Jada Pinkett Smith and Gloria Steinem arrive at the Make Equality Reality Gala in Beverly Hills, California in 2013.Dan Steinberg / AP

On Wednesday, as part of its ongoing series on “The Changing Lives of Women,” NPR got a hashtag going. Not #wcw—the shorthand for Woman Crush Wednesday, a weekly, be-hashtagged celebration of notable women, both famous and less so—but a much more specific one: #grownladycrush. The idea, as NPR explained it, was to highlight “amazing older women on Twitter today.” And the results of this effort were pretty awesome:

And

And

The subtext of all this celebration, of course, was the fact that older women—“grown ladies,” in NPR’s (lightly) euphemistic parlance— are generally not celebrated in a culture that fetishizes youth. Crushes, today, are generally associated with, and perhaps also wasted on, the young.

NPR’s hashtag was a playful effort to change that. But it was also part of a larger transition, one that has to do with the be-hashtagging of “crush” itself. #Grownladycrush is a more specific iteration of the #ladycrush, and also of the #girlcrush, and also of the #mancrush, and also of the #boycrush, all of which are in turn iterations of the more basic #crush.

There’s an irony, implicitly, to all of these hashtagged declarations of affinity and attraction. A real crush, pretty much by definition, isn’t something to be shared so publicly. A #crush, though—the hashtag there doing the work that a hashtag always will, which is to create and convene a community—is meant to be shared. #Crush (and also #____crush) are powerful as declarations precisely because they’re not strictly romantic. They’re taking the basic, familiar sense of the crush—giddy, giggly attraction to someone—and, by publicizing it and amending it, broadening its basic meaning.

So while the crush may be a long-standing feature of human nature (“Wintie is weeping because her crush is gone,” Isabella Maud Rittenhouse wrote in her journal in 1884), the #crush, as a proclamation, is a product and a reflection of the digital age. Particularly when caveated and categorized—#ladycrush, #mancrush, #grownladycrush, etc., etc.—it suggests the range of human experience that the Internet itself implies. And it also suggests that the basic elements of a crush (omg, she is SO AWESOME) are just as valid, and maybe even more valid, when it comes to broader forms of attraction: from simple appreciation to the ardent sense that other people can be really great.

Which is also to say #ladycrush and all its forms are essentially reclaiming the crush from the realm of the sexual. They’re gently, and optimistically, political. They’re descriptive, but they’re also aspirational.  

And that’s another element of digital crush: It’s an extension, in a way, of another hashtagged declaration: #goals. #Squadgoals, #relationshipgoals, #stylegoals, and the like are ultimately about admiration. Similarly, the object of a #girlcrush, often—especially when the crush-haver is a fellow girl—is someone who, in some sense, you want to become. (“I have a girl crush on a girl from a band,” Urban Dictionary puts it in its top example of the phrase. “she can sing, she’s GORGEOUS, she’s doing an awesome degree and she's intelligent. i want to BE her.”) The Little Big Town song “Girl Crush,” significantly, is not in the vague manner of Katy Perry, but in the vague manner of Single White Female:

Hate to admit it but
I got a heart rush
Ain’t slowing down
I got it real bad
Want everything she has

Same thing with #grownladycrush. Which carries the added sense of mentorship and respect for the wisdom that comes with age. A sense of push-back against the currently popular idea of generational flattening. And there’s a more gendered push-back, too: against, basically, the status quo. In a time of Lean In and Lenny Letter and billboards blaring FEMINISM, women are coming together, more and more, to celebrate each others’ awesomeness. The #ladycrush, as it defines itself against sex, also defines itself against sexism.

You could certainly also, if you wanted to, read a little bit of gay panic in all this crush-caveating. “Ladycrush” and “mancrush” and the like, qualified as they are, go out of their way to make clear that the crush in question is not, you know, a crush-crush. It’s not about sex, okay? the phrase insists. There’s a whiff, perhaps, of insistent #nohomo to the whole thing. The narrator of “Girl Crush,” after confiding that she wants “everything” the object of her crush has, makes clear that the “everything” includes the crushee’s boyfriend.

For the most part, though, the #crush and its variations are productively inclusive. They insist that the crush’s seductions, soft and sweet and swoony, are an equal-opportunity affair. That generality isn’t a new thing, necessarily: As Cole Porter put it in 1929, “I’ve got such a crush on you / My heart’s in a state of stew” ... and, really, who among us hasn’t experienced a stew-state? But the semantic breadth of the “crush” is ultimately very much of the current moment. We’re living in a time that increasingly sees sexuality as a spectrum rather than an either/or proposition. A time when lines are blurring between friends and family, and between romance and friendship, and between childhood and adulthood. The crush, vague and largely universal, is a fitting concept for that time.

And so is the #crush. Which is, in the end, a celebration not of otherness, but of oneness. And a concept that is less about the isolation of a couple, and more about the possibilities of a community.

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