It Girls, Powerful Women & Media Culture: Why Women Can Never Simply Be

marilyn as clara bow

Recently on RTÉ 2FM, I chatted to Ryan Tubridy about about the resurgence of the It Girl, a term and phenomenon that first emerged in the 1920s. The original It Girl, Clara Bow, became a global superstar, embodying a free-spirited, seemingly authentic, sexy-but-not-scarily-so charm which tallied perfectly with the hedonism of the era. The demise of the Roaring Twenties and the arrival of Great Depression led to the implosion of her brief but spectacularly bright career. Clara battled mental health demons for the rest of her days, stemming from horrific childhood abuse at the hands of an unstable mother who tried to murder her in her sleep and an alcoholic father who raped her. She remarked, somewhat prophetically when one considers the It Girls who followed later like Marilyn Monroe and Edie Sedgwick, ‘a sex symbol is a heavy load to carry when one is tired, hurt and bewildered.’

In the decades that followed the term was used intermittently, resurfacing with a vengeance in the late 1990s after a seven-page New Yorker profile anointed the then little-known-outside-of-NYC-fashion-circles Chloe Sevigny the It Girl du jour. At present, the It Girl mantle is slapped on notable females from widely varying fields, many of whom are grown women rather than girls, with well-established, hard won careers which are at odds with the kind of transitory allure implied by the label. For every Paris Hilton there are It Girls winning Oscars, heading up NGOs and reporting from war zones, rather than quaffing champers with Daddy’s credit card and a teacup-sized dog stashed in their oversized, over-priced handbag.

The It Girl persists in a modern context for a number of reasons, key among these I would argue is the simple fact that she sells. In an age of dropping advertising revenue and a 24 hour news media increasingly taking its cues from online, the need for cheap, readily available content is unending. Slapping the It Girl label on a youthful, successful and attractive girl/woman is handy way of generating buzz, ensuring links gets clicked or a glossy mag gets purchased. It Girls work fantastically well on social media, particularly the likes of Instagram and Tumblr, which capture the kind of lifestyle envy these girls/women inspire in ordinary folk. It Girl social media accounts are also easy to plunder for the aforementioned cheap, shiny content. Just like in the 1920s, everyone wants It, even if they’re not entirely sure what It is.

It Girl, as you may have gleaned, is far from a straightforwardly positive label. As Helen Anne Peterson notes in an excellent Buzzfeed article on the term’s re-emergence, christening someone an It Girl is perhaps ‘the ultimate backhanded compliment’.  In doing so, editors and journalists acknowledge the subject’s accomplishments but package them in a palatable, cosy way for consumption, keeping things quirky, flirty and fun, while neutering anything truly transgressive or – God forbid – political. In christening a girl/woman It, editors and journalists trap high profile girls/women within the term’s limitations. No one by reason of their humanity can remain an It Girl forever and ‘girl’ is still, to our shame, used pejoratively, as something weak-limbed, passive and non-threatening. It is interesting too to note the proliferation of the term at a time when women are asserting themselves through feminism once again, demanding to be heard and seen, making their presence felt in male-dominated realms as never before. In this context, the It Girl label is a handy, inoffensive little box to usher uppity women into, so their aspirations and rights-demands don’t overwhelm their ability to look sweet in a pretty dress, which is of course paramount at all times.

As an aside, it’s been interesting to research the It Girl phenomenon during the week unphotoshopped images of Beyoncé and Cindy Crawford were leaked, when Kate Middleton’s grey hair became a talking point and actresses took to the red carpet during awards season, pleading to be asked about something other than what dress they were wearing. Almost a century after Clara Bow turned the world on in the film It, we are no closer to simply letting women be. Western culture and media is still preoccupied with finding ways to put women in their place, to diminish their power, to punish them when they overstep boundaries that are written in shifting sands. The treatment of high profile women is a warning shot to all women. To dismiss such events as media storms is to underestimate the power culture and the institutions which create it exercise over our lives and sense of self. Culture is the soup we swim in and its toxic elements demand our critical engagement. It is only by challenging and interrogating what we are exposed to that we can begin to change it. And change it we must.

Photo: Marilyn Monroe as Clara Bow, Life Magazine, 1957, Richard Avedon