Practically everything that teenage girls like has become a source of popular anger. Growing up in the 2010s, any mainstream show, film, or book series marketed towards girls was almost instantaneously given brand marks of “uncool”, “silly” and just plain “bad”. It was almost like the more popular something became within that demographic, the quicker its reputation was confined to the pits of “lowbrow culture”. As trendsetting consumers, young women brought both money and dismissal to the media they popularised.
This remains the case in many senses. Teenage girls are shamed for simply… liking things. More ‘masculine’ films primarily targeted towards teenage boys, such as Transformers or Avengers, aren’t treated the same way as more feminine, “cheesy” rom-coms. Instead, they are socially accepted as more “neutral” for the general public. Try confessing that you like The Notebook in a professional setting versus DC comics. You’ll get a very different response. Only the very best ‘chick flicks’, like Mean Girls, have become fully accepted in the mainstream. Or less blatantly feminine film series like The Hunger Games. With the same breath, everyone loves to hate on women with more stereotypically masculine interests because they’re trying too hard to be “one of the boys”. This gave rise to the cool girl, “not like other girls” persona in both real women and on-screen characters. The “I’m different, not basic like the rest of you” cliché includes a starter pack of black boots, no makeup, and internalised misogyny.
The rise of popular feminism delivered some pushback against this trope. The “pick me” is a term coined by social media to describe “a girl who goes out of their way to impress boys” and show she is “one of the good ones”, according to Urban Dictionary. Woke culture is making it less acceptable for people to trivialise women. This is beginning to translate most intensely on TikTok. Indeed, the platform has played host to many toxic trends that negatively impact young girls, from the romanticisation of sugar baby lifestyles to the idealisation of specific body types, such as in the recent ‘silhouette challenge’. But the app has an advantage. Whereas Instagram is killing itself, TikTok’s algorithm is drawing users to its platform. Not only is it easier to grow, the app’s smart algorithm segments users into particular groups via the ‘For You’ page based on their engagement, creating a ‘safe space’ for different communities—one being young women with different interests.
It’s far easier to find like-minded people and, while mainstream media is slightly starting to back down when it comes to teenage girls, TikTok is making it far easier for them to express themselves. An example of this is the resurgence of Twilight, which started regaining popularity and detaching itself from its solely uncool reputation during lockdown. This may have been partly due to the need for comfort TV as people collectively sought out reminders of easier times. However, the trend mainly manifested itself on TikTok where the film series is almost re-transforming into a cult classic amongst young adults. People started documenting Twilight road trip adventures to Forks, ranking the songs from the soundtrack and even going all-out through intricately edited and acted scene recreations. My personal favourites are the Rpattz memes and hot takes like ‘which Twilight character would eat you” (down there). “#Twilight” currently has 4.7 billion views, “#twilightcosplay” 81.6 million and “#twilighttiktok” — 76 million. Sure enough, after liking a few of these TikToks ‘ironically’, they started showing up on my For You page too.
Of course, videos critiquing Twilight for valid reasons have also emerged, highlighting the problematic elements such as the treatment of the very real Quileute Tribe and the film’s obvious lack of diversity. Tik Tok allows girls to reclaim their (critical) enjoyment of things that other forms of social media often mock or that have been branded as “bad” across traditional media. This is true for a variety of things commonly labelled “guilty pleasures”, including boy bands like One Direction and BTS. Admiration is also naturally extended to heathrobs like Harry Styles and, bizarrely, Draco Malfoy, who is now a resident TikTok king.
It’s most obvious when it comes to girls’ proud re-embrace of YA fiction and TV shows like Gossip Girl, Riverdale, Bridgerton and The Vampire Diaries through a mirage cosplay, POV and ‘what I’d wear in…’ videos. While you see some of this on other apps, edits of these shows are often made through fan accounts, not personal ones. There was only a surge in modelling corsets on TikTok rather than Instagram, especially because this was often accompanied with ‘cosplaying’ as the ball season’s “diamond of the first water”. Perhaps, womxn and girls feel more free to display themselves and their interests on Tikok more than anywhere else. Part of this comfort may be because the endless scrolling embedded into the app’s design creates an illusion of privacy. No one’s reached the bottom of the black hole that is the For You Page. That’s because it doesn’t exist. What are the chances that someone stumbles onto your “POV: you just shifted into Hogwarts and Draco laughed the way you scripted it” video? Not very high. Even if it goes viral, it means it’s shown up on their For You page too, so you and your bully (or boss) share an affinity for DracoTok.
Although it’s very easy to go ‘viral’ on TikTok, the very design of the app, with its endless scrolling, allows the illusion of privacy, giving womxn the freedom to ‘get comfortable’ on the app with less fear of criticism. One avid user, *Emma, stated that she feels there’s “less chance that peers or colleagues will find you and it’s not common custom to ask for people’s Tik Toks in the same way as Instagram, Facebook or even Twitter. Also, likes are hidden so you can like whatever you want.” Some argue that young girls are getting “too comfortable on this app” and may regret what they post, mainly when it comes to minors and suggestive content. But that’s a whole other conversation. In creatively exploring themselves, womxn are also able to take back the narrative through rants and satirical skit-like videos aligned with song lyrics. It’s now popular to make fun of women who put down other women (“pick mes”), not only in videos but also in comment sections.
Empowering content does well but content that pokes fun at cishet men performs even better. My only TikTok which has reached 100k views did exactly that. In the BookTok community, parodying “how men write women” is not only a critique but also a way of taking back the power. Women are refusing to be mocked for their creativity and the things they like. A rise in feminist content gives younger girls more access to this kind of thinking, which wasn’t as popular in the 2000s when feminism was seen as a controversial word. Yet, while one side of TikTok is crucifying the “pick me”, some trends are still being used to perpetuate the narrative of being “different” from other girls. Most recently, the “introduce yourself as a reason why girls don’t like you” challenge led to humble-bragging and even body shaming. However, one look at the comment section mostly confirms what we should have always known — it isn’t cool to be a “pick me” and having a less mainstream taste doesn’t make you better than other woman.
While social media users are quick to blame women for their “pick me” attitudes, these ways of demonstrating how “different” they are is not simply an isolated character flaw prevalent in those who just can’t grasp feminism. Rather, this is a problem of our culture. The internalised sexism inherent in these “pick me” attitudes is a direct result of the patriarchal society girls are socialised in. Systemic sexism in our daily lives is driven both by white, Western gender norms, the historic legacy of female oppression, and, of course, men. Although women’s rights have progressed, society’s consistent shaming of women manifests itself in the media where women are placed in hierarchies where femininity and “basic” interests are regularly shamed. We also live in a capitalist, neoliberal society which “sees competition as the defining characteristic of human relations”. Therefore, it makes sense that many women feel like they must demonstrate their superiority over fellow women in order to gain the one, most important thing we are told we should aspire to, the gateway to validation: male attention. Their acts of defining themselves as different from other girls are reactionary responses to men’s infantilising, condescending, and objectifying attitudes to women. For example, the “manic pixie dream girl” trope was created by men to define their male characters through agency-adept, quirky beauties who only exist to develop the man’s storyline. Hello, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind? In reality, it is men who are responsible for the rise of the “pick me”, “not like other girls” phenomenon, benefitting from its sexism while women are blamed for being conditioned to embrace it.
TikTok is letting young women be more themselves without shame. It’s also helping society realise that things shouldn’t be dismissed simply by virtue of being liked by girls. In fact, they can be made more interesting with their creative input.
Young women and teenage girls have been driving trends since the rise of consumer culture. Nowadays, they’re less hesitantly building creative online spaces to own what they like with more enthusiastic autonomy than ever before. Let’s hope the popularity of ‘mainstream’ feminism helps finally bring the death of the “pick me” and continues to provide safe community spaces; not only for girls but also Black people, people of colour, the LGBTQ+ community and all marginalised genders.
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