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Charli XCX, Lorde, And The Trap Of The “Girl’s Girl”

The words "girl's girl" appear in the Charli XCX Brat font, on a Brat-green background.
Illustration by Alex Sujong Laughlin

If the unrealistic archetype for womanhood in the 2010s was the “cool girl” from Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, her younger sister in the 2020s is the “girl’s girl.” 

The girl’s girl is the opposite of the cool girl; she’s gracious and confident and unthreatened by other women. She has a sense of abundance when it comes to opportunities, money, and attention, and she supports other women on their missions of actualization, too. She is in every outward sense a reflection of how deeply the basic principles of feminism have saturated mainstream culture in the last decade, but the girl’s girl is not as progressive as she seems. For one thing, she does not, and cannot, actually exist except as an unrealistic standard against which to judge actual women. Her blithe and seamless success leaves little room for the complicating factors that come with being human; more than anything, this fantasy exposes the weaknesses of building a feminism on something as vague as “women supporting women.” 

Charli XCX dove straight into this messiness last week when she released a remix of “Girl, So Confusing,” featuring a verse by Lorde. The vulnerability of both artists stun me every time I play the song. The two sing to each other in urgent verses that feel more like cathartic texts than pop lyrics: Charli XCX sings, “Can't tell if you wanna see me/falling over and failing” and Lorde answers, “I was trapped in the hatred/and your life seemed so awesome/I never thought for a second/my voice was in your head.”

Much of Charli XCX’s new album, Brat, engages with the complexities of being a public-facing artist who is also a woman—the corrosive comparisons created by both the industry and your own self-sabotaging insecurities, the need to differentiate yourself from a crowded field of peers because there’s only room for a few at the top, and the expectation that you will somehow be both gracious and generous with all of your competition despite all that. The music video for the first song on the album, “360,” features a ridiculous board meeting of actual it-girls who must “fulfill the prophecy of finding a hot new internet girl [...] or else our kind will cease to exist.” Charli XCX slips in plenty of vulnerability alongside the album’s electric pulse, but the collaboration with Lorde is to me both riskiest and most rewarding moment of the album's release cycle. 

In the Girl’s Girl Industrial Complex, to admit that another woman makes you feel insecure is an ugly, embarrassing sin. No one is supposed to feel that way; everyone is expected to perform that support anyway. We want our female idols magnanimous and friendly. We want Taylor Swift and Beyoncé at each other’s concert film premieres. We want the pop stars opening their arms and cell phones for Chappell Roan. All the popular girls are supposed to be friends, somehow.

The problem with the girl’s girl is that even as the broader culture has moved in a more progressive direction, her female experience can only unfold within a narrow box of expression—she is sunny, and positive, and flourishing, and must be that way every time she is observed, which is all the time. This leaves no room for the complicated reality that artists face in a society that is still explicitly white supremacist and patriarchal; it also leaves no room for those messy, awkward feelings that are something like what it is to be alive. 

If we are supposedly past pitting women against each other, why has Pop Girl Spring/Summer played out as a campaign-style crush of endless, exhausting horse-race coverage and breathless analysis of who is on top? It was Beyoncé vs. Taylor Swift, and then Taylor Swift vs. Billie Eilish, Taylor Swift vs. Sabrina Carpenter, and Taylor Swift vs. Charli XCX. The discourse surrounding Brat’s release started when fans accused Swift of blocking Charli from reaching the top spot on the U.K. charts by releasing new variants of her latest album, the Tortured Poets Department, on the week of Brat’s release. 

Swift is not being a girl’s girl, in this reading; she’s being not just selfish but mean. You don’t become a billionaire by being a girl’s girl, or by being generous to a fault, but I’m not here to defend Swift against what is in this case a pretty stupid argument. It’s more interesting to me that her business decisions are attributed to petty insecurities, rather than a desire to win. It’s a narrow but important distinction. The variant game she’s playing with her album is absolutely strategic, but to attribute it to her squashing a threat—to see the album release as a response to that sense of scarcity among her fellow women artists—is to use the exact mindset that angry fans and spectators have long accused Swift of having. 

The “Girl, So Confusing” remix dropped the same week Kendrick Lamar streamed his concert The Pop Out: Ken & Friends on Amazon Prime where he played his Drake diss track “Not Like Us” six times. The difference in how people talk about the two situations is stark. Before their duet dropped, fans speculated there might be bad blood between Charli XCX and Lorde, gleefully dissecting interviews and song references, even though neither has explicitly said anything negative about the other. Kendrick and Drake’s feud, on the other hand, has been explicit and prolific and wildly, inescapably public. Despite that, I have heard the actions and reactions in that beef referred to as petty, cutting, poetic, and even unifying—but never as insecure.

Among any marginalized group, there are implicit and explicit pressures to support your own; these can be perverse. Bravado is part of the language of masculinity, and so vibrates at a frequency that is audible at a level deeper than the lyrics. And so a spat between men is understood as a matter of pride, respect, and craft, rather than a reflection of insecurity, scarcity, or envy. The public just hears something very different when men feud in public than it does when women let the smile slip for even a moment.

Correction (2:05 p.m. ET): A previous version of this post said the remix of "Girl, So Confusing" appeared on Brat. It was released as a single.

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