In one of the 20th century’s most influential books on fashion, Subculture: The Meaning of Style, the sociologist Dick Hebdige studied the punks, mods, and Teddy boys who hung around London in the 1960s and ’70s. He posited that their funny haircuts and jarring clothing was in fact a form of political rebellion related to their status as young, white, and working class: The mods in their polished suiting, he argued, “undermined the conventional meaning of ‘collar, suit and tie’, pushing neatness to the point of absurdity;” punks responded to the neglect felt from society by “rendering working classness metaphorically in chains and hollow cheeks.”
Basically, Hebdige proposed that style is inherently political, and that its ties to music make it that much more so. That postmodernist, Marxist framework remains the dominant method of dissecting subcultural aesthetics today.
The problem is that neither Marx nor Hebdige at the time had ever heard of TikTok. They didn’t know about Instagram or the internet, where so many subcultures are born now. (That is, if you can make the argument that subcultures can still exist today without being immediately swallowed by the mainstream.) It was a lot easier to draw connections between a group’s clothing, the music they listened to, and their socioeconomic status when that group did not exist exclusively in the digital ether, casting doubt on whether it actually exists at all.
I’m talking about e-girls and e-boys, the categories of hip young people whose defining qualities are that they are hot and online. This describes lots of people, of course, but while traditional influencers traffic in making their real lives seem as aspirational as possible, e-girls and e-boys’ clout comes from their digital personas. In other words, they’re not amassing followers by going on vacations to St. Barts or Santorini every other week. More likely, they’re in their bedrooms, alone.
Which is why you’ll almost never see an e-girl in real life. Well, you will, but she’ll just look like a normal young person who shops at Urban Outfitters and is experimenting with her hair right now, just like young people have been doing for eternity. To be an e-girl is to exist on a screen, mediated. You know an e-girl by her Twitch presence or the poses she makes on her Instagram, not by what she wears to school.
What does an e-girl look like? To draw from the most visible stereotypes, she will almost never be wearing her natural hair color (lime green, pink, or half-black, half-white hair are popular shades) and will almost certainly be wearing winged eyeliner. Her clothes are either thrifted (probably from Depop, the app where Instagram influencers make money selling their stuff) or come from alternative-ish online fast fashion retailers like Dolls Kill, which describes itself as an “online boutique for misfits.” E-girl staples include mesh T-shirts, colorful hair clips, Sailor Moon skirts, O-ring collars; on e-boys you’ll see middle-parted hair, chains, and high-waisted pants, though it’s worth noting that to be an e-boy does not require being male; both styles transcend gender. There will be little bits of skate culture, hip-hop, anime, cosplay, BDSM, and goth that will jump out, if you can spot them. In short, e-girls and e-boys are what would happen if you shot a teenager through the internet and they came out the other side.
The implication of the label is that they spend too much time being concerned about their hotness and onlineness, which is why “e-girl” is often used derogatorily, much like the word “hipster” was in 2006. If not mocking, it’s at least filtered through several layers of irony or sarcasm — “Am I an e-girl yet?” you might jokingly ask a friend while trying on a pair of tiny sunglasses at Forever 21.
The “e” stands for “electronic,” obviously. Though the term itself has been around for more than a decade (more on that later), the reason we are talking about e-girls at all is because of TikTok. The app, whose wild popularity over the past year has given rise to a host of slang words, memes, and comedic forms, also happens to be a window into the bedrooms of millions of teenagers, where they lip sync and act and laugh and cry to a faceless audience, in search of the internet’s sole meaningful metric: clout.
It was TikTok that, when it launched in the US early in the fall of 2018, catapulted the followings of girls with pink hair and attitudes and angelic-faced boys who wore chains on their pants. Users began describing each other and themselves as e-girls and e-boys and then quickly parodied the terms. In different iterations of e-girl memes, you accidentally drink “e-girl juice” or get pulled into “e-girl factories” and end up dressed in striped T-shirts and pigtails, with pink blush swept over your nose and cheeks and with tiny hearts under your eyes, like an anime cosplayer who listens to Lil Peep. Thus “e-girl” entered the mainstream lexicon (well, mainstream if you pay attention to TikTok memes).
It is at least mainstream for Jessica Fisher, a 22-year-old TikToker, actress, and former avid Tumblr user with 88,000 followers. She’s not an e-girl herself, but can clearly see the roots of e-girlhood from the Tumblr aesthetic, where teens would share images of sad, pretty girls with heavy makeup. There’s a reason why the term is associated with TikTok, not Tumblr: “Tumblr was so much less visual, we didn’t get that fashion boom,” she says. On TikTok, you almost always see the poster themselves, whereas Tumblr offered far more anonymity.
Winged liner and heavy eye makeup is a part of the TikTok e-girl aesthetic, just as they were in the Tumblr days, but there’s also what Jessica calls, laughing, an added “‘I’m baby’ quality,” referring to the popular meme. The pigtails, along with the pink nose, eyes, and cheeks, are indicative of youth. “It’s a little DDLG,” she says, meaning the kink Daddy Dom Little Girl. Like many current fashion trends (harnesses, for instance), there’s an element of BSDM, kink, and fetish wear, too. A hypersexualized child aesthetic, which also borrows from anime, means that e-girls often look both older and younger than they are. It’s true of many teen trends, but online, age is even easier to manipulate with the help of photo-editing software, face filters, and camera angling.
Though Jessica says she’s noticed e-girl style trickling into music festivals and her friends at art school, “it’s more of a bedroom thing.” E-girls, then, are less of a steadfast identity and more like a costume to be experimented with in the privacy of one’s own space, and then presented online. It transcends location — it doesn’t matter if you’re a 14-year-old in Ohio going to school with a bunch of girls wearing Brandy Melville, you too can place an Asos order for kawaii crop tops and Doc Martens and post semi-ironic shitpics of yourself on Instagram.
Because that’s where e-girls live: online. It’s what makes e-girls or e-boys different from their subcultural forebearers: You can actually spot a goth or a scene kid or a hipster on the street. Or, as one girl posted on Twitter, “being the family goth kinda ruins the pic sometimes lmfaooo.”
The online presence of an e-girl is also what makes them targets of ridicule. When a 17-year-old girl named Bianca Devins was murdered by a man she’d known from the gaming chat app Discord, much of the media attention was focused on her online life as an “e-girl.” Devins was immediately the face of the supposed dangers of being a girl who had an alternative or prominent internet persona (in reality, like most women killed by men, the murderer was someone she knew; it’s possible they were dating).
Since its origination, “e-girl” has been used to disparage women. The earliest definition on Urban Dictionary from 2009 describes the term thus: “Call her an E girl cause she’s always after the D.” It’s an insult lobbed frequently on gaming sites, where any attractive or popular woman who games can be labeled an “e-girl” as a way of belittling her presence. It recalls the ideology of Gamergate, in which women were harassed, threatened, and doxxed for simply existing in the predominantly male gaming world.
But thanks to its status as a lighthearted joke on TikTok, that could be changing. As 17-year-old Mel told Vice, calling someone an e-girl used to be “like calling a girl a bitch or a ho. Now there’s a newer generation: It’s a word to call a pretty, alternative girl.”
Of course, any girl, e- or otherwise, will face some degree of harassment online if they attempt to do anything interesting on the internet, and probably even if they don’t. Women who make money by gaming and cosplaying on Patreon and generally building a career out of e-girlhood say they regularly receive hateful comments, even when they too are in on the joke.
For Rusty Fawkes, a 22-year-old Twitch streamer and cosplayer, it’s just part of the job. She hadn’t heard the term “e-girl” until early 2019, after it had become a TikTok meme, and though she knew that it had some negative connotations, she was quick to self-deprecate. “I try to bring a bit of irony and humor into the situation, because I mean, I love all my fellow e-girls. Instead of being butthurt about it, I should just embrace the memes.”
She posted a YouTube compilation of her TikToks with the headline “TikTok Gamer Girl Rusty Fawkes Must Be Stopped,” for example, and most of her original TikToks are hashtagged #cringe. That sense of humor is also what’s helped her find success: Over the course of just a few months, she went from having 900 Instagram followers in February to more than 60,000 today.
Yet even she, a bona fide e-girl, says it’s difficult to actually define the terms. “Just having an online presence would technically make you an e-girl,” she says. “I know other girls who have an online presence who look very normal: natural hair, no piercings, and they wear clothes from Hollister. You can have an online presence but people won’t come at you and say you’re an e-girl. The stereotypical e-girl thing is like, wearing wigs, or being like more on the nerdy side. It has that specific look, where you’re either into gaming or you’re into cosplay or just anything niche like that.”
Some of those stereotypes are shared with the less-discussed but equally prevalent phenomenon of the e-boy. Like the e-girl, the e-boy wears cool clothes from a litany of aesthetic sources (dressing like a character from a ’90s sitcom or Dragon Ball Z are currently popular) and shares the qualities of being young and hot online. They are also easy to mock; like everyone on the internet, they sometimes do deeply embarrassing things that they think look cool, as evidenced by this unnerving compilation of a certain robotic dance move:
what the fuck did i just watch pic.twitter.com/18kJEa5PVg— blackpink stan account (@emotwink666) July 24, 2019
As Know Your Meme writes, e-girls and e-boys are a kind of “internet flirt” regardless of whatever they’re doing online — by virtue of being attractive, they’re lust objects for many and subjects of derision to others. And like hipsters, the idea of the e-girl is one that evolves and that can have multiple meanings as an insult, a compliment, or an irony-laden meme. There’s humor in being an e-girl or e-boy, just like there’s humor in most stylish things: Some of the biggest names in the fashion industry have built their careers on designing clothing that isn’t meant to be taken seriously.
For now, e-girl might just be a synonym for being young, female, and very online, and therefore tied to whatever connotations those things hold. But as long as there is an internet and people who use it, there will be e-girls and e-boys — those who walk around masquerading as an average cool teen, yet whose digital selves reveal that they’re part of something much more complicated.
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