Allow me to begin this special Gen Z edition of Jezebel Investigates with a disclaimer: the following unhinged exploration into Internet culture is not meant to overwhelm your senses with frivolous nonsense. It is meant to contextualize an image you might’ve encountered online, whether from a friend’s kid or a meme account you not-so-secretly follow on Instagram. Or perhaps you’re like me, an avid YouTube and TikTok fiend who has noticed a very specific picture pose in dozens of social media posts, instituted only by a very specific modern day subculture. That, my friend, is a trend worth interrogating.
Let’s back up.
Egirls and eboys—the current teen generation’s counterculture, something like the goth, emo, or MySpace scene queen-like alternative kid alternative to VSCO girls and Instagram influencers’ perfectly edited worlds—have a very specific aesthetic which I will now flatten for the sake of this blog. As Vox put it, an egirl wears colorfully dyed hair, thrifted clothes, winged eyeliner, anime-inspired makeup (hearts under the eyes, rosy blush on the cheeks and nose), hair clips and chains. She’s on TikTok. Eboys are somewhat similar, most notably wearing their hair parted down the middle. E...people? pull from “skate culture, hip-hop, anime, cosplay, BDSM, and goth.” They also pose for pictures in an almost uniform-like fashion: eyes open, crossed and rolled back, with their tongue exposed. Sometimes, there’s a hand gesture, delicate fingers ever-so slightly pulling the face back. Like so:
After coming across innumerable examples of “egirl face,” for lack of a better term, I started to wonder about its origins. “Egirl” was once solely used as “a misogynistic insult for women, whose passion for video games was claimed to be a ploy for male attention and money,” according to Dazed Digital, and has since been co-opted by Extremely Online Girls. BuzzFeed traced the etymology of “egirl” to Urban Dictionary, which in 2013 described egirls as as those who “gain exponential amounts of attention from pub players and competitive players alike, and still complain about being lonely.”
The contemporary egirl does not necessarily feel the need to identify as a gamer though many of them do—another 2019 Urban Dictionary entry defined egirls as “art hoe but TikTok”—and there have been countless TikTok memes about her formation, such as the infamous “egirl factory video” (seen below) in which a normie teen is made over to appear like an egirl.
But little has been explained about... the face: The ubiquitous face that seems to pop up in every photo.
Until now. Sort of. I could be wrong, but I have a theory.
Unlike, say, VSCO girls, who have a celebrity hero in YouTuber Emma Chamberlain, egirls don’t have many icons. One of the most public-facing egirls is UK ‘net personality Belle Delphine—though she herself is much more of a gamer/cosplayer than an egirl in its current iteration—better known as the woman behind the “Gamer Girl Bath Water” saga of summer 2019. (The abridged version: in July, Delphine announced that she was going to sell her bath water for $30 a jar—normal, kinky internet stuff from Delphine, also a brilliant troll—but as our friends at Kotaku pointed out, labeling her product “Gamer Girl” was enough to inspire online outrage. As you’d expect, the vehement comments she received were sexist in nature, an obvious recall of the early days of “egirl” language.)
After some digging, I started to notice that Delphine frequently poses with a face very similar to that of other egirls—tongue out, eyes open and rolled back—and she often posts such images on Instagram with the hashtag #ahegao. As someone who has little-to-no relationship with anime or gaming culture, I was unfamiliar with the word. According to a Complex article about Gamer Girl Bath Water published earlier this year, Delphine is “well-known for her imitation of ahegao—an exaggerated, eyes-rolled-back expression that signifies an orgasm in “adult-oriented anime.” According to Metro UK’s breakdown of Delphine’s use of “ahegao,” the word first appeared in anime in the 1990s and is defined by women “shown with their eyes rolling back, tongue hanging out, and blushing or panting. The idea appears to be to show an intense level of arousal, where someone loses their faculties completely.” Translation: she’s parodying something meant to remind her viewers of climaxing.
That is... fine, but a little concerning when bearing in mind that this “ahegao” face is also one that egirl and eboy teenagers use to pose in photographs. I’d wager the majority of them are unfamiliar with the origins of it (the Internet tends to strip things of their intended purpose quickly, especially when it’s something as innocuous and easily proliferated as a face to make in selfies) but it seems a bit disconcerting given that the style is most popular with underage kids. In fact, the top-rated definition of “egirl” on Urban Dictionary, posted in January 2019, reads: “did you see that egirl doing a ahegao face unironically??” Considering the legacy of “egirl” hate online, the “unironically” addition strikes me as something probably included by some angry, sexually frustrated dude online.
Gen Z teenagers grew up on memes—their humor is inherently born of the Internet, and because of that, it is inherently ironic. It could be that I am very wrong and most egirls are well aware that their pose borrows from or mimics ahegao. They very well could be electing to pose in a similar fashion, changing the face ever so slightly to bastardize it, to make it ironic—therefore, co-opting it and transforming its connotation. They did it once with their namesake, whose to say they can’t do it again with their gestures?
Even if that isn’t the intention, “egirl face” does signify a shifting relationship in meaning from the original. And that’s pretty cool.
(Updated 3/3/22 with new details)