Culture Opinion Politics

Where does “Girlhood Summer” stand in the fight for reproductive autonomy?

Maeve Sanford-Kelly ’26
Staff Writer

“Do you want to go to the Taylor Swift concert or is that lame?” my mom asked me over text the winter of my 8th grade.

“Technically, it’s lame. But I still really want to go,” I told her. She promised it could be our little secret.

When I was in middle school, Taylor Swift was the furthest thing from cool. She was infamously canceled in the July 2016 #TaylorSwiftIsOverParty, which to this day remains the largest simultaneous cyberbullying event in internet history.

For me, a lifelong Swiftie who was deeply confused by the sudden villainization of my childhood hero, it was a turning point. Coupled with the election of Donald Trump and my biological entrance to womanhood, it was one of the moments that made 2016, my 12th year of life, the year I learned the faults of girlhood.

I see Trump’s election and the cancellation of Taylor Swift as tandem events. The two moments, just months apart, were when the cruelty of the world fatally punctured my girlhood. My period, whether I liked it or not, was my initiation into a club whose right to bodily autonomy is perpetually in limbo.

I’ve learned that every woman has a moment when they learn that not only is the safe world of girl power and Barbie dreams a facade, but the real world actively works to undercut powerful women, especially young women, at every turn.

This summer, seven years after 2016, we may have finally seen a shift.

By now, you’ve probably heard: summer 2023 was “girlhood summer.” Between the dazzling success of Barbie and the unmatched frenzy of the Eras and Renaissance Tours, this past summer saw a monumental increase in respect for media that was repeatedly dismissed as vapid or insignificant because it’s geared toward young women. Girlhood is finally being validated as a powerful piece of American identity as news outlets like The Wall Street Journal and CNN rushed to write articles about the economic impact of young women.

For so many women, “girlhood summer” unleashed something beautiful. The notion of being a “teenage girl in her twenties” became popularly discussed online as young women processed the healing power of the cultural embrace of girlhood.

But none of this was happening in a vacuum. Just a year before “girlhood summer,” we saw the deepest setback in American women’s rights in a generation — the overturning of Roe v Wade in June 2022.

The impact of that decision continues to loom heavily over the lives of young women. Abortion is now essentially banned in 14 states and heavily restricted in 11 others. Across the country, women have watched their access to reproductive healthcare and autonomy over their own lives slip out of their grasp before their very eyes.

Culture didn’t ban abortion. Republican politicians did. It was possible, however, due to centuries of dismissing the interests, desires, and needs of young women as invalid or insignificant. Our cultural institutions were complicit in creating a climate where stripping women of their autonomy is politically acceptable.

That’s what makes this past summer so remarkable. In part, “girlhood summer” was a mode of resistance. We watched as women gathered in droves to celebrate symbols of girlhood that have been historically labeled as uncool. Women showcased such influence, particularly through monetary spending, that it couldn’t be ignored.

However, the corporations and media outlets who capitalized on “girlhood summer,” also saw it as a non-threatening way to eschew their culpability in the destruction of women’s reproductive autonomy. The same institutions that spent generations contributing to undermining the value of young women clamored to celebrate girlhood, creating a frenzy that ballooned “Girlhood Summer” into a cross-generational cultural moment.
The truth is that the institutional embrace of girlhood felt great. It provided a false sense of security that suddenly Barbieland, or at least a world where women were respected as equals, was in sight.

I love living in a world where Taylor Swift is celebrated as an icon of female power rather than belittled as a symbol of the self-centerednaiveté of young women. For my 12-year-old self, the one who didn’t know what hit her as she watched the world turn on her childhood hero, it is deeply healing.

But as I watch the NFL celebrate “Taylor’s Version” and morning show hosts make Taylor-themed puns, I can’t help but feel like the broader culture is allowing me to reclaim my girlhood as a token in exchange for having stripped me of my rights as a woman. Perhaps “girlhood summer” wasn’t the feminist revolution it claimed to be.

Image Source: Anna Grez ’27