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The Rise of Girlies
From Girl Dinner to Hot Girl Summer, from Girlbossing to 'Girlies' - why does every trend have the word girl?
If you’ve been online recently, you’re probably familiar with the rise of the phrase ‘girlies’. Everywhere you turn on social media, people are talking about The Girlies. You’re not someone who read the book, you’re a book girlie. Featured musicians are soundtrack girlies, women in the workplace are corporate girlies. You’re no longer a Richarlison stan, you’re a Richarlison girlie. And if you’ve been paying attention, you may have noticed this is an acceleration of an existing trend. Girl-bossing has been a thing for quite a while, but a few years ago Megan Thee Stallion proclaimed a Hot Girl Summer and things really took off. We had That Girls and Pick Me Girls. We’ve had new trends in the form of Hot Girl Walks and Girl Dinners, and the rise of Girlies seems like the culmination of the trend. It seems like practically every social media trend is ‘girls’ now. But why is it gendered each time with the specific word girls?
Time is a Flat Circle
Part of the answer is that language is cyclical, and each era has distinctive phrases. There’s always a need to describe female archetypes and trends that pertain to women, and why not use a common-denominator word?
The 90’s and early 2000’s was the time of chicks. The phrases chick flick and chick lit both hit their peak in the 90’s. This was the heyday of the Dixie Chicks, White Chicks, and Chicks Dig Scars. Chicks eventually went out of style as people began to associate it with sexism, and for a while we had a Ladies era in the 2010s. We had All The Single Ladies and lots of ironic ‘heeeyyyy ladies’ yelling. And even though it feels like a fever dream now, I swear at one point people were talking about boss ladies and ladyparts and lady lady lady everything.
This kind of thing probably extends back into the earliest known periods of humanity, like the 1920s. There have been flappers and dolls and gals and broads and babes and so forth, but if I’m being honest I’m not diligent enough to research every term ever used for women in society. There have also been brief adventures in reclaiming ‘bitches’ and ‘sluts’, although these profane microtrends typically die faster and don’t reach mainstream status. And now, we’ve moved past ladies (which today feels mildly dated) into girls. Easy as that, right?
Well, not quite. While some part of this is just the cyclical nature of language, the girls/girlies trend seems much larger than chicks or ladies ever was. It’s bigger and moving faster and has more associated trends. There are think pieces already, and I have a strong feeling more think pieces will be coming soon in mainstream outlets.
So what gives? Why is this happening? I had only one way to find out: I asked the girlies.
The Girlie Alignment Chart
Responses varied wildly when the crowd was asked why so many trends involved ‘girl’ or why people say ‘girlies’ so much now. I think the best way to understand the types of responses is with this handy alignment chart.
The horizontal axis is easy: is the trend good or bad? Opinions vary! The vertical axis is more interesting. Some people insisted there’s not much to analyze here, and overthinking this simple word choice is silly. Others went full Gender Studies PhD and began talking about highly abstract societal forces using very long words. There was so much disagreement that you could find find an answer to “Why is Girlies everywhere?” in every corner of the chart:
At the risk of being a squishy centrist… most of these have merit. Being silly is fun! It’s true! Maybe it’s that simple for some people. Girlies is a funny silly thing to say and so let’s do it. It can also be cringe as too many people (and brands) jump on board. But once you dig deeper, maybe this is about reclaiming positive aspects of girlhood and femininity. But even further - there’s a very, very long history of infantilizing women in media and culture, and it would be wrong to completely ignore that.
With all these conflicting answers, it may seem like we’re no closer to figuring out why this particular trend is so large. But I think the conflicting ideas may actually provide the solution.
The Cognitive Dissonance of Girlies
One of my favorite essays describing social media dynamics is SlateStarCodex’s The Toxoplasma of Rage. The essay is long but worth reading in full. It essentially says that the cleanest versions of things don’t get discussed much, because they’re uncontroversial and there’s nothing to discuss. The most unclear, controversial versions of things get discussed ad nauseum precisely because they are so controversial and give rise to so many arguments, takes, counter-takes, cancellations and fights. It’s why everyone can give an example of PETA being ridiculous, but nobody’s ever heard of the nice and boring Vegan Outreach. Controversy, not quality, causes discourse. And of course this effect is absolutely turbo-charged by social media - it may be a small factor in IRL conversations or traditional media coverage, but it’s the dominant factor for what gets discussed online.
I think this applies in an odd way to all three of chicks, ladies and girlies. All three straddle the line between fun and awful. Used in the right way they can feel flirty, silly, funny, inclusive and joyous. Used in the wrong way they can feel childish, cringe, sexist and demeaning. They can be dumb fun or they can be seriously analyzed. This sort of internalized cognitive dissonance is inherent to a term like Chicks or Girlies, and I think it’s why they catch on so easily.
It’s not exactly the same as ‘controversy sells’, but it’s related. A really good controversial topic will latch hooks into your brain and refuse to let go, dragging you into the discourse almost against your will. Similarly, a kinda-good-kinda-bad, kinda-smart-kinda-dumb phrase like Girlies is an earworm that hooks you when you hear it. Whether you love it or hate it, you’re thinking about it. You hear it and remember it, you see it used creatively and can’t forget. You start to imitate (or get exasperated). The dissonance provides the reaction which provides the fuel to continue the trend.
This also explains why girlies feels bigger than previous iterations. Girlies is the first terms to be truly born in a fully realized social media age. Chicks was pre-social media, and Ladies was born when Facebook was still one of the cool kids. We’ve already explained how social media turbo-charges this sort of phenomenon, and Girlies and all related girl-memes is the first one of these terms to take full advantage of that turbo-charging in our social media saturated present.
To be clear, I’m pro-Girlie and pro-girl-trends. It’s catchy and satisfying. Trends like Hot Girl Summer, Hot Girl Walks, Girlies, etc, are mostly being used in positive ways and the vibes are good in an earnest, non-cynical way. There’s a sense of ironic pleasure and silliness that I enjoy about it, and I also appreciate the meme content being produced.
With that said, I think we’re now reaching peak Girlie and Girl Trend. The Barbie movie comes out in just a few days, and it’s going to be an absolute supernova of GirlPosting and GirlTrending and Girlie Time. I can’t imagine a moment in time ever outshining the premier of Barbie for this phenomenon. It’s all downhill after this. You can also see the idea metastasizing on itself - people are now talking about ‘gorlies’ or doing spin-off versions of fads like Tomato Girl Summer. That’s a sure sign you’re on the downslope of a trend. So take this time to appreciate all the girlies while they’re here. (before we’re talking about lasses or damsels or who the hell knows what else)