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‘Girl code’ is toxic and infantilising – there’s no place for it in 2023

Filmmaker and actor Olivia Wilde and model and podcaster Emily Ratajkowski have been embroiled in a ‘girl code’ snafu (Getty/iStock)
Filmmaker and actor Olivia Wilde and model and podcaster Emily Ratajkowski have been embroiled in a ‘girl code’ snafu (Getty/iStock)

Gretchen Wiener knew girl code. Fans of the 2004 film Mean Girls will recall the moment she described “like, the rules of feminism” to Lindsay Lohan’s unsuspecting newcomer, Cady Heron. “Ex-boyfriends are just off-limits to friends,” she quipped, and the rules of girl code were firmly established in a piece of pop culture history. Whether or not you’re as au fait as Gretchen, chances are you’re familiar with the phrase. But just in case you’re not a millennial and have never watched a romcom: girl code is a set of unwritten rules for women and by women that typically affect the way they behave in friendships.

A quick straw poll on my social media elicits definitions ranging from “not being judgemental” and “showing empathy”, to “texting when you get home” and “calling with a fake emergency to get someone out of a bad date”. Most of the time, though, as Gretchen says, the phrase is associated with romantic relationships. One of the core commandments of girl code? Thou shalt not sleep with a friend’s ex.

The nuances of this can be wide-ranging and generally also apply to a friend’s current or desired partner. See also: spending time with them behind your friend’s back, messaging and calling them frequently, and, ahem, aggressively making out with them on the streets of Tokyo.

The latter is why girl code has become the subject of a heated online conversation in recent weeks. Yes, I’m referring to Emily Ratajkowski’s viral snog with Harry Styles in March, just a few weeks after the singer’s ex, Olivia Wilde, was seen spending time with Ratajkowski at the Vanity Fair Oscars Party.

The internet decided to get very excited about this. And since the release of those pics, the two women – both of whom have hugely successful careers in their respective fields – have been relentlessly pitted against one another in a toxic waste bin of online discourse. All because of a boy.

Unverified “sources” claimed Wilde felt “betrayed” by Ratajkowski for “breaking girl code” by kissing Styles, whom Wilde split from in November. Meanwhile, Ratajkowski told Vogue Spain last week that she “feels bad” for Wilde, who now reportedly “just wants Emily to keep her name out of her mouth” and thinks the model and writer should “focus on being a mom”. Ouch.

How much truth is in these comments doesn’t matter much. The point is that the conversation has tipped into petulance to the point of parody. Like its “girl” counterparts (see “girl boss”, “hot girl summer”, “girl talk” etc), the phrase “girl code” carries derogatory connotations and is another example of how modern society is obsessed with reducing grown women to girls, removing their power and autonomy.

My best friends are men and women and we all have codes that we follow but it’s just about being a decent person and doing the right thing

Vicky Borman

The fact that there’s no male equivalent also speaks volumes. Think about it. In the context of straight relationships, the existence of “girl code” almost always shifts our focus onto the culpability of women. Not only does it give the women involved something to break, it gives everyone else a reason to blame them. Wilde versus Ratajkowski is a perfect example of this: the internet is hooked on every detail, whether it’s a possible confrontation or who’s allegedly said what about the other. But where is Styles in all of this? Isn’t he the one that made out with his ex’s friend? But because of “girl code”, our attention isn’t on him but what the women – sorry... “girls” – have done wrong.

Whatever happened, or didn’t happen, between the individuals in question is irrelevant. What matters is the way this situation has been framed and what it says about how quick we are to judge, blame and attack women, reducing them to nothing but sexual rivals even while we allow men to maintain their dignity. This, I’m afraid, is a symptom of girl code. And it’s also an example of misogyny.

The irony is that this is exactly the kind of thing girl code is supposed to prevent. “For me ‘girl code’ means being sympathetic with my fellow women and putting them first, as I would put myself,” says one 27-year-old woman. “Because we’re already fighting against so much, we should be more supportive of each other.”

As for what constitutes a “breach” of girl code, life coach Vicki Bahra, 30, tells me: “For me it’s anything that brings another woman down, whether it be bad mouthing, not supporting their business, stealing ideas or having bad intentions.”

Of course, women shouldn’t go after their friends’ exes, or do any of the other aforementioned things that could be considered a girl code violation. But men also probably shouldn’t pursue their ex’s friends. By framing the former in girl code terms – as opposed to just “being a bit of a d***”, as one person described it to me – aren’t we giving people something else to weaponise against women when that code is broken? Because when a breach of girl code becomes a so-called feud that pits two women against one another, you have to question who this code is really benefiting. Spoiler: it’s not the girls.

Girl code philosopher Gretchen Weiners (Lacey Chabert) alongside Regina (Rachel McAdams) and Karen (Amanda Seyfried) in ‘Mean Girls’ (Shutterstock)
Girl code philosopher Gretchen Weiners (Lacey Chabert) alongside Regina (Rachel McAdams) and Karen (Amanda Seyfried) in ‘Mean Girls’ (Shutterstock)

In 2023, it’s not helpful to attach a gender to bad behaviour, particularly not within the context of heterosexual relationships. There are other, far more beneficial, ways to encourage kindness and mutual respect between female friends. “I personally see it more as friend code or loyalty code,” says Vicky Borman, 44. “My best friends are men and women and we all have codes that we follow but it’s just about being a decent person and doing the right thing.”

Alexandra Watson, 44, agrees that it can be damaging to subscribe to the girl code tenets. “I just try to treat others as I want to be treated,” she explains. “I try to teach my young daughter to be the same with her pals. I try to explain to her that we expect people to behave like us but sometimes they fail. However, just like me, she’s also setting boundaries and learning to move away from friends if they continually let her down.”

Today, it’s arguably more important than ever that women are supporting one another. But that doesn’t have to mean subscribing to any kind of “code”, especially not if an incidental byproduct of that code is misogyny. No. It’s about showing respect, understanding one another, and crucially, allowing room for nuance in all circumstances. It’s not just about “like, the rules of feminism”.