We’re in Our Girl Misery Era
Some girl math and some girl thinking to calculate the costs of girlification – with the help of Sara Ahmed’s The Feminist Killjoy Handbook.
In ‘Manifesto This,’ we dialogue with a radical text to dream of a better world.
The girlification of everything has led to an infinite loop of discourse: is it radical or is it reactionary? Is it subversive or submissive? There hasn’t been consensus yet because we’re having the conversation on the Internet’s terms: through irony-poisoned humor. In this installment, we’re doing some girl math and some girl thinking to calculate the costs of girlification – with the help of academic and philosopher Sara Ahmed’s The Feminist Killjoy Handbook.
“Killjoy Maxim: When It Is Not Funny, Do Not Laugh!”
Girl misery is no longer funny. Can we stop laughing at girl dinners, girl math, lazy girls, lucky girls, and the girlification of everything now? Can we say something about this without being called killjoys? That would be an incorrect assessment anyway: there’s nothing joyful to kill in girl trends after the initial dopamine rush. Girlification is minimizing. As Sara Ahmed writes: “The figure of the feminist killjoy teaches us how the minimization of harm and the inflation of power often work together. Even to identify something as harmful is treated as an attempt to exercise or to hold power over someone…”We joke about reclaiming stereotypes, but we’re reclaiming shrinkage. Intelligence, health, labor are political and hard-won. There are other things to laugh about than our own physical and spiritual emaciation.
Consider the fact that “girl dinners” are really, really awful. For the most part. It can comprise a diet Coke and a single packet of chips. It can be a plate of vegetables for the whole day. It can be an entire pizza binge. Consider the fact that financial agency hasn’t been won yet, not even close, but girl math refers to binge-shopping and a whole-hearted embrace of materialism. But more likely than not, the jokes speak to a deeper pain: a collective lack of self-care, the systemic lack of access to nutritious meals and bargaining power. It’s bad out there, but the Internet can’t stop laughing. It’s ironic! Anything goes. We’re allowed to make fun of ourselves. One might say it tracks with the age of irony on the Internet. Earnestness is gauche. The more you really mean something, the less seriously you’ll get taken, and the more humorless you are. But humor is never innocent – humor, more often than not, has a subject being ridiculed. The purpose of girlification seemed to be one thing: ironic reclamation. That was good. But it has ended up elsewhere: unironic deprecation. That women occupying space online are overwhelmingly nihilistic about their prospects is really a tragi-comedy, but we’re ignoring the tragic part.
“Killjoy equation: Affect Alien = Alienated By How You Are Affected”
Who surrenders to this discourse? Girl dinners and girl math are only funny when you know what a good dinner and comfortable finances are. Girl trends are darkly funny because they’re hopeless. But simultaneously, girl trends are the slow trickle of hopelessness in a world where we’re becoming more unfree than ever. And sometimes, we’re not all equally complicit in it: girlification is White feminism. It romanticizes surface over depth in the name of reclamation. Compulsive shopping is girl math; bad eating when you have access to good food is girl dinner; well-paying corporate jobs are lazy girl jobs. Like most things, Indian social media replicates it in a near-perfect version: White feminism becomes Savarna feminism. Who among us can romanticize the struggle of living with a roof over our heads, credit in the bank used unwisely, and a dysfunctional relationship with food? Those who have these things. Not all of us can be girlified equally. And where does that leave everyone else? When the privileged among us give into the privilege in the name of feminism, what do we call it?
But even otherwise, should self-deprecating humor be the only coping mechanism for injustice anyway? We girlify because we’re tired. It’s a process of regression, a Benjamin Button-ification of the miseries of dealing with the continuous onslaughts of the world. Healing and dealing with the world is a lot of work, but we’re exhausted. It’s far easier to fall back into patterns that feel comfortable, familiar, and instantly gratifying. We know they’re bad for us, but that’s why they feel good. That’s why the Great Girlification should worry us: it’s all one big, collective, depressive episode. The girlies exist in the void. In the meantime, corporates, e-commerce retailers are happy to take your girl math and raise you girl discounts, girl deals, girl gifts, and girl grifts.
“What is it about enjoyment that it is so dependent on other people giving their permission, so precarious that it can be dislodged even by a question?”
Girlification is contemporary comedy, maybe even feminist comedy… but is it really? Way back in 1988, rhetorician Lisa Merril said “‘comedy that recognized the value of female experience may be an important step in developing a culture that allows women to self-critically question the stereotypes that have governed our lives.” Consequently, in 2002, we were supposed to have shed the self-loathing in our humor. “Confidently moving away from the angry self-putdowns of many of their predecessors, contemporary women in comedy are evoking both the derisive male snigger and the fortifying female laugh,” one paper declared at the time. But the self-loathing is back now, but the self-critical part is missing. We had so much to say about internalized misogyny that it quickly got boring and passé. Now that indictment is reserved for aunties, in-laws, and the friendly neighborhood pick-mes. What stage of internalized misogyny is this, where girl everything is a stand-in for frivolity, and the frivolity is supposed to be subversive? Asking questions about harmless things is killing the joke. But then we learn it’s no fun to kill the joke. It’s actually really uncool; you might even say cringe. We learn, by force, to enjoy the things that are eroding us. Questioning the enjoyment, even raising eyebrows at it, is a break in the matrix. It takes us outside Barbieland. And girl misery is really the product of the same world that gave us Greta Gerwig’s Barbie, brought to you by Mattel. Girlification, brought to you by capitalist alienation. It’s telling that the fun stops the moment we start to ask why.
“To kill joy is how we learn about joy.”
Ever notice how it’s always skincare girlies, fashion girlies, astrology girlies, but never activist girlies, teacher girlies, scientist girlies? The latter would be absurd. It would be infantilizing. Girl anything might be a little fun, at first, but then what? When you really get to the heart of it, it’s joyless. It’s a gradual erosion of the self, the tacit acceptance of things never getting better, the enjoyment of hopelessness. This is frightening. We’re stuck in a horror movie. It seems to say: if we can’t get out of the sadness, we might as well laugh at it ironically. Might as well do it together. Sisterhood today replaces feminist consciousness-raising with nihilistic humor. But where’s the joy in reveling in misery – and further, what’s the real killjoy here?
“In reclaiming the feminist killjoy for ourselves, we turn the judgement into a project, because if feminism causes misery, this is what we might need to cause… by naming ourselves as feminist killjoys, we not only commit ourselves to the task of killing joy, we recover a feminist history.”
Instead of reclaiming the things hurled at us, why not claim the things withheld from us? Why not claim anger, anti-beauty, mobilizing, solidarity, philosophy, inquiry, curiosity and, importantly, real joy? It’s a problem that bra-burning is now a joke to laugh at, while borderline-disordered eating is a joke to laugh with. Girlification turned us into “cool” feminists. We’re self-aware. We’re funny and we’re certainly not the feminists who lose their cool, who can’t take a joke. We’ve got girl jokes now. We can laugh at ourselves now. Girlification is passivity, disinterest, surrender, and we find it ironically funny, until it’s no longer ironic. Girl humor began as gallows humor for people who weren’t really at the gallows anyway.
As a result, girl trends turn us into bored, sad, disinterested princesses languishing in material excess and alienation. Here’s a bit of girl math: we can’t afford this in the long run. Junk food-induced bad health and multi-step skincare, in this economy?
The girlification of everything comes at great cost to ourselves: joy from within, as opposed to without. But who gets to give up on joy? Nobody, if we’re honest with ourselves. There’s a lot of absurdity in the world to laugh at without turning ourselves absurd. Surely, there are other ways to be playful and cynical in equal measure. Or, in short, girl critique is microanalyzing everything, because power resides everywhere, in every corner. When did we start rolling our eyes at that – and why?
Rohitha Naraharisetty is a Senior Associate Editor at The Swaddle. She writes about the intersection of gender, caste, social movements, and pop culture. She can be found on Instagram at @rohitha_97 or on Twitter at @romimacaronii.