In 2023, girls were everywhere.
They were at the movies seeing Greta Gerwig’s $1.44 billion blockbuster, Barbie, the ode to one of the defining avatars of American girlhood and the highest-grossing film of the year. They were at the Eras Tour, listening to Taylor Swift preach the stories of their inner lives as part of a tour that, while not yet even halfway complete, is the first in history to surpass the $1 billion threshold. They walked down runways and into fast fashion retailers in bows and ballet slippers, in pink and in pleats. Girls with every interest imaginable were trending online—clean girls and snail girls and rat girls. They had tomato girl summers and feral girl falls, they went on hot girl walks and ate their girl dinners. They listened to the new Olivia Rodrigo album, full of songs “for teenage girls in their twenties” or 30s or—gasp!—beyond. Maybe they even rewatched Girls.
Girls weren’t just young women, but anyone who could relate. All around culture, this was the Year of the Girl. Why “girl,” and why now? One explanation is that online, where more and more of life takes place, there is nothing better one can be.
In her book Girl Online: A User Manual, author Joanna Walsh argues that “a girl online is an avatar for everyone.” The on-screen attention economy encourages what is youthful and fun, playful and carefree. If “girl” is a character observed across culture, that character is always indulging her interests and enjoying life—her attitude and her activities are calibrated for attractiveness. It seems awfully fun to be her.
Take girl dinner, the trend started in May by Olivia Maher, who at the time was an assistant to a showrunner in Los Angeles who went viral for posting her thrown-together meal of bread, cheese, grapes, and pickles out of the fridge. “This is my dinner,” Maher says in the original video. “I call this ‘girl dinner.’”
It’s satisfying—one joy of girl dinner is having a little bit of everything one might want—but requires very little effort. Maher told me there’s no hard-and-fast rule for what counts as a girl dinner, but an important part of her definition is that it’s “a low-maintenance meal.” The stove usually remains off, though a close cousin of girl dinner might be shortcut food like Annie’s White Cheddar Mac & Cheese—something termed in a viral post as “wet food for girls.”
Whatever is on the plate, girl dinner is typically enjoyed solo. Part of its pleasure is that it’s a meal constructed completely for oneself. Perhaps that’s why girl dinner went unacknowledged for so long, though based on the response to Maher’s original post, it was a common habit. The video now has more than a million views and inspired a trend with more than 30 million followers. On Maher’s TikTok page, comments rolled in from users who’d long enjoyed their “rat girl” dinners or “French peasant” meals but hadn’t considered that others might do, and even delight in doing, the same thing.
“It wasn’t a shameful act, but it was a very solo act where it was like, ‘Oh, I’m not being a functioning member of society tonight,’” Maher told me.
This kind of revelation of a shared experience is possible only when it has previously gone unspoken; another explanation for the Year of the Girl is that traditionally, feminine interests have been underserved in culture, and 2023 represented an overdue course correction. The Los Angeles Times reported that 60 percent of the audience for Barbie was female and that theaters had a significant number of repeat customers, some who went over and over again just to be in a place where they felt understood.
In an interview with TIME magazine, which named her Person of the Year, Swift supported this market-driven thesis.
“What fuels a patriarchal society? Money, flow of revenue, the economy,” she said. “So actually, if we’re going to look at this in the most cynical way possible, feminine ideas becoming lucrative means that more female art will get made. It’s extremely heartening.”
The most purely optimistic read of these depictions of girlhood is complicated, though, by the fact that the opposite of “girl” in these contexts isn’t “boy”—it’s “woman.”
The inherent pleasure of girl dinner comes less from what makes up the meal than from what isn’t part of it—cooking or cleaning up, providing in the traditional way women are asked to. Girl dinner isn’t something one makes for kids or a partner. It’s a celebration of a lack of responsibility typically associated with being a grown woman.
M.G. Lord, the author of Forever Barbie: The Unauthorized Biography of a Real Doll, a social history of the toy, saw Gerwig’s movie as one about the loss of girlish innocence. “It’s about leaving the idealized world of girlhood when you play with Barbie, where there are no limitations on what you can do,” Lord told me. “And then suddenly you enter adulthood or you hit puberty, and your choices are very circumscribed.”
The wisest characters in Barbie are the girls: both Sasha, a literal girl, and Kate McKinnon’s “Weird Barbie,” the film’s purest expression of how little girls play with dolls—roughly, creatively, and blissfully ignorant, at least at first, about society’s pressures to be perfect and cellulite-free. It’s Weird Barbie who knows what to do when the fabric between Barbie Land and the Real World gets ripped, and it’s Sasha who prompts the Barbies not to give up and to devise the plan that takes back Barbie Land from the Kens. Though they succeed in winning it back, Barbie has no solution to the problems it identifies; when the Barbies take back Barbie Land, all they can offer the Kens is as much influence there “as women have in the real world.” The movie is a Pepto-Bismol-pink celebration of girlhood, but when it comes to its treatment of womanhood, the more apt word might be commiseration.
“In the movie, the doll was just a way in to explore what it means to be an adult woman,” Lord said. “All I can say is, if I had been Stereotypical Barbie, I sure as hell would have stayed in Barbie Land.”
Lord told me that Barbie’s relative popularity has often reflected the state of the world around her. In the 1970s, for instance, a strong anti-materialistic strain in culture coincided with a dip in sales. In the 1980s, when Reaganomics promoted competition and commercialism, Barbie was popular again. A day-to-night Barbie in particular took off as more and more women entered the workforce out of necessity during that decade’s recession.
So why does Barbie resonate now?
A recent New York magazine essay posited that this cultural obsession with girls reflects the fact that mainstream feminism is a bit adrift. “The corporate girlbossery of the 2010s has proven to be vacuous at best,” the author, Isabel Cristo, wrote. Plus, that disappointment was followed up by a series of demoralizing cultural flash points for women: #MeToo, the election and presidency of Donald Trump, and the Dobbs ruling, which overturned Roe v. Wade and dismantled abortion protections. No clear unifying coalition or agenda has yet emerged from these events. So we venerate a more carefree stage of life or comfort one another in the shared loss of innocence.
It seems both too cynical and too easy, though, to say that “girl” is popular only because we have nothing—or nothing good, at least—to say about “woman.” There are sheer delights in having women so centered in culture. And though many “girl” trends are, at their core, forms of marketing, it’s still meaningful that those trends, not superheroes or the trappings of Entourage-style bro comedies, are the most valued cultural currency. The last word of the biggest movie of the year was “gynecologist.” That has to count for something.
And femininity did exercise some raw power. Especially when channeled through Swift.
In August, she began dating NFL tight end Travis Kelce, a real-life Ken and a leading man in one of the world’s most masculine enterprises. But stacked next to each other, Swift’s power towered over that of a professional sports league that’s often described as owning a day of the week. Broadcast cameras were trained on her at games; the league’s official social media accounts put “Taylor was here” in their bios. The NFL swooned at the opportunity to be in Swift’s spotlight, not the other way around. When she attended a Sunday Night Football game between the Chiefs and the Jets in October, the broadcast drew one of the largest TV audiences of the season. As she entered the stadium that night, famous friends including Blake Lively, Ryan Reynolds, and Sabrina Carpenter in tow, it looked like she was saying, “It’s so quiet.” As in, this wasn’t an Eras crowd. Near the end of the game, NBC’s cameras filmed Swift playfully celebrating with Lively in their suite, imitating Kelce’s macho body language with his teammates. It was affectionate and endearing. But, maybe just a little bit, she was also making fun of the absurd machismo of the whole enterprise, of men in spandex outfits playing a violent game she was happy to take in but didn’t need to validate.
The most triumphant telling of girlhood in culture was the Eras Tour. When Lord saw the show in Los Angeles in August, she was struck by how much the concert, and the rapt audience, reminded her of a religious experience.
“I was fascinated because it reminded me—Mary Grace Lord, here—of the Catholic Mass, where there were certain cues that prompted certain behaviors,” she said.
And so the Eras Tour has turned football stadiums into cathedrals of girlhood, where the glittery woman on the pulpit celebrates her life’s work, a catalog wholly dedicated to the story of a girl growing into a woman. But if Swift’s view of girlhood is the most hopeful, it’s because it is rooted in the past and the present. The Eras Tour is inherently retrospective, but it doesn’t wear girlhood as a costume—the set list features songs about young love and high school, but also about business, identity, betrayal, and loss. Instead of burying its head in pink, sparkly sand, it gets its power from its perspective—a 34-year-old revisiting the stages of her life, which are the stages of her fans’ lives.
As with Barbie, there is a bittersweet element to revisiting the land mines of growing up and wishing you’d known better—wishing you’d known you were good enough, that you could speak up or eat what you wanted, or that you’d get over that person who broke your heart. As with Barbie, there is pure joy in doing it together, getting back a little bit of the girlish freedom to feel, deeply and visibly, by identifying the means by which that freedom is often taken away. It’s like Swift herself once wrote: “Give me back my girlhood, it was mine first.”