As a millennial, I feel like a visitor, not a participant, in the strange digital world of TikTok. I have seen VSCO girls and WitchTok and frog TikTok and regarded it with the kind of puzzled bemusement that says more about me (I’m getting older, death approaches) than people younger than me. But, earlier this summer, I found a TikTok trend I couldn’t get out of my head: The “bruh girls.” 

Bruh girls are the ying to the “hiii girl” yang. A hiii girl, or “pleading eye” girl, is basically a girly-girl, and a bruh girl is her tomboy counterpart, so named because they call their friends “bruh.” Many popular videos compare the two girls: a hii girl is flirty and delicate, whereas a bruh girl is a chaos agent who doesn’t wash her face before bed and slouches in a hoodie eating Cheetos. 

But I felt something creeping below all this, something I didn’t like: A bruh girl is down. A bruh girl isn’t afraid to have fun. A bruh girl (and this comes up a lot in the TikToks) goes tubing when she goes to the lake. A hiii girl, on the other hand, sits on the beach and looks pretty but also looks pretty boring. Oh no, I realized, she was back

The cool girl. The narrator of Avril Lavigne’s “Sk8er Boy,” the Taylor Swift character with blonde hair in “You Belong With Me.” The girl who doesn’t adhere to traditional expectations but is also, because of that, is more desirable—to men. Haven’t we moved beyond this? 

And so I went from visitor to the museum of Gen Z to investigator. I messaged a few of the creators of the most popular bruh girl videos to hear, in their words, what it means. 

The first thing I learned is that, like with VSCO girls, bruh girls aren’t going around identifying as such in real life. 

TikToker Emma Dilemma’s bruh girl video took off for two reasons: she combined a new trend (bruh girls) with an older trend (a “choose your fighter” video game set-up).

For her, bruh girls and hiii girls represent exactly what I suspected: girly vs. tomboys. While Emma’s video depicted her as a bruh girl, she says she doesn’t really see herself as either one, but instead prefers to “do her own thing.” For her, video challenges around bruh girls and similar identities like VSCO girls and e-girls are ways to connect with people with similar interests. Maybe, I wondered, I was imposing my own millennial viewpoint on this trend: Maybe it’s not about being the girl-next-door male fantasy after all. But when I raised the point that bruh girls reminded me of the blonde version of Taylor Swift, who ultimately gets the guy, where the brown-haired hii girl is the villain, she said it was a “perfect example.” 

Other hints of the bruh girl being the right girl lurk in TikToks. Bruh girls have a better taste in music, a better sense of humor, and don’t need to take 30 minutes to get ready or 20 selfies to post one Snapchat.  “Put a finger down” challenges act like a kind of digital “Never Have I Ever”: someone lists off traits and people can use the audio to make their own videos, putting down fingers if the statements apply to them. 

For all the “put a finger down” challenges about bruh girls, I was only able to find one for hiii girls, and the creator basically acknowledged she was making it because she couldn’t find any others. No one really wants to be a hiii girl.

@zaniahsimss

I made one since I didn’t see any for them🙈✨ #higirl #hiiigirl #foryoupage #fyp

♬ Cochise ㅤ Hatchback - danielmoment

This is where I have to admit some of my sensitivity might come into play. Yes, I am opposed to misogynist stereotypes and unrealistic ideals set for women. But also, I’m probably a hiii girl. I mean, I am a total klutz who probably looks like a bruh girl when eating wings or getting something off a shelf. But I also love all the things that make hiii girls hiii maintenance. I love make-up and skincare. I like pop music just fine. I wear mostly dresses. In non-pandemic times, I almost always have a manicure. I had spent so much of my teen years feeling like I was the kind of girl that girls talked about when they said they would rather be friends with guys. I’m far past feeling defensive, but I did feel kind of bummed: Wouldn’t another generation of women be able to avoid my mistakes? 

Then I got a message from Maddy Zukes, another creator behind a popular bruh girl video.

@maddyzukes

I don’t know why I didn’t let go before my face slapped the water. #fyp #bruhgirl #tubing #wipeout #blackeye

♬ Bruh girls - adamabdo_

Maddy explains that, to her, it’s two ways of categorizing people, like introvert vs. extrovert. Maddy herself appears to be closer to the “hiii girl” category, explaining that she gets “pretty scared” tubing but her sister loves it. While she describes bruh girls as “outgoing and brave” and hii girls as “reserved and feminine,” she says ultimately you can “learn to be both or be content knowing you are one!” 

It was only when Maddy made the introvert-extrovert comparison did something click for me: People may say they’re an introvert but (hopefully) it’s not their entire identity. And, of course, we can have fun with these descriptors as well: Millennials are famous for claiming to be huge dumpsters of trash or just “baby,” but (also hopefully) we’re not actually basing our personality on it. 

These “meme personalities” like bruh girl and “Heather” also may be playing a larger role for these creators. Dr. Drew Cingel, a communications professor at U.C. Davis who studies adolescents and technology, says that social platforms like TikTok can allow teens to experiment with their personalities. 

“Adolescence is a time of identity development and exploration,” he says. “And not just today’s adolescents, but our generation, our parent’s generation, our grandparents' generation…. You’re figuring out who you are, your role in the world, and who you aren’t.” 

For teens who grew up less online, we might have tried on new clothes or hobbies or tastes in music, but our experiments were done around people who knew us. Digital platforms give far more room to play, and at much greater speed.

While Cingel doesn’t study TikTok specifically (nor did he know what a bruh girl was until I had the pleasure of informing him), I could see how these kinds of memes are fun, but also perhaps doing something more. I have seen bruh girls in make-up and hoodies in a kind of high-fashion look that struck me as both highly feminine and highly masculine. Some bruh girls evoke a kind of cool ‘90s grunge look, while others just wear baggy shorts and t-shirts. At first, I thought bruh girls were such a broad category because it was largely oppositional: They’re NoT LiKe OtHeR GiRlS. But the elasticity of the definition offers something more than that: A way for young women to recognize the parts of themselves that don’t feel traditionally feminine and experiment with how it fits into their personalities. 

 And, because it's 2020 and not 2007 (when I was a teen), the concept is morphing at top speed. It felt subversive the first time I saw a meme that twisted the “You Belong with Me” lyrics to mean the two girls are realizing they’re actually in love. It took me only a few minutes to find an example of a queer reading of the “pleading eyes” girl and the bruh girl in a couple in CW’s Wynona Earp.

I found Tiktoks and tweets where bruh girls said they were dating “pleading eyes” guys, and side-by-sides of the same person as both a bruh and a hiii girl.

There were even tweets celebrating Sam and Cat (from Sam & Cat) as a depiction of the ideal “bruh and hii girl” friendship.

It would be overreaching to say that bruh girls memes and TikToks are subversive. But they’re not rigid categories about “right” and “wrong” kinds of girl like I thought, either. (And I wasn’t alone—bruh girls aren’t getting a lot of coverage, and what little has been written about them dismisses them as misogynistic.) 

When I’m feeling generous, I see it as a way to figure out how you do (or don’t) relate to femininity. After all, this generation didn’t invent these roles and characteristics. Learning how you fit (and don’t fit) into the world is part of growing up. If figuring out what kind of bruh girl you are is part of that, too, then I say go for it, bruh.