Is TikTok girlhood the fifth wave of feminism?

Is TikTok girlhood the fifth wave of feminism?

by Juliette Eleuterio
6 min

When Virginia Woolf said “a woman must have […] a room of one’s own,” could she have imagined that room would actually be an online space, and more specifically, your TikTok FYP with its girlhood obsession?

Bows, Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides, and the entirety of Lana Del Rey’s discography are all things that were once shamed for enjoying, but have become core components of what makes up girlhood. TikTok has given a resurgence and a defence in all things girl-coded, which were once shrugged off as frivolous and lacking substance, and were doomed with its ascribed ‘uncool’ label.

2023 was undoubtedly the year of girlhood. The former half of the year brought us a whole marketing masterplan for Greta Gerwig’s Barbie filled with childhood dreams of a Barbie house (in our modern times, an AirBnB) and of being dressed just like Barbie, as Margot Robbie and her stylist Andrew Mukamal so effortlessly pulled off. There was also the uber successful Eras tour and subsequently Taylor Swift being nominated as Time’s Person of the Year, finally giving proper credit to the cultural power of the Swifties.

@jordyntayylor could use it as a blanket🙄 #birthcontrol #birthcontrolsideeffects #birthcontrolsideeffectssheet #fyp #girlhood ♬ som original – isa ✩

Internet spaces were once an extension of real life, a space to discuss current events and catch up with what your friends did last weekend, though in the last few years, and increasingly so on TikTok, it has become a place to create reality. ‘Feral girls,’ ‘rat girl summer,’ ‘hot girl walk,’ ‘girl dinner,’ and other sub-genres of girls and girl activities are all terms that have stemmed from social media and crept into our offline lives. While less of a revolutionary act, these terms act as an embellishment, a rebranding of our lives, where we, as women, can better understand and enjoy ourselves, our behaviour, and our everyday tasks.

It only makes sense that TikTok was the birthplace of girlhood, as we know it today. The app was made for and run by our generation of late teens to young adults who are coming to grips with our identity. If we look at the history of women, we would have all had (at least) one child by now, taking on motherhood as our core identifier. Instead, this generation is leaving kid-related business to our 30s, if at all, which means we’re able to explore our identity like never before.

With the internet, and TikTok’s scarily-accurate algorithm, girls and women alike have been given a certain freedom. We no longer need to be accepted by an institution, company, or group to be heard. All it takes is a quick video, hitting upload, and your point will soon be heard by a like-minded community who share a similar sense of identity. The internet simply doesn’t have a glass ceiling holding us back.

@ogee_off 🎀🎀🎀🎀🎀 #coquette ♬ Henna Timar – ⭐️

In the case of girlhood, this new-found identity has a sense of nostalgia to it. Lace trimmed cami tops and shorts like the ones our mums used to dress us in during our early childhood, decorative snap hair clips, and ballet flats – which writer and Girl Studies creator Claire Marie Healy rightfully points out ‘The physical architecture of the ballet shoe produces its own metaphor for idealised girlhoods: the expectation to appear shiny and flexible, and to conceal unruly or dysfunctional interiors” –  have had a massive comeback, and it’s no coincidence. On one hand, there seems to be a general sense of not wanting to grow up that lingers within our generation. Why would we settle for paying taxes, utility bills, and updating our LinkedIn page when we could live in a whimsical world where our main worry is how to get our blue eyeshadow to look just like The Love Witch?

On the other hand, the childlike nature of girlhood acts as a reclamation of our childhoods, which many of us feel like we’ve been robbed of. As early as our pre-teen years, we’ve been told to cross our legs when sitting down, to beware of the length of our skirts, and to wear padded bra tops, lest we attract unwanted attention. As teens, we already had to act as adults, and as adults we want to go back to our childhood, a time where we didn’t have to think about clutching our keys on our way home or which male celebrity will be the next to be exposed of his sexual indecencies. 

As much as visual queues, such as the bow, have aided in the creation of the girlhood phenomenon, girlhood goes beyond images. It’s intrinsic to all women and women-identifying individuals. Emotions are now being examined under a girl coded lens – saying you feel like going Gone Girl on them underlines the way you feel misunderstood and unconsidered in your relationship. Hysteria, a term once used to describe women who actually expressed themselves (and also a part of the criteria for getting a lobotomy in the 1930s, according to The New York Times), has been discarded and instead replaced with female rage, with women encouraging each other to go full-on Pearl mode.

As Simone De Beauvoir said, “One is not born, but becomes a woman.” By this, De Beauvoir pointed out the flawed gender construct that kept women inferior to men, as they would only become worthy of an identity in relation to their male counterparts; the girl becomes the wife, who in turn becomes the matriarch to continue this vicious cycle. TikTok girlhood is, in part, breaking down that cycle.

While girlhood isn’t the end-all be-all of feminist issues and may just seem like a bit of silly internet fun, it has finally allowed girls, and women, to define themselves on their own terms. And that’s a privilege us women have, historically, rarely been afforded.

Main image credit: @laravioletta

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