Gwyneth Paltrow’s 12-year-old daughter Apple appears to have a pretty powerful girl squad. Paltrow just shared a photo of a smiling Apple and friends at her birthday sleepover yesterday, which happened to include Beyoncé and Jay Z’s daughter Blue Ivy. Paltrow captioned it, “Birthday brunch squad #godsistersandbesties.” Totally adorable and harmless, right?
Actually, girl squads are a pretty hot topic lately. While 2015 was hailed as the year of #squadgoals, this year is the year of backlash against the girl squad. But here’s why many of the anti-squad critics are missing the point: We should be encouraging the next generation of girls to form strong female friendships, not discouraging them.
If you’re a bit confused about what this whole squad thing is about, that’s totally understandable. After all, the hashtag #squadgoals is thrown around so much these days, its meaning has become pretty diffuse. Girls and women are labeling everything from photos of themselves going to Starbucks to bikini-clad snapshots of themselves on spring break as their #squadgoals on social media. So, let’s take a look at the history of the girl squad to understand where this whole girl squad debate is springing from.
Taylor Swift popularized the idea of girl squads in 2015 on her 1989 tour, when she paraded a slew of powerful celeb friends on stage with her, including Serena Williams, Kendall Jenner, Cara Delevingne and Gigi Hadid. Initially, Swift was praised by media outlets such as the New York Times, who called her girl squad “a public service announcement for the healing powers of female friendship.” But intense backlash quickly followed. Those familiar with the controversial Camille Paglia’s writing weren’t surprised when she led the charge against Swift’s girl squad, absurdly insisting that Swift was an “obnoxious Nazi Barbie.” Paglia wrote that the pop star’s “twinkly persona is such a scary flashback to the fascist blondes who ruled the social scene during [her] youth.”
Calling Swift a Nazi is obviously offensive and ridiculous, but some of Paglia’s sentiments were echoed by many bloggers who wrote that Taylor Swift’s squad embodied the “mean girl” cliques of their own youth. Others insisted that Taylor’s squad of long-legged blondes looked more like an elite cult and criticized the star for not being inclusive enough. And some made a very valid criticism of the #squadgoals movement in general, which is that like most things white people think are cool, the notion of the “squad” has its roots in black culture and many people are totally unaware of that (which is not OK).
But here’s the thing: When we talk about girl squads these days, we’re referring to groups of female friends. To say that there’s something inherently wrong with girl squads is like saying that there’s something inherently wrong with girls. Media often depicts friendships among girls as cruel, unstable and vicious, especially during adolescence. And while they absolutely can be, it’s not because girls are girls — it’s because girls are human. Girl squads are often called out for being exclusive, but like all human beings, girls form cliques because there’s a scientific cap on the number of close friends we can have at a time (it’s five). To form tight-knit groups of friends is human, so why are we punishing girls for it?
Those who dismiss the girl squad movement altogether often focus exclusively on the negative side of friendship, forgetting how important to self-confidence and identity formation female friendships can be as we grow up. Paltrow is right to encourage her daughter to form a close-knit group of friends. Are those girls going to grow up to be mean girls or nice to one another? Who knows, but what’s important is that they’re encouraged to form bonds with one another in the first place.