Girlhood Is Trending, But Actual Girlhood Has Never Been More Fraught

The same girls who made Summer 2023 the season of Barbie and Beyoncé have fewer rights than their mothers.



Squint a little, and the past several months have been a teen dream.

Girls are beading bracelets and bedazzling crop tops. Girls are overnighting bejeweled dresses and glue guns and metallic feathers and red lipstick. Hundreds of thousands of girls are wearing hot pink and disco silver. Girls are getting in line, scanning their tickets, whispering to their friends, dancing, screaming, singing, wrapping their arms around each other. Lights are flashing. Music is blaring. Hair bows are back. Smocked dresses are selling out. Dua Lipa is a mermaid.

In pop culture and on social media, this has been a season of and for girls. With the Eras Tour, Taylor Swift — patron saint of a certain kind of girlhood — has generated a billion dollars in revenue and delivered hours-long odes to love and heartbreak and friendship. At several stops on the Renaissance World Tour, Beyoncé has opted to share the stage with her own daughter; videos ping across social media — Blue Ivy dancing, Beyoncé hanging back and beaming. In theaters, Barbie is on track to become one of the top-grossing domestic movie releases of all time. Cinemas have been splashed pink in her honor. Even renowned activist Malala Yousafzai embraced the film’s charms. She wore the signature fuchsia to attend a screening with her husband. When she posted a photo on Instagram, she captioned it as director Greta Gerwig intended: “This Barbie has a Nobel Prize. He’s just Ken.”

It all sounds sweet. Candied and infectious and like something close to progress. Here are girls! Defining the culture. Snarling traffic. Fueling entire local economies with their spending power.

Now take a closer look: Outside of the air-conditioned theaters, outside of the stadiums where tens of thousands of fans descend to revel in the emotions and attitudes of feminine might, far from the malls trading in adolescent nostalgia, the news is grim.

For real, warm-blooded girls, girlhood has not been a euphoric experience of late. The same fans who’ve been streaming into massive arenas have fewer liberties than their mothers did. In the months since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, dozens of states have passed draconian anti-abortion laws. Girls in middle school have been forced to carry pregnancies to term. Others have had to travel hundreds of miles to access a routinely performed and exceedingly safe procedure. With the start of a fresh semester comes the return of school shootings, which more than half of teens in the United States say they fear. For girls in particular, rates of depression and anxiety are up. The National Institute of Mental Health puts the prevalence of a major depressive episode for adolescent girls at 29 percent—more than one in four. According to recent CDC research, more than half of girls report feeling “persistently sad or hopeless.”

The signs and signals of girlhood are in—not just bangs and bloomers and strawberry girl makeup, but “girl dinners” and “hot girl walks.” Yet basic education is under fire, girls are being arrested at higher rates than ever, and teenage girls are experiencing record levels of violence. On Netflix, the show Wednesday—starring Jenna Ortega as a glowering high schooler with a penchant for jerky dancing—broke records and captivated viewers of all ages and genders. But girls themselves are facing proposed legislation in Florida that would ban discussions of their own reproductive health until the sixth grade.

Girlhood is fraught under the best circumstances. It’s an age of profound change and self-discovery. It can be awkward, painful, heartbreaking, and deeply weird. Girls can be mean! We do them no favors when we insist they’re all angels. But let’s face it: Ours have not been the best circumstances. You could call it a cruel summer, but that would do little to answer the most obvious question: How the hell did we get here?

The truth is that for as long as girls have been recognized as a cohort, their dollars have been valued more than their personhood. Girls as spenders are cheered; girls as citizens are sidelined. In 1958, the cultural critic Dwight Macdonald chronicled the development of the American teenager for an article in the New Yorker. Adolescence as a cultural force was still novel—an invention of the postwar era. But the new not-quite adults had wasted no time asserting themselves. That same year, Life Magazine estimated that the “juvenile market” was worth $33 billion. Girls fueled much of it, spending on lipstick and clothes and music and movies. Advertisers clamored for their approval. Entire industries depended on their taste. But the voting age was still 21 and sex discrimination was legal. Thanks to girls, Elvis had become a superstar. But banks would be free to bar women from accessing their own credit cards until 1974.

Things started to change for girls in the wake of the Civil Rights movement, thanks to the bravery, in large part, of Black girls. In 1972, Title IX passed, prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sex in educational institutions and activities that received federal funds. Optimism flooded into the cultural consciousness.

It was a sentiment I noticed constantly while I worked on my book Young and Restless: The Girls Who Sparked America’s Revolutions. All over the country, girls confronted their school administrators about dress codes and protested sexist curricula. In her own journey into the archives of the iconic feminist magazine Ms. for a new compendium titled 50 Years of Ms., Jennifer Weiss-Wolf saw it too. Girls wrote letters to the editors of the magazine or even entire articles for it. Several brimmed with a sense of potential. So much was about to become possible. “My pessimism grows a little when I go back and read some of the pieces,” says Weiss-Wolf, who served as a contributor to the book and is executive director at the Birnbaum Women’s Leadership Center at NYU Law. “I see how much hope and spirit [was there].” 



Wendy Mink—an independent scholar, the daughter of Congresswoman Patsy Takemoto Mink, and the co-author of Fierce and Fearless: Patsy Takemoto Mink, First Woman of Color in Congress—watched that ferocious optimism get unleashed in real time. She was 20 when the aforementioned landmark bill passed, with her mother serving as one of its legislative champions. What has stuck with Mink all this time is “the hunger that was demonstrated, the hunger of girls and women for opportunities to forge their path,” she tells me. “But it wasn’t easy for people who opened the doors back in 1972 and it’s not easy for people who are struggling to make it through the doors in 2023.”

Five decades later, it’s hard to imagine girls feel the same undimmed cheer that Weiss-Wolf found in back issues of Ms. Studies show girls are more afraid than ever to fail. The pressure to be picture-perfect is so all-consuming that Greta Gerwig insisted her version of Barbie experience it too. In the movie, the toy doll whose measurements were famously anatomically impossible shrieks when she wakes up to cellulite and flat feet. Barbie begs for a solution and has to leave her utopian seaside Dreamhouse to find it. Worse than her puckered thigh is the realization that men rule the real world. The girls watching her on screen know better. It’s no shock to them that women are not in charge.

“Yes, it’s weird that Barbie, Taylor, and Beyoncé are coming out with these pro-girl, pro-women messages at a time when women’s equality has never been more precarious,” says Melissa Murray, a professor of law at New York University and the co-host of the Strict Scrutiny podcast. “But these movements are themselves backlashes. They may be very effective as expressions of consumer preferences, but they don’t necessarily cash out into the aggregation of rights or the recuperation of rights that were lost.”

She means: Thousands of women and girls can shout themselves hoarse when Beyoncé prompts, “All my independent women—where you at?” But that doesn’t change the fact their actual independence is conditional—jurisdiction-dependent.

Murray worries that “moments like this are sort of opiates”—distractions from the disempowerment of women in the political realm. In a recent piece for the New York Times, Anna Marks touches on this tension too. If the current wave of feminism "is predicated on a bunch of people who are choosing the escape of being a girl over the hard labor of being a woman," she writes, "the constraint around womanhood is not going to change."

But then Murray admits she is mulling this issue over as she chooses an outfit. She has tickets to a stop on the Renaissance World Tour later in the week. “It speaks to the particular power of a couple of women—and maybe to the potential of all of us—that I’m a normal person, and I’m sitting here looking at one of the most horrendous lamé shirts I’ve ever seen because Beyoncé said, ‘It’s Virgo season. Wear silver.’” She wonders, and I do too: How else might we be rallied? What else could we do if we decided to get organized and band together?

Not all of the people who saw Barbie or Beyoncé share the same politics, Murray points out. (“You could be super pro-life and be in your Fearless era!”) But it’s worth thinking about what has driven girls—so minimized and degraded—to spend these hot months seeking refuge in spaces that declare without hesitation that girls matter and their tastes and passions deserve attention.

We don’t know whether it will move them to protest or mint a new generation of activists. But we do know that girlhood mania has done it before.

In their book The Adoring Audience, the scholars Barbara Ehrenreich, Elizabeth Hess, and Gloria Jacobs recount a chaotic scene: Hundreds of girls are racing forward as police order them to disperse. Dust swirls. The cops strain to keep them back. It sounds like a protest, but there’s no principled chanting. Instead, a voice cries out: “I love Ringo!”

The authors contend that Beatlemania was “the first and most dramatic uprising of women’s sexual revolution.” In a repressive era, it gave girls permission to “abandon control—to scream, faint, dash about in mobs.” It put them in touch with their desires. When the screaming girls grew up, some of them became second-wave feminists. Maybe they had learned to like the sound of their own voices. Maybe this generation will too.

No movie or concert—and not even Beyoncé—can solve entrenched inequality. But they can make girls feel less alone. They can show them that a more glittering world is possible.

Stephanie Villanueva-Villar was 19 when, in 2017, she founded Your Girl for Good, a D.C.-based nonprofit that connects teenage girls of color with successful women of color in STEM, arts, and politics. “Growing up as a teenage girl of color, it was frustrating to have so many high institutions of power in your backyard—the White House, the Supreme Court, financial institutions, tech company headquarters—but at the same time, to feel like you are the demographic that’s most excluded from any decision-making.” Now she works with young women, and she sees how they make their desires known to the powers that be. Villanueva-Villar points to Victoria’s Secret, a brand that young women have historically powered. When executives belatedly realized that their clientele had lost interest in their backwards approach to femininity and sexuality, they had no choice but to rebrand. “Now they have a completely different model,” Villanueva-Villar says, “and that’s because of young women and girls demanding that.”

She takes as another win the fact that girls are defining a new, increasingly wrathful kind of cool. “When I look at Olivia Rodrigo’s music,” she says, as an example, “I see the frustration, I see the angst, I see the punk elements of it, and it’s definitely reflective of this new wave of a generation that really is not taking ‘no’ for an answer.”

Rodrigo has just released her latest album Guts, a record fluent in the emotional language of girls. Her previous album Sour was similarly expressive. When Rodrigo went on tour for it, she noticed how girls had taken to shouting the words to her song “Traitor” back at her. The song rages that there’s no punishment for breaking the heart of a teenage girl. She wrote it about an ex, but it could just as easily have been about the wider world, which has been telling a tired old tale about whom it prizes.

In an interview with the New York Times, Rodrigo acknowledged that the song was sad, but “deep down,” she continued, it was more about anger than despair. She described looking out at the audience each night and seeing girls with “tears streaming down their faces, screaming.” Each one “felt how I felt,” she said. “It’s the coolest thing ever.”

Mattie Kahn is a writer and the author of Young and Restless: The Girls Who Sparked America’s Revolutions.

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