Identity

The Teen Girl World of Girlcon

London's first convention for teenage girls featured feminist art, gender-neutral toilets, and a tribute to Zayn Malik. We went with photographer Steph Wilson to document the scene.

by Zing Tsjeng
Aug 3 2015, 8:00pm

Photos by Steph Wilson

"Can we have a one-minute silence for Zayn?" a 19-year-old in a floral dress yelled across the room. In a lot of ways, London's first convention for teenage girls was exactly how you'd expect. Until you take into account that a day earlier, the same teenager was at a panel on ethical makeup, solemnly laying out the complications of buying genuinely cruelty-free lipstick. "Of course," they'd said, "there is no such thing as conscious consumerism under capitalism."

Girlcon is a two-day community event organized by and for teenage girls, though its inaugural invite also extended to "non-binary folk" and young women. Over two days, dozens of teenagers descended on the MayDay Rooms in London, a Fleet Street community space better known for producing anarchist newsletters, to take part in discussions on selfies, mental health, zine making, and all-around teen existence.

On arrival, everyone meticulously wrote their name in colored felt-tip on sticky labels, along with their preferred gender pronouns: "she/her" or "they/them." There were gender-neutral toilets. Panelists, who ranged from a 15-year-old schoolgirl activist to a 23-year-old YouTube vlogger, dutifully introduced themselves with their chosen pronouns, too. At one point, a fan of The Craft on the witchcraft panel had a crisis of confidence and apologized to any self-identified practitioners of magic who might be offended by her appropriation of their culture.

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The kind of generous sensitivity on display would have made Camille Paglia spit. But for attendees who have grown up on Tumblr politics and Twitter feminism, Girlcon was like the second coming. By the end of the weekend, even Paglia would have been seduced by a world in which queer teens, goths, and girls with Manic Panic-dyed hair sat cross-legged on the floor, trading tips on how to handle anxiety attacks and making half-earnest jokes about how Hermione Granger was the "ultimate problematic fave."

"I kind of forget there are people our age who disagree with feminism and are transphobic and stuff," said Kate Litman, an 18-year-old dressed in all black and lace-up boots. "I always think I am [a typical teenager], because I surround myself with people like me. Then you meet someone my age who's like, 'Yeah, I hate feminism.' And I'm like, I thought that was only old people?"

Aside from school common rooms and Taylor Swift concerts, there aren't many spaces outside a sleepover that teenage girls are meant to comfortably occupy. Most of the attendees had heard of the convention through Tumblr or Twitter, and they found in Girlcon somewhere to treat the lighthearted stuff of teen-dom with grown-up seriousness.

A talk on fangirls descended into intense debate over the ethical implications of shipping various members of One Direction. A speaker on a selfie panel spoke movingly about using their webcam to document their existence as an androgynous teenager. And if you ever want life-affirming evidence that arts education is not dead, I strongly recommend sitting in a room with 18-year-olds staring raptly at a Powerpoint presentation on feminist art and carefully noting down the names of Carrie Mae Weems, Jenny Holzer, and Juliana Huxtable.

"I think a lot of [us] would say Tumblr was their awakening," said Sumner Howrie, a queer 18-year-old with an acid green quiff. "I don't want to say people shit on teenagers a lot, but people talk a lot about teens being more disconnected, more online."

"What I think it really means is that teenagers are able to be themselves more than ever before. In a pre-internet era, if you wanted to have friends you had to put up with the people in your hometown," they continued. "My hometown has a population of around 200; I'd have a rough time with that. When the real world feels like it's not on your side, Tumblr is there for you."

Or, as a slim 17-year-old in hijab and acid-wash jeans informed me as we queued for the toilets, "Facebook isn't cool. Tumblr: yes. Instagram: yes. Twitter: yes."

The co-founder of Girlcon, Anna Hill, had organized the event as their gap year project on a £500 budget allocated from a youth volunteering charity. For them, Girlcon wasn't just a "lovely thing to give the world"--it also offered a moment of personal revelation.

"I realised that I prefer using they/them pronouns," they said. "It took me ages to get to there because I was never given the space to ever consider what pronouns I use." (For the record, the thoughtful 19-year-old was also the one who called for a minute of silence for Zayn.)

By the end of the convention, Hill was exhausted but ecstatic. Three girls from the North of England who had traveled down for the day promised to do a Girlcon in Lincoln; another proposed a similar event in New Zealand.

"I definitely think teen girls are maligned in society," Hill said. "Teen girls are one of the biggest creators of culture: We spend the money that makes people popular, rich, and famous. Simon Cowell's empire is built on the backs of teenage girls!"

"They're so good at exploiting us, then turning around and being like, 'Teenage girls are disgusting,'" they continued. "I think everyone's scared of teenage girls, because look!" They gestured at the last remaining attendees of Girlcon, laughing and smiling as they trickled onto Fleet Street. "If we knew how much we could do, we'd be a force to be reckoned with."