September 28, 2022


We Bring Good Things to Life

Against the Big Screen Beauty Contest: Review of “Girl Online” by Joanna Walsh

Walsh sees another version of the online girl tumbling down the rabbit-hole in Carrie Bradshaw, the columnist and girl-about-town from HBO’s Sex and the City, often pictured sitting in front of her screen and wondering how to be. Carrie is a woman in age, but she is a girl in temperament and build, fun and flighty and sylphlike and perpetually in fashion; she is internet-illiterate in the original series, which went off-air about a year after the invention of MySpace, but her flirty and eccentric manner of dressing has endured on Instagram in 2022, finding favor with Gen Z. As a narrative device in every episode of the show, Carrie asks a question: “Is there a secret cold war between singles and marrieds?” for instance, or “Are threesomes the new sexual frontier?” She not only poses these inquiries, Walsh suggests, “but, embodying each dilemma, is ‘in question’ … perhaps the performance of the question is the point.” A frequent criticism of Carrie’s character is her unsuitedness to being a sexual guru, given how unknowledgeable she appears to be about sexual life outside the most conventional heterosexual coupling. Still, this innocence—this greenness—only adds to her girl status. Being an open-ended query is an ideal state for an online girl, who will doubtless find a million other users hoping to provide her answer, helping to unknot her prettily furrowed brow.

“White, able-bodied, not quite old enough for the screen to entirely refuse my face,” Walsh admits in Girl Online, “I superficially resemble the images of girls that slipped from big screen to small, to digital, their functions carried over as the face of a brand, a generation, a revolution.” Offline, though, it is significantly harder to maintain the state of girlhood than it is when we are designing whichever version of ourselves exists on the web, and “to move across time from girl to woman,” she concludes, “is to land in the place where payment is taken.” (Even Carrie Bradshaw—who in the most recent incarnation of her show, And Just Like That, is 55 and requires hip surgery—is now expected to maintain an Instagram account and to co-host a streaming podcast in order to maintain her career as a girl-about-town writer, and part of that series’s curiously depressing air sprang from the impossible tension of trying to uphold her carefree and questioning nature in the face of grief and aging.)

In her off-screen life, separate from the literary self those who encounter her online may be more familiar with, Walsh writes that she is employed as a cleaner and domestic laborer, having decided that the separation of her income and her art will help her maintain a degree of purity in her work—“the only art that means anything,” she says, “is given away for free.” Through Girl Online, which she describes as an “anti-manifesto” whose ideal reader is the internet itself, she comes to see the fracturing of identity that both womanhood and the web require as a double-edged sword, capable of being used to hold back something from the market and the male gaze, both.