A Completely Subjective History of Girl Culture
A Girl Renaissance
Girls are having a moment. A Girl Renaissance, filled with frumpy young girl directors singing their autobiographical swan songs like Lena Dunham and Miranda July, doe-eyed, gray-haired ingenue Tavi Gevinson taking street style blogging and turning it into an empire, those girl-women of SNL fame writing pee-your-pants movies and TV shows like Kristen Wiig’s Bridesmaids and Tina Fey’s 30 Rock, and of course, Zooey Deschanel’s media siege with her lame old-timey vocals in the band, She & Him, and her pretty good show, New Girl. But wait, how could we forget the other girls dominating our airwaves? The CW TV network is a girl party on crack including the sensationally guilt-pleasurable Gossip Girl. Then we have Lady Gaga, and those other weirdos, Nicki Minaj, Grimes, and Lana Del Rey. Talk about a take-over. I don’t even know where the men are anymore. Oh wait. They’re combing their beards and wearing flannels, curing meat at home and occasionally resurfacing from their woodland-decorated apartments to eat at restaurants they read about in the NY Times. Girls, the airwaves and internet are yours to command.
So what is a ‘girl’ anymore? Something between a little girl and a lady? As a post-teen non-woman, I feel the need to keep the title of girl probably well past its original expiration date because I’d rather be a girl than a woman. Between my anxiety and my jealousy at being only a fringe element of the Girl Renaissance, I have been looking back into the girl culture of my past. I am by no means an authority, but I have put together an incredibly subjective History of Girl Culture (the last 33 years) for your amusement and nostalgia.
The Last 33 Years of Girl Culture
Since I was born one year shy of the 1980s, I have no idea what the late ’70s were like. I can imagine it sucked as the fight for women’s rights continued from the ’60s, (well, really the ’20s), and you wanted that whole Murphy Brown thing that you didn’t know about yet, but you also just wanted to burn your bra and drop acid and tell your uptight housewife mom to leave you alone. I can only include what I learned about in retrospect about cool girl culture since I was hanging out in utero. Let’s leave out disco and roller skating and Three’s Company and focus on the amazing punk subculture of the ’70s.
Punks and Vixens
Vivienne Westwood, Patti Smith, Bow Wow Wow, The Slits, Exene Cervenka, The Runaways, and Siouxsie and the Banshees should all make you embarrassed to be so unoriginal and passive. Between the English punks and the American ones, they had it covered. This documentary, The Decline of Western Civilization, was directed by punk girl Penelope Spheeris, and captures the gritty, sneering, yet slightly self-conscious and heavily made-up Exene of the band X. As the odd sex out most of the time, girls like her and Siouxsie Sioux were both iconic feminists and potent sex bombs, paving the way as disheveled girl originals of the Courtney Loves who would follow.
Funsters Who Live at Home
As we enter the early ’80s, I still can’t tell you much from my perspective as a girl unless you want to know about The Smurfs. But who didn’t know about Cyndi Lauper, Madonna, or Pat Benatar, (though “Hell is For Children” was particularly alarming)? I mostly remember the “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” video from Goonies, but the message had broad appeal, even to a six-year-old.
We also had other iconic all-girl bands like The Go-Gos and The Bangles, and a overriding sense of fun and pop. The songs from Lauper and Madonna still reference their fathers, i.e. “Papa Don’t Preach,” as if the hardened girls of the punk movement had lent their over-the-top style but not their tough girl message of staking out territory with the boys. It was girls on one side of the dance floor and boys on the other, and then there were the geeks.
Geeks and Bimbos
Somewhat strangely, a geek story plays out in almost all ’80s teen culture. Nerdy girls like Martha Plimpton in Goonies or Ally Sheedy in the Breakfast Club serve as comparison shots to the hot girls and never get the guy, or get him only after a hot girl takes her under her wing. They are often seen literally comparing their boobs to the other girls in shower scenes, as men were probably the only ones writing the scripts. All girls in this era, it seems, want to be blond, busty, and heavily shouldered, like the girls in Valley Girl, Seventeen Magazine, and Blair on the Facts of Life. Enter heavy metal and the hope we had for self-respect went out the window with Kelly Bundy and groupies everywhere.
As we approach the later end of the ’80s, i’ts more and more apparent that girls are trying to be women. The big hair, the big boobs, the way everyone talks about themselves as if they were really serious about everything. It all just made me feel extremely self-conscious. I don’t know what happened to the feminists of the ’70s. They were probably building communes to get away from all we had done to our own girlhoods, but everyone else was rocking out to dudes who looked like girls and checking out models we had actually learned the names of on the covers of magazines. There were a few anti-heroes like Winona Ryder in the movie Heathers, and for that I am eternally grateful.
Sarcastic yet Politically Correct
Enter the ’90s now, and boy is it a girl’s paradise. We all know how grunge killed metal, at least if you find yourself watching VH1 documentaries on Saturdays, and grunge also killed chauvinism, it would seem. Suddenly we forgot about Axl Rose and Stephanie Seymour and even Janet Jackson and Lita Ford. We did tolerate 90210 (Ok, I was 11 and I loved it), and the cooler cult classic Twin Peaks, but there was a storm brewing and it’s name was Girl Power.
Do you remember “Girl Power” when it was screamed from the stage of this British Goody-barretted monstrosity? Despite how ridiculous they were, especially in all those flared polyester pants, their message was delivered in good faith. “Girl Power” was a mantra echoed from these cheeky British mouths to all young girls across the world. As cheesy as that was, in the face of the metal years we had just gone through, we needed it.
Of course, while this was going on, we had another form of “Girl Power” known as Riot Grrl, like Bikini Kill screaming “Suck my left one!”, among other things. Riot Grrls were mutli-tasker extremists, staying up late to make zines, create record distros, and bake cakes. We also had Riot Grrl Lite like No Doubt’s “Just a Girl.” One thing was certain: absolutely everyone was in thrift store clothes.
I could go on about the ’90s for a million years. It was the decade I lived through as an adolescent, so each moment was recorded in my developing brain as important and mind-blowing. All I know is that I can remember grunge and Courtney Love, the 4 Non-Blondes, L7, a new general sarcasm with shows like My So-Called Life and Daria and movies like Reality Bites, nerd-heroine Jeanane Garafalo, angry songstress PJ Harvey, weirdo Bjork, Drew Barrymore flashing David Letterman, and Fiona Apple losing it and yelling at everyone at the MTV awards show. Correct me if I’m wrong, but looking back it seems like it was a good time for girls, but an angry time. And everyone was skinny and on drugs, highlighted by Pulp Fiction, Trainspotting, heroin chic and Kate Moss. On the other hand, we had Lilith Fair and the woman warrior weapon of choice: the acoustic guitar. Suddenly everyone was ‘PC’, and it seemed like everyone had also recently become bi-sexual. Weirdest of all, dreadlocks enjoyed a rise in popularity, with Ani Di Franco as a poster child for basically all of the above.
Soft-Spoken Harpists and Fame-Chasers
I can hardly remember anything about the 2000s. I guess once your personal preferences are formed, and your personality cemented, you are free to go about looking back into history to find your tribe. This is when I discovered the Runaways, X, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Twin Peaks and old horror films. Since I became a punk in this time period, my memory doesn’t recall much of the current traditional girl ‘pop’ culture of the time. I remember that rockabilly had a resurgence, with amazing sculpted girl pompadour beehive things that I wished I could do. Also, there was the band, The Distillers, who took the angry feminism of the ’90s and made it more explicit, referencing Susan B. Anthony in their lyrics.
Mostly what I remember, however, was the bipolar culture of a new way of keeping up with all kinds of the coolest things, amplified by the fact that basically everyone now had the internet and MySpace and a way to broadcast themselves. There was also a very quiet indie culture of soft girliness, like Lula Magazine, which I think was a reaction from the more sensitive turtles of girl culture. We had the Cobrasnake and New York disco pop trumping everything like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Glass Candy, but we also had the Virgin Suicides and Cat Power and Joanna Newsom, (which was weird because she is from my hometown). There was Sex and the City, lest we forget, and a constant push to spend money and keep up, with reality shows like The Hills and a strange cultural obsession with Paris Hilton. In the end, I think as girls we lost our way again, just like we did last time we had too much money, in the ’80s. Girl culture became about labels, the possibility of fame, and the weird alternative reality of Facebook.
The New Girls
Enter the economic bottom dropping out. Suddenly we’re depressed and we want fantasy. We want crazy outfits and supernatural creatures crawling into our beds at night so we don’t think about our chances of finding employment. But we also have taken matters into our own hands and created what we were looking for and hadn’t found in the fast-fashion reality mega-plex of the 2000s. Sisters are doing it for themselves, from the cheesy-as-they-might be Twilight and Hunger Games writers to the genius comic relief we really needed in the form of Poehler and Fey, the self-made videos of Lana Del Rey to the self-produced albums from Gaga.
So here is to our smart girl writers, directors, bloggers, singers, and everyone in between. Please keep making awesome things, even if not everyone likes you. We need you so that one day when we look back we’ll remember our 2010s as the Girl Renaissance, and not think of the Kardashians and Ke$ha.