Our culture may be reaching a peak “girl power” moment, one in which in which slogans like “Fight Like A Girl,” “#GirlBoss,” and, of course, “Girl Power”are omnipresent. They are emblazoned across clothing, coffee mugs, notebooks, etc., used in pastel-hued marketing campaigns and social media advertisements, and appear in Top 40 radio hit songs. As a result, “girl power” has become something of a punchline in many internet circles, more likely to be used with irony or snark than sincerity.
Many feminists rightly point out the problematic aspects of “girl power” rhetoric — that it reinforces our cultural obsession with youth and contributes to the continued social invisibility and irrelevance of older women, that it is often taken up by relatively privileged (i.e. white, upper-class) women who have little interest in addressing the vast array of intersecting oppressions experienced by their more marginalized peers, that it is has been co-opted and commercialized by corporations seeking to cash in on feminism’s current “trendiness.”
As someone who has devoted a great deal of time and energy to thinking and writing about how teenage girls are mocked, belittled, and dismissed, often for this publication, I have complicated feelings about “girl power” as a feminist rallying cry. On the one hand, I am frustrated by the shallow feminism that it often represents. On the other hand, I do think that it is important to celebrate the strength and intelligence of young women in a world that, for all the “girl power” t-shirts now available at Target and H&M, continues to treat teenage girls and twenty somethings with an infuriating mixture of condescension, derision, and fascination.
The semantic roots of “girl power” are anything but commercial or mainstream. Robin Wasserman, author of “Girls on Fire,” writes that term “girl power” emerged with Riot Grrrl, a radical, grassroots musical and “political movement of teenagers and young women” combatting “misogyny in [the] punk community and beyond” in the 1990s. (To learn more about the Riot Grrrl movement, read “Words You Don’t Know: Riot Grrrl.”)
The first appearance of “girl power” was likely in an issue of Bikini Kill, a feminist zine created by the punk rock band of the same name. The women of Riot Grrrl embraced the language of girlhood, often singing from the perspective of teenage girls, raging with furious exuberance at the patriarchal constraints which rob women of their childhoods. The mission of Riot Grrrl is perhaps best summed up by the Bikini Kill song “Double Dare Ya,” which begins with lead singer Kathleen Hanna shouting “We want revolution girl style now!”
Sara Marcus, author of “Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution,” recalls how her involvement with the Riot Grrrl movement changed her understanding of her own identity as a teenage girl. Marcus writes about “the feeling I’d had in my teens that what my friends and pen pals and I were working on was beautiful and vital; the consciousness that many of our emotional challenges (self-doubt, confusion, sadness) resulted not from personal failings but from political and social forces, and that we could do battle with them as such; the belief that we could and would, as one of the movement’s manifestos had put it, change the world for real.”
However, according to Wasserman, “within a few years, ‘girl-power’ had been annexed by the Spice Girls, harmonizing harbingers of lipstick feminism.” The “lipstick feminism” Wasserman writes about smoothed feminism’s rough edges, setting aside difficult questions about patriarchal institutions, economic inequality, sexual violence, and intersectionality in favor of a generalized message of empowerment. In the 2000s, pop culture icons such as Beyonce presented a new vision of feminists as cool, glamorous, and sexually liberated young women, embodied by songs like “Run the World (Girls).” However, watered down as this lipstick feminism was, it gave many young women, myself included, our first introduction to the struggle for gender equality.
“Girl power” rhetoric alerted me to the fact that being a young woman could be something to take pride in at a time when I had fully internalized our culture’s vicious misogyny towards teenage girls. From an early age, it was made clear to me, through overt and subtle messaging alike, that if I wanted to be taken seriously — as a student, an employee, a human being — I had to reject all things “girly.” The caricature of a teenage girl — vain, always taking selfies, dressed in pink, speaking with vocal fry — was something to be mocked and avoided.
I have said it many times, and I will say it again, we live in a culture that loves to hate young women. Grown adults obsess (to a frankly creepy degree) over young women’s behavior — what they wear, watch, listen to, read, how they talk, which social media platforms they use, who they date and sleep with. Scarcely a week seems to pass without a flurry of adult commentators hand-wringing over how the latest trend amongst young women will somehow be the downfall of western civilization.
Early in 2021, the UK’s Education Policy Institute and The Prince’s Trust published a study suggesting a link between social media usage and low-self esteem in teenage girls. A flurry of sensationalistic and partonizing news headlines which took the study results out of context followed, playing into a familiar narrative presenting this generation of teenage girls as uniquely suggistble, fragile, and self-involved: a bunch of anxious airheads addicted to their phones. CNET reports that when the BBC Radio show “Women’s Hour” ran a segment on the study, rather than interviewing a psychologist or a teenage girl, the show spoke with Matt Haig, a 45-year old male author with no scientific credentials.
Saying that someone does something “like a girl” remains one of the easiest and laziest insults in our cultural vocabulary. Director Judd Apatow, himself the father of a teenage girl and a man who makes his living being funny, reached for this age-old bromide, tweeting at former President Donald Trump “You tweet like a fourteen year old girl.” Never mind all the examples of young women, such as Malala Yousafazi and Greta Thunberg, who are both leading social and political movements and far more eloquent Twitter users than Trump. Teenage girl = silly and stupid and over-emotional remains a largely unchallenged entry in our shared dictionary.
In this cultural climate, I do think that phrases like “Girl Power” and “Fight Like A Girl” can play an important role by making feminism accessible for young women by setting them on a path towards political awakening and self-realization. So, while I support and agree with thoughtful critiques of girl-centered feminist rhetoric, I find all of the online snark and derision towards it to be unhelpful, and, at times, just another excuse to bash young women.
“If a political idea is showing up in pop culture,” writes Sarah Marcus “That’s because it’s happening somewhere else in a more concentrated, grassroots way.” “Girl power” is everywhere in pop culture right now because countries around the globe are experiencing a swell in feminist activism. The lyrics in top 40 radio songs, the words on fast fashion clothing, the social media posts made using floral Canva templates, are but a pale reflection of a vibrant and complex social movement.
Besides, we are the ones who give language meaning through the contexts in which we use it and the connotation we imbue it with. It is possible for feminists to celebrate and uplift girlhood while also reclaiming and redefining womanhood, not as the place where women’s lives end and are subsumed to marriages and families, but as another exciting chapter in the ongoing saga of human existence. It is possible to reimagine “girl power” so that its meaning has less to do with aesthetic statements and corporate profit and more to do with what Kathleen Hanna was talking about when she called for “Revolution girl style now!”