- Words Meg Walters
There's a new type emerging into our cultural landscape – the Sally Rooney Girl.
You’ve probably seen her around. Maybe at the local farmer’s market, a tote bag slung over her shoulder, an iced coffee in hand. Or maybe in the park, where her phone is claiming slightly more time than the freshly purchased book in her lap. Or maybe at the pub on a Friday evening, drinking wine by the bottle and talking a little too loudly about indie films, vintage clothes or unrequited love. There’s a new type emerging into our cultural landscape – the Sally Rooney Girl.
While you don’t necessarily need to be a Sally Rooney fangirl to be a Sally Rooney Girl, let’s face it: you know who you are, and you probably watched Normal People at least twice, making a beeline for Daunt Books as soon as Beautiful World, Where Are You? hit the shelves last year. And you’re almost certainly in a state of rabid excitement about the new Hulu/BBC TV adaption of Conversations with Friends, hitting our screens on Sunday 15th May.
Who is she? She’s smart, but not stuffy. She’s pretty, but not conventional. She’s introverted, but not unpopular. She’s stylish, but not in an obvious, fast fashion kind of way. She’s a little basic, but would never believe it herself. And she seems to be turning up everywhere these days — both on and off the page and screen.
The cult of Sally Rooney is, by now, a well-established phenomenon. The hype surrounding the new Rooney series — Conversations with Friends, based on the author’s first book — is only the latest in a long line of Rooney moments.
Conversations with Friends, released in 2017, sold almost 78,000 copies in the space of two years. Her second book, Normal People, took home the 2019 Costa Book Award, was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize and soon became a sort of Instagram status symbol. When the TV adaptation of Normal People was released in 2020, the cult of Rooney reached new heights and the series became the BBC’s most-streamed series of all time. Sales of the book skyrocketed. Paul Mescal’s chain went viral, even birthing its own dedicated Instagram page with 154k loyal followers. The feverish Rooney obsession continued in 2021, when Rooney’s third novel, Beautiful World, Where Are You? instantly leapt to the top of UK book charts, with Sally Rooney Girls queuing at bookshops to snap up over 40,000 copies in the first five days.
These queues brought Sally Rooney Girls out of the Twittersphere and into the real world where something became abundantly clear: fans of Rooney almost exclusively fit into a certain type. In fact, they look and sound an awful lot like her characters. They have (to make a few generalisations): a fringe, a well-loved tote bag (probably from a book store, art gallery, or local vintage shop), a book that is both a critical hit and imposingly intellectual, a playlist that contains a lot of Phoebe Bridgers, Wet Leg and Mitzki, and, of course, a dose of existential Millennial ennui.
So, why have Millennials suddenly homogenised into this gaggle of tote bag carrying, vintage-wearing, book-touting, fringe-sporting Sally Rooney Girls?
Of course, the Salley Rooney Girl hasn’t come out of nowhere. There was a time when the Manic Pixie Dream Girl dominated our screens — and her influence eventually bled onto the streets; there were Peter Pan collars, Anthropologie headbands, coloured tights and ballet flats everywhere you looked.
Sally Rooney Girl is, in many ways, the new version of this phenomenon — she has emerged out of the ashes of 500 Days of Summer, older, cooler, and a little more cynical. But, in many ways, she is the same girl she always was. Unlike her predecessor, Sally Rooney Girl is not ‘cute’ or ‘quirky’ — but, she is a not-like-the-other-girls girl who is fast becoming a staple figure in our culture. The go-to ‘relatable’ female lead who is shy but approachable; reserved yet confident in her intelligence. In addition to the characters in the Rooney adaptations, we’ve seen versions of her in the Norwegian movie, The World Person in the World and in Phoebe Waller Bridge’s smash hit TV show, Fleabag, to name just a few.
Like the Manic Pixie Dream Girl before her, Sally Rooney Girl isn’t just interested in dressing and acting like the women she relates to on the page and screen — she’s yearning to live a specific lifestyle. In this case, a lifestyle that is echoed in the work of Rooney. For a large subset of Millenial women, it seems, Rooney’s work encapsulates something distinctive about the Millennial experience. After all, The New York Times once dubbed her “the first great Millennial author”.
One writer for Vox suggested that the reason for Rooney’s Millenial appeal might be the fact that her books perfectly straddle intellectualism and fun. “She is a signifier of a certain kind of literary chic,” wrote journalist Constance Grady. “If you read Sally Rooney, the thinking seems to go, you’re smart, but you’re also fun — and you’re also cool enough to be suspicious of both ‘smart’ and ‘fun’ as general concepts.”
This dichotomy of ‘smart’ and ‘fun’ is a key part of the Millennial experience. After growing up alongside the rise of the internet, Millenials are uniquely placed in their relationship with pop culture and media. We remember the slower days of devouring a book in one sitting or of watching one episode of a TV show per week. Simultaneously, we are deeply in sync with pop culture — particularly that of the early 2000s, which was, in a word, fun. The generation rejects the idea that being smart or thoughtful means sacrificing the superficiality of pop culture and the digital world, because our upbringing taught us to be both.
The Rooney books, their characters and the author herself lend themselves to this new brand of fun intellectualism and even give us a blueprint of how to pull it off.
But it isn’t only the dichotomy between intellectual depth and aesthetic shallowness (present in both the content and structure of Rooney’s work) that appeals to Millenials. Rooney also speaks to the pervasive feeling of displacement and dissociation that flows through the generation. Unlike our parents before us, there is a prevalent sense of anchorlessness. While our parents seemed to have thriving careers, families, homes and savings accounts by the time they hit 30, for Milennials, the prospect of ‘getting it all together’ has begun to feel increasingly out of reach.
Rooney’s work perfectly captures this feeling of being adrift in the modern world. Her characters are, almost universally, struggling to find a sense of belonging.
Usually, they uncover some semblance of it through the jolt of recognition that comes from friendship or love. In Conversations with Friends, two young women, previously lovers but now pals, become entangled with a couple in their early 30s. In Normal People, there is Marianne, the intelligent loner who finds an unlikely kindred spirit in the popular, soulful, somewhat directionless Connell. In Beautiful World, Where Are You?, both Alice and Eileen, best friends since university, share similar undercurrents of existential dissatisfaction. Alice is a successful writer who, with legions of new fans, feels more alone than ever, while Eileen feels aimless at work and is presented as being more and more disconnected from the social charade playing out around her. It is only by sending out long epistolary emails to each other and engaging in unexpected love affairs that they find a sense of true connection and purpose.
For Rooney’s characters, there is always something lacking. She perfectly captures the eerie feeling that you are watching your life unfold through a two-way mirror. As she writes in Normal People, “Marianne had the sense that her real life was happening somewhere very far away, happening without her, and she didn’t know if she would ever find out where it was and become part of it.” Despite their fierce friendships and romances, various passions, and fun social lives, her characters are, ultimately, deeply lonely.
There is a new cultural type on the scene, but for the Sally Rooney Girl, the fringe, the tote bag, the stylish vintage clothes and the newly bought books aren’t merely about following cultural trends. Rather, they have all become a way of proudly (and perhaps somewhat subconsciously) proclaiming her connection to ‘fun intellectualism’ and the innately Millenial feeling of being adrift. While she may be something of a cultural clone, Sally Rooney Girl reflects the mood of a generation. Spot her (and her tote bag) at book shops for years to come.