Up From Bimboism
Feminism under the iron law of vibe shifts and the mandatory fun of online irony.
Anyone can be an anthropologist when they go online. It is very easy to confuse the internet for a vast wilderness, gnarled with flora and untouched by the numbing habits of civilized life. Without leaving their futon, these would-be ethnographers may engage in “field work,” clicking across subcultures, extrapolating the mysteries of each one’s unique customs and language. Of course any explorer worth their salt is not merely applying a scientific system, but undertaking a monumental quest to find their own Noble Savage, an example of pure humanity to counter the defects of normie corruption. I should know, after all.
It is a habit to which we’ve become well accustomed. Every other week, it seems, a new quest-taker has brought to the court a new savage. Such is what many saw last week when Paris Review web editor Sophie Haigney took to the New York Times to unveil her own discovery. “In a messy period when many are trying to redefine feminism,” she begins in appropriately clinical fashion, “a wide variety of intriguing, occasionally fraught new iterations have come about.” The one variation she wishes to delineate for us is the bimbo.
This may seem strange, as the bimbo as a term and a concept is hardly new. It has, in fact, been around for a few decades at least. In the 1990s they “erupted” in dark money-funded press conferences and shady nude magazine deals across the nation. Before that they were endlessly preyed upon in Revenge of the Nerds or Friday the 13th sequels or in the pages of Bret Easton Ellis. In that era, “bimbo” was exclusively a pejorative curse imposed from without. Bimbos lacked substance, they were subservient to men and traitors to their sex. They reminded you of Karl Kraus’s famous aphorism: “A dog is loyal. But why should that make it an example to us? It’s loyal to man, not to other dogs.”
That much had been imparted by one of our most powerful arbiters of contemporary morals: The Simpsons. In the 1994 episode “Lisa vs. Malibu Stacy,” the show’s Barbie parody releases a new doll that speaks asinine catchphrases such as “Thinking gives you wrinkles” and “I wish they taught shopping in school.” Offended, Lisa takes it upon herself to create a doll with a more empowering message. When it proves to have real market potential, Malibu Stacy thwarts it by giving their original doll a new hat. Even so, Lisa Simpson takes a moral victory that seeps out into popular culture. Overachievement and competence were net positives, even if they were still subject to some comic relief, whether from Jessie Spano in Saved by the Bell, Buffy in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, or Tracy Flick in Election. Even with their faults these were real, admirable characters; if the bimbo existed at all in these worlds it was as a melodramatic, boy-retaining foil. If Brenda Walsh was not strictly a bimbo herself, she might as well have been.
But Haigney has found something else entirely in 2022: a world teeming with women for whom “bimbo” is something that emanates from within, and happily so. This world is largely TikTok-based. It also doesn’t come out of nowhere; it’s a logical reaction to recent disillusionments with the established feminine hierarchy. “Bimboism is the antithesis of the mode of feminism that was dominant in the 2010s,” Haigney contextualizes,
a kind of hyperambitious you-can-have-it-all feminism that can be summed up by the label “girlboss.” The girlboss was striving and succeeding in a male workplace; she was a female founder who also went to 6 a.m. yoga classes. She wore a chic dress and looked coiffed on Instagram. She was liberal and outspoken about her gender.
“BimboTok,” arose as a reaction to the “girlboss” and the pantsuit nation following a drift among younger internet users further to the left, rejecting the capitalist imperatives of “careerism and individualism,” a woman building her (f)empire and the exclusivity and suffocating whiteness these imperatives engendered. They also adopted a more ironic tone of voice, condemning as “cringe” the girlboss’s chipper positivity that masked her ruthless will to succeed. “No more Instagrams about rising and grinding. No more The Wing. No more straining to be smarter than the boys.” The bimbo of 2022 is valued for everything she isn’t: capable, reliable, driven, which is to say, she is not easily inhaled by corporate hegemony and will not willingly give her whole self to work twelve-hour days.
As a primary example of this new model bimbo, Haigney highlights the posts of Chrissy Chlapecka, a twenty-two-year-old Chicago comedian who has made a personal brand of the type. She dresses mostly in pink and wears her dyed hair in pigtails; she professes to be illiterate and to not know basic math. Her aesthetic seems to be something of a throwback: part nineties rave culture, part nineties sitcom conception of a special needs student. (I could not actually find those posts on her feed; she seems mostly to post about sex and dating, like everyone else.) Nevertheless, “Ms. Chlapecka’s tone is dripping with sarcasm and irony.”
“Playing the fool” is a far older tradition than the bimbo archetype itself. Erasmus perfected it with his 1515 satire In Praise of Folly. Jonathan Swift took it to such extremes that he still shocks today. Meanwhile, Daniel Defoe was so bad at it that he got arrested for it. St. Teresa of Ávila, more relevantly, may or may not have assumed a similar pose in her Life with her constant lamentations of her inexhaustible capacity for sin, either to appease her male confessors or to avert the scrutiny of the Inquisition. “Did Teresa really believe,” critic Alison Weber asks, “she was ‘the most wretched person on earth’ …? Or was self-deprecation the only self-referential language for women?” Haigney’s piece reiterates these questions. “For Ms. Chlapecka, her bimbo persona is a bit, but it’s also a bit serious: She really does want us to look at her boobs.” But, she concludes, “have you considered that you, too, could be a bimbo, and that it might be fun?”
“Fun” is relative, of course. It might be liberating for you to get out from under the constrictions of Leslie Knope-emulation; to never have the urge to lean-in, to mentor-shop, or to see “life” and “work” as things to be balanced. But spend enough time with bimboism, and with the many adjacent post-Obama internet subcultures, you might be bound to find it no less constricting. Irony is like the guacamole of internet rhetoric: lots of people seem to love it and will pay a little extra for it. But few know how to store it or forget that it’s there and it becomes a gray-brown abomination overnight. When exhibiting cringe tendencies goes out of fashion, those who are more naturally cringe will find pivoting to irony a severe handicap. Sometimes irony-posting is mandatory fun by another name.
If the archetype and the pose are not especially novel, the context in which they are presently being conjured certainly is. Haigney’s noble savage, whether she is aware of it or not, is colored by the vibe shift: that powerful, almost deterministic force that sways the direction of Peak Online culture. In Haigney’s conception, women have a very limited capacity within the vibe shift’s iron law, which dictates, evidently, that they cannot be more than one thing at a time. It’s almost Hegelian: that which is excellent must become bogus; she who was a boss bitch must then act the bimbo.
Men on the other hand live unrestricted by any vibe shift. For all intents and purposes, the vibes are in their capable hands. Take me for instance. I may wake up infused with Sigma Male energy; but by lunchtime I will have leveled-up to Based King, exalting that which my subconscious compels me to declare “lindy.” By nightfall things even back out and I assume himbo mode: my mind rested by simple himbo thoughts; my sleep unperturbed as I dream himbo dreams. I have no idea what any of these words mean. It is simply a matter of feeling, of inner-peace, and a lot of entitlement. The entitlement, for instance, to write well outside my own lane.
Where does that leave unapologetically competent, intelligent women with normal jobs and who are on social media because they have to be? And where, for that matter, does it leave the special ed waste cases (people like me) who are genuinely garbage at math and who sometimes can’t read good; or people who are otherwise prone to ditziness, clumsiness, and occasional lapses of intellectual acuity as if by some cosmic fiat? Hard to say, from the looks of it. Some may be too busy to actually notice a change at all. Others may be too oblivious (or too secretly savvy to be online all the time). But for the cyber-sensitive who are presently suffering, they may hold out for a new trend to appear, or bimbo backlash at the very least. In the meantime, there is always a new Ottessa Moshfegh novel and plenty of episodes of The Ultimatum to binge. God gave us Goblin Mode for a reason.