As a grown-up college-kid, it’s a rite of passage to graduate from high school and mock the subgroups of my generation who are struggling through the same phases of adolescence I conquered just a few years ago. One high school diploma and one college orientation later, and the same adolescent antics that used to carry so much significance in my life — making YouTube makeup tutorials and taking selfies with my friends on our laptop cameras — seem laughable now. It’s easy to forget that I was once part of that middle-school aged faction of Gen Z-ers — the group that carries an incessant need to part their hair in the middle and treats keeping Snapchat streaks like it’s a humanitarian duty.
Yet, despite my most enthusiastic attempts to separate myself from this part of my generation, its e-boy/e-girl counterparts have made an undoubtedly impressive impact on today’s 21st century digital sphere — I’m talking about TikTok. One 15-second video clip at a time, they’ve converted the app from its originally irrelevant, adolescent status to a global phenomenon encompassing both mainstream and countercultural movements. With Gen Z’s influence, TikTok has become a kind of post-Tumblr entity, integrating countercultural trends into today’s mainstream media realm and promoting a culture of inclusivity for today’s middle school-aged folks.
In middle school, I was never an active user of Tumblr. I existed in that short-lived and agreeable time somewhere between when the hyper-grunge Tumblr community was created and the lip-biting TikTok crowd was formed. I didn’t feel the need, nor have the curiosity, to explore anything subcultural in nature. During that time, my friends and I had no way to tap into the moody counterculture spirit that typifies today’s “e-boys and e-girls” because the only social media we had at our disposal, truly, was Pinterest and Instagram.
But today’s middle-schoolers are immersing themselves in TikTok’s digital space in a way I could have never imagined when I was in middle school. After you scroll past the worrisome amount of clips made by 15-year-old girls “whipping” and “shooting” in sweatpants and not much else, you’ll soon find the great, emo presence of our favorite e-boys and e-girls: Gen Z’s current producers of mainstream counterculture.
Noteably androgynous in their appearance, e-adolescents, regardless of their gender, have slowly motivated a resurgence of all things counterculture into the mainstream media. They’re giving great power to an app once deemed by many, myself included, as juvenile nonsense, and, because of this, it becomes harder to mock and make fun of them and their mega-influential e-posse. Call it cringe, call it weird, call it odd; their TikTok content is still making waves in 21st century media culture.
The e-girl puts the style into being sad; she is misunderstood in the coolest way. Her doe eyes shine through layers of jet-black winged eyeliner. Legend has it her neck has never seen the light of day due to the abundance of turtlenecks she has in her wardrobe.
The e-boy is her playful, middle-parted counterpart. Ears pierced. Nails painted. He makes us question what we once found so appealing about Zac Efron’s eight-pack and Channing Tatum’s gorilla-like shoulders.
Under their reign as TikTok royalty, e-boys and e-girls have introduced to us a new kind of cultural appeal, particularly for young men. Hegemonic masculinity doesn’t mean the same thing it did five years ago. With their dimpled cheeks, feminine bone structure and aesthetic rebellion against gender expectations, guys like Timothée Chalamet and Harry Styles are our championed e-boys. They demonstrate that there’s something unattractively insecure about toxic masculinity and present the notion that flexible gender presentation can extend beyond the limitations of subcultural phenomenon and find itself integrated into mainstream trends.
Though counterculture and all of the moody tropes it promotes have occupied a steady presence throughout the decades in its multiple forms, Tumblr posts, Urban Outfitters clothing and Indie music alike, it has never before been given a platform as far-reaching and ultra-popular as TikTok. A community that spans from flat-bellied middle school girls to hype beasts to washed up B-list celebrities, the Tik-Tok-sphere has brought countercultural content to its middle-school Gen Z audience, thus perpetuating the idea that it’s cool to challenge the status quo. It’s cool to lean into your own style regardless of gender expectations. It’s cool to be an e-person in whatever way you want. And that’s pretty cool.