Taken from the new print issue of THE FACE. Get your copy here.
Sorry, Megan, but Hot Girls are out. This summer is all about the feral girl, the ratgirl and, if you’re bold, the girlboss cannibal. If the algorithms and trend pieces are correct, 2022 will replace the hot girl’s waxed ‘n’ vaxxed seamless perfection with a sloppy, chaotic and faintly debauched figure. Appetite rules in 2022, and bodies must be fed.
Look around you: the world is cringe and the unruly feral girl holds a kind of insane logic as she weathers the blazing heat of sleek summer nights looking for trouble in yesterday’s knickers, a warming vodka-soda in her manicured hand (chipped, press-on, whatev). This summer, all the feral girl wants is to enjoy her unapologetically stinky, messy self.
The hot girl, as the feral girl knows, is overrated. Hotness is boring, one-note, a thin, plastic and unsustainable ideal. Hot girls require, like, work. Hot girls wake at 5am to colour-code their fridges before drinking a green juice, sweating through a Blogilates workout and snapping a highly filtered selfie of their wee dump-truck bums for the ’gram. Hot girls kowtow each morning and every evening to their 12-step skincare regime. They have to get blow outs and spray tans. Where’s the pay-off, asks the feral girl – who gets in at 5am – when you could choose to sleep late and wake up in last night’s make-up like Our Lady of Perpetual High Hair, Dolly Parton?
In literature (Nightbitch, Vladimir), on the small screen (Yellowjackets, Russian Doll), in the charts (Lorde, Doja Cat) and on the street (Julia Fox, Kristen Stewart), the Feral Girl (and her dishevelled sisters) is having her dirty moment and loving it.
More filthy-gorgeous-gorgeous girl than her drab goblincore sister (not to be confused with goblin mode, the feral girl’s baseline mood, the goblincore chick dresses in tatty fae clothes and obsesses over the perfect cup of tea), the feral girl sniffs her pits before dashing out the door in smudged eyeliner to Uber to this friend of a friend’s party where she may or may not ingest questionably legal substances. Or she stays at home, chugs Red Bulls and plumbs the depths of obscure Reddit threads. Maybe she listens to DJ mixes that Julia Fox herself has on shuffle and, no, she won’t tell you where she downloaded them. The feral girl goes until her body breaks, she drinks water only when the sesh has deteriorated by the keen light of day and she shags whomever she damn well pleases – or not. Sex is a little cheugy when you stop to think about it.
The feral girl quotes actress Sydney Sweeney – not when she plays Euphoria’s Cassie but White Lotus’s Olivia; Cassie’s earnest desperation is too perfumed. As Olivia observed in last summer’s HBO hit, “making shit happen all the time is a compulsion” and the feral girl doesn’t have the energy to make or the time to do. She has the animal instinct to feel.
The feral girl envies Juliette Lewis’s ability to sustain three decades of effortlessly dirty indefatigable cool, most recently on view in the schoolgirl survival drama Yellowjackets, but she doesn’t imitate it as much as re-embody it. The feral girl thinks she’s Fleabag (pre-hot priest), aspires to being Villanelle and hopes she’s not Eve, caught between worlds. The feral girl is not a cool girl. She is no one’s pick-me girl and she definitely won’t be your manic pixie dream girl.
The feral girl doesn’t care what you think of her and her enviably musky existence because the she wants it all: chaotic joy and blissful oblivion.
This unhinged world doesn’t deserve the feral girl at her best – it can take her at her worst. And her worst is, as your university English lecturer would say, embodied. The feral girl embraces the oil in her hair, the smell of her sweat, the primacy of her bodily needs. She eats what she wants to eat when she wants to eat it and sleeps when she wants to sleep. She doesn’t care if you think she’s gross because grossness is kind of the point. She aspires to the ratlife, a lifestyle predicated on guilt-free consumption, indulgence, indolence and glamorous filth.
Anna Bogutskaya, horror critic, host of podcast The Final Girls, and FACE contributor, draws a straight line between feral girls and the refusal to perform conventional, filtered femininity. “You can see [the feral girl] as a direct response to the “that girl” trope that emerged in the last couple of years. Especially during the pandemic, there was an over-fixation on health, on doing your workout and then cataloguing it via video and being extremely happy about it.” Bogutskaya suggests that the feral girl is the “kind of a woman who is not necessarily crazy or out of control, but just completely allowing herself to be very bodily and gross”.
Abjectly gross girls are everywhere you look — especially book culture. Sometimes the feral girl chooses, à la Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation (2018), to collapse on her stained couch, slugged into slumber with a selection of specious drugs. Moshfegh, creator of the somnambulant unnamed narrator of My Year… and the poo-obsessed narrator of Eileen, her 2015 debut novel, is the undisputed feral girl literary queen. But Eliza Clark’s sharply homicidal Irina in 2020’s Boy Parts and Mona Awad’s delightfully visceral Samantha in Bunny (2019) – or my own food-critic-turned-cannibal Dorothy in my 2020 debut, A Certain Hunger – show that Moshfegh does not rule alone. From the frustrated protagonists of mordant internet darling Melissa Broder to the murderous creations of Oyinkan Braithwaite, feral girls populate bestseller lists, indie bookstore shelves and your bestie’s TBR pile.
There’s a deep pleasure in letting your female self go fucking wild, as Ella Purnell, who plays Jackie, the team captain of Yellowjackets, admits in an interview for THE FACE, “What makes me love [the show] is the fact that you get to see these women be completely feral.” Television shows like Yellowjackets, the story of a high school girls’ football team whose plane crashes in the Canadian Rockies (and they may or may not be about to eat their teammates), darkly comedic female-led zombie programmes like iZombie and Santa Clarita Diet, and surrealist, dreamily mordant shows like Russian Doll all depict what happens when women luxuriate in their own mess, with varying results.
Culturally and in recent history, the feral girl has long, beautiful legs. Rihanna goes on a gleeful, blood-soaked crime spree with her besties in Bitch Better Have My Money, while Lana Del Rey finds dreamy, minimalist peace by shooting down a helicopter with a rocket launcher in High By the Beach (both 2015), Beyoncé enjoys sherbet-hued carnage with a baseball bat in Hold Up (2016) and Ashnikko teams up with Yung Baby Tate for a boy-killing spree in STUPID (2019). Today’s feral girl has yet to release her summer banger, but no doubt some dirty jangly song will drop when we need it.
The feral girl perhaps shines most darkly on the silver screen. Starring both undisputed feral hottie Megan Fox and feral-girl-next-door Amanda Seyfried, Jennifer’s Body has, a decade after its 2009 release, attained feminist cult status for its juicily visceral ferociousness. Meanwhile, flicks like last year’s Titane and 2016’s Raw, both from French director Julia Ducournau, and Luca Guadagnino’s upcoming Bones & All suggest that ferality is a global phenomenon. From turn-of-the-millennium movies like 2000’s Ginger Snaps or the more recent All Cheerleaders Die (2013) through to new releases, the cinematic feral girl reveals the sad absurdity of heterosexuality through violence. We forgive them. These girls are not killing people; they’re killing boys.
Filthiness, bodily functions, murderous impulses – revelling in the salty, wet sides of life has long been denied to female humans. Girls are taught to be pink and perfumed, sweet and contained. The gross and violent body is decidedly gendered male (Patrick Bateman, Hannibal Lecter, Leatherface… need I go on?), even though culture largely considers female bodies to be unknowable sites of uncanny and indescribable horror. Your average man, viral TikTok videos reveal, is unable to point at the vagina on a diagram of female genitalia. No surprise when these same clueless randos expect women to “smell like water down there”.
The feral girl slaps the face of the patriarchy’s sweetly scented, disembodied expectations and she rejects its coiffed, implanted, hyper-fit and filtered beauty standards. The feral girl carries herself with a “fuck around and find out” swagger, and that’s what makes her so goddamn attractive.
But more than being merely careless, the feral girl is slobcore with an agenda. Bogutskaya suggests that the feral girl is “not necessarily crazy or out of control, but completely allowing herself to be very bodily and gross”. Think about it: the titular succubus Jennifer eats boys to achieve her superhuman beauty; Boy Parts’ Irina single-mindedly pursues art while nurturing a legit eating disorder; the Yellowjackets frame their bacchanalian feasts with a pagan ritual fuelled by a dinner laced with magic mushrooms. The feral girl has method to her badness, whether she’s out for a good time or for blood.
However, the freeing energy of a feral girl is open only to a slender slice of femininity: those who are rich and white and thin and privileged enough to appear civilised when necessary. Youth can also function as a permission slip for savage behaviour, as the feral becomes fearsome when the girl has (or, at least, should have) aged out of it – something that Yellowjackets explores by depicting the team in two timelines, 1996 and 2021.
“You guys are just as fucked up as I am,” recovering addict Nat (Lewis) growls at her former teammates, the philandering suburban mum Shauna and dangerously feckless power lesbian Tai. “You’re just better at lying about it,” she adds – and maybe they are. Nat, now in her forties, still sleeps in her torn fishnets, her seedy motel bed a tangled nest of sheets and dirty clothes, while the wildness of Shauna and Tai bubbles under an acceptable surface.
Dr. Kate Robertson, a film historian and writer, suggests that the Yellowjackets dual timelines reveal how “feral girl” can operate as a coping mechanism for the stranded teammates. “The parallel story outlines the future repercussions, tracing their transformation from high-school soccer champions into resilient, self-sufficient and traumatised adults,” she says. “These women never forget and cannot escape their experiences and the girls that they became in the woods.”
Nightbitch, Rachel Yoder’s delightfully squelchy animalistic debut novel, published last year, centres on a nameless stay-at-home mom who maybe turns into a dog (an adaptation starring Amy Adams starts filming later this year). Yoder told me that the “power of feral girls seems more tied up in sexuality and wildness, a sort of adolescent unbridledness, whereas the power of feral women, while it certainly has a sexual element, seems to originate and centre itself more in a knowledge of the self and rejection of gender roles and patriarchal myths about womanhood.”
Feral females, whether girls or women, are cannily strategic, even mindful in their loss of control. This layers irony to the choice of being feral as a coping strategy. You can look as unhinged as you want, babes, but when you choose to go feral to subvert the patriarchy, gain power, attain ecstasy or rid yourself of a troublesome man, your superego is never that far from your id. How feral can you be when you treat these animalistic impulses like a pair of shoes you dip your toes in and out of?
The girlboss cannibal – the feral girl’s visceral, hungry sister – might have an answer to this existential question.
I was flummoxed the first few times I saw “girlboss cannibal” and “girlboss Hannibal” appear on Goodreads reviews of my book. The two nouns don’t seem to occupy the same address. Girlboss, a term that saw a meteoric rise and fall in the late 2010s, has shifted from connoting female empowerment and inclusivity to meaning white women engaging in capitalist gatekeeping and gaslighting of Black and brown women. Cannibal, in stark contrast, feels almost morally pure. Sure, cannibals eat other people. But at least they’re honest about it.
The idea of the girlboss cannibal, however, didn’t die a quick, clean death; it hung with me and I chewed on it, so to speak. I began to consider how, as with capitalism, the dynamic of cannibalism radically changes when it’s the woman at the head of the table. Power: the cannibals have it, their victims don’t. This inequity may sit at the heart of people who eat people, at least in art, where the cannibal is almost exclusively male.
In this year’s stylish horror-comedy Fresh, Steve, winkingly played by Sebastian Stan, is a plastic surgeon who turns to the dark side of slicing and dicing. As much as the film takes a candy-coloured look at the dark side of hetero dating, it also drags a scalpel across the commoditisation of female bodies. Unlike Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal series (2013 – 15), where the biggest sexual charge came from the will-they-or-won’t‑they erotic dance between Hannibal (Mads Mikkelsen) and FBI profiler Will Graham (Hugh Dancy), Fresh makes male power over women the essential point of cannibalism.
Robertson sees “girlboss cannibalism” as a tongue-in-cheek form of self-identification. “The #girlbosscannibal takes an active role in her story, asserting power over her life in a world where power is so often denied. She does what she wants. She takes what she wants. On screen, she subverts expectations of the roles played by women – especially in horror, where they’re so often limited to helpless victim or [the] ‘final girl,’” she says, referring to the female who, like Jamie Lee Curtis’s Laurie Strode in Halloween, stands alone in the carnage at the end of a horror film.
Bogutskaya seconds this idea, saying: “If you subscribe to this idea that women are physically unable to overpower men, the figure of the female cannibal is doing precisely that. It’s about a complete upheaval of power.” When Daisy Edgar-Jones’ Noa, the female protagonist in Fresh, chooses to sit down at a meal with Steve and knowingly eat human flesh, she signals to the audience a shift in tone. Noa has herself already lost part of her ass to Steve’s capitalist cannibalist enterprise, but with her first, tentative bite, she starts to take her power back.
The girlboss cannibal has the unapologetic, rapacious appetite of your prototypical boss or archetypal maneater. She is Charli XCX in a power suit, eating boys up, breakfast and lunch, and using their fingers to stir her tea. If the feral girl is a temporary tattoo and the feral woman a terrifying anomaly, the girlboss cannibal holds a place of power, striding the line between earnest and ironic, legs akimbo in an unquestionably dominant stance.
Bogutskaya notes that the girlboss cannibal “has an understanding of the hunger and the urge. There is a processing of it and then there’s a conscious decision to make the choices that they make, a thinking through of the consequences and of how to avoid them, so they can, if they want to, continue doing the thing they want to do.”
The figure of the girlboss cannibal is the ultimate feral girl, an anarchic cultural force. You can’t shed your cannibalism like yesterday’s heels because people who eat people can’t ever take it back. Like the survivors of Yellowjackets or, indeed, my novel’s protagonist, the girlboss cannibal may have to live with the consequences of her actions. But at least she never went hungry.
How many smoothie-sipping basic bitches can say the same?
Appetite whetted for more girlboss cannibalism? A Certain Hunger by Chelsea G. Summers is published on 7th July 2022 by Faber