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  • Megan Mulligan

“Girl Math” and White Feminism - The Colleen Hoover Effect

Girl math is when buying iced coffee doesn’t affect my bank account. This handful of crackers and soda is my girl dinner. Oh I’m just painting– it’s my silly little girl hobby. Female rage is when your makeup looks cakey. Of course I dressed up, I’m girly. This is my fun little girl job. Shopping is girl therapy. Of course I can’t drive well, I’m a girl. I shouldn’t have to do my taxes, I’m literally just a girl. I’m just a girl. 

Image Source: @OfficialPLT 

When did this kind of talk become normal? How is it indicative of shallow white feminism? And why is it Colleen Hoover’s fault? 

To tackle these kinds of questions, we need to go all the way back to the 19th century, to when the American liberal feminist movement really caught steam. Liberal feminism is defined as the attempt to enact feminist social change through the existing liberal democratic framework, focusing on political and social protections for women in the public sphere. Big names include Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who helped galvanize the women’s suffrage movement and eventually pass the 19th Amendment to the US Constitution. Their names are recognizable as some of the first white feminists; the American Equal Rights Foundation that they founded along with Frederick Douglass was dissolved after white women refused to support suffrage for black men. Anthony and Stanton alienated key abolitionist members from the suffrage movement and reinforced divisions within the movement. Meanwhile, suffragettes like Sojourner Truth and Ida B. Wells demonstrated the intersections between racial, socioeconomic, and gender equality while advancing all of them. 

Intersectional feminism illustrates a key difference from white feminism– it strives to uplift all women, including women of color, queer women, poor women, disabled women; everyone. The very demographics that white feminism has historically left behind in exchange for political momentum.

So what does this kind of white feminism look like today? 

We see it in the SlutWalk, a trend that attempts to “reclaim” the patriarchal word slut. In refusing the acknowledge the role that whiteness and racial privilege play in who benefits from the feminist movement. In women calling their high-level jobs and prestigious education their “girl jobs” as part of an online trend. 

An American “Slut Walk” next to a march against child marriage in Morocco

Before the women’s liberation movement, lack of choice defined women’s lives. First-wave feminists fought to create a world in which women could exercise their right to not get married or have children, get a divorce, or work in their chosen field. So why, in that same landscape, are the concepts of tradwives (a pastime that literally glorifies subjugation to men) popular? Why is sex work (an industry that claims thousands of women’s lives per year) glamorized as an alternative to education? Why was plastic surgery to please the beauty norms that men created repackaged as a “choice”? These are all facets of the same trend: the illusion of choice has been warped to mean concession to harmful practices that benefit the patriarchal system that feminists supposedly fight against. And the “just a girl” trend does exactly that. It placates men’s egos and subtly puts women down, all disguised as a means of female empowerment. 

Obviously, these cultural problems aren’t all Colleen Hoover’s fault. But it is important to analyze how media shapes our perceptions of gender and social movements. And Colleen Hoover happens to be a perfect example. 

Take It Ends With Us, Hoover’s best-selling novel popularized by TikTok in 2021

The novel paints a romanticized story of domestic abuse– the abuser tearfully tells the protagonist to leave him in a pathetic plea for the reader’s pity. It’s notable enough that the ‘heroine’ does break the conventional norms of a romance novel in leaving her marriage, a point that online white feminists latched onto despite the litany of red flags and bad writing littered throughout the book. (I mean, the protagonist’s name is Lily Blossom Bloom. And she’s a florist. Come on.) But more importantly, none of the relationships in any of her books are based on trust or respect, the very ideals that feminists fought for in relationships and in the social sphere. 

Image: Ryle Kincaid (an abusive character in It Ends With Us)  fan art

Her books are about men. Abusive men, reformed men, traumatized men. At their core, these books are not about the women that these men inflict pain on. But what’s tricky is that they’re disguised that way. You think you’re reading about female empowerment, but you’re actually reading a story that serves outdated patriarchal ideals, exactly like the illusion of choice. Her plots bend over backwards to maintain the status quo rather than write an actually compelling narrative that empowers women. The way she writes female characters is hurtful in the same seemingly innocent way that terms like “girl math” subconsciously bring women down. 

Image: @hercampus on Instagram

But what really seals the white feminist deal is Hoover’s apparent inability to write about anyone other than white women. Her books don’t feature a single person of color in a protagonist or even supporting role. She writes about white women, for white women

This wouldn’t be as much of a problem if it couldn’t be placed within a wider context of white feminism. Maybe Hoover’s book should be taken as a shallow amalgamation of uninspired prose and nothing more. But it's important to note the readership of these novels and the ideas they are imparting. Her books are bought primarily by Gen Z girls, a particularly impressionable group that is learning to glorify the unhealthy relationships and female subjugation that Hoover writes about. That same audience watches TikTok trends of “girl jobs”, “girl hobbies”, and “girl dinners”, complex socioeconomic markers infantilized to the point of simplicity. Maybe global feminist trends aren’t Colleen Hoover’s responsibility, but that doesn’t mean that she doesn’t share a portion of the blame by perpetuating a society in which women suffer or degrade themselves for entertainment. 

So maybe Hoover can use her platform for good. Her massive readership would benefit from reading a story about a woman of color, or even a woman who doesn’t suffer abuse or massive trauma for a change. But that begs the question: if you took away these elements, would Colleen Hoover’s stories be worth reading? Does she rely on these tropes to compensate for mediocre writing, cheap plot devices, and shallow characters? 

Either way, the choice is clear. We can do better than Colleen Hoover. 


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