “Cash Shit,” which begins with the lyric “Real hot girl shit.” That resulted in “hot girl summer,” which then birthed a seemingly infinite number of spinoffs.
By the next summer, we were deep in a pandemic, which meant the parties of hot girl summer were traded in for “hot girl walks.” By 2021, “hot girl summer” had been turned into something almost unrecognizable. I wrote this two (??!?) years ago:
“A new narrative has taken shape on TikTok. Hot girl summer 2021 is about staying hydrated. Remembering to take off your makeup before bed. Being kind to yourself after a year spent learning that you are the most important thing you have. (It may not surprise you to learn most of the people making these Hot Girl Summer 2.0 videos are white ... after white women already adopted the term for themselves in 2019.)”
Later in 2021, people seem to have realized “hot girl X” wasn’t the right framing for this. The “gorgeous gorgeous girls” TikTok trend rose up in its place: “Gorgeous gorgeous girls love soup”; “Gorgeous gorgeous girls wear sunscreen”; “Gorgeous gorgeous girls love eating carbs; “Gorgeous gorgeous girls are having babies.” At this point, the entire identity of “girls” had been deconstructed online.
Sometime earlier this year, “girls” took a nosedive. They started listening to sad girl music while having a “feral girl summer.” They began “girlrotting” in their beds. When she wasn’t making a girl dinner of beef jerky and wine, the NYC girl was “living on deli sandwiches by day and caviar by night.”
I feel like I’m living through the I Think You Should Leave sketch “Instagram.” We went from “Brunch with these two dum dums” to “Eating crap with these sacks of shit, if they died tomorrow no one would shed a tear” in the space of two years. “Girlrotting” and the rest is clearly a reaction to the unrealistic aesthetics of girlhood that proliferated online in the early 2020s, and a way to excuse ourselves from inhabiting gender roles. I also wonder if it’s a response to society's regression over the past few years—the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade, Twitter paying accused human trafficker Andrew Tate, etc. If men are going to be trash, then girls are going to be disgusting.
And yet, this is just another trend about women that I struggle to relate to. I’m not a clean girl or a hot girl, but I’m not a little swamp rat, either. What’s the name for gorgeous gorgeous hot girls who have jobs and go out once a week and eat the same breakfast every morning, last night’s dinner leftovers for lunch, and Thai food if they’re feeling crazy that night? Just “girls”? Boring!