And yet I still found myself mistrusting something about all of this: In 2023, it felt like the world was glorifying girlhood, or an exaggerated version of it, more loudly than at any time I could remember (or at least since I was 16 and dressing as a Spice Girl for Halloween). Was it just coincidence that this embrace came at a time when girls themselves seemed so very miserable?
If the year in girl culture were to be charted, you might say it began with Beyoncé, who became the most decorated Grammy artist of all time, climaxed with Barbiemania, which broke studio records and led to a shortage of pink paint, and ended with Taylor Swift, whose Eras Tour became the highest-grossing music tour in history and who was just named Time’s person of the year. Girlhood literally boosted the economy.
But it wasn’t just the commercial aspects of girlhood that defined the year, it was the celebration of it: in mothers and daughters posting selfies as they belted the lyrics to “Fifteen”; in childhood girlfriends, now grown women, traversing the country to see Beyoncé perform onstage with her own 11-year-old daughter, and leaving a trail of silver in their wake. Girlhood was in the flash mobs that broke out early this year, as little girls mimicked the high school dance sequence in “Wednesday,” the Netflix smash hit about a teenage girl with a penchant for the macabre, who seemed not to care about boys or rules.
In many ways, these displays of girly euphoria have been a delight to watch; pure, unfiltered, even unselfconscious, in a time that is the opposite. They also felt like an antidote, or maybe a carefully calculated distancing, from the realities and difficulties of being women. “There’s not a lot of joy in adult womanhood in this time,” said Susan Faludi, journalist and feminist critic. Ms. Faludi and I had been circling this point for months, ever since we saw the Barbie movie together, which she interpreted as a parable about abortion. “I sort of feel like, OK, you know who wouldn’t want to be a girl?” she asked. “I think we all feel so frightened and insecure and unsafe, maybe what we’re longing for is to be a particular kind of girl — one who is comforted and shielded from the world.”
Of course, that idea of girlhood is — and perhaps has always been — a fantasy. If there’s anything we’ve learned over the past year, it’s that girls, however strong, however able to endure, however good at pretending, are not OK. As study upon study over the past year has shown, girls face record sadness and hopelessness, double that of boys. They’re anxious. They are inundated with conflicting, and constant, messages, about who they should dress like, look like, act like, be, on platforms that have been shown to be toxic to them, and where they also face frequent harassment. In the real world, even amid celebrations of so-called “body positivity” and endless reminders (usually in the form of product placement) that “you are enough,” girls face record rates of eating disorders and body dysmorphia; they’re wearing anti-aging products designed for middle age.