GIRLI Is Using Pop Music To Create A Massive Shift In How We Talk About Gender

Photo: Courtesy of Girli.
The U.K. turns out a kind of female pop star that is uniquely different from those in the U.S. From Kate Bush to the Spice Girls to Lily Allen to M.I.A., there's a history of off-kilter, feminist, and saucy women redefining pop music and using terminology that pushes at the Western idea of feminine, mercilessly. GIRLI, the stage name adopted by 19-year-old Londoner Milly Toomey, is the next iteration of an outspoken and unique female pop artist. Except, maybe don't stick her in the traditionally feminine box because she reserves the right to push at the boundaries of gender norms.
Below, GIRLI speaks to Refinery29 about pansexuality, redefining the idea of "girl," and the responsibility that pop stars take on when they address a generation of fans.
Refinery29: How do you identify yourself?
GIRLI: "I identify myself as a pansexual female, but today there are so many different terms to describe who you are. It's really important to get them right, but I think we can get bogged down in them, specifically with respect to sexuality. When people ask about my sexuality, I tell them that I just like people. With gender, right now I identify as a woman, but what does that even mean? Is that what I say, who I am? Right now I feel like a woman, but that may change. Some days, I'm like 'fuck it, I don't feel like a woman or a man.'"
When you write a song like "Girls Get Angry Too," is that a rebuke of someone telling you how girls should act?
"Yeah, definitely. It's such a travesty but when women and men are raised to adhere to certain characteristics. Boys are raised to not show emotion, to be tough, to be strong, and not to wear certain colors or makeup. Girls are raised to be pretty and quiet, to not do physical activities, to not get muddy or messy. That is something I tapped into in my music, because it bothers me. Sometimes, I I feel really, really angry or sad. As a woman, I feel I've been raised, not by my parents by society, to express it in a certain way. While boys aren't allowed to express their emotions."
Do you think you, or by extension your generation, are seeing and talking about gender differently than previous generations?
"I think there has definitely been a massive shift with my generation. Because of the internet, being on Twitter and Instagram, there is a lot of conversation. I have friends who identify as nonbinary, I have trans friends. When I talk to my parents, who are open and love everyone for who they are, they are confused when I tell them, 'That friend doesn't want to be referred to as she, but they.' Or explaining that my friend who used to be a boy is now a girl to my mom, who wants to know what that even means. My parents weren't raised with those terms around. You have to allow the older generation time to learn. It's like my grandma not knowing what a smartphone is, you know? That said, it's great to have social media so the next generation are able to talk about these things. For example, so many people on Twitter put in their bio their gender identification. That is something that would have been unheard of 20 years ago! I think it's so great to have that representation now."
You've said you like to write music that gets a reaction out of people. With "Girl I Met on the Internet," do you think playing with gender norms and sexuality in music like that you still get a reaction or upset people?
"That is an interesting one. Sometimes I'll put songs out, like 'Hot Mess' or 'Girl Gang,' where I make a video that challenges people, to make them feel upset by it but then question what is upsetting. Because I'm actually talking about feminism or gender or whatever. With 'Girl I Met on the Internet,' it was a love song basically. It was me saying that I want to meet a girl to go out with, so it was fascinating to see a song that was not meant to provoke people [or] weird them out. I didn't get any abuse about it online, other than a few comments I ignored. It was less people being homophobic, but more like — I had an interview with a certain magazine, and they called it a song about a platonic relationship with a friend I hung out with for a night. I was like, what do you mean? It's clearly about wanting to have a girlfriend! I was talking to someone who was so used to straight relationships that they immediately thought if I was singing about a girl, it must be just about making friends. I want to challenge people. I want to say about that song, this is about me not being straight and liking girls too. And I want to have them react by understanding that homosexual relationships can be exactly the same as hetero relationships. To understand that I can feel the exact same way about someone!"
As a pop star and a public figure who also identifies as a pansexual woman, do you feel like people put a lot of obligation on you to explain what that means and how to address you?
"I used to be involved in politics, and I've always been opinionated. For me, when I started making music it felt really natural to put my feelings in it. I love making people think, and I feel like actually when you are a public figure with a certain following that people are looking to what you're saying, what sort of message is in your videos and shows. I think there is a certain responsibility to educate. When 14-year-old kids go to a concert, they're probably going to listen more to the artist than their teacher in school. Music is an escape, a rebellion at that age. If my music is what they're going to listen to, I feel like I have to say things that are important and not be careless. You forget how many people you can make an impression on. I really enjoy that responsibility and I think it's important.
Gender and sexual orientation are both highly personal and constantly evolving. So, in honor of Transgender Awareness Week, we're talking about the importance of language and raising the voices of the LGBTQIA community. Welcome to Gender Nation, where gender is defined by the people who live it. Want to learn more? Check out our Gender Nation glossary.
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