It’s rare for a social-media meme to inspire a book title, but for Jessica Knoll the hashtag “lucky girl” captured something fundamental about TifAni FaNelli, the twentysomething acerbic, status-conscious, and very insecure protagonist in Knoll’s novel, Luckiest Girl Alive. To Knoll, who is 31 and a former editor at Self magazine, #luckygirl, which has been used over a million times on Instagram, is a commentary on the split self that pervades social networks.
“There’s the image we present to the world—where we have the perfect wardrobe, the perfect body, the perfect fiancé—but inside we are just miserable or harboring some dark secret. That’s Ani in a nutshell,” Knoll said in a telephone interview. In this way, #luckygirl reflects something deeper—and perhaps pernicious—in contemporary culture: the pressure young women feel to be “effortlessly perfect,” as a landmark 2003 Duke University study coined it. You have to have it all together, but don’t let them see you sweat.
Cosmopolitan.com opined that #luckygirl is “weirdly distancing in its annoying refusal to take any credit. It’s like the girl you graduated with who just explains her amazing job with a shrug: ‘I just got lucky.’” Instead of telling you she had three grueling summer internships, networked every day for months, and cold e-mailed 283 random people.
The “lucky girl” hashtag tells the world that everything just happened easily, without lifting a finger. For instance, the woman who writes #luckyat32 underneath the picture of her two adorable children might not have said that she had children after seven wrenching, expensive rounds of IVF. But social media isn’t a place for hashtags like #triedforyears; it’s an alternate universe where everything is attributed to good fortune.
Women, it seems, are particularly prone to use the word “lucky” on social media. (There is no analogue trend of grown men tagging themselves with the diminutive #luckyboy.) Over the last year on Twitter, the word “lucky” was used by women 56 percent of the time, according to data from the analytics company Crimson Hexagon. But when you specifically look at tweets where “lucky” is used in the first person—e.g. “I’m so lucky”—it shoots up to 67 percent.
Is that because men don’t deem themselves to be lucky? Not necessarily. It’s a commentary more about women’s reluctance to take ownership of their accomplishments, says Rachel Simmons, the author of the book The Curse of The Good Girl.
Lucky girls, who are now rather ubiquitous on social networks, appear to be luckiest in romantic scenarios, where the hashtag reigns. Think: the boyfriend down on one knee with a ring, kissing at sunset on the beach, and a dozen roses being delivered to your doorstep.
Love is the pinnacle of good fortune, at least on Instagram. But appearances, as we all know, are deceptive. “The ‘lucky girl’ hashtag makes it appear like you were walking along and simply got proposed to, not that you worked really hard to meet the right person and prioritized a relationship and actively tried to bring that into your life,” said Simmons.
Modern-day romance, particularly for straight people, might be closer to what Knoll describes: “You have all these discussions, wait for him to take action, and probably acted like a total wench in the process,” said Knoll. (Try conceiving a clever hashtag for that process.) “No one wants to admit having to work for love,” Knoll observed.
Still, maybe sometimes we really just are lucky. You show up a party and meet the love of your life. And, of course, effort doesn’t always beget love or the plum job. But it doesn’t make the hashtag any less grating for its blatant envy baiting.
So why is there so much reluctance, or downright refusal, to acknowledge the blood, sweat, and tears most of us expend behind the scenes to end up with photos that we stamp with a tag that basically says “effortless”? On social media, we all want to be seen as ducks, a term researchers at Stanford University came up with to convey how, like the animal, young women want to be seen as gliding serenely along, but in fact under the surface are paddling ferociously.
This is a new punishing standard for young women today and why Knoll’s character Ani, who is an avatar of this behavior, has struck such a chord with readers. The Los Angeles Review of Books called Luckiest Girl Alive, which is so far the number one best-selling debut of 2015, “a millennial guide to femininity” for its searing description of how young women are forced to perform, especially on social networks.
In reality, though, most of our jobs, relationships, and accomplishments are hard won. So wouldn’t it be refreshing if we talked more openly about how much effort—the antipode to luck—we exert to hold it all together (or even just moderately together)?
Perhaps in the first inkling of a cultural shift, the actress and writer Mindy Kaling said last year when talking about her appearance: “It takes a lot of effort to look like a normal/chubby woman.” And in her new book, Why Not Me?, Kaling, who is 36, writes, “I work a lot. Like a lot a lot … Hard work is such a weird thing. As children and teenagers you are told it’s a really good thing, but for adults it suddenly becomes the worst thing in the world.”