At first, it was like a party, an explosive ode to a plurality of hyperfemininities. Girls shot up from the post-lockdown internet like weeds through concrete. The “hot girl summer” seeds were planted in 2018, but it wasn’t until we grew our hours online in 2020 that “girl” started to bloom into what I now call the Girl Internet. The Girl Internet is an umbrella term for all the internet subcultures, trends, and aesthetics that anchor themselves in some archetypical girl — “New Age Bimbos,” “That Girl,” femcels, girlbloggers, and so on. “To girl” has become a verb in its own right, an internet-first mode of existence that in turn spreads into the “real” world. To quote the TikTok: “The girls who girl, girl; the girls that girln’t, gorln’t.”
By the end of 2020, a crowd of self-described “bimbos,” or “New Age Bimbos,” took over TikTok. They listened to hyperpop and aligned themselves with a performance of femininity that was anything but respectable or “tasteful.” They took a revisionist approach to pop culture history by researching the lives of misunderstood bimbos like Anna Nicole Smith and Marilyn Monroe. Chrissy Chlapecka, the most visible TikTok bimbo, emphasized the new bimbo’s politics: “The bimbo is pro-choice, pro-sex work, pro-BLM, and she, he, or they likes to look pretty.” These bimbos also questioned the value of intelligence and radically so. They rejected academic intelligence and celebrated emotional and social knowledge. Or as one bimbo told me: “It’s rejecting what men specifically think intelligence is.” New Age Bimbos saw intelligence for what it is — a way of measuring someone’s cognitive ability and access to academia.
New Age Bimbos girled so hard they were often misunderstood. They leaned so far into exaggerated performances of femininity and favored self-adornment to the point where all people saw was pink. Perhaps the New Age Bimbo was too much, too fast. But they set the stage for online trends rooted in hyperfemininity by declaring that the bimbo was at the service of “the girls, gays, and theys.”
By early 2021, maybe in response to the bimbo, the shelter-in-place pastimes built on chronic self-improvement led to the rise of a new female archetype for the social internet: “That Girl.” She is Gen Z’s prototype of the feminine ideal — early mornings, green juices, workout sets, and a bouncy ponytail. When I first wrote about her rise in July 2021, #thatgirl had over 600 million views on TikTok. Now it has over 17.4 billion views. That Girl moved the center of aspirational femininity away from individual names and faces and toward an amorphous cloud of habits and virtues. Popular #thatgirl content creators, like @becomethat.girl, hosted Discord communities where members gathered to exchange That Girlification tips and support one another on their paths to self-improvement. Everyone was invited to take their vitamins, care for their skin, drink plenty of water, and become That Girl. Unlike the traditional influencer, who turns herself into a multidimensional brand, That Girl is faceless and nameless. Instead of aspiring to emulate specific influencers and celebrities, #thatgirl cut out the middle(wo)man.
The memes comparing That Girl’s arduous morning routine to Patrick Bateman’s monologue in American Psycho weren’t far behind. At her worst, That Girl was a hyper-optimized fembot — the embodied obsession of endless self-perfection. As Jia Tolentino wrote in her essay “Always Be Optimizing,” the point of the aspirational woman is to “turn self-care into productivity and productivity into self-care” until it all stops being work. But being That Girl is hard work that never stops being work.
Historically, girls have been “envisioned as avid users but not producers, as consumers but not creators,” wrote Lisa Nakamura in her 2007 book, Digitizing Race. She looked closely at how young girls used the internet at the turn of the millennium and what researchers made of their online habits. Nakamura examined then–hot new scholar David Silver’s foundational 2001 study of teenage girls’ online activity, behavior he described as “resistant to commercialization.” The girl-dominated activity of the time included instant messaging, email, and the search for information on fitness and dieting. Silver’s study came out a long time ago, but even then flipping open a fashion magazine would have indicated that these behaviors were not in fact “resistant to commercialization.”
Today, male content creators earn 30 percent more per post than their female counterparts, but women receive most of the sponsorships. Such is the dominance of girls in influencing that “influencer” and “creator” are themselves treated as gendered terms — girls “influence” while men “create.” But even if there were no self-identifying female influencers or content creators, the wealth of girl-centric archetypes and subcultures darting through social media tells a more complicated story.
Being online — through social media profiles, direct messages, search engine queries, and “add to cart” buttons — puts all of us in the dual position of consuming and being consumed. Today, teenage girls are more likely than teenage boys to say they spend “too much time” on social media. Fifty percent of teenage girls use the internet at a near-constant, compared to just 39 percent of boys. “Online I am working/not working: I am working towards something beyond the work I’m doing,” wrote Joanna Walsh in Girl Online: A User Manual. Everything we do online produces something for somebody. Being a girl online extends the performative demands of girlhood into these for-profit platforms and mines them for ways to sell it all back to us. You have the work of being a girl and then the work of being a girl online.
After That Girl, the girlier side of the internet dissipated into a multitude of sub-girls like Coconut Girl, Vanilla Girl, and Downtown Girl. Each was fairly — although exhaustively — criticized for promoting a singular female ideal based on exclusionary values like wealth and thinness. No girl was good enough, and so 2022 was declared the “Year of the Femcel.”
A femcel is a female incel, an involuntarily celibate woman. While incels claim women deny men the sexual capital they hold, femcels attribute their lack of social sex to impossible beauty standards and a sexual marketplace that views them as a product, rather than a consumer. The femcel’s digital footprint grew in 2021, blooming across Reddit and Discord into communities thousands strong.
At their best, femcels supported one another through their shame and pain. They talked about beauty not as a virtue, but as a value that eluded them. But as the number of femcels grew, their online communities fractured and they became unwanted across platforms. As they got kicked around the internet, femcels became more visible. People online — like the “reactionary chic” Red Scare girlies — started using the word “femcel” whenever they wanted to be provocative or edgy. At the height of her visibility the femcel was a meme, a hashtag people added to moody posts that had nothing to do with being oppressively ugly. Thus layers of irony distorted and abstracted the concerns of the original femcel and turned her into the new face of the very online girl — sweaty, trollish, and charmingly feral.
The animal hunger of the very online girl — seeking, optimizing, reaching — now most commonly appears in the form of the girlblogger. The girlblogger is a social media power-user and a powerful vector for trending niches, viral memes, and the kind of visual curation that can yield an aesthetic worthy of Vogue coverage, like “coquette.” The girlblogger is frivolous, girlie, and playful. The Girl Internet’s trollish gardener. In a perfect dissection of the girlblogger, Biz Sherbert explains that “girlblogging is as much of an invocation as it is a forceful slouching towards a shopping addiction, being sample-sized, and marrying rich.” A girlblogger aspires to be “God’s favorite,” a little creature from heaven, a waif, a nymph. An angelic transcendental beauty, floating high above the dirty little Earth.
In the beginning, the Girl Internet felt like a field of girlhoods, where femininity was multivalent, weird, and expansive. The overlap and contradictions only added to the richness. Bimbos, femcels, and all the other hyperfeminine subcultures had the potential to be vectors of radical thinking: to talk about beauty politics, to center self-creation, artificiality, and a range of liberating performances of hyperfemininity. But algorithmic feeds are great at circulating everything but the context, so the ideas and dreams that are rooted in the on- and offline worlds — the actual material that makes the internet sparkle — become little more than a byproduct, a reminder, or waste.
“The transformation of concrete labors into abstract labor renders the labor into something akin to the notorious pink goo or pink slime that industrial, processed meat now contains,” the scholar McKenzie Wark wrote. On the ground, the work of girls is being mined for profit in concrete ways: As India becomes a hub for tech manufacturing, Apple contractors like Foxconn and Tata Group are working hard to recruit more women workers as contract labor for their iPhone assembly plants. As many as 85 percent of factory workers in India working for such Apple contractors are women. While contract work is precarious and doesn’t include benefits, companies like Foxconn offer free food, housing, and transportation. The last time these subcontractors rushed to hire hoards of new workers, over 250 workers fell sick due to tainted food, triggering protests and factory shutdowns. According to Reuters, Foxconn told Indian state officials that it had “ramped up production too quickly” ahead of the iPhone 13 launch. By the time the Apple icon turns up on your screen, the device has already been shaped by the hands of women hard at work. When creating and sharing ourselves through the internet, we become enmeshed in the abstract labor of being a girl online. If we extrude ourselves through the filters and hashtags, we come out the other side as a sludge of marketable microtrends, aesthetics, subcultures, and niche celebrities — our own version of the notorious pink goo.
Earlier this year, UNICEF found that more than 90 percent of girls and young women in low-income countries do not use the internet regularly — despite their role in assembling its hardware. The work of the girl online is tethered to the work of the girl on the ground, yet these realms of parallel extraction fail to intersect. The girl online is oblivious to the girl on the ground and the girl on the ground is literally disconnected from the girl online. The girl produces, the girl is mineable, and the girl can be profitable, but the girls are just barely connected through the internet.
Michelle Santiago Cortés is a Puerto Rican writer living in Brooklyn. She writes essays about life online and digital cultures.