TikTok trends like Girl Dinner may set gender back decades

If you’ve spent any time on TikTok in the past few months, you’ll have seen a reference or two to “girls’ dinner” or maybe “girls’ math.” Or the idea that all people think about the Roman Empire on a regular basis.

At first glance, this is just harmless fun. After all, we’ve all had something of an impromptu meal that epitomizes the girls’ dinner party. Maybe a piece of fruit and a slice of cheese, or some leftover chicken, followed by a black coffee and two cookies—girl dinners don’t win Michelin stars, but they’re quick and easy and taste good.

Likewise, we’ve all bought something extra to get free shipping, or spent a little more money on a new pair of shoes than we planned, thinking it was worth the money since we’ll be wearing them every day. This is female math.

And many of us have an interest in a historical period or an arbitrary area of ​​the world. It’s just that the Roman Empire is one of the most popular.

But by categorizing even the most mundane things by gender, are we putting women and men back into neat little boxes? It’s a throwback to the days of Men are from Mars, women are from Venus, but this time it’s Gen Z who are leading the way. It also seems contrary to many of the ideals of the generation: that gender is fluid, that men can be feminine and women can be masculine, and that you don’t have to fit into the gender binary.

Some critics even say that trends like girls’ math or girls’ dining are infantilizing women, or that the way we view femininity is changing. There’s something of a Peter Pan vibe here: a desire not to grow up and face the mundanities and responsibilities of adulthood. But it seems to be entirely aimed at women.

“The acceptable and legitimate expression of femininity online is reduced to the girl, minor and often sexualized,” Sian Brooke, a fellow in computational social science at the London School of Economics and Political Science, told The Daily Beast. “The norms of this become apparent when you consider – in comparison – how unusual and rude it would be to call a grown man a ‘boy’.”

Clara Kelly, a digital PR specialist from Ireland who criticized these trends in a TikTok video, told The Daily Beast that she believes these terms come from a good place. However, they end up highlighting the huge disparity between how society treats girls and boys.

“It’s only natural, especially afterbarbie movie, for women to then want to reclaim their youth and have something that feels intrinsically theirs by adding the word girl to it,” Kelly explained. “It says, ‘Hey, this is ours, this is only for us, you can’t have this.’

Faith Martin, a music journalist and avid TikToker, believes that most of these trends are mostly harmless. However, she also believes the trend of dining out with girls can be harmful – especially for those who may have an eating disorder. She is concerned that young people on TikTok may change their eating habits as a result, perhaps worried that they are eating too much.

“A lot of the girls’ dinner filters include coffee as a food,” she told The Daily Beast. “The idea that girls don’t eat perpetuates the idea that we should eat less, and I think the trend is actually rooted in eating disorder culture.”

Brooke largely agrees, saying, “This could be seen as a rebranding of pro-eating disorder content or a satirical catchphrase that reflects that women are often overworked and don’t have time to prepare proper meals.”

Yet there is a disconnect between this type of language and the way Gen Z is largely perceived. They are progressive. They are liberal. They will challenge unshakable ideals like gender duality that have long held society back. But while the generation tends to be more progressive, there are some conservative streaks in the demographic.

Take the “Puriteens,” a term that describes a thriving community of young people who are uncomfortable when it comes to casual sex and intimacy. Community is what Brook describes as a “reactionary social movement.” It’s both a reaction to things like OnlyFans, but also “control over and ownership of women’s sexuality,” and maybe not something you’d instinctively expect from Gen Z.

“Gender has gone from something we barely talk about, left to gender theorists like me, to a modern battlefield where everyone has an opinion about what gender is,” explained Brooke. “It’s hard to draw clear lines between generations because the boundaries are much more blurred than we’d like to think.”

“There are interesting complexities in how Generation Z relates to gender norms,” ​​Yves Ng, an associate professor in the School of Media Arts and Studies and the Program for the Study of Gender and Sexuality at Ohio University, told The Daily Beast.

She explained that Gen Z are more likely to identify as trans or non-binary, and we can infer from this that they rely less on the idea of ​​a gender binary. But at the same time, many recent trends in TikTok are based on the idea that men and women are fundamentally different.

“So we can ask what position Gen Zs take on how gender affects who someone is,” she said.

Being able to share so much information with so many people so quickly is a relatively new phenomenon. So while you may see very high expectations for both genders to live up to on TikTok, they’ve always been there. It’s just that now we can share them more easily – and to a whole new generation.

In her eyes, people creating content around these trends are basing them on their own experiences and trying to help younger people avoid the mistakes they’ve made. They’ve realized that there’s unlikely to be a complete change in how we view gender roles in their lifetime, so it’s more about making the best of the current situation.

Some people may think that this kind of analysis is unnecessary. After all, things like the Roman Empire and Girls Dinner are just jokes on the internet. But then, in an ideal world, women could just go through and enjoy life no matter what stage they’re at, Kelly explained. It’s vital to look for the root cause of even fun trends like these.

As for the trends themselves, Ng sees them as both mocking and reinforcing gender norms. She describes them as a form of “playful gender regressiveness,” in which we attribute characteristics to people based on their gender, but recognize the silliness of the logic behind these stereotypes.

Are they harmless? Perhaps not quite – there is a risk of reinforcing gender stereotypes. But at the same time, these trends seem to give Gen Z a reason to poke fun at the same stereotypes. They won’t change the world, but they can be a little fun.

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