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1 January 2024

The Year Of The Girl

JANICE CHAN

2023 is the Year of the Girl. Lazy girl jobs, girl math, girl dinner– we are living in a digital sorority  with perpetual girlhood being our currency and ‘empowerment,’ our anthem. With this brings  community, levity and happiness; and also an insight into the current state of feminism. What should  we expect for the trajectory of our collective liberation, and who pays the price for our subjugation?  Let us take a deeper look into this through three topical angles: the efficacy of mainstream ‘misandry,’ the glamorisation of girlhood and the true cost of beauty labour. 

‘I Hate Men’ and Other Aphorisms 

Julia Fox- actor, muse and cultural icon is the online feminist sociosphere’s newest titan. Her internet  persona is colloquial, remarkable for her nihilistic irreverence and fearless authenticity- a true symbol  of the postmodern anti-celebrity. Fox has amassed a niche but vociferous fanbase of young people whose group mantra consists of the quippy catchphrase ‘I hate men,’ laced with chic nonchalance and  an effortless case of prime LA real estate vocal fry.  

It’s punchy, congregating, and most importantly- has an air of radicalism about it. Following her split  from Kanye West, Fox claimed that she dated him in an act of solidarity with Kim Kardashian,  martyring herself in order for him to leave Kardashian alone. However refreshing her sentiments may  be, Fox represents a modern archetype of white feminism- one which is centred around individual  empowerment, fraudulently radical aphorisms and online aesthetics rather than political engagement  and moves toward collective liberation. 

Notably, I do not care for the emotional response man-hating statements may elicit. My problem lies  in its hollowness- notice the collective nods of approval, the self-satisfied grins. ‘Misandry,’ and I use  that term with reservation (a result of its lack of systemic and political power) emerged from the  fringes of French feminism in the 1970s, presenting itself in the form of a nonviolent response to  misogyny, with a manifesto of strategic value aimed towards advancing the feminist movement.  Initially, these ideas were unsurprisingly subversive. Historian Colette Pipon insisted that radicalism  was necessary at the time in order to spotlight mainstream feminism, portraying them in a far more  favourable, reasonable light and allowing for change to occur. 

Contemporarily, I do not see space for these statements within the feminist sphere- it ensures that our  activism continues to be centered around men, its pithy finality absolving us from delving deeper into  our prejudices following its shock factor, and too often redirects the conversation to an individualistic, consumerist form of feminism rather than mobilising our collective resistance and liberating women  along with all other oppressed groups against systems of patriarchy. Additionally, it maintains that  feminism is explored through an individualist lens- isolating the individual’s experience from the  conversation of collective liberation, and inevitably pedestalising socially ‘palatable’ women. Who  gets to hate men without consequences and who is allowed the freedom to be ‘ugly’ as Fox so often  encourages? Certainly not women who exist on the fringes of society, desperately clawing their way  to survival in an increasingly imbalanced world.  

 

The Cult of Girlhood 

Individual feelings of ‘empowerment’ are increasingly validated in contemporary feminist  conversations. This can be further evidenced with the success of Greta Gerwig’s Barbie, a 113-minute  long Mattel commercial that explores the existential dread of being a woman. Inevitably, the very  nature of the film cannot be divorced from the increasing consumerism we see in modern feminism. A  celebration of the relationship between women, it is fitting that the film was released around the peak  of the girl economy (as coined by Mina Le) where ‘girlifying’ day to day activities in an attempt to  bring whimsy to the mundane became the most prevalent online trend. The cult of girlhood is an  interesting one- as it is certainly appealing to go on a hot girl walk, to eat a girl dinner, to engage in  girl math. There exists a sense of comradery in the existential angst of womanhood, language that  dials back on the horrors we face, suspending rational thought in favour of an enjoyable interpretation  of day to day activities. It certainly has its practical appeal.  

 

The celebration of ‘girlhood’ is liberating- empowering, valuable in its limbo between the transition  from girlhood to womanhood. It is the prequel to a woman’s solidification within society as a wife or  mother. To be a girl is to embody potential, to open the gateway into all the possibilities and  opportunities that may arise. Like the Plathian fig tree, ‘girlhood’ represents freedom; whilst to be a  woman is a far less glamorous endeavour, to have gained and lost in the transformation- a bygone  relic of what could have been, already spent and discarded by the time she realises it. Perhaps calling  yourself a girl empowers you in reclaiming the unencumbered fearlessness and freedom of youth,  especially so in a culture where youth is social currency (Pierre Bourdieu), allowing us to increase our  sense of community, and gain status and recognition. 

But what does it mean when we parrot these popular phrases, does it reinforce our frivolousness, an  inherent naiveté we associate with femininity, or does it serve to subvert and take claim in the  unfettered liberties of girlhood? I struggle to accept the idea that we are in the position to reclaim  misogyny when it was never ours to lay claim upon in the first place.

 

To practice feminism is to subvert, challenge and condemn the subjugation of woman- and I would raise the question of where ‘just a girl’ feminism would fit in the equation. There is no way to practice feminism within the limited framework of girlhood we have been given.  Instead, a complete upheaval of mainstream ideas is necessary- take Ursula Le Guin’s depiction of  menopause which she has coined the ‘change of life’ for instance- where she lauds the worthiness of  old age as a triumph of life. While this idea is biologically particular, Le Guin praises menopause as a  metamorphosis of sorts, valuing its insight into the universal experience of change, transformation,  and inviting us to review our civilizational biases against age.  

 

Similarly, Simone De Beauvoir observes the fear surrounding old age in contemporary Western  culture, where people oftentimes see the state as a ‘semi-death’. De Beauvoir warns us that growing  old is not a project, rather, it is a fact of life in which one will have to practice coming to terms with  as we learn to control for surrender. Le Guin’s depiction of menopause is certainly a charmingly  optimistic one. She claims that the woman must become pregnant with herself and bear her third self,  her old age, with travail and alone. Not many will help her with that birth. There is strength and  wisdom beheld in Le Guin’s philosophy, to take control of the narrative instead of allowing society to  sweep us into an eddy of self-denigration and male-cantered thinking.

 

Empowerment as a Commodity and the True Cost of Beauty 

On a similar note, how do we reconcile individual feelings of ‘empowerment’ and the overall  liberation of women? ‘Empowerment’ becomes a tool of capitalism- the go-to tagline that continues  to subjugate us. Particularly, I want to take a look at beauty labour and how feminist ideas are  commodified and used as a marketing tool. The language we use when discussing surgical  enhancement is deceptively flippant. ‘It’s fun,’ ‘it makes me feel good,’ ‘I feel confident.’  

Perhaps individual empowerment would hold more weight if we did not live in an intrinsically  intertwined society, with the online space closing the gaps between us all at an alarming rate. To  acknowledge the level of insecurity and to spin the narrative in a less-peppy light would be pointing  fingers at the perpetrators and identifying the sufferers- the reality too jarring for our collective  consciousness. Instead, we flash pretty porcelain smiles and repeat the mantra ‘it’s her choice,’  because doing so is easier than admitting the implications of investing in an industry that upholds a  great deal of power over women through its racist, ageist and classist value system. 

‘Reification’ (in Marxist ideology) refers to the process by which human social relations are perceived  as inherent attributes of the people involved in them, or attributes of some product of the relation,  such as a traded commodity. Within the economic space, reification transforms objects into subjects  and then vice versa, resulting in subjects assuming passive identities with objects instead becoming  the determining factor of the nature of a social relation. It is a specific form of alienation (Marx’s idea  that the human experience is meaningless and the self- worthless- within a capitalist society), whilst  commodity fetishism- the idea that describes economic relationships of production and exchange as  social relationships that exist amongst things rather than people- would be the form of reification in  this case. 

It is both disingenuous and unproductive to shift the blame on to fem persons who decide to undertake  cosmetic procedures as a way to alleviate themselves from their oppression. Especially in the case of  gender-affirming surgeries, in which they could be life-saving, or even if they bring great convenience  to one’s experience. To classify cosmetic enhancement as a simple lifestyle preference reifies superficiality as a part of the female condition – the inability to, or the lack of care to work in  solidarity to achieve a shared liberation. Focusing on female empowerment via capitalistic means is not a solution. 

It is important to identify language that perhaps keeps us complacent, stagnant in our journey to  collective liberation. The semantics of which are important when learning to identify what clips our  wings as feminists in an increasingly anti-intellectual online space. We owe it to ourselves to question  relentlessly- to scream, riot and mutilate until we reach true equality. We are sold the cushy idea that  individually ‘feeling’ confident is enough. We are made comfortable, poked, prodded and packaged – all so we forget who is punished and who pays for our subjugation.

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