As far as cultural trends go, it’s safe to say that 2023 has been the year of the girl. Barbie finally hit cinemas and broke $1 billion at the box office; Taylor Swift’s bracelet-brandishing Eras Tour became the second highest grossing in history; Olivia Rodrigo dropped her second album Guts, the ultimate cusp-of-womanhood soundtrack. Meanwhile, everything on TikTok became girlified, from dinners, walks and maths to, er, beer – you get the gist – via clips and montages that held a mirror up to contemporary girlhood.
The girls in these scenarios aren’t always strictly “girls” – in fact, many of them are in their twenties. And so, over the summer, at the height of said girlification, there was much theorisation over what all of this actually means. Are we enforcing the patriarchy by infantalising ourselves and trivialising our own interests? Are we reclaiming the word “girl” and stripping it of its gendered association? Is this one big marketing campaign, or are we just having fun online?
Whatever’s behind it, this girlhood renaissance is also taking off among the demographic it actually describes. Specifically, it’s made many teen girls realise that, beyond IRL experiences and the judgmental sheen of Instagram or Twitter, they’re also craving digital outlets that cater to them – and them only. So where the hell can teenage girls go to be alone online?
This is a question that’s galvanised a spate of new digital hotspots dedicated to girlhood. 2019 saw the arrival of the now-48k-strong r/feemagers subreddit – a space “for teenagers, especially girls and members of the LGBTQ+ community, to embrace their coming-of-age”. This year, two new girl-focused platforms launched: Girlhood, created by 17-year-olds Sophia Rundle and Mia Sugimoto, two friends from Washington DC, and the Discord server girlblogsphere, a haven for tween and teen girls founded by Toronto-based Zoë London, 24.
Girlhood, the website, was actually born out of Barbie-mania. Or, as Rundle puts it, inspired by the movie’s ability to “bring together girls of all ages and create a sense of community. We wanted to encapsulate this feeling of girlhood, where girls could turn to other girls their own age for advice and to read relatable stories.”
The pastel pink, Y2K-coded site, with its cutesy flowers and scrapbook-esque bubble writing (a pastiche of girlhood iconography gone by), comprises blogs about romance, friendships, sexuality and disability, and an agony aunt-esque advice page filled with conundrums that shine a light on the age-old anxieties of being a teenager. “How do I become okay with not having a lot of friends?” and “How do I get over a break-up” are just two of them.
The best thing about this format is Rundle and Sugimoto’s responses, which are peppered with anecdotes and read like you’re talking to your best mate. The pair do stress, though, that they aren’t mental health professionals – hence why they don’t speak on more serious topics such as sexual harassment or eating disorders.
Within weeks of launching over the summer, they amassed over 20,000 advice submissions, more than 84,000 followers on TikTok and 6,000 volunteer offers. “Girls all over the world really loved it,” Rundle continues. “We didn’t expect so much traction in so little time, but there really wasn’t anything like Girlhood anywhere else on the internet.”
As it turns out, there kind of was. Around the same time that Rundle and Sugimoto were launching Girlhood, Zoë London was establishing girlblogsphere. “Everything I do in relation to girlblogger culture is about being the cool-but-still-a-good-influence older sister figure, which I wish I had when I was 13 to 17 years old,” she tells me.
“The Discord is a community space for girls to connect with other girls who have similar interests, but in a way that’s modded so that discussions about more sensitive topics, like mental health and eating disorder recovery, are guided in a positive direction rather than a negative one.”
The channels on girlblogsphere, which currently has over 500 members, are split into categories: chit chat (for memes, venting, feminism), self (for personal growth, eating disorder recovery, selfies), art, and socialisation (which includes channels for gaming and a separate channel dedicated solely to Lana Del Rey). There’s also a pinned list of rules which stress that, while over-18s can join, the Discord is a space for minors; with that in mind, London sought out teen volunteers to act alongside her as moderators.
“I feel like it’s rare that we see adults step up and be proactive about showing young people what a respectful and positive dynamic [looks like],” London says. “In my mind, that means adults getting involved in a space, cultivating it, and then stepping back so it’s not about them. I figured, why not try to do my own small part in that?”
Ironically – or fittingly – this so-called girl renaissance has arrived at a time when tween and teen girlhood is in crisis. Study after study has highlighted rising mental health issues among teens in general, but especially teen girls – between 2011 and 2021, it’s been reported that the number of girls feeling persistently sad and hopeless has grown by 60 per cent.
“Being a teenage girl online is extremely difficult,” Rundle confirms. “The biggest challenge is definitely body image and self-esteem. When we’re constantly surrounded by influencers and people on these platforms with huge followings, it’s easy to get caught up in a mindset that craves perfection. People often interpret social media as one big teen girl hotspot, and so they don’t see the need to create websites geared specifically towards girls’ advice and stories.”
It’s certainly true that there’s a dearth of both online and IRL spaces dedicated to teenagers. Long gone are tween and teen magazines such as Mizz or Smash Hits who, for all their faults, offered very specific content that was curated and edited by journalists. As Angela McRobbie, a sociologist and cultural studies professor at Goldsmiths, and expert in girls’ culture and women’s magazines puts it: “There was an implicit sense of social responsibility [there], which I don’t think is possible in the times of the internet.”
Broader teen girl culture appears to be less well-defined than it once was, too. In the ’90s and ’00s, there was a wealth of films, literature, and fashion targeted at that demographic: Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen, the Angus Thongs books, Tammy Girl. Now, content has been homogenised: we’re all watching the same shows, reading the same publications and scrolling variations of the same timelines whether we’re 13, 23 or 33.
But maybe this paradigm shift isn’t necessarily a bad one. Isn’t it better for “girl culture” to become more politicised and encapsulate a wider range of issues? A cursory glance at Teen Vogue’s homepage alone suggests we’re redefining formerly narrow ideas about what we might consider “girls’ issues”.
“What is now deemed ‘girl culture’ is much more porous and difficult to categorise culturally [than it was in the ’90s and ’00s],” says Halle Singh, co-founder of the Girlhood Studies Collective.
“The reality is that girlhood has never looked one way. As Black women and the LGBTQ+ community have shown us, ‘girl’ is an extremely flexible category, used to not only establish connection with other femmes, non-binary, and trans folks, but it also, in turn, forcibly expands what the notion of ‘girl’ can relate to. Social media plays a massive role in this, as trends constantly change what we might consider girls’ culture to be.”
True enough, intersectionality is at the heart of r/feemagers, Girlhood, and girlblogsphere. “Girlhood means vulnerability and self-expression,” says 19-year-old Sam, one of girlblogsphere’s main moderators. “It flexes and bends for however you want to look on the outside. [That’s why] us mods try hard to keep the Discord an inclusive space for as many people as possible.”
No digital space is perfect, but if anyone’s going to create an online nirvana of sorts, for teen girls to feel safe, respected, and understood, then it’s going to be teen girls themselves who do so – as is the legacy of Tavi Gevinson’s trailblazing Rookie Mag. “As members of the second sex, we’re taught pretty early on that you’re either a person or you’re a woman,” London concludes. “Girlhood to me is neither: it’s a third thing entirely.”