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Why 2023 was the Year of the Girl

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

2023 truly was the year of girl culture. Themes of girlhood were everywhere, from the hugely popular "Barbie" movie...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BARBIE")

MARGOT ROBBIE: (As Barbie) Hi, Barbie.

EMMA MACKEY: (As Barbie) Hi, Barbie.

ISSA RAE: (As Barbie) Hi, Barbie.

SUMMERS: ...To girl dinner...

(SOUNDBITE OF TIKTOK VIDEO)

LAUREN: This is my meal. I call this girl dinner.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) Girl dinner, girl dinner.

SUMMERS: ...To ballet flats and hyperfeminine styles. And, of course, there was pink everywhere. Grown women all over were embracing the identity of girl. Isabel Cristo recently wrote about this phenomenon for The Cut, and she joins us now. Hi there.

ISABEL CRISTO: Hi. Thanks so much for having me.

SUMMERS: Thanks for being here. So I have definitely noticed a lot of these trends. I mean, they're impossible to escape on TikTok and social media. But I want to ask you - when did you start to realize this was more than just a couple of fads and that embracing girlhood is really a cultural phenomenon right now?

CRISTO: It feels omnipresent. I think it was in the summer - you know, we were in the thick of the summer of Barbie, the summer of the Eras Tour. I think the new "Little Mermaid" movie had just come out. You couldn't really walk a block in downtown New York without running headlong into legwarmers and ballet flats and pleated schoolgirl skirts and, like, bows - so many bows. And yeah, I think I quipped, like, is there any culture for adult women anymore? Like, are they still making that?

SUMMERS: Let's get into why this trend has been so prominent. What do you think it is that attracts women to identifying with girlhood? Or, as you put it in your piece for The Cut, what's so unappealing about being an adult woman?

CRISTO: Yeah. You know, that question was a bit of a rhetorical one. I think anyone who has been plugged in at all this year knows exactly what's so uninviting about being an adult woman in the year 2023. I think that, you know, part of what the girlhood trend is is sort of responding to a quite bleak political landscape. You know, we're in the direct aftermath of the Dobbs decision, and then we're also in the midst of a sort of larger conservative backlash. And I think that leaves us feeling sort of a bit unmoored and a bit untethered to a identity of womanhood that is, like, rooted in joy and lightness and playfulness.

SUMMERS: I wonder, from your perspective, how much of this is about selling things to women to make money, and how much of it is about personal connection to a childhood sense of joy and wonder?

CRISTO: I think those are really difficult to disentangle between the sort of individual, individuated experience of girlhood and the sort of mass-marketing of girlhood and girlishness. There's also, you know, the internet. And one thing that I, you know, didn't really get into in the piece, but I think is worth mentioning, is that, like, the language of the internet is irony. That's the sort of lingua franca. And so this really interesting tension arises when you have, for example, a political moment like Dobbs that really demands a kind of collective earnestness. You know, it demands being in the streets. It demands, like, political organizing. But, of course, the internet can't really metabolize that earnestness. And so I think that's why we see the rise of these, like, aesthetics and subcultures where you can sense that they have something to do with the political moment at hand, but it's not quite clear. It's a bit ambiguous or opaque, you know, what it is they actually want to be saying about that political moment.

SUMMERS: Isabel, if 2023 was indeed peak girl culture, do you think it's been a good thing?

CRISTO: I think it is a good thing in the sense that I have a deep well of empathy for and also am interested in how my own girlhood, you know, prefigures my womanhood. And I have the same interest, you know, for women collectively to be thinking critically about that. The only thing I would say is we should be careful about the ways that that sort of self-infantilization or mass infantilization could play into some more sinister agendas.

I think, you know, one of the things I was noticing when I was watching all of these women online identify as girls or girlies is that the refrain wasn't I'm a girl - it was I'm just a girl - you know, this kind of, like, position of powerlessness. And I think that that is totally fine and good and fun, you know, when you're just sort of, like, speaking to a very microscopic, subcultural community on the internet, but I think we should always be thinking about how women in the context of, like, a feminist movement might be able to generate political power.

SUMMERS: Isabel Christo's piece, "Woman In Retrograde" appears in The Cut. Thank you so much for talking with me.

CRISTO: Thank you so much. Have a happy new year. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Emma Klein
Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.