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Girl, Is It Time to Axe the Girl Code?

The concept of girl code, or the counterpart “bros before hoes”, has been tossed around from our school days and permeates our adult relationships today. I had enthusiastically believed that the girl code was a feminist duty, creating loyalty and sisterhood amongst female friends. But the more I navigate the complexities of dating, relationships, and the ins and outs of friendships, I’ve started to question the concept of girl code. What does girl code even mean? Is it worth sticking to? Or is it heteronormative, reductionistic and outdated? This is my case for why our girl code memberships may need to be revoked, and why maybe Gretchen Wieners isn’t right about “the rules of feminism”.

My musings on girl code were inspired by a recent experience I had, which resulted in a falling out with someone I had considered to be a friend. We had gone to a gig together and I had talked to a boy that my friend had been talking to earlier in the evening. When we talked about it in the morning, and I attempted to rebuild what had been damaged in the previous night, I realised that “girl code” stops the conversation short and doesn’t honour or pay justice to resolving a relationship rupture. It also made me question just how culpable I was, and whether my actions turned me into an unfeminist, snakey, “guy's girl”. Something that I was admittedly quite afraid of being labelled as. My friend told me that she would never do that to someone, and that, for her, if her friend is talking to a boy, then he is automatically off limits for everyone else. Instead of being able to have an open discussion about our different perspectives, one small moment was able to derail a friendship that clearly didn’t have strong foundations.

My first qualm with the concept of girl code is that it is nearly impossible to define. Because these rules are unwritten, every single girl will have a different idea of what constitutes this code, and this results in conflicts, disagreements, and in extreme cases, permanent ruptures in relationships. These unwritten and unspoken rules that exist within groups of girls are also usually centered around heterosexual dating. For some, the girl code can be as strict as “if I talk to a boy at a party, he is completely off limits to all of my friends”. For someone else, it could be as broad as “I would expect my friends not to date my ex-boyfriend”. You never sit down and spell the code out; the only time this code usually comes up in conversation is if it’s been broken. Rules that fall into the girl code can be undeniably positive, such as rescuing a girl at the bar from the unwelcome advances from a man or making sure your friend gets home safely after a night out. I would argue those simply fall under common human decency and care. Girl code can be extremely unreasonable to some, like blindly siding with your friend after a breakup even though they may have been the one in the wrong. Or the strange idea that a bridesmaid can’t look “better” than a bride, with the bridesmaids intentionally being given ugly and unflattering dresses. Women are seen as each other's competition under the guise of sisterhood.

With girl code, it is assumed that everyone has the exact same morals as you, which is simply inaccurate, and even verges on being self-centred. All of us have different ways of existing in the world, we all have different boundaries, thresholds, and no-gos. Ideally, you would surround yourself with friends who are on the same wavelength as you when it comes to moral codes and values, but that’s not realistic, and often you only notice these differences after the friendship has already been established.

Though girl code exists under the guise of being “feminist” and pro-woman, it actually puts all of the onus on the woman in the equation. Guided by girl code, if your friend ends up talking to a guy that you “claimed” at a party, then that would be justification to place all the blame on her, without consideration that two people are operating in the scenario.

Don’t get me wrong, I love to see women supporting one another. I love when women expose cheating boyfriends on Instagram - it holds disrespectful partners accountable and is the right thing to do. I also believe that above all else, we need to be treating everyone how we ourselves would like to be treated. In my situation, I would understand my friend’s reaction if the boy in question had been an ex, or someone she had had a crush on for months. But this was a stranger who she had met that night. There were no prior emotions attached, but in the aftermath I felt like I had committed a crime comparable to hooking up with her ex in front of her face.

Girl code encourages women to dampen their desires or feelings with the main priority to stick to the code. It also removes agency from all parties, while focusing solely on one-size-fitsall heterosexual relationships. Journalist Moya Lothian-McLean describes it as “a fuzzy set of indeterminate rules that are used by women to police other women’s behaviour.” Girl code is used as a justification to write a friend off instead of trying to understand how the rupture has appeared, and why the lack of communication has caused the breakdown of the relationship. Is the extreme reaction from a friend actually caused by a bruised ego, old feelings of insecurity bubbling up, or the unpleasant experience of rejection?

When I realised I upset my friend, which was not my intention at all, I took her aside and we talked about it. I apologised in the aftermath and tried to hear her perspective, but I was also aware that I didn’t want to take an exorbitant amount of accountability to the extent I was feeling awful about myself. In trying to find that balance, that is when I began to rethink the concept of girl code. According to Olive Pometsey, “gendered etiquette rules such as girl code and ‘bros before hoes’ only perpetuate the idea that men and women are constantly at odds with each other, when really we should just be focused on doing the right thing”. Being able to have open, non-defensive, non-judgemental and empathetic conversations within friendships are vital, and should be highly prioritised over staunchly aligning with the outdated and short-sighted “girl code”.

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