For a fleeting moment in 2021, Senator Richard Blumenthal traded away his blue suit and American-flag lapel pin. The stiff-backed, deep-pocketed Democratic lion of Stamford, Connecticut took to posing instead as… an unsupervised thirteen-year-old searching for dieting tips on Instagram: just another girl online. Recent Facebook leaks had revealed the netherworld of teen girls sacrificed to the platform’s beasts—psychoses, addictions, cruelties. Who would rescue the girls from the algorithms? The senator may have falsely claimed to have done a tour in Vietnam, but now he was facing real danger, putting himself in harm’s and lechers’ and advertisers’ way to come out on the other end with a solemn briefing for the American people: Silicon Valley whizzes were turning girls into itchy phone addicts and anorexics. The platform’s recommendation pages “latch on to a person’s insecurities, a young woman’s vulnerabilities about their bodies and drag them into dark places,” the senator pronounced, a Pericles for the online age. “Will you commit to ending Finsta?” he probed at a Facebook Senate hearing.
Blumenthal’s odd ruse was of the moment. We are increasingly being made to understand that social media is the destroyer of the young and, more specifically, of young girls. Behold the great waste and decimation of the fairer youth: the sorry overexposure, the clueless sexuality, the incoherent argot, the berserk self-fashioning and smashed-up psyches. Weighing such dystopian portrayals, I polled my teenage sister, who reported only a wholesome Instagram diet of NASA images and cat memes. Might there be, despite the jeremiads, a silent majority of the innocently online? Might girls ever be something more than the mere victims of social media?
Online, the girl proliferates herself as a meme, she overidentifies (“it me”), she felt cute might delete later. These girlish strains of narcissism are so endemic to social media that even as girls purportedly lose on the internet, a girlish mode of expression and Goffmanian self-presentation have won out among swelling ranks of users—including many who are not themselves girls.
Consider the uber-feminine, uber-juvenile ecosystem today. Girl talk—with its lowercase run-ons, inscrutable acronyms and cheerful incoherence—is fluently adopted online. “Beauty breaks in everywhere,” Emerson said, but on Twitter, it’s exclamation marks breaking in for no apparent reason. Ditzy “likes” get expertly parallel-parked in the middle of sentences to tone down what are sometimes even smart thoughts, while “so obsessed with” swirls around like a fever dream courtesy of Bourdieu. Women more than twice the age of a teen songstress weigh in on having or not having a driver’s license. Hysteria is the self-diagnosed malady du jour.
Among the chattering class, the girl persona signals a self-reflexively ironic, unprofessional professionalism. “I love being a girl,” an Ivy League-educated writer of cachet and/or accomplishment broadcasts alongside a text screenshot, her six-figure Publishers Marketplace deal hovering above in the digital firmament. (What “girl” isn’t “writing a book!!!”?) Meanwhile, Lauren Oyler’s protagonist in Fake Accounts describes her Twitter avatar—as if pulling back the curtain on her own cynicism—as one “in which my hair completely covers my eyes and nose, representing me as a poutily sexy girl without a face.” Even the Nobel Laureate in literature is not exempt from girlification. Twitter celebrated Annie Ernaux’s lifetime of exquisite self-writing as a win for “literary hotties.” There must be something that women—I mean, “girls”—gain in performing abjection and excess, winky-faced incompetence and helplessness, vanity, faux-naïveté and a childish immunity to self-awareness online.
Or, as the cunning Joanna Walsh writes in her recent book Girl Online: A User Manual, “Onscreen, woman defaults to girl.” Between scrolls, snaps and grams flows an unstoppable torrent of chic dissimulation, fast words and compulsive posting. Walsh continues:
Offscreen, I have demonstrable experience that cannot be denied: age, class, race seed in my body as visible values. Only onscreen can I stand in that girl position limited only by eternal potential, an AI Alice, whatever my situation on the other side of the looking glass.
In Walsh’s online wonderland, voyeurs look less at what is being said or done than how a user styles a self-image. Call it the digitized male gaze (or don’t), but when it comes right down to it, a senator impersonating a girl online is nothing special. Who on social media is not aspiring to the girl’s image of fun and flippancy?
Cyborgians, cyberfeminists, latter-day “glitch feminists”—none of them had it quite right. Thwarting the optimists, the internet did not open users up to a bouquet of identities that elude gender. Rather, it reduced it to one. A girl online, Walsh cheekily writes, “is an avatar for everyone.”
Categorizing Joanna Walsh’s little book is no easy task. Walsh herself claims it is a “user manual,” a work of “literary criticism,” a “memoir of motherhood,” “chick lit,” “feminist autotheory” and a “historical novel about the internet in the 2000s.” The ideal reader, she notes, is not you or me but, somewhat perplexingly, the internet itself. Sections of the book break down into bonkers binary code, detail the obscure history of Turing’s “child machine,” dip into dense media theory and dole out slapstick fitness-influencer tips. (If these “thought experiments,” as she terms them, sound daunting, perhaps update your browser.)
Set in the mid-aughts, the book also documents how the internet fractured the life of the autofictional narrator. References to Alice Through the Looking-Glass help track Walsh’s transformation from a house-barricaded wife in front of a screen to a free-floating girl writing online. In the first half of the book, Walsh is merely “relational” to others; she is, as she writes, only “context.” She cleans Airbnbs and discusses Kafka’s manuscripts with her twelve-year-old son (Kafka, the great chronicler of selfhood warped by exposure). Walsh, in short, is a mother, and her girlish avatar in the next half of the book is the antonym to motherhood—womanhood, domesticity, privacy, responsibility, reality. Her girl blog, updated from 2005 to 2009, mimics the Socratic “couldn’t-help-but-wonder” wonderings of Carrie Bradshaw, the eternal girl of HBO’s Sex and the City. When a literary agent comes knocking, she urges Walsh to “make it personal. … That’s what people care about!” A French glossy profiles Walsh, shaving four years off her age “for the sake of our consumer demographic.”
Walsh, a British author based in Dublin, is herself no girl (she is on the other side of fifty), and her ten published books would not, at first blush, be called girlish. She writes about matters of the heart and the private life, but through measured and sly refraction; thinkers like Barthes and Freud help her work through her moods and memories. In her best-known volumes Hotel (2015), Break.up (2018) and My Life as a Godard Movie (2021), she measures gradations of melancholy and liberation while loitering in bars, messaging an inconstant lover, walking the streets of Paris in the right clothes, checking into faux-grand Art Deco hotels. Her travelogues morph into thought experiments, her philosophical ruminations take in diary entries.
That is to say, Walsh is an esoteric confessionalist. She would keep the company of Maggie Nelson, Chris Kraus and other Semiotext(e) types mixing criticism and confession, if she herself were not so autobiographically minimalist. She dispenses personal details like acupuncture needles: pointedly, sparingly, displaced and somewhat mystifying. Of a marriage that ended, she summarizes: “unhappily married (two words to stand in for so much).” Working within the shades of, if not anonymity, then certainly non-celebrity, Walsh is somewhat of a rara avis among self-flaunting autofiction writers. Echoing Rachel Cusk in the Outline trilogy and Elena Ferrante in the Neapolitan novels, she writes in Girl Online, “I’ve always had this thing about disappearing.” But if Walsh is laconic about herself, it is not in concealment but in deference to broader interests, curiosities, possibilities.
As Walsh tells it, this eclectic style comes out of—however unlikely—the renaissance of girlie culture in the early internet days. Chick lit, Walsh writes in Girl Online, was then in the process of supplanting the “shock of the new” with the “annoyance of the cute.” This was the time of Emily Gould’s Gawker, of “blog-novels” by Marie Calloway and Catherine Sanderson, of the “semi-amateur First-Person Industrial Complex that paid mostly women writers mostly very little—and sometimes nothing at all—for everything they’d got.” Internet feminists spammed selfies and “overshared,” brandishing their bodies and woes to, apparently, expose the conditions of their degradation. Tumblr, LiveJournal and Blogspot were the places to be a girl indelicately wasting time online. No one was on Twitter yet and it would have been a red flag if you had a Facebook account but weren’t in college. “White, able-bodied, not quite old enough for the screen to entirely refuse my face,” Walsh writes, “I superficially resemble the images of girls that slipped from big screen to small, to digital, their functions carried over as the faces of a brand, a generation, a revolution.”
Walsh’s digital genesis begins with a name change—not a reversion to a maiden name, but a new name that started with @. “It was like Adam naming the animals,” Walsh trills. “The first thing we knew from the names was: everyone had a story. Like everyone had a novel inside them and everyone was a star!” On either side of that exclamation point resides the double void of banality and sentimentality, while the introductory “like” works to grind down any strong assertion or delineation. It is the exuberant language of the girl, and sections of the book descends into a hilarious, brilliant girl speak. In another exclamation-riddled chapter, Walsh deadpans/chirps that the reader should forget Wages for Housework—cash in on #theoryplushouseworktheory!. In #theoryplushouseworktheory! you perform “a household, care or personal-upkeep task while reading, listening to or watching works relating to theory and theorists that are freely available online.” Ironing is an ideal activity for #theoryplushouseworktheory! (Walsh recommends to the jazzy tune of Of Grammatology). In a later essay, searching a W. H. Auden quote, Walsh discovers a poem in the “people also ask” results, including the line, “How do you make dip with nothing?” She schleps tote bags—is there a more girlish accessory than a tote with its crumb-encrusted inner seam?—branded, she notes, with “a speech act that hopes to bring about a fit not between world and content but between wearer and world.” She writes in a Dickinsonian aside, “Sometimes, like anyone else, I google myself to find out who I am.”
The obvious breaches of good taste and decorum, ironical whimsies and freedoms thrill Walsh initially. “A girl can hammer herself thin as gold leaf until she occupies the whole dimensions of cyberspace,” she writes in a rush. The girl is “elegant and short, like a tweet,” “lovely, like Instagram,” “knowing, like a meme” and “endless, like a comments thread.” “It was amazing to be a thing, an object, a girl,” freed from the constraints of her offline womanhood. And becoming one of the girls was so easy: one merely dispensed with emotional reticence and expanded the “I” infinitely—like Whitman, but bubblier. Instead of raising the individual to a transcendent viewpoint or democratic vista, the girl cashed in on her solipsism, her particularity, her “story.” She alone, she might discover, had an original relation to the universe.
In fact, the signature feature of being a girl online, Walsh observes, is the sham guardedness of the girlhood diary—the ease with which the diary’s made-in-China gilded lock might be broken to reveal the neat cursive secrets inside. The girl ultimately resolves inner complexity not through introspection but though coy, knowing self-exposure. More generously put, the girl traffics in artifice, irony, affect, attention—a familiar enough terrain for some artists. And by the end of her book, Walsh indeed breathlessly praises the girl for carrying within her the potential for “the first true amateur work of art.”
Is this all a spoof? One can almost discern a modern Romantic tradition taking shape—Rousseau’s Emile, Twain’s Huck Finn, James’s children and Emerson’s enthralled eyeball all potential precursors to Walsh’s voicey girls. But isn’t there something a bit off-putting, if instantly recognizable or even self-recognizable, about girl-women as a social type today? In the pre-social media world of 1997, Chris Kraus, chief literary advocate of “lonely girl phenomenology,” noted that “the sheer fact of women talking, being, paradoxical, inexplicable, flip, self-destructive but above all else public is the most revolutionary thing in the world.” As the “personal” came to form the chorus of ambient chatty narcissism on social media, however—introspection and self-promotion, “politics” and profit, one and the same—it became unclear how politically transformative being public online has been for women of the 21st century.
The various Obama-era tropes of girls—#girlbosses, Girls Who Code, Wall Street’s “Fearless Girl”—did not attest to the dispersal of radical politics into a world of countercultural idealism. “Girls” heralded just one more new populist front, like another keyword of the Obama era: the hammy “folks” the president evoked alongside a technocratic language, noted by David Bromwich in the London Review of Books, of “critiques” and “trend lines” and “incentivizing.” Likewise, “girls” in the late 2000s and early 2010s typically paid lip service to a lowest-common-denominator solidarity, while aggressively sponsoring a racket of individual economic gain.
In 2023, the harms of gender norms and self-objectification are too obvious to adumbrate. But Walsh herself isn’t so dim as to think women don’t also collude in their girlish predicament. “I write about the economic situation of the writer and the things you have to do in order to sustain our practice,” Walsh explained last year in an interview with the Sunday Times. “Girls” must have had something to gain in refusing to call themselves women. Maybe “girlhood” online in the aughts protected women from a culture that subjects women to unfair terms of sexual obsolescence. But maybe it also offered new and indispensable forms of irony, artistic playfulness and experimentation women would otherwise lack.
Today it has also made possible something else as well, the injuries of class and power of the “girls” on the New York writing scene: the daughters of the high-finance bigwig, media exec or white-shoe law-firm partner. Backed by capital, they are “freelancing” from Prospect Heights, while luxuriating on Twitter about every facet of their girliness, life an endless girls’ night out, a never-ending sweet sixteen.
And so, meet the girl: aesthetically, the “face of the revolution”; commercially, the “face of a brand” that can hide harsher economic facts. It is ultimately the girl’s flickering, ambiguous image that makes her so tricky to judge as a cultural artifact, and perhaps why recent internet novels starring girls online by Lauren Oyler and Patricia Lockwood have been so critically polarizing. Walsh (and we ourselves) might feel as attracted to the winking girlish artifice, as much as we are repelled by the girlish egoism and overexposure that sells so well. (Walsh complains, “I am very tired of using my self as an example,” and reports that the corny confessionalism inflicts her with nausea.) In Girl Online, Walsh can forecast a girl-artist revolution all she wants, but almost in acknowledgment of the rummaging emptiness where higher thought and feeling ought to have been, the narrator herself declines to sell her blog as a novel in the 2000s.
Elsewhere Walsh has noted the social determinants of all this girlish mystification. The publishing industry and literary world are in part to blame, she has said, conferring as they do special artistic and intellectual privilege upon the young: debut-novel coronation ceremonies in the paper of record, prize-entry age restrictions, books promoted with nail-polish sweepstakes. The issue of ageism multiplies into the issues of sexism, classism, racism. “Why must the ‘best new writers’ always be under 40?” Walsh hammered in a 2014 op-ed:
What about the writers who are slowed down because they have to do a day job? What about the authors (mainly women) whose writing time is interrupted for long periods by care for children, or relatives? What about those writers who take years unshackling themselves from backgrounds that make writing seem an impossible dream?
Such obstacles, some might venture, might be overcome by logging on, posting, building a brand. But the hope that being a girl online could redress social invisibility—not to mention our cultural bias against age, and particularly aging women—seems naïve at best, glib and cruel at worst. As Sontag once recommended all the way back in 1972: “Instead of being girls, girls as long as possible, who then age humiliatingly into middle-aged women and then obscenely into old women, they can become women much earlier.” Anything less, she added, makes a woman “an accomplice in her own underdevelopment as a human being.” But it is not always clear that what we are seeking online is to be full human beings, certainly not full women. Which might be the more cynical observation at the core of Walsh’s exuberant book.
Art credit: Nicole Ruggierio, Sober, 2018. Courtesy of the artist.