SXSW 2013
Harm or Help?

The rise of the woman-child online: Is women's media too girly?

Harm or help: Is women's media too girly?

News_Zooey Deschanel

Is women's media too girly? Are sites like HelloGiggles and xoJane perpetuating adolescent female behavior, or are they celebrating a new notion for women in power — one that rejects the idea that they must assume male-oriented behavior in order to be taken seriously? There's a growing contingency of women out there who are embracing blatant displays of femininity, and in turn, are stepping out of powersuits and back into dresses and a predilection for all things girlish — and it's irritating a lot of people.

Think bows, poofy dresses, cuteness, cupcakes, and nail art. This is a dramatized version of the subject at hand: the woman-child. The counterpart to Judd Apatow’s celebrated men-children, the woman-child is currently, as author Deborah Schoeneman has said, "having a real moment."

The woman-child is appearing doe-eyed on sitcoms (like New Girl), red carpets (i.e., Katy Perry), and online publications (the aforementioned websites) — and her steady proliferation was the matter discussed by a SXSW panel comprised of Anna Holmes (Jezebel), Rebecca Fernandez (HelloGiggles), Margaret Wheeler Johnson (HuffPo Women), and Schoeneman (New York Observer, Girls). The journalistically established group of women working for different sites with different mentalities, yet all for a female demographic, debated whether this trend hurt or helped the advancement of their gender. 

In the past year and a half, chiding essays have been published in journals and online outlets from the likes of comedian Caitlin Moran and author Julie Klausner, the latter of which implores women-children to "Read something written before you were born. Stand up straight. Watch a movie with no early-'90s nostalgic appeal." They're irritated with the sparkles, the cute cat memes, and the 30- and 40-year-olds who are assuming an adolescent "pose," as Moran calls it.

 Think bows, poofy dresses, cuteness, cupcakes and nail art; this is a dramatized version of the subject at hand: the woman-child.

But are women assuming said pose as a way to diminish their power and seem less threatening, or rather, is it liberating that some women are indulging in girlishness because they want to? Not because it attracts a man (in fact, studies cited by Schoeneman found the exact opposite effect), and not because it softens them, but simply because they like to paint their nails and indulge in 90-seconds of escapism every now and then by reading the “Cuteness Page” on HelloGiggles between hard news articles on CNN.

"If Zoey [Deschanel] puts on a dress and we say she's doing so to be less threatening, it's doing a disservice to her," said Fernandez in support of the New Girl star who also doubles as the HelloGiggles CEO. "She's known as very savvy and succeeding in her field."

On the flipside, take Mark Zuckerberg — a man who is taking over the world in a hoodie and sneakers. The public talked about his boyish sartorial choices for no more than one minute and moved on, making way for his esteem. Perhaps his choice presentation of self is no different than a woman who doesn't want to have to dress different, or older than she really is, to succeed. 

That juvenile fashion statements are somewhat en vogue isn't necessarily dangerous. But that rise of the woman-child is seen by some as a regression to puerile behavior is certainly troubling. To examine, the panel referred to the rampant internet bashing of girlish-woman Anne Hathaway following the 2013 Oscars (as Sasha Weiss put it in the New Yorker, "she’s glittery, she likes attention, and she squeals"), and decided that the pointed online bullying Hathaway received might be a sad, troubling issue between all women — not a certain woman-child subset. 

In line with Jezebel’s tougher, snarkier online personality, Holmes served as the panelist expressing the most discomfort with the insurgence of cutesy-women's media. "I'm very, very conflicted on all of this,” she admitted, explaining she didn't want to offer a blanket statement but felt most uncomfortable when the concept of the woman-child becomes consumptive, speaking to the pre-feminist movement era when advertising in women’s media blatantly pushed the buy-away-your-insecurites agenda.

"The problem I have with [the woman-child] idea is when it’s about consumer goods and selling stuff. When it's about communicating to women, young and old, that they need to buy more shit is when I feel uncomfortable with it. I'm not going to name names, but that's what I'm seeing."

Fernandez quickly countered that the internet needs the soft and the hard, as web-based entertainment is made for quick shots of consumption. 

 [T]he woman-child is seen by some as a regression to immature adolescent behavior.

Where Holmes couldn’t commit to stating whether or not this trend hurts or helps the feminist agenda on the whole, Fernandez and Schoeneman theorized that perhaps the most empowering thing about the emergence of the woman-child, though it may appear outwardly nauseating to some, is that women have more options. If we could assume that any woman participating in girly media and/or fashion is doing so by her own volition and not to soften herself, I say no harm no foul. But we all know the matter of gender, especially that of a female, isn't that simple.

As women, we've received mixed messages since birth about the "correct" type of women to be, and oftentimes those times appear far too mutually exclusive and limited. You choose the suit or the kid. Option A or B. 

Though the panel dug deep, there’s much more to examine as far as society’s intense fear of the sexual response a woman — child or grown — may elicit. And so long as women have to keep apologizing for behavior that isn’t physically or emotionally hurting anyone else, like a particularly pastel dress or getting a kick out of cute cats, that in and of itself tells me women still have a long road ahead.

Last we checked, Zooey Deschanel’s Twitter feed has done far less harm than Anthony Weiner’s accidental penis-post, yet we’re questioning whether or not she’s advancing our gender?