A few years ago, I found myself in a hotel function room sipping rosé and feeling irritable. The room was full of fabulous women, with perfect blow-outs, wonderful careers, and an unrelenting enthusiasm for the wildly successful female author who would be speaking at the event. Meanwhile, I only just managed to stop myself from snapping at a colleague who asked if I wanted to take a photo in front of the millennial pink selfie-wall that was emblazoned with the company’s logo. I kept looking at the growing pile of Lululemon gym bags in the corner, and I couldn’t help but think about my high school locker room.
I couldn’t figure out what exactly my problem was. The event was, of course, emblematic of the mainstream, marketable, girlboss feminism that certainly offends my personal sensibilities. But it doesn’t usually inspire anger in the moment, in part because I usually love hotels, drinking rosé, and making small talk at events. I’m also quite receptive to anything mainstream and marketable – I once asked about a drink on the menu at brunch and when the server leaned in conspiratorially and described it as “an overrated, overpriced fad,” I ordered it. This is all to say, there was something else happening at that hotel function room that was making me a decidedly unpleasant companion.
In Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Women (1791) she wrote: “I hope my own sex will excuse me if I treat them like rational creatures, instead of flattering their fascinating graces and viewing them as if they were in a state of perpetual childhood and unable to stand alone.” This state of perpetual childhood, Wollstonecraft explained, was directly linked to the lack of education for women in the late 1700s. They were instead directed towards marriage, where – she said – it was in their husband’s best interests to ensure that they remained in this state of arrested development.
It occurred to me later that a similar sense of “perpetual childhood” was in the room that night, although the root cause was different. The women there were not locked in a childlike state because of a lack of education – all had the kinds of job titles impressive enough to gain admission to the event, and on top of that, had paid a hefty entry fee. Still, it was impossible not to notice that the event’s message of female empowerment had been contorted to fit into a childlike encasement. Economic freedom, equality in the workplace, and the importance of amplifying women’s voices hid inside pastel-colored tote bags asking: “I’m a woman, what’s your superpower?”
In a 1996 essay ‘Cuteness and Commodity Aesthetics,’ Lori Merish noted that, “because of its association with childhood, cuteness always to some extent aestheticizes powerlessness.” It is the experience of being submerged in the aestheticization of powerlessness – of childishness – all while I was being told that I was at an event that celebrated empowerment, that bothered me so much that night. In the intervening years, I have started to think about the contemporary aesthetic language of perpetual childhood as ‘cute feminism.’ Examples of cute feminism are, once one begins to notice them, everywhere. It is not women speaking in baby voices, or pretending that they are unable to do something so as not to emasculate the men around them. Cute feminism is Glossier and The Wing taking their employees and members, respectively, on “summer camps” complete with dorms, talent shows, dance parties styled like high school gymnasiums, and afternoons dedicated to making friendship bracelets. Cute feminism is Ruth Bader Ginsberg being reduced to a bobblehead doll, and her biography written in the style of a “Nancy Drew novel.” It is Sophia Amuroso coining the term “girlboss” to describe women in leadership roles, and Florence Given selling Scholastic Fair-style stickers that read “love sex, hate sexism” in bubblegum pink font. It is the multitudes of “feminist coloring books” that can be purchased on Amazon. It is Frida Kahlo pins, and Kamala Harris finger puppets alongside Mrs. Dalloway at Paper Source in Soho. It is hordes of Twitter users comparing Elizabeth Warren, the adult presidential candidate, to the beloved fictional teenage witch Hermione Granger.
I was reminded of that night in the hotel in March 2020 when, trying to distract myself from the eerily quiet streets outside my apartment, I opened the New York Times Magazine and was greeted with the headline, “The Wing is a Woman’s Utopia. Unless You Work There.” The piece, which was accompanied by an image of a perfect, pink, doll-sized version of The Wing encased inside a snowglobe, described a workplace that valued the comfort of their wealthy, predominantly white members, over their employees who were underpaid, overworked, and undervalued. Meanwhile, The Wing sold socks that read “PAY ME” in cursive font.
In the piece, Amanda Hess wrote that the millennial pink hues of The Wing’s spaces “recall the womb.” The references to childhood did not end there. There was the annual summer camp, where women slept in dorms and sang Disney songs at karaoke. In the spaces themselves, private phone booths were named after powerful women in history and fiction, including Anita Hill, Lady Macbeth and Lisa Simpson. The exclusive opening of The Wing’s first location (at its peak, there were 12 spaces, including one in London) was styled like a middle-school slumber party. Hess reported that “women who made the cut wore luxe white pajamas, sampled face masks and staged a pillow fight.” It all seemed to betray what Tom Wolfe would describe as a radical chic approach to feminism — which is to say that it was “radical only in style.”
For a while, a flurry of bad press (which persisted after Hess’s article, and reached fever pitch in the summer of 2020), coupled with social distancing regulations, proved to be too much for The Wing. They shut down almost all of their locations, CEO Audrey Gelman resigned and issued a poorly received apology. Even the Instagram “fan account” The Windings – which previously posted member’s rhapsodic memories of time spent at The Wing – directed users to Flew the Coup, a group that publishes the experiences of former members and employees on their Instagram, and raises grant money for the latter. Earlier this year, The Cut published a kind of eulogy titled “What Happened to The Wing?” We soon received an answer. In February, The Wing was purchased by a Swedish holding company called International Workplace Group who, per Bloomberg, “has injected an undisclosed sum into the company to facilitate its growth.” In April co-founder and former COO, Lauren Kassan, was installed as CEO, and emailed members of The Wing to share “some of the changes and updates [they’ve] made.” The changes appeared to be nominal, and former members and employees were quick to tell Flew the Coup that, while Gelman was the face of the company, Kassan was equally – if not more – involved with the running of The Wing, and was just as complicit in creating a work environment that disproportionately affected employees of color, and alienated members who were not wealthy and white. In other words, it seems likely that the perpetually childlike world of The Wing will live on.
Still, there is an argument to be made – a convincing one – that the purveyors of cute feminism are reclaiming a visual language that was once used to marginalize them. Merish notes that the term “cuteness” is as indelibly intertwined with femininity as it is with childishness, not because the aesthetic is inherently childlike, but because women’s pursuits have, for so long, been considered less serious than men’s. The adornments of the perpetual childhood embodied by The Wing and those of womanhood in the early nineteenth century – crafts, pastels, lace, domestic spaces – are all still considered to be less serious and more frivolous than the adornments of masculine life. Many feminists, Gelman included, have argued that the reclamation of these symbols, and their recontextualization, can be powerful.
But the more one examines cute feminism, the more the limits to this argument become clear. If childlike forms of feminism are truly a gateway to a broader social and political movement, then those who walk through it will encounter a radically simplified version of feminism itself. In her book Our Aesthetic Categories, the literary scholar Sianne Ngai notes the “act of automatic mimesis” that comes over most people when they encounter something cute, in which “the admirer of the cute puppy or baby often ends up unconsciously emulating that object’s qualities in the language of her aesthetic appraisal.” In the context of cute feminism, this act of mimesis changes the terms of the debate around gender equality, reframing it to fit the childlike aesthetic. It characterizes the success or failure of the feminist movement as whether or not individual women are able to act in accordance with precocious fictional characters like Hermione Granger and Lisa Simpson. This is not to say that the lives of young girls are free from struggle – indeed many young girls face adult challenges at far too young an age – but the kind of childhood that this kind of feminism appropriates is free from these kinds of challenges. Cute feminism is built around the kinds of childhood that features shelves full of Barbies, copies of Little House on the Prairie, and a doll’s house positioned in the corner of a bedroom. The challenges faced by these children are, in other words, impossibly far away from those faced by adult women. Nevertheless, it is easy to see why people gravitate towards this conception of childhood: it represents not only a time of relative comfort, but a time of innocence, where mistakes are easily forgiven, and one is not expected to have a deep knowledge of the sociopolitical world. Combining that assumption of innocence with feminist principles allows people of a certain social set to have all the right politics, without having to interrogate their lives, and the systems they operate in, with any real rigor. For a while, it also precluded the institutions, like The Wing, that embody this aesthetic from criticism. How could a space that is innocently supporting feminism be harming women?
In the case of The Wing, the limitations of this perspective were clear even before March 2020. In July 2019, when the U.S. Women’s Soccer team spoke out about pay inequality, the Wing took out a full-page ad in the New York Times asserting that “equal pay isn’t a game.” The typeface and layout were a visual nod to the signs held by suffragettes in the 1840s (notably, a movement that excluded women of color). Until recently they sold badges, hats, and t-shirts that read, “In Sisters We Trust” – invoking the language of radical feminists in the 1970s. The Wingdings fan page often referenced witches and covens, a strange feature of contemporary feminism which, in this iteration, aligns the mostly economically privileged, mostly white members of The Wing with a legacy of suffering that has no material effect on their lives. “We are the daughters of the witches you couldn’t burn,” was a phrase that appeared frequently. All of this messaging falls short, because true activism is not cute or elegant. Suffragettes on hunger strike who were force-fed; Emily Wilding Davison, who threw herself in front of the horses at the Derby to protest women’s inability to vote; witches being burned at the stake – all decidedly unchic when one considers the blood and gore of it all. This is not to say that all women who seek to promote gender equality need to go that far, but instead that childlike feminism cannot even approximate the activism that it profits from. It is, by its very nature, confined to the simplified surface of things. Wollstonecraft emphasized the dangers of this kind of approach to gender: “I wish to show that elegance is inferior to virtue, that the most praiseworthy ambition is to obtain a character as a human being, whether male or female and that lesser ambitions should be tested against that one,” she wrote.
It is easy to attribute the prevalence of cute feminism to the sinister capitalist air that surrounds it. Childhood is an easily commodified, gentler version of feminism – the uncomfortable complexities of most women’s lives cannot be rendered in cross stitch and marketed on Instagram – but I cannot help but think it alienates even the most privileged and cosseted-away woman, who must enjoy at least some of the possibilities and complexities of adult life. They must, surely, be excited by the feeling of waking up in the morning and being accountable to only oneself, by the getting of wisdom, the vast emptiness of the things still to discover. Cute feminism, packaged for profit by women to other women, might be lucrative, but surely a more adult view of feminism, linked to the actual lives of women, would be too.
Instead, cute feminism signals to women that the pursuit of gender equality is bound up in childishness, innocence, and the need for protection rather than the distinctly adult virtues of intellect, maturity and a deep understanding of the complexities of the world. The messiness of being a woman that Joan Didion described in the New York Times as, “the irreconcilable difference of it – that sense of living one’s deepest life underwater, that dark involvement with blood and birth and death,” cannot be brushed over with a millennial pink gloss.
I went to an all-girls school in Sydney, Australia for a slightly excessive 13 years. Studies about single-sex education are inconclusive, and I won’t deny that there were certain complications and drawbacks to the way I was educated, but overall I found the experience of being in a female-only environment in those fragile years to be an academic safe-haven, providing a daily rest from the mania of the outside world. I have – and will tell anyone who listens about it – an enduring affection for all-female environments. Even so, there’s no denying that the students there were a kind of socio-cultural monolith.
There are a few things that everyone in Sydney’s private school set knew about my school. Firstly, girls in kindergarten up to the third grade wore red leather Mary-Janes. All of the shoe stores in the area stock them, even now. Secondly, uniforms were pink until the seventh grade, when they changed to blue. Thirdly, every year we would celebrate the “school’s birthday” by eating pink cupcakes and delivering flowers to local nursing homes. It was a gilded, pink-hued bubble that I was lucky to be in – I had a wonderful education and met girls who became the women that are now some of my closest friends. But a bubble is no place for an adult.
Wollstonecraft, perhaps rightly, would not have approved of this state of affairs. She envisioned an educational environment where “boys and girls, rich and poor, would meet together. To prevent any of the distinctions of vanity, they should be dressed alike, and all obliged to submit to the same discipline.” She would likely not have approved of a post on the Wingding’s Instagram page which addressed a growing controversy about members bringing cis-gendered men into The Wing.
“I know some members want to bring their CIS male partners (romantic or business or otherwise) into The Wing.” the post reads. “I get it, it’s a cool space!! You’re a member of a cool space!! But… DON’T. This was made to be a safe space for women, womxn, and non-binary people and while legally The Wing cannot keep them out you, THE ACCEPTED MEMBER, can.” A member responded, “Next year, I want to go up to any member with a male guest and say, ‘I know it’s not against the rules but I am uncomfortable with men here and I think it’s contrary to the spirit of the space and ask that you consider the community in the future.” She added, “May get it printed on cards to pass out!”
Like Wollstonecraft, Didion was wary of a conception of feminism that divided men from women so entirely. “Certain facets of the women’s movement,” she argued, painted women as “creatures too tender for the abrasiveness of daily life, too fragile for the streets, so now one was getting, in the later literature of the movement, the impression of women too sensitive for the difficult ambiguities of adult life.”
I can’t help but feel that cosseting women away in “womb-like” spaces, where the mere presence of someone who appears to be a man is cause for alarm, is doing something similar. Conflating empowerment with childlike delicacy limits our understanding of what adult women can be. It signals what Didion described as, “the astral disconnect with actual lives, actual men, the denial of the real ambiguities and the real generative or malignant possibilities of adult sexual life.”
Wollstonecraft, in the end, believed in equality above all else, the kind of equality that is achieved through being in the world, rather than being protected from it. “I do not want women to have power over men; I want them to have power over themselves,” she wrote.
One of my enduring memories of childhood is sitting on the floor of my mother’s study, while she loudly typed. I was in that delicious, post-bath state that I’ve never quite been able to replicate as an adult. I smelled like lavender oil, and my long red braid fell down the back of my cotton nightgown. I was looking at her copy of Jane Eyre, which had a painting of a young woman on the cover. Being unable to read, I was fascinated by what happened to the mournful-looking girl in the long dress. It was an unsolvable mystery. A fascinating world that was just out of reach.
I asked my mother about it, and after trying to placate me with a broad summary, she eventually relented (in hindsight, interruptions of this type may have been why she eventually resorted to working on her Ph.D. throughout the night, and spent the following few years in a kind of jetlagged state.) She relayed a dark and fascinating story about a young woman who, after enduring a cruel childhood, finds some peace in a big house with a wealthy family. But this too, is haunted.
Eventually, I read Jane Eyre. As you might imagine, reading the story myself, with the perspective of an adult (albeit a young one) transformed the story from a mercurial haze into a vivid world that I emerged from changed in a thousand tiny ways that creep up on me even now. As a child, I hadn’t been able to fully appreciate the unique rhythm of the story which differed so wildly from anything I had encountered previously, where the pain of hardship is followed by the release of a happy ending. In Jane Eyre hardship is almost never followed by an easy resolution. Indeed, when Mr. Rochester pleads for “Little Jane” to stay with him after the existence of his wife is revealed, she understands that he is asking her to remain in a fantasy. A proclamation of love, a moment that I had previously understood to be the high point of a novel, was instead “full of struggle, blackness, burning.” It expanded, not just my understanding of what fiction could be, but the boundless possibilities of my own internal life, and my understanding of the contradictions that existed within my own mind.
The memory of my mother relaying the story is wonderful. So many childhood memories are. But how much better it is to know for myself what happens inside Jane Eyre.