Jennifer Jill Fellows: If you’ve spent any time online anywhere where girls frequent like TikTok, for example, you’ve probably encountered the idea of the “pick-me girl”. She’s not like other girls. She’s interested in things that aren’t classically feminine. But she’s also often thought of as inauthentic, a traitor to femininity, performing a role in order to get the boys attention. At least, that’s how the rhetoric of the pick-me girl goes. And curiously, it’s more often than not, other girls, who call someone a pick-me girl. And if you’ve ever been called a pick-me girl, you probably already know that it is never a complement.
JJF: Hi everybody. Welcome to another episode of Gender, Sex and Tech: Continuing the Conversation. I’m your host, Jennifer Jill Fellows. And today I’ve invited Amber-Lee Varadi to the show, to talk about her research on the TikTok trend of the pick-me girl and what this might signify about girl culture.
JJF: Amber-Lee Varadi is a PhD student in sociology at York University, where she works as a researcher and teaching assistant. Her current research interests focus on discourses, representations and experiences of youth, the intersections of gender, sexuality, race, and class in young people’s day-to-day lives, discipline and regulations as they are enacted in online and offline spaces, qualitative methods and research ethics. While reading and writing about youth culture informs her research approach, her part-time barista job at Starbucks, which she has maintained since 2018, gives her an on-the-ground perspectives and diversifies her relationship with the topics she studied outside of her work. Amber-lee enjoys spending time outdoors and away from her laptop, preferably with friends and family, dancing and playing soccer.
JJF: Thank you so much for joining me today, Amber-Lee.
Amber-Lee Varadi: Hi Jill, Thanks for having me. It’s an absolute pleasure.
JJF: As listeners to the podcast know, digital space is also physical space. The servers and cables that connect us lie on physical space. So as I record Gender Sex and Tech: Continuing the Conversation today, I want to recognize that I am an uninvited guest on the unceded land of the Coast Salish people of the Qiqéytnation. And Amber-Lee, would you mind sharing with the listeners where you’re located today?
ALV: Absolutely. So I’m speaking from Toronto, Ontario, which is located on the land of the Anishinaabe, the Mississaugas of the Credit, the Chippewa, the Haudenosaunee, and the Huron Wendat peoples, where many First Nations, Inuit, and Métis peoples foster friendships, care, and love, and continue to live, heal, and call home.
JJF: So I want to start with a little bit of background. Could you tell us how it was that you came to be a sociologist?
ALV: Yeah. So when I saw this question, I was–I was thinking a lot about it, “what am I going to say?” And I suppose it really starts after high school and going to the University of Toronto to complete a Bachelor of Science, actually. So I took a lot of psychology and neuroscience courses to learn about the psyche, motivation, and quote-unquote “mental illness.” So, my thinking was very naive at this point in my life, where I thought that mental health challenges and other signifiers of mental distress – anxiety, and insecurity, for example – were innate and almost something inherently personal and psychological. So this sort of thinking really isolated the individual and their psychology and mental well-being and problematically so. Yeah, my engagement with Sociology and Women and Gender Studies courses prompted me to think differently about the individual and society itself and begin making those important connections to structures and institutions, the role of culture and inequality, and the impact that norms and grand narratives have on us whether those influences are apparent or not, right? So developing and deepening my sociological imagination was so critical to my initial thinking about mental health and wellness and has allowed me to really contextualize what I used to think were isolated individual phenomenon and recognize where experiences and patterns are not so random and unpredictable or isolated at all. So my passion for sociology brought me to my master’s, I had a fantastic time there, so now here I am doing a PhD in the same field.
JJF: That’s so cool. I really liked that story. And I like the discussion of how going into post-secondary and exploring a bunch of different disciplines, especially in the social sciences, kind of changed in deepened your analysis. And how you said it started as this naive perspective regarding mental health and mental illness and then kinda grew into this more aware perspective of social structures and that we aren’t isolated individuals at all.
JJF: And I think it relates a lot to like these online trends that like the ones you’ve spoken of in the past and your podcasts and even today. So I feel it’s relevant. Yeah, that’s awesome. And also I just want to say I had a wonderful time in my master’s, too. Master’s degrees are so much fun.
ALV: Right? Absolutely. PhD, it’s a bit more strenuous but.
JJF: It is, Yeah, it’s true. Yeah. The PhDs. I mean, it’s still fun, but it’s a bit more serious. We shouldn’t, we should have more shout outs to the master, shout out to them. Okay, So here you are in your PhD and one of the things you research is, as you said, these kind of online trends and youth culture. And so can you tell me a little bit about what a pick-me girl is?
ALV: Yeah. So the pick-me girl that I’m speaking about is the one we’re seeing on TikTok a lot today. And the first thing we need to know about her is that she is not like the other girls. So instead she is one of the boys, and by that I mean she relishes in traditionally masculine activities such as playing sports and video games, and drinking beer and eating pizza and chicken wings with the boys. Her style and mannerisms steps away from emphasized femininity. So, we’re more likely to imagine her wearing track pants and hoodies and absolutely no makeup. Even though this all sounds fine, she’s cast as a figure of shame and embarrassment because her adoption of these things, this masculinity, is deemed inauthentic and simply used for the purpose of gaining male attention and validation. So, because of this, she’s mocked, seemingly trying too hard, and is desperate to not be like other girls and prove herself as one of the boys. And her apparent disdain of all these things that are traditionally feminine, things like makeup, dresses, rom coms, and the color pink, paired with her aptitude and preference for traditionally masculine activities and interests, mark her as this embarrassing victim of her own internalized misogyny, where she unconsciously projects limiting and degrading sexist ideas onto other woman and herself.
JJF: That is so cool and so much to unpack. Okay. So we have this image of a pick me girl and the thing that you said, we first have to notice that she’s not like other girls.
JJF: So the first thing to unpack is that she is setting herself apart from what? From femininity, from girls, girlhood, from womanhood. By aligning herself with kind of more traditional understandings of masculinity. Is that fair?
ALV: Yes, absolutely.
JJF: Okay. So this is really interesting to me because it sounds like, on the one hand, I mean, there’s a long history of feminine characteristics or women and girls trying to align themselves with masculinity in a patriarchal culture. But also you said this leads to the pick-me girl being sort of mocked or degraded as some, someone who doesn’t embrace traditional femininity. So, there is this kind of tension here between the pick-me girl trying to gain perhaps power or recognition, but also gaining a negative recognition and being mocked.
ALV: Yeah, absolutely. I like what you said here too, like trying to gain power for herself. And that’s not coming out of nowhere too, and it’s a key finding that I’ve had in my analysis of these TikTok videos so far, this fact that she’s seen as doing this inauthentically and she’s questioned for it. And we’re not really recognizing why she would do that, why she’d do that outside of doing it for men. So instead of trying to recognize what power is she is gaining from stepping away from hegemonically feminine things and interests that have been over time deemed weak, deemed as inconsequential and meaningless, and to adopt these traits and interests that are seemingly strong and interesting and passionate. I think that relates to our earlier discussion to like this shouldn’t be seen as random, right?
JJF: So we have to think not just about the individual choices of the individual girls who might be called or might call themselves pick me girls, but also of the larger social structures. The way in which masculinity and femininity have been characterized in a North American social context as informing these individual choices?
ALV: Exactly, exactly. She would never call herself a pick-me girl though.
JJF: Oh, okay.
ALV: Yes, she is labeled that and I think it’s a way once again, to take this girl who’s claiming herself, claiming her interests and putting her almost, like, back in her place. Like, “you are not this person that you say you are. You are a pick-me girl. You’re trying too hard.” And this is where all the off-handed things about the pick-me girl come in: “You’re trying too hard. You’re not being real.” These claims of inauthenticity come in.
JJF: Okay. I think I’ve got a little bit of a picture here, but I definitely want to dig further. So you mentioned that a lot of your research has to do with focusing on this trope or this trend on TikTok. But can you tell us a little bit about the background or the history of the pick-me girl.
ALV: Absolutely. So it traces back to 2016 and again in 2018 with the hashtag #tweetlikeapickme, which was popularized on Black Twitter by women who were taking on the personality of what they thought was a pick-me girl, and using these tweets that sarcastically boast about being wives or wifey material. And this was a way to critique these women who use social media to champion patriarchal beliefs and advocate for men with similar ideologies. And these women were assumed to have these beliefs due to their own, once again, internalized misogyny, as they often shamed other woman for failing to properly perform this emphasized heteronormative femininity, while also eagerly, if not seemingly desperately, demonstrating why a man would or should pick her. And I have an example to read, if you wanted to.
JJF: Let’s do it.
ALV: So, sarcastically read, here’s a tweet: #Tweetlikeapickme I am not like girls in this generation. I take care of my man. I cook for him every day, choose food, spit it into his mouth, and tell him he’s my king.”
ALV: I spoke about this at a conference recently, and Catherine Knight Steele, who recently wrote this book, Digital Black Feminism, approached me and said, “you should read my chapter” and I did and it was excellent. And she highlights how labels like Pick me on Black Twitter, they were more than just jovial acts of name-calling, but a way for the person giving this label to self-identify their own interests, as well as critique shortcomings within their own community. So this labeling was almost an Internet-based gesture to push the person who is labeled a pick-me to do better. I think when we bring it back today, to TikToks, I don’t think there’s that call out. I think it’s almost just a form of bullying and policing girls.
JJF: Okay. So in 2016, this label of pick-me girl was a way of identifying and critiquing and calling on people to do better. But now when we see the label reappear in 2022 on TikTok, the idea of critiquing and calling on people to do better is not there?
ALV: Yes, yeah. So in the two conferences I’ve spoken about the pick-me girl, I’ve shown a scene and I don’t know if you remember, the Grey’s Anatomy scene, which was a monumental to me, I think it’s where a lot of people first imagined pick-me who weren’t on Twitter, where we see the main character Meredith, confessing her feelings to her co-worker and love interest, Derek. And here’s where I wish ideally we could have this clip play.
Meredith in Grey’s Anatomy: Derek, I love you. In a really, really big pretend to like your taste in music. Let you eat the last piece of cheesecake. Hold a radio over my head outside your window. Unfortunate way that makes me hate you, love you.
ALV: But maybe I’ll just say the main line that everyone quotes by her where she says: “Pick me, choose me, love me.”
Meredith in Grey’s Anatomy: Pick me, choose me, love me.
ALV: And taken outside of the show’s plot in this character’s background, her plight comes across as humiliating and desperate where she’s seemingly trying to sell herself. And on YouTube you can see this clip and recent comments say, “Imagine actually saying this to a man” and “over my dead body, will I ever beg a man to choose me.” So instead of, yeah, once again saying, “do better, Meredith” or “recognize your internal worth as a woman.” You know, post-feminist girl power. Instead they are mocking her, wondering why she, in this, again, post feminist climate, she isn’t taking her own empowerment, confidence, and self-certainty. Why is she degrading herself to beg for a man? So, yes, I think post-feminism definitely influences people’s thinking about the pick-me girl.
JJF: Okay. And that’s the change that’s happened since 2016. Now where we are now that we have this post-feminist bullying aspect to labeling somebody a pick-me girl that wasn’t initially there in the initial in the labeling?
ALV: Exactly, yes, yes.
JJF: We should also probably circle back for listeners. I have talked about post feminism on this podcast before, but for listeners who maybe didn’t hear the episode where we discussed post feminism, can you give us a quick rundown of post feminism?
ALV: Post feminism. So to me, I would say that post-feminism is this idea that feminism is obsolete. We don’t need feminism anymore because we’ve reached a point in time where girls can do anything that they want to. It is a level playing field for all genders and therefore women, unlike in the past, they’re not limited. So any kind of discussion of sexism and misogyny and patriarchy is out of place. We don’t need to have these discussions anymore because women are honestly seen as being in a better position than boys and men nowadays. And we see this in a lot of discussions about girls getting accepted into universities more, right? And that’s where that discussion ends.
JJF: Yeah, yeah. So we have this rise of post feminism now in the 2020s. And this idea that feminism succeeded.
ALV: We’re done.
JJF: We’re done now, which is just so laughable to me in the climate that we’re in right now. So just to set the record straight, like No, feminism isn’t done. We’re so not done. But also this, this widely-held concept that feminism has succeeded and that we don’t need it anymore. Also, I think this is something you just said that I want to draw out. It really fuels this idea of individual empowerment. So, when you label somebody as a pick me girl, now in a post-feminist context, you would lose the critique because you’re no longer necessarily looking at social and institutional structures and the ways in which social norms affect individual choices and stuff. So you’re just looking at one person and being like, “Well, I disagree with that individual choice and I’m going to bullying.”
ALV: Exactly, exactly! I’ve been watching over the year I’ve been interested in this, like, YouTube videos of people talking about the pick-me girl, and very often these people are commenting that the person who labels the pick-me is also in a way a pick-me because you’re also trying to distinguish yourself from the pick-me. So it’s interesting that that happens, but also the fact that being called the pick-me, because it’s so shameful, because it’s so embarrassing, it’s almost a way to just instantly shut down a conversation. So even though the pick-me girl is seen as this jealous bully who’s anti girl-power, it would be very valuable for those same people pointing the finger to look in the mirror and say, like, “where is my own internalized misogyny?”
JJF: Right? Okay. So you’ve referenced internalized misogyny a couple of times and now, if I’m understanding correctly, you’re saying that internalized misogyny happens both potentially with the person labeled as a pick me girl themselves, but also possibly with the people doing the labeling and the bullying here in a 2020 context.
JJF: So can you talk a little bit about what internalized misogyny is or how that might be presenting itself in these cases.
ALV: Yeah, absolutely. So, in the TikTok videos that I’ve been seeing, it’s a lot of people taking on this persona, the pick-me girls. So I think that’s an important part that she’s almost not even real based on what we see online. But in these scenarios, they’re often used to really highlight how this pick-me girl does have this internalized misogyny in the sense that she degrades other women, she has bad opinions about femininity and otherwise traditionally feminine interests. So, adopting these beliefs that, once again, femininity is bad, masculinity is good. But then I think it would be valuable for, once again, the people doing this labeling to consider,” where’s my own internalized misogyny?” Because, especially because one of the themes I noticed in my analysis is that the scenario is often ended with violence towards the pick-me girl. Like she is so unbearable and so annoying that she deserves to be threatened. She deserves to be physically attacked. Yeah. So valuable considerations there, right?
JJF: Yeah. So what we see then is that people are claiming that the pick-me girl is misogynistic towards traditional femininity because or downgrading femininity in a way that is misogynistic by not wearing makeup. For example, or dressing in hoodies, as opposed to perhaps more feminine clothing or doing activities that have been stereotyped as masculine or eating chicken wings, which I guess is it masculine? Yeah, it is. I can see it a stereotype masculine thing. We have those charges coming out. Somebody says that, well, you must hate women and girls in order to act this way and be this way.
ALV: Exactly. And that’s one of the main things too, right? The fact that she’s seen as anti-girl power, simply for the fact that she has interests that deviate from traditional femininity. So I think even if we took away from the fact, maybe she is not outwardly saying, “I don’t enjoy femininity.” But her simple act of not enjoying these things is seen as, like, “oh, okay, so you’re anti-growth power?”
JJF: So even if the pick-me girl herself doesn’t, like, mock people who wear makeup. Just her presence is seen as somehow anti-clerical power, anti-woman, anti-feminism.
ALV: Exactly, exactly. And in some of these pick-me TikToks, there’s clips where the pick-me girl is saying like, “oh, like, you’re wearing so much makeup. I don’t know how you do that. I could never wear makeup. It’s just so uncomfortable for me.” And because of that statement, she is now a pick-me girl because obviously somehow that was her doing it for attention.
JJF: Oh, my goodness. Okay. Then on the other side we have another potential issue of internalized misogyny that people who are mocking bullying or my goodness threatening to pick me girl are themselves, people who have internalized misogynistic notions of what women and girls and femininity should look like. And so they’re policing this person because she doesn’t follow what they perceive to be traditional norms of femininity.
ALV: Yes. Yes, absolutely.
JJF: Wow. Okay. So for all of this to work, we have to think that there are these kind of gender norms of masculinity and femininity. And that the pick-me girl is situated in this space where these gender norms already exist. So can you talk a little bit about the gender norms and the social context in which the pick-me girl is arising?
ALV: Yes, yes. So I wouldn’t say that the pick-me girl is necessarily reinforcing any gender norms herself. In fact, she’s doing the contrary, right? By stepping away from emphasized femininity of wearing makeup, wearing dresses and skirts and high heels. Instead of adopting these herself, she reinforces the understanding about gender norms. So, she’s patronizing towards other girls and their enjoyment of femininity and she reinforces this idea that, yes, once again, feminine is bad. Masculine is good, strong, admirable, meaningful, and creates this binary.
JJF: Okay. So, it’s not a reinforcing the binary by following femininity. But in a kind of interesting paradoxical way, it’s reinforcing the binary by eschewing certain parts of femininity or maybe all of femininity depending on the different girl. That then there’s this backlash from the community trying to reassert this binary between masculine and feminine. And yeah, the idea that, well, you’re only doing masculine things because you hate femininity. Or masculine is good and feminine is bad. And this kind of hierarchy ends up developing again. Is that the idea?
ALV: Yes, precisely. And that she’s doing it for a male attention. So not only reinforcing this hierarchy and distinction between masculine and feminine, but also reinforcing heteronormativity as well.
JJF: Right. Because the pick-me girl is seen as trying to be one of the guys in order to get the attention of the guys, right?
ALV: Yes. Yes, absolutely. And I drew on Jacqueline Ryan Vickery’s work here. She did work on a “being single” messaging board on a girl’s website, and she found that a lot of these girls, when they spoke to each other and gave each other advice and narrated their own and other’s lives, other girls specifically, they had the assumption that there is a man waiting for them who will fix them and complete them, so long as they wait for him and ensure that they’re successfully exercising appropriate femininity. So there’s this wide reaching discourse that girls are always trying to find love and their prince charming, and I think that really touches on the pick-me girl. The fact that she’s not seen as genuinely being friends with these boys, but instead she has this hidden agenda that she’s actually trying to win their approval, attention and, ultimately, love.
JJF: Okay. So she’s acting masculine to infiltrate their spaces and get their attention away from the more traditionally feminine girls. And of course, then we still have this issue that a lot of the people who are labeled as pick-me girls may have no interest in trying to get the boys attention in order to marry them or something like that, but are genuinely, they genuinely enjoy chicken wings and genuinely don’t like wearing makeup. And so this brings me back to this issue you talked about, about authenticity, right? So the pick-me girl is seen, on the one hand as acting or playing a role in order to try and infiltrate these masculine spaces. But on the other hand, it sounds like a lot of these girls are not seeing themselves as acting, are playing a role, but just as being, being their authentic selves.
ALV: Yes. And I think this, like, this tension becomes so apparent because these TikTok content creators, there are videos where it shows “when a pick-me girl meets an actual tomboy” or “meets someone, a girl who’s actually one of the boys.” So there’s this understanding, like, you’re a fake one of the boys and this is a real one of the boys, whatever that means.
JJF: So you can be shamed for pretending to be a tomboy, shamed for trying to get the attention of the boys, not getting the attention of the boys in the right way. Not being feminine enough.
ALV: I love what you just said there: “not getting the attention from boys in the right way.” It’s all about gaining male attention apparently, but also doing it in the right way. Like, okay, there’s nothing wrong if you’re a straight girl to be trying to gain this attention, but at least be upfront about it. And that’s another critique of the pick-me girl, that she is pretending she’s not doing it for this attention, but supposedly she really is because other people know this. Apparently.
JJF: So I can definitely now more clearly see how the misogyny is coming out in the critiques and the bullying and the critiques that it is just kind of a policing of other people’s choices and how they act, choices in their interests. That you’re not being one of the boys enough. You’re really just a pick me girl?
ALV: Yes, yes. The fact that girls in general, whether they’re pick-me girl or not, they’re kind of damned if they do and damned if they don’t. So they’re damned if they are too feminine, damned if they’re too masculine because, regardless of their gender expression, they’re always deemed to be existing to please the boys around them. And anyone who is critical and takes steps away from traditional femininity is once again seen as anti-girl power. But the girl who takes up masculinity is seen as doing it falsely disingenuous and motivated by this hidden desire for male attention.
JJF: Yeah. I really think that this double bind and you did say there specifically with regards to girls. So it applies to the pick-me girl, but perhaps to girl culture more generally, that girls are often seen as trying too hard, seen as playing a part that isn’t authentic, and seen as trying to get attention. And this is a really fascinating thing for me about girl culture in general. And the pick-me girl in particular is that there really doesn’t seem to be any way to win, to be accepted in this, in this kind of landscape that we’re in with regards to girl culture?
ALV: Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. Because I feel like at one point in time there was a way to win. And the fact that figures akin to the pick-me girl have existed for years now, and I think these characters were very much appreciated at the time that they were kind of popular. So, like, when I say this, I’m thinking of characters like Cady Heron who’s stood opposite to Regina George in Mean Girls, and Kat, who is the leading character in the rom com, Ten Things I Hate About You. Both of these girls were critical about toxic, emphasized femininity and embraced their unique, albeit unconventional interests, especially in relation to that femininity, and they were admired by their female audiences for that. But now I think those same characters would be considered pick-me girls today because they’d be perceived as, once again, putting down other girls for deviating away from femininity. And there’s no winning too, because when a girl is too feminine, she aligns with this kind of Mean Girls stereotype that is too much drama, bitchy, superficial, and only cares about popularity. And there’s research, really interesting in girlhood studies research, that speaks on this too. So Jessica Ringrose for example, highlighted how in the early 2000s there was a shift from girls as vulnerable to girls as mean in popular culture, especially for the girls who embrace femininity and got social advantages such as popularity as a result. And Shauna Pomerantz suggests further that it was around this time that girls were understood as terrorizing, relationally aggressive in a fight for power and popularity, and that their forms of social sabotage were worse and overshadowed the physical bullying of boys. So pretty and popular other girls were not only perceived as mean, but also historically have been othered in culture as consumers of culture, because, you know, just imagine the teeny bopper and this idea that girls are crazed fans who are delusional and clueless and ignorant dupes of capitalism. So, once again, on one end you have this girly girl who only wants to be popular, who is this is dupe, who doesn’t know what’s going on in the world, real issues, quote unquote. And then you have this other understanding of girls who, she’s not like the other girls. She has interests that step outside of these seemingly frivolous female things, but yet, now she’s the pick-me girl. So we have two forms of girlhood at two very polar opposite ends and neither of them are good enough.
JJF Yeah. I want to come back to that question about earlier depictions of unconventionally feminine girls or a more masculine girls in popular media in a minute. But I just wanted to talk about what you just said because it’s so interesting to me. So, what we have right now, if we’re thinking about the social landscape and the ways in which girls are trying to navigate it is if you are a girl who enjoys femininity and feminine things like dresses and makeup, then you could be stereotyped as seeking to be too popular, manipulative, a mean girl, all that kind of stuff. Am I understanding that correctly? If you are a girl that likes what? Stereotypically more masculine things. So, you like hoodies and not makeup and I don’t know, maybe sports or something like that. Then you are still seen as kind of acting a role, as trying to get power except this time rather than being seen as a mean girl, you’re seen as a pick me girl. So that’s kinda the two extremes that we have right now. And everybody is kind of shaming girls regardless of where they land on that spectrum?
ALV: Yes. Obviously not everyone.
JJF: Sure. Sorry, sorry. That was an overstep. Very fair.
ALV: No! No, I’m saying the same thing. I’m like, “everyone hates girls!” Not everyone hates girls. But it feels that way!
JJF: It feels that way, yeah, maybe because the misogynistic policing is just very loud in these digital spaces.
ALV: Yes. Well said.
JJF: Yeah, because I. . . Can we talk a little bit about how the digital spaces might affect this? So you said that we have earlier iterations of girls that might now be labeled as pick-me girls, but were celebrated in their own time, right? And when you were talking, I was also thinking, does this count I was thinking about do you know That ’70s Show?
JJF: I was thinking about Donna from That ‘70s Show, who’s, there’s only two female characters.
ALV: I know who you’re talking about.
JJF; Yeah, I was thinking that those two female characters represent these two extremes. Like you have Donna, who is a little more into sports, doesn’t wear as much makeup, often wears jeans and t-shirts. And then you have Jackie who’s always got her curled hair and the makeup and the more trendy clothes. And yet I think maybe I’m wrong listeners and people can tell me, but I feel like Donna was not at the time characterized as doing this to get attention from the boys in the show. Like it was seen as this was just kind of who she was. But I don’t know if that’s how it would be characterized now.
ALV: Yes. Yes, I completely agree. Like, Donna was absolutely the cool girl. You know, people wanted to be like her. And that’s kinda why I feel like the pick-me girl is a fictional character. She’s acted out by the, again, these TikTok content creators, especially through point-of-view style videos. So POV: “you’re hanging out with the pick-me girl,” “you’re taking a drive to school with the pick-me girl.” But also even more extreme examples like “the pick-me girl in World War II” or “the pick-me girl at your funeral.” So apparently her trope is so recognizable and has such cultural significance that we can pick her up in place her in these different scenarios and yet hate her all the same, still mock her all the same. And then these content creators can gain popularity as long as they yield and mock the pick-me girl in a way that aligns with popular reactions to her and this form of girlhood that didn’t exist in That ‘70s Show days.
JJF: Right. Okay. There are two things I want to talk about with what you’ve just said, because that’s so fascinating. One is you said that a lot of this works through having these POV, POV TikToks, right? So where somebody is playing the role of a pick-me girl, like deliberately playing the role of a pick-me girls. So they’re, they’re acting and they take this role and play it off for comedic effect. Like it’s the pick-me girl. I don’t know, in the trenches of World War II or something like that. And one thing that strikes me is that it seems like it takes this trope and removes it from the context, right? So we’re no longer talking about 2022 as where the trope originated, but we’re saying like you can find the pick-me girl anywhere.
ALV: Yeah, yeah.
JJF: So digital media than could be used here to normalize this and act like this trope has always existed when, like we just talked about how in the early 2000s this wasn’t really a thing. When it first existed in 2016. It was a very different thing than it is now. So we erase the history of it by having these point-of-view videos that make it look like it’s kinda timeless.
ALV: Exactly. That’s a really, really great point. Yes.
JJF: The other thing I wanted to talk about, which you’ve brought up a few times is this idea that the pick-me girl is somehow violating or contradicting, I’m not quite sure how to put it is somehow not living up to girl power, like not fulfilling her full potential as a girl. So can you talk a little bit about how girl power affects the way people think about the pick-me girl?
ALV: Yeah! In today’s context, girl power is the idea that girls have anything that they want and why would they need to adopt anything other than their innately feminine selves? And this leads to another problematic understanding about girls as well, where innately they “should” be feminine. And I think this is another reason that their masculinity is deemed inauthentic, not only for male attention, but almost, like, these very regressive understandings that girls are innately feminine. And how that is reinforced by the labelers, the ones who call the pick-me girls that, it’s a bit worrying to me. Because what could otherwise be this nuancing of girlhood and this reclaimed being a girl, understanding “I am a girl who is hanging with the boys, I’m different for that reason,” instead of acknowledging and embracing that like we did in the past with these figures in Mean Girls and Ten Things I Hate About You instead now it’s seen as, that’s impossible. No girl can do that and actually mean it.
JJF: I think that’s really interesting because it sounds to me than that, at least the modern iteration of girl power is fundamentally linked to an idea of both femininity and of post feminism. So, you mentioned that there’s this kind of feminine essentialism that in order to really go out there and show that girls can do anything, you have to also embody a very feminine essentialist thing. And moreover, that you should want to do that, that it should be somehow innate that you do and perform this. But also this idea that girl power is attached to proving that post feminism, right? That any girl, the most feminine girl can succeed because feminism is done, and we don’t need feminism anymore. And it’s weird to me to have this tension of feminine essentialism along with like girls can do anything.
ALV: Yes, yeah, totally.
JJF: There’s one other thing you said too there, which is this idea that not only is the pick-me girl trying to get masculine attention, or at least seen to be trying to get masculine attention. But you also pointed out that the pick-me girl is often ridiculed by other people. Because if I’m understanding this correctly, there’s this idea that like she’s a trader to what it means to be a girl, right? So if, if girl power requires femininity then somebody who is sitting in their power and authentically being themselves but not being feminine is kind of like a traitor to girls and to girl power in general. At least that seems like how the logic is working out. Did I understand that correctly?
ALV: Yes, I think so. Often when I’m talking about this too, I end with a question mark as well because obviously, I don’t think there’s a right or wrong answer for this. All we can really do as sociologists try our best to make sense of this all. But I do think that, obviously the pick-me girl TikToks that show the pick-me girl actively degrading femininity by saying like, “Oh, boys don’t like girls who wear makeup because you look fake and cakey,” it’s very clear that, okay, maybe she is a bully. But when the pick-me girl simply says, “I don’t enjoy wearing makeup.” And that’s somehow being a traitor to girl power, it’s important for us to ask these questions and see how, yes, there’s this essentialization of femininity that makes us wonder, yeah, it’s just totally polarizing possibilities for girlhood.
JJF: Yeah. Can I do something kinda geeky and bring in a theory from philosophy that I think is helping me make sense of this?
ALV: Please! Yes.
JJF: So there’s this book called Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny by Kate Manne. And one of the things that she notes happens with misogyny, she says misogyny is a policing force. And what it does is misogyny acts both to police the quote, unquote, “bad women” who aren’t living up to femininity. But it also rewards the quote, unquote, “good women” who are living up to femininity. And her focus is on women, but not on girls. But as you just explain the phenomenon of the pick-me girl to me, it sounds like so much of the internalized misogyny that’s happening here on multiple fronts is this kind of policing force around what girlhood and femininity should look like. But what’s curious to me as well, I can see how the policing force is punishing people who are identified as the “Bad Girls”. I’m using so many air quotes around good and bad here, good and bad as socially understood, not that. . . yeah. So while we’re punishing people who are seen as not living up to femininity or not living up to femininity in the right way. So, we’re punishing the pick-me girl for not living up to femininity or punishing the mean girl because the femininity seems contrived. I don’t see any rewarding happening.
ALV: Exactly, exactly! And it goes back again to that binary that we kind of drew out here, where there’s the Cady Herons and Kats, these kind of alternative girls from the late 1990s, early 2000s movies. And then the opposite, the Regina Georges and the otherwise quote-unquote “other girls” that the pick-me girl often speaks of who, like, they’re the plastics, right? This idea that they’re not real. But then who is real?
JJF: Yeah, where is the space for authentic girlhood here, I guess is what I’m left with.
ALV: And honestly I think the final conclusion with these kind of conversations is that there is none.
JJF: I want to circle back to something that you raised earlier now that we know that there’s no real space for authenticity, maybe this will make more sense to me because there’s this tension that you found in the representations of the pick-me girl with regards to femininity. Because as you said, they are sometimes stereotyped as being seen as a wife. And you already brought this out with the Grey’s Anatomy quote that you gave earlier that you’re trying to get males attention, trying to become a wife. But also we’ve quite clearly explored now how pick-me girls are seen as eschewing femininity by not wearing makeup, by sometimes even mocking people who do wear makeup. Like you said, in saying “men don’t like women who have makeup caked on their faces.” This seems kind of odd to me because the wife, the wife stereotype, as I have typically understood, it, is often quite feminine. I’m really interested in this tension of pick-me girls being seen as a wife stereotype, but also seen as eschewing femininity. Can you talk about that a little bit?
ALV: Yeah, of course. One thing that I noticed about the pick-me girl is the fact that both can kind of exist simultaneously. Basically, my analysis was 50 TikTok videos with the hashtag #pickmegirl and two figures often came up. So there’s the one that we’ve described very clearly now, she likes sports, she doesn’t wear makeup, very tomboy-ish. But then there’s another pick-me girl who definitely embraces her femininity. She wears pink dresses with strawberries on it, she’s giggling and bubbly, and she’s a gamer girl, and she’s seen as the kind of girl who’s sabotaging relationships. She’s kind of the one who pretends to be friends with the boys, but actually wants to date them, wants them to like her.
JJF: So there are some pick-me girls that embrace certain aspects of femininity, but are still seen as infiltrating male spaces, e.g. the idea that gaming culture is a boy’s culture.
ALV: Mhm. And this doubt that heterosexual friendships can’t exist, right?
ALV: Heterosocial, I suppose. Heterosocial friendships.
JJF: Right, so you couldn’t be friends with somebody of a different sex. You must be into them.
ALV: Exactly. You’re actually wanting to ruin the relationship.
JJF: Wow, so this means that the pick-me girl can’t authentically be somebody who issues femininity. You can’t be somebody who just authentically doesn’t like wearing makeup and is more comfortable in hoodie and genes. But you also can’t be a pick-me girl who enjoys male companionship but also likes frilly dresses.
ALV: Yeah. Yeah.
JJF: Seen as authentic, at least that’s not the dominant narrative you’re finding on TikTok.
ALV: Exactly, or at least the two can’t exist together. And it leads me to think a lot about even just being queer or a gay woman, for example, and maybe being androgynous. Would a girl who identifies as lesbian or who appears androgynous, I wonder if her friendship with boys would be similarly dismissed or seen as her trying to win their love? And I think it leads to this very limiting understanding of heterosexuality and heteronormativity altogether, the fact that straight girls simply cannot innocently be friends with straight boys. But because a lesbian or queer woman, she’s somehow innately seen as masculine and she’s not pretending because of that. So also these very long-lasting ideas about what it means to be a straight and gay woman as well.
JJF: Are all complicated by these tropes online as well. Wow.
ALV: Yeah, or reinforced.
JJF: So now that we have a really good picture, I’m seeing you like watching these TikTok videos and doing your research. Can you tell us a little bit how you became interested in studying the phenomenon of the pick-me girl in the first place?
ALV: Yeah, yeah. So it was not intentional at all. It was when I was writing my second and final comprehensive exam, which was focusing on the youth period in the life course. I was particularly interested in learning about the intersections of gender and sexuality in the youth period and that’s precisely where the pick-me girl came to mind. Because part of this research prompted me to learn about how young people’s gender and sexuality impact their capacity to participate in and also benefit from subculture, and it was through this focus where I learned that, in order for girls to fit into masculinized subcultural spaces, young girls must often become one of the boys. So they must often adopt these masculine behaviors, such as when they’re playing video games or when they’re in certain music-based subcultures, they’ll need to behave in certain ways, they need to dress certain ways. So the idea of girls becoming one of the boys was very reminiscent of the figure of the pick-me girl that I was seeing on TikTok. So, in the comprehensive exam, I wrote a lengthy paragraph on it, to which my supervisor pointed out was long and out of place. So then I took it and decided to run with it somewhere else.
JJF: That’s amazing. I just wanted to tell listeners who may not know, Comprehensive exams are exams you have to sit in your PhD. They usually, I don’t know how it is in sociology, in philosophy, you have to sit exams in three major sub-disciplines of philosophy to prove you have sweeping comprehensive knowledge in these areas and that you can teach in these areas. And the exams are often kinda stressful and like three or four hours long. And there’s this huge reading list you have to do before the exam?
ALV: Yes, yes. Fortunately, mine was not three hours. Instead, it was more like six months, which should have been three to four months, mind you, but comprehensive exams are, you’re running wild by yourself. But because I had a lot of time to think and read, I just started getting angry and writing whatever I wanted, I suppose.
JJF: That’s amazing. Yeah, comps were like my least favorite part of my PhD.
ALV: I think I heard that’s what prompts people that drop out.
JJF: I think that’s fair, but I also want to talk about, so there was this larger phenomenon of girls who are interested in things like video games, for example, which has long been a boy dominated space, felt that they had to, or you are seeing this idea that they had to adopt certain masculine things, tropes in order to enter into these spaces. And I remember a lot of discussion of this in the early 2010s about the ways in which video game culture was very hostile to girls. And I find this really interesting because if I go back to our discussion of authenticity, it seems like you might have a really authentic interests in for example video games. And the only way that you feel you can enter these spaces safely is by being more masculine, is trying to be one of the boys in order to participate in this hobby or in some cases, career people streaming for example that you really love. And so there is this idea of authenticity. But also, again, going back to what you said interested you in sociology in the first place, the way in which social norms and social forces constrain and influence are authentic choices about ourselves and about our interests and all that kinda stuff?
ALV: Yes. Yes, absolutely.
JJF: Amber-Lee, I want to thank you so much for sharing your research with us today. And I just want to ask, are there any last thoughts you’d like to leave our listeners with regarding the phenomenon of the pick-me girl or girlhood online in general?
ALV: I would encourage listeners to critique the trends that they see online, especially those that are directed to both girls and boys, and notice where limiting thoughts are being produced. I really like what you said earlier too, about how girls are basically constrained, especially within subcultural spaces, playing video games, for instance. And just recognize where are we kinda putting a choke hold on young people and limiting them from stepping outside of the box and that is so often said about this generation of people. And I really struggle to see, I see it happen in some spaces but in a lot of other spaces, I see a lot of regulation. So, yeah, pay attention to how labels are constraining.
JJF: Yeah. I also think that this is also something to really pay attention to in general, but also on TikTok in particular, when you talked about regulation, the ease with which people can make point of view videos and reaction videos, especially taking somebody else’s content and adding a reaction to it. Just kind of as this whole other layer of misogynistic policing possibilities that I think we should be mindful of. Because I do think that it does put this kind of limiting pressure like there’s no space to be authentic.
ALV: Mhmm, mhmm.
JJF: This episode of Gender Sex and Tech continued a conversation begun at a sociology conference I attended in 2022, where I was lucky enough to see Amber-Lee Varadi present her ideas. I want to thank Amber-Lee for sharing her research with us today. And thank you listener for joining me for another episode of Gender Sex and Tech: Continuing the Conversation. If you would like to continue the conversation further, please reach out on Twitter @tech_gender or leave a comment for this podcast. Or maybe you could consider creating your own essay or podcast or video or other media format to continue the conversation in your own voice. Music provided by Epidemic Sound. This podcast is created by me, Jennifer Jill Fellows, with support from the Mark Sanders Foundation for Public Philosophy. If you enjoyed this episode, please consider buying me a coffee at Kofi. You’ll find a link to my Ko-Fi page in the show notes. Until next time everybody. Bye.