This is a selection from Humanly, Issue 02, which focuses on Generation Z and teen culture.
At a time when there is debate around whether the pronouns “he” and “she” should be replaced with the more gender-neutral “ze,” and every aspect of identity—from gender to sexuality to race—is an ever-expanding continuum, girlhood is getting a timely reexamination. Around the globe, Gen Z girls are reinventing gender expectations, breaking down taboos, and embracing a new-school version of girlhood that’s more complex and multifaceted, raw, rude, and even raunchy. Just don’t call it girl power.
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Girlhood has traditionally been presented as one-dimensional (think dolls, braids, all-things-pink, and cute overload). But Zs, who grew up in gender-neutral daycares with strictly equitable pronoun policies, are now coming of age in an era when Facebook allows users to fill-in-the-blank for gender, trans men have babies, and trans women can compete at the Olympics pre-surgery. So, while Gen Zs explore and redefine what it means to be feminine versus masculine, and everything in-between—it also brings up a timely question: What does it mean to be a girl? Zs are embracing aspects of girlhood that haven’t traditionally fit the mold: being tough, messy, muscular, rude, raunchy, hairy. Not to say that girls are rejecting pink, but they’re embracing more multifaceted sides of themselves. From a cultural perspective, one thing is clear: It’s a good time to be a girl. The broadening of the gender spectrum has arguably dimensionalized the experience of girlhood as much as, if not more than, the last 50 years of women’s lib (at least in the Western world—but more on that later).
Take, for instance, Rebecca, 13, in Detroit, who told us proudly that she wants to be a high-powered dentist and have the quintessential princess wedding. “I see myself in Hawaii, with a big house. I want to own my own dentist business, and to not work for anybody. I’ll probably be married, but no kids. The only reason I would get married is because I want to see what type of wedding I would have. I want a big sparkly dress.” Bella, 13, in Asheville, North Carolina, shaved the side of her head and humblebrags that she can lift big, heavy objects just as well as the guys in her class. “As long as I’m comfortable with the way I look, then I really don’t care what other people think,” Bella declared. Z girls don’t seem to be struggling too much with reconciling their contradictions. One girl we met told us she likes to skateboard in lace underwear. Another told us her favorite color is purple—because it matches her scabbed knees.
83% of Z girls agree,
“It’s a good time to be a girl.”
This expanding spectrum of girlhood can be seen in the multiplicity of new pop culture heroes. Mixed martial arts fighter Ronda Rousey—the third-most-searched person on Google in 2015—is tapping into the current zeitgeist, according to the New York Times, because she’s “both sweet and vicious, able to break an arm one day and gyrate topless for a denim advertising campaign the next.” Rousey may be the best female fighter in the world, but she also cries easily, a product, she says, of her abundant passion. On the other end of the cultural sphere is 17-year-old Jakarta-based fashion blogger Evita Nuh, who has drawn a huge online following thanks to her stylistic embrace of “eclectic androgyny,” which often includes wearing boy’s clothes. Says Nuh, “The rule is no rules!” And less high-brow, but more accessible, are Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson, the creators and stars of Comedy Central’s Broad City, a comedic take on post-college girlhood rife with sexual over-sharing and toilet humor. These are all women who are redefining what it means to be a lady today, contradictions be damned.
While some generational researchers forecast the neutralization or end of gender, we see it differently: Gen Z girls are fully embracing their gender and its power. Just don’t misconstrue girlhood for “girl power,” the ‘90s marketing phenomenon a la the Spice Girls that commoditized female confidence alongside short skirts. Z girls want gender parity just as much as Sexy, Scary, Posh, and the others—equal opportunity and pay are simply an expectation—but the world’s next generation of women isn’t necessarily striving to be equal; they’re striving to be different. Backing this up, 70% of Z girls say they don’t want to be equal to men, they’re happy being different than men.
One provocative idea that we heard from the girls we spoke with is that if they could reinvent the women’s lib movement now, they’d get rid of the word equality (63% of Z girls are in favor of losing it). McKaila, 13, a JV cheerleader in Marfa, Texas, told us, “For a long time it’s just been the whole thing of ‘girls can do just as much as guys can.’ But now, for this generation, it’s that girls can do other things too. Girls can do some things that boys can’t; boys can do some things that girls can’t. But we still have the same amount of power as them.” At a time when gender identity is more fragmented than ever, it seems high time that a new word be invented to describe a gender balance that allows space for more distinct differences.
“Whatever we want to do, we have the power to say we want to do it.” McKaila, 13, Marfa, TX
Amid all the headlines about how women are held back by a confidence gap, the tug-of-war of career ambitions versus family, and general lack of mentorship, that’s not the reality according to Gen Z girls. Imposter syndrome? Never heard of it. They are confident; they are leading; and, honestly, they don’t care if their peers like them or not. Sophie, 16, in Portland, Maine, who helped form her high school’s Intersectional Feminist Coalition, is just one girl we met who certainly doesn’t need validation to step into a leadership role—she’s already doing it. She told us, “There’s this stigma around being a feminist bitch. Being man-hating. Me and [my friend] Mel have both had the word bitch thrown at us around our feminism. But that just enforces our point.” According to Sophie, the notion of “leaning in” to a patriarchal society that preserves systemic gender bias misses the point entirely: Women should be leaning out and inventing their own systems. Z girls agree: 81% would prefer to stand up to their own way than lean into male dominated culture (19%). New outsider systems in which girls thrive are popping up in some progressive corners. The Radical Monarchs in Oakland, California, for example, is a reinvention of the traditional girls’ club, devised for young girls of color ages 8 through 12. Instead of selling cookies like the Girl Scouts, though, the troop earns badges based on social justice, like participating in protests (a “Black Lives Matter” badge was earned at one march), challenging antiquated beauty ideals (“Radical Beauty”), and practicing acceptance (“LGBT Ally”). Radical Monarchs co-founder Marilyn Hollinquest told Ms. magazine, “We want to cultivate awesome, rad women… to give them the tools [to] not mask their brilliance and their power and their worth. Imagine if no woman ever again had to do that… You could just be your fierce eight-year-old self and keep that going as you mature into womanhood.”
Indeed, Z girls are in the throes of rethinking their desires for womanhood too. Three decades ago, the gender discussion was co-opted by three little words—“having it all”—which created a cut-and-paste narrative of what female success should look like: rewarding career, loving partner, accomplished children, and a great sex life, too. But Gen Z girls we spoke with don’t necessarily want the pressure of having to “have it all”; they’d much rather “own it all”: their own notions of success, their own ideals around beauty, and their own take on femininity that’s more fluid and multifaceted. Two-thirds (66%), in fact, say they’d rather “Own it all—the good, bad and ugly of being a woman” than “Have it all” (34%). Simply put, Zs find it much more aspirational to be wholly self-expressed.
A major reason that Z girls are driving this new gender conversation is access; the Internet has been a revolutionary tool for everyone, but especially for young girls. Three quarters (73%) of Z girls we surveyed say they’ve learned about women’s issues online that they wouldn’t have known about otherwise. While Gloria Steinem had to create Ms. magazine to spread her wisdom, today prepubescent girls can simply log on to Twitter to engage in broad and public conversations around issues like feminism, misogyny, campus rape, and sex trafficking—or just to demystify their changing bodies. Joining the first wave of women’s-interest platforms such as Jezebel, The Hairpin, Refinery29, and more, are new, more radical publications including The Front, The Debrief, The Pool, The Bleed, and Lena Dunham’s Lenny, which she describes as “a big sister to young radical women on the Internet.” With this kind of access to female thought-leadership, tween girls are gaining so much knowledge they’re even schooling older women’s rights activists—including Steinem!—about the complexities of girlhood today, especially for girls who are gay or of color and who have been largely unheard by mainstream media.
Let’s not ignore, however, that access to radical girl-centric information is a Western privilege, and girlhood hasn’t changed all that much in some parts of the world. Western girls are having to reconcile their own liberties with the disturbing information they find online about the adversity faced by their global peers, such as sex trafficking, sexual slavery, and maternal death (a leading cause of death among teen girls in poor countries). But girls we spoke with say that what disturbs them also inspires them to make the most of their own freedoms. Sophie explains that her feminist activism is “Something I’m very passionate about… because I have the ability to make change, I should, if I care about things.” Z girls are also being inspired to fight for girls’ rights by increasingly visible global teen activists, such as Pakistani education activist Malala Yousafzai, and Afghan rapper Sonita Alizadeh.
Still, this new culture of girlhood is spreading to unexpected corners of the world thanks, in part, to social media. Take Fazilla, 12, who lives on the streets of Kabul and doesn’t always have access to food, who has found community in the city’s first and only skate park via Skateistan, an NGO that teaches skateboarding to youth in countries including Afghanistan, South Africa, and Cambodia—Skateistan Cambodia boasts a 40% female participation rate. And in Bangladesh, local girls are partaking in surf lessons at Cox’s Bazar Lifesaving and Surfing Club, gaining confidence in themselves thanks to a sport that’s typically perceived as Western and male.
Digital has also been a boon to breaking taboos and normalizing a rawer, more honest version of girlhood. Of course, girls have always known the messy, miraculous truth about themselves—they don’t menstruate sterile blue ink the way tampon commercials might have you believe—but society has upheld a culture of repression in favor of feigned innocence. Now, Z girls are taking to the Internet to explore the fringes and complexities of their gender, with a higher gross-out threshold.
Little more than a decade ago, Dove’s “Real Beauty” campaign was considered edgy for saying it’s okay not to be thin and perfect. Now, it’s as if social media has opened the floodgates and, all of a sudden, nipples, pubic hair, masturbation, and the word once dreaded most by teen girls—“period”—are all fair game. An ad campaign for H&M’s sister label, & Other Stories, features “real women” in lingerie proudly exhibiting birthmarks, scars, tattoos, and underarm hair. Gen Z hero Miley Cyrus not only grew out her armpit hair, but dyed it bright pink. Even beards have gone full femme: Opera singer and performer Little Bear Schwarz, whose polycystic ovary syndrome causes her to grow facial hair, says her beard is just part of being a lady. “My beard is intensely feminine because I am intensely feminine. It’s an expression of my womanhood. It’s not bending gender as much as it is expanding what it means to be a woman.”
With taboos being broken, menstrual products are finally getting their first redesign since… well, since the 1930s, when Tampax was invented—by a man. After decades of tampon commercials featuring women strolling along sunny beaches, feminine care companies are finally telling it like it is. There are now over 200 different period-tracking apps, including Clue, iPeriod, PTracker, and Period Diary. Tampon subscription services such as HelloFlo, Le Parcel, and Lola serve as the Dollar Shave Club for girls—complete with design-y packaging, transparent ingredient lists, and silly viral videos (HelloFlo’s “First Moon Party” is hilariously cringe-worthy for anyone who remembers being 12). And while disruption has been the buzzword for every industry for the last five years—everything from taxis to fast food to hooded sweatshirts has undergone a VC-backed revolution—we’re finally starting to see some major innovation in the products that some 50% of the population buys every single month: THINX is “period-proof underwear” engineered to (mostly) replace pads and tampons. In New York City, in-your-face ads celebrating THINX’s launch were almost banned by the Metropolitan Transit Authority for their images of—gasp!—raw eggs, suggestive grapefruits, and that “p”-word again. Says Miki Agrawal, the CEO and co-founder of THINX, “Women in our culture don’t want to talk about their periods—most still think about it as crass and disgusting. I want to change the culture around women’s most normal time of month.” While THINX recently got a multimillion dollar VC investment, there are also more grassroots efforts to normalize period talk. Two high school girls in New York City developed a video game called “Tampon Run,” in which the heroine’s mission is “to rid the world of the menstrual taboo.” Even three-quarters (78%) of Z guys we surveyed agree “Menstruation shouldn’t be taboo.”
If all of this makes you feel a little uncomfortable, that’s kind of the point. Girls have been made to feel uncomfort-able about a natural part of their existence for, well, centuries, and teen girls we spoke with say that now it’s time to turn the tables and make the guys feel awkward. As one teen told us, “I’m not embarrassed to talk about my period. Why would I be?”
- Q: What issues are tough or awkward to talk about? Periods, bras, dating, sex…?
- Q: What do you love about being a teenage girl?
- Q: What female celebrity do you look up to, and what do you like about her?
- Q: What does society get wrong about teenage girls?
Unlike millennial women—and a clear sign of the times—Z girls ranked Caitlyn Jenner as having as much girl power as Sheryl Sandberg.
Defining girlhood has traditionally come through understanding boyhood—and this may reflect in small part what’s still happening today. After all, it’s no coincidence that this strong, bold, brash version of girlhood is coming to the fore at the very time when boys have seemingly lost their way. Boys have been at the top of the class for centuries, but girls are now surpassing them: 15-year-old boys around the globe are 50% more likely than girls to fall short of basic standards in reading, math, and science, according to a recent study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Forget the confidence gap: 85% of Z girls say they are smarter than the boys in their class and 69% say they’re braver than most boys their age.
Throughout history, when men’s roles have changed, so too have women’s. When men shipped off to fight in World War II, women started wearing their husband’s trousers to their factory jobs. Now, at a time when men and boys are going “beta” by embracing their gentler sides, strapping on Baby Bjorns and doing broga (Beauhemians, Humanly, Issue 01), it’s no coincidence that girls and women are becoming tougher relative to the new fair sex.
Gen Z girls were the most likely of any demographic to describe themselves as “Fierce.”
But it should be noted that male’s evolution is equally as complex as female’s, and beta stereotypes and bromance comedies don’t capture the full gravitas of today’s gender shakeup. Conversation has finally progressed from “girls can try out for football” to “boys can bake cupcakes.” Case in point: A 2012 petition from 13-year-old Gen Z girl McKenna Pope famously asked Hasbro to make an Easy-Bake Oven in a color other than pink or purple so that her younger brother could bake without the stigma of doing something that’s only for girls. More recently, one of the most talked-about ballets of 2015 was Swan Lake as interpreted by choreographer Dada Masilo, who incorporated modern sexual politics with both the male and female dancers donning tutus (and only the male dancers in toe shoes). Lead singer of the band Against Me! recently put a fresh face on the punk rock scene by transitioning from Tom Gabel to Laura Jane Grace—she now performs onstage in a miniskirt. And if there’s any one pop culture cue that gender mores are changing, it’s the recent “Find Your Magic” ad campaign for quintessential teen-boy-brand Axe, which swapped its usual hyper-objectification of women for championing boys who wear heels, read books, have big noses, and snuggle with kittens. Aaaww. Girlhood may be undergoing a radical reinvention, but boys are also finding their own ‘hoods.
Let’s Hear It For The Girls
Generations are often defined over the course of two decades. So, here’s a look at some of the pop cultural moments that exemplify just how much girlhood has changed since Gen Zs were born in 1995.
My So-Called Life shows the gawky reality of teendom
Gwen Stefani fuses a pop-punk attitude with super feminine red lipstick, tiny tanks, and outspokenness about wanting to start a family
The Pussycat Dolls parlay the burlesque craze into becoming one of the best-selling girl groups of all time
The Spice Girls launch a global “girl power” movement in baby doll dresses
Ally McBeal mainstreams sexual harassment lawsuits, unisex bathrooms, and the ticking biological clock of career women (also CGI dancing babies)
Lilith Fair becomes the first ever music festival with an all-female lineup
Sex and the City tackles sex, singlehood, and ready-to-wear
Mia Hamm leads the U.S. National Women to World Cup victory
Paris Hilton and Jessica Simpson rule reality TV
Vanity Fair’s “Raining Teens” issue declares starlets including Lindsay Lohan, Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, and Hilary Duff, Hollywood’s “girl-power goddesses”
American Apparel launches NSFW ad campaign featuring real employees as well as hardcore porn stars
Dove’s “Real Beauty” campaign features real, untouched women
YouTube introduces the world to makeup tutorials, haul videos, and Michelle Phan
30 Rock brings us adorable heroine Liz Lemon
Feminist blog, Jezebel, launches
11-year-old Tavi Gevinson starts fashion blog, Style Rookie, which eventually draws 30,000 readers each day
Bridesmaids brings fart jokes to a female demo
Girls is like a younger Sex and the City but with more sex, nudity and raunch
Broad City debuts its girl-centric stoner toilet humor
The NFL gets its first female coach and referee
Amy Schumer jokes about rape, sex, and body image
Maddie Ziegler’s bizarre dancing in Sia’s “Chandelier” video pushes it to 1.1 billion views on YouTube, making it one of the most viewed videos ever posted
Always’s “Like A Girl” campaign video gets 80 million views worldwide
Former pro basketball player Elsa Hosk is named a Victoria’s Secret Angel
Miley Cyrus flaunts pink armpit hair
Barbie debuts alternative tall, petite, and curvy body types
THINX period-specific panties for women plasters ads all over the NYC subway
YouTube star Ingrid Nilsen asks President Obama about tampon tax in interview
Ronda Rousey makes brawn sexy as Sports Illustrated’s Swimsuit issue cover girl
Growing Up Girlby Sophie VanDerburgh, 16, Portland, ME This essay is a selection from Girlhood, Humanly, Issue 02, which focuses on Generation Z and teen culture.
Growing up a girl is rough for a multitude of reasons, including going through puberty, navigating relationships (romantic or not), being exposed to unreasonable ideals in the media, and dealing with double standards and the battleground of rape culture. For me, my biggest obstacle has been my outspokenness. In the grand scheme of things, I have grown up extraordinarily privileged. I have a mother and stepfather who provide for me and love me dearly. They have always encouraged me to do the things I love. I have an older sibling who has always been very involved in activism and has shown me what it looks like to fight for what you believe in, even when that is scary. So, there was truly no chance for me not to be outspoken.
The one thing I have always been passionate about is feminism. Feminism is often not talked about in a positive light because some people believe that third-wave feminism is not necessary, or that it is the opposite of equality. This is very wrong. Growing up a loud and passionate girl who doesn’t always cling to my femininity, I have faced judgments. When I was in elementary school I was often referred to as a “tomboy” and thought of as “one of the boys.” Soon after, I began looking around and realized there were few girls playing the sports I was super competitive about, and the girls who boys had crushes on were not on the field next to me. Nowadays, I feel very comfortable in my interests and confident in my personality, but without my exposure to feminism, I don’t think I would be the person I am. “Tomboy” eventually became “feminist bitch” or “feminist killjoy.” Those nicknames are intended to be hateful, but I have learned to wear them as badges of pride. It’s not that I think those nicknames are true to who I am—but I am proud to be known for speaking my truth.
I am especially thankful to be living during a time when the Internet is easily accessible. With-out it, I would not have had so many resources at my fingertips. I likely would not have learned about women like Laverne Cox or Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, two brilliant and eloquent women who inspired me to be outspoken. There are so many online communities that have helped young women connect to and feel empowered by one another. I am lucky to live where I do and receive the education I do, but not everyone is as lucky. I have been able to find information that is relevant and of interest, just with a few vague searches. I don’t have to settle for convenience store magazines, compromising my morals to feed my interest in fashion—I’m in control.
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