The "woman child" is having a real moment. She's an increasingly prominent and powerful breed of pop-culture female who seems to be aging backwards. She's a counterpart to the "man-child" stars of Judd Apatow movies; she would rather rally girlfriends to see The Hunger Games than the more peer-group-appropriate What to Expect When You're Expecting. The women-children love the new television shows with "girl" and their style gurus are celebrities who often dress younger than their years: Zooey Deschanel, Katy Perry and Nicki Minaj. From sporting sparkly nail polish to religiously reading every bestselling young adult novel, these women seem to be reliving their teenage years with real gusto.
Social networking has made it easier for a "woman-child" to find company in her love of Hello Kitty and polka-dot dresses with bows, particularly if she's feeling lonely as a single girl. She doesn't have to go into a Tower Records (if they still existed) to buy a Taylor Swift album. She can just download it and blog about her favorite songs on HelloGiggles, a new popular website devoted to all things tween.
A "woman-child" is the type to prioritize her female friendships as if she were in a high school clique by posting pictures of her girls' birthday dinners or boozy vacations on Facebook while her peers post wedding and baby pictures with similar zeal. She truly believes that women are in it together and is all about helping her friends start businesses, meet guys and pick out a cute outfit for a big event. Competiveness among females in the workplace is perceived as totally 80s. "Women-children" are increasingly looking back to create a new common ground and it's a warm fuzzy ground.
The woman-child will likely get married later than the increasing national average. Advances in fertility treatments like egg freezing have also added to their confidence that they can reproduce older and potentially prolong their own girlhood.
Maybe "women-children" are afraid of becoming grown-ups in an increasingly scary world of layoffs, rich Republicans and insane weather patterns. Or maybe they have better survival skills. "Women-children" certainly seem to be enjoying themselves more than their peers who struggle with the motherhood/career conundrum. The trend has crept into my peer group, too. It's as if some of the women around me still want to be girls because girls just want to have fun. Girls certainly don't obsess over a feminist article in The Atlantic or the dearth of female directors in Hollywood.
Popular culture is full of examples to support my observation. Over the past two years, Mary Jane-style shoes by Prada, Marc Jacobs, Christian Louboutin and Dolce & Gabbana have been selling like crazy. New Girl star Zooey Deschanel is a national media superstar, constantly being photographed wearing bows and headbands. Her style has even been mocked in a Saturday Night Live sketch about "being quirky." Teenage blogging sensation Tavi Gevinson got her own online magazine, Rookie. It's supposed to be for teenagers but it's attracting an older demographic and contributors, include the defunct Jane magazine founder Jane Pratt.
The raunchy standup comic Sarah Silverman, 41 without any kids, almost always wears sneakers, jeans and hoodies. She wrote a bestselling book about being a bedwetter throughout high school.
Even serious women journalists are becoming "women-children." Kim France spent a decade editing the Condé Nast shopping magazine Lucky. Last year, at the age of 47, she left her job and started a blog, Girls of a Certain Age, geared at women in their 40s who, as her website claims, "don't mind calling themselves feminists," and "look at pictures of their moms at their age and somehow don't feel as grown up."
In a New York Times article, France said her target demo was "somebody who is obviously a grown-up but you've got some feelers still in your youth" and who never dropped their "youthful enthusiasms" like Led Zeppelin or leopard-print coats. She also joked that another project she wanted to work on was a Tumblr to be called I Preferred the 90s, "which I may still, because it sort of was the last time before things started being super adult. And I liked that time." In those days she was an editor at the teen magazine Sassy.
Girlie nail art is suddenly huge, even with my seriously career-focused friends, like an actress pal who requested anonymity to protect her privacy. She recently hosted a girls' dinner party at her home near Hollywood. At one point during the evening, she gave her guests a tour and showed off the extensive collection of bright, patterned nail stickers she keeps in her bathroom. The audience — a group of accomplished showbiz types — was rapt. I felt a little left out, having no interest in ever using those nail stickers.
Listening to my actress pal's guests bond about nail art, I wondered if I was missing out on the female bonding because I was raised in a dungeon or skipped sorority rush.
According to an April 2011 story by veteran New York Times fashion reporter Ruth La Ferla, I'm in the minority these days when it comes to nail polish. Her article said department store nail polish brands saw a 67 percent jump, which helped contribute to $710 million in total sales. "Muddied orange, toxic green and shrieking mauve, rare in the marketplace six months ago, are crowding the shelves of department and drugstores, snapped up by consumers intent on releasing their inner Nicki Minaj," wrote La Ferla. "Women's enthusiasm for brazen tints, three-dimensional effects and quirky patterns (think python, cobweb or cheetah spots) has propelled nail polish into the fastest-growing segment of the beauty trade, surpassing even lipstick as a recession-proof cosmetic enhancer." The fashion designer Thakoon also released a limited edition line of neon colors for the brand Nars, inspired by his spring 2012 line. It has been wildly popular.
Since celebrities are usually the engines of pop culture trends, I took a deeper look at the poster girls for the girlie craze. Minaj already had her own nail polish line with OPI when she became a bona fide rock star with her chart-topping album Pink Friday in the fall of 2010. In the same month, MAC cosmetics made her a spokeswoman and launched a Pink Friday lipstick, selling all 3,000 in stock in 15 minutes in addition to an impressive 27,000 over the next three weeks.
"She was fun and cute," the president of MAC cosmetics, John Demsey, told The Times in an article a few months later. "She's funny, loves makeup and has a mashup style between Vivienne Westwood and a Harajuku girl." Neither was ever a fashion icon for me. I'm more inspired by Talitha Getty lounging in a caftan on a Marrakesh rooftop. I consider brushing my hair making a major effort on the appearance front.
That same article, by Laura M. Holson, talked about how Minaj was the "It Girl" that season and had made a big splash sitting front row at the New York Fashion Week shows in wacky outfits, like the neon puffball tunic she showed up wearing to the relatively staid Carolina Herrera Spring 2012 show in September. "She could even claim Halloween last fall, judging from the scores of tutorials on YouTube for fans seeking her fluorescent look and ice-cream swirl tresses," wrote Holson.
This was seismic stuff. When I graduated from college in 1999 and started working as an assistant at the Observer, it was fashionable to try to emulate the look of the Park Avenue Princesses like Aerin Lauder, who almost always wore sophisticated, muted tones. Narciso Rodriguez, who designed Carolyn Bessette Kennedy's simple white slip of a wedding dress in 1999, was the darling of the fashion world. Gwyneth Paltrow had just single-handedly brought pink back into vogue by wearing an elegant Ralph Lauren gown when she won an Oscar for Shakespeare in Love. I was out of it then, too, but in a different way. I thought Banana Republic was a great place to shop.
These days, the fashion icons are dressing increasingly younger than their years. Minaj is hardly the only pop star getting in on the girlie action. Madonna, 53, is currently on tour dressed as a cheerleader and Katy Perry has emerged as the reigning Girlie Queen, complete with her own 3D biographical movie. In 2010, Perry's self esteem album Teenage Dream reached the Top 5 of the pop singles charts in at least 20 countries. Her breakout song is about kissing a "girl," and she often performs with blue hair while sucking on massive lollipops. The video for her song "Last Friday Night" features her dressed up as a dorky teenager the day after a massive party, and the video for "California Gurls" is set in Candy Land.
In a June 2011 cover story for Rolling Stone, my friend Vanessa Grigoriadis (not a girlie girl; she tends to sport a blazer, jeans and designer shoes when she's working) described Perry's look as "a little bit burlesque and a little bit Japanese teenager." At one point during their interview, Perry wore enormous fluffy slippers from Japan with cat faces on the front and said, "I love things that have a face on them but are also useful, like a toothpick holder." Perry also said she did cartwheels and splits in the office of her longtime manager when they first met. "How else was I going to get him to listen to me?" she asked.
What ever happened to a firm handshake and good eye contact?
I recently met Perry at a friend's pool party in Los Angeles. Even though she's a huge celebrity, I almost didn't recognize her. Her hair was black and she was wearing a white tank top, dangly purple earrings and a long blue skirt — until she stripped down to a black and white bikini to jump in the pool. (The perfectness of her body intimidated the majority of the other women at the party enough to keep their clothes on). When someone offered Perry an ice cream cone with rainbow sprinkles while she was swimming, Perry demurred.
"It's ironic, but I don't like sweets," she said.
That's when I realized she was a marketing genius instead of a "woman-child." She's riding the trend right to the bank.
Sure, pop culture has always romanticized youth, but I'm increasingly seeing my own peers try to reclaim their girlhood for reasons that have nothing to do with appearing wrinkle-free. It goes way beyond nail art, too. Over the past year, I've been invited to a bunch of "game nights" organized by serious career women. Instead of being like the sophisticated dinner parties I presumed grown-ups had when I was in college, some combination of cupcake, candy and pizza are almost always served — the standard menu for a toddler birthday party. Connect Four, Boggle or Mafia get played with the sort of focus I once gave to them on rainy days at camp. Guys at these parties often complain that they can't actually talk to any women with all the games going on, which is ironic because I think these game nights are often thrown to try to match up singles.
Perhaps this reversion to girlhood, particularly by single women, has something to do with the rising average age of brides. In a December 2011 analysis, the Pew Research Center said only 51 percent of adults are married in the U.S., a record low. The average age for women to get married was 26, and for men, the average age was 29, both record highs.
I blame the recession in part for the obsession with overextended adolescence. In the past few years, recent college graduates have been moving back home with their parents in record numbers, heading right back into their childhood bedrooms. They can't get the jobs they want to kick off grown-up careers, so they waitress, nanny or tutor for longer than expected. Instead of moping around about not having any cash to go shopping for a real Cartier love bracelet, or someone to buy it for them, they can just slip on a stack of rubber bracelets from high school, still sitting in a drawer.
And it's not just young women who move back home. Women with big jobs are also more panicked about holding on to them in the current economic climate, prioritizing their careers over becoming wives and mothers. Wearing a dress with a pink bow is a lot more fun than worrying about a pink slip.
It certainly seems to me — writing this from the safe distance of imminent motherhood — that it's never been easier, more fun or more acceptable to remain locked in the warm, comfy embrace of childhood. It sure beats figuring out how to afford a nanny.
The above passage is an excerpt from Girls writer Deborah's Schoeneman's Kindle Single, "Woman-Child." (Singles are Amazon's series of longform essays and articles offering in-depth explorations of a variety of topics.) If you've got a Kindle, you should buy "Woman-Child" and give it a full read.
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