In Party for One, Mashable explores single life in 2020, from Carly Rae Jepsen’s iconic single anthems, to the beauty of alone time, and the fascinating history behind the single positivity movement.
I received some devastating personal news recently: I’m a Boyfriend Girl now. This diagnosis, given by a trusted colleague and corroborated by several others, sent me into an existential spiral.
Nobody wants to be the dreaded Boyfriend Girl, who seemingly mistakes being in a relationship for a whole personality. But if it can happen to me, it can happen to anyone. I may be biased, but I do think there’s something to learn from the Boyfriend Girl, if only as part of the larger cultural phenomenon of how and why we perform our relationship statuses (or lack thereof) online.
The Wife Guy fundamentally differs from the Boyfriend Girl lies in the gender norms they’re in conversation with.
To the uninitiated, the Boyfriend Girl is only one iteration of the extremely committed online, best understood in the ever-evolving internet taxonomy as a lady equivalent to the Wife Guy (as encapsulated by the curvy wife guy, elf wife guy, and fake wife guy). An outdated 2011 Urban Dictionary entry for Boyfriend Girl mischaracterizes her more as your classic serial monogamist, mentioning a prevalence of “MySpace style” pictures with said beau. In 2020, though, the Boyfriend Girl is less defined by her previous dating history and more by her online broadcasting of said relationship as central to her social media identity.
Today, you can recognize a Boyfriend Girl by how her Instagram grid shows a sudden, immediate takeover by some man she’s now always pictured smiling and/or making goo-goo eyes at him. Her Instagram stories range from capturing their small moments of love to date nights and vacations. On Facebook, her relationship status is no mystery either, as he’s a mainstay of not only her profile pic but featured pics too, along with further photographic evidence of their coupling on her feed.
There are more similarities between the Wife Guy and the Boyfriend Girl than I’d care to admit, namely the undercurrent of aggressive heteronormative monogamy. But where the Wife Guy fundamentally differs from the Boyfriend Girl lies in the gender norms they’re in conversation with.
It’s why, before, even the potential risk of becoming a Boyfriend Girl so repulsed me that I carefully crafted a whole online personality on the sole basis of the abject rejection of her.
New opener from a dating app fuckboy: “If you were a human piñata, what would you be filled with?” Refrained from saying cum and male tears.
— Jess Joho but with pumpkin 🎃 (@jessjoho) September 12, 2017
i know cuffing season is real because i keep dating trash men for body heat
— Jess Joho but with pumpkin 🎃 (@jessjoho) January 18, 2019
described a bad date as having “nde” AKA “no dick energy” and i’ll give y’all that one for free
— Jess Joho but with pumpkin 🎃 (@jessjoho) March 25, 2019
For as long as I’ve been Extremely Online, my internet persona could be best summed up as the Slutty Single Girl.
Prior to the current relationship that onset my Boyfriend Girlhood, I’d only been in one other committed relationship my entire life (in high school, which barely counts). For years, I mined my abysmal online dating and voracious sex life for not only Twitter content but also my very job as a sex and dating writer. A proud member of the bravely Horny on Main, I traded in the “urgh, men!” web discourse — the love language of most single women sexually attracted to men and hating it. I was so devoted to my singlehood that I saw it as some vague feminist virtue signaling, as if not having a boyfriend was my political choice or statement.
A change in life circumstances necessarily changed this online identity I’d curated around a lifetime of singlehood. Over the past year, I slowly became my own worst nightmare. My Twitter is now consumed by cutesy domestic disputes, pranks, and (even more sickeningly) unironic appreciation posts for my partner. Whenever I try to post anything akin to the Slutty Single Girl of old, my boyfriend will comment on it — inevitably making the original joke much funnier, to my utter dismay.
gaslighting my boyfriend by saying “that’s *so* funny” to every single thing that comes out of his mouth
— Jess Joho but with pumpkin 🎃 (@jessjoho) July 10, 2020
This tweet is part of the guilt play. how does it feel for me to see right through you
— ricky montgomery (@rohmontgomery) July 31, 2020
Appreciation post for my boyfriend who was never threatened for a second by me coming out as bi, gets mad at my family for not being as supportive, AND gives me the space to openly talk about/discover what women are my type 🥺🥺🥺 yes bb, she is my type… but YOURE MY WIFE
— Jess Joho but with pumpkin 🎃 (@jessjoho) July 28, 2020
After years of using singlehood as a bat signal, celebrating my un-date-ability as an act of feminism and railing against gendered stereotypes of women desperate for commitment, I’m faced with an uncomfortable truth: Whatever emancipation from the patriarchy I thought my old online persona stood for was a total fraud. Though it physically pains me to say it, the Boyfriend Girl I am today is a more honest expression of who I am and what I’ve always wanted IRL.
Because in all my years of loud, public displays of singlehood online, I wasn’t just trying to sell everyone else on the narrative that I was better off alone. I was trying to convince myself, too, mortified that in my heart of hearts I actually did sincerely want someone to share my life with.
The Boyfriend Girl haunted me as the antithesis of how empowered women conducted themselves on the internet.
The Boyfriend Girl is not a stereotype we talk about much anymore, as mainstream web culture works to evolve beyond policing women for however they choose to express themselves online. But having grown up in the MySpace era when her ephemeral, ghostly presence loomed over my nascent feminism, the Boyfriend Girl haunted me as the antithesis of how empowered women conducted themselves on the internet, long after she mostly left the rest of the internet’s collective cultural consciousness.
The difference in why we hate the Wife Guy today, and why we hated the Boyfriend Girl in the past is telling, though.
Our ire for the Wife Guy is entrenched in rejecting the patriarchal possessiveness of marriage as an institution, mixed with the self-aggrandizement of his online displays of wife love — as if his posts are somehow brave or proof that he’s an ally to all women. Meanwhile, to quote Urban Dictionary, the ire for the Boyfriend Girl stems instead from how she “uses boys to fill in the emptiness she feels inside” because she “usually has low self-esteem and doesn’t see the good inside herself unless a boy (usually the current boyfriend or prospect) notices it.”
We hate — or at least I hated — the Boyfriend Girl because she is an embodiment of women’s inability to be truly independent or satisfied with being alone, to outgrow the desire for commitment to a man or fulfillment from heteronormative monogamy. I mean, how radical can your politics be if you’re seemingly just a few steps removed from the Stepford Wife?
But even now, in an online culture where the “self-partnered” singlehood empowerment narrative reigns supreme, being a Boyfriend Girl feels like an unspoken betrayal of needs-no-man feminism. On social media platforms like Twitter, it’s far easier to get behind an underdog like the subversive Slutty Single, wantonly finding her own happiness by flashing her tits at patriarchal cultural scripts we’ve been fighting ever since Gloria Steinem sought to normalize the new-fangled feminist moniker of ‘Ms’ through Ms. Magazine.
The existential crisis of being coupled in a heterosexual relationship is not new, and was a reoccurring issue for many during second-wave feminism too, including for Steinem herself. But I can’t help but wonder whether distaste for the Boyfriend Girl — like a lot of second-wave feminism — isn’t an outdated overcorrection we need to let go of today.
As ashamed as I am of it, I must confess that I was pretty miserable when I was single. Despite having a fulfilling career and wonderful friends, there was indeed an emptiness that those accomplishments could not fill. Yet unlike the Urban Dictionary definition of the Boyfriend Girl assumes, the emptiness I felt was not from a lack of male validation. Plenty of men — more men than right now, actually — were validating me as the Slutty Single Girl. Rather, I was miserable because I was lonely, a universal human emotion devoid of gender politics. Yet still, I interpreted my loneliness as weakness, believing a more liberated woman would be strong enough to feel perfectly content with being single.
It might say more about my own personal baggage than anything else, but it took me years of therapy to even admit to myself that I did, in fact, want a longterm committed relationship.
But as I wrestle with the death of my former online identity now, I wonder: Is the empowered single woman’s value grounded exclusively in her rejection of social norms? If it is, then she is no more of a three-dimensional person than the woman valued exclusively because she ascribes to those social norms. That’s not to say that women can’t be single, happy, and thriving. I know plenty who are, including many of the writers in Mashable’s Party of One series. But if the counter to the patriarchal pressure to be in a relationship is a newfound pressure to reject relationships, then we’re only imposing a different set of countercultural ideals that still don’t allow women to experience all the emotions, needs, and wants of full-fledged human beings.
Like my performance of singlehood in the past, my performance of girlfriendhood now isn’t just about convincing other people of something. It’s about convincing myself, too. As a Boyfriend Girl compelled to keep posting again and again about her happy relationship, I do so in the hopes that maybe it’ll start to feel normal — that I’ll feel less like an imposter, more worthy of the kind of healthy, loving relationship I thought only happened to other people.
It’s OK to be single and happy about it. It’s OK to be single and unhappy about it, too. Call me a crazed Boyfriend Girl, but it’s also OK to be happy in your relationship and to like telling the world about it online.