The so-called “Material Girl” lifestyle is a phenomenon that has circled TikTok ForYou pages since November 2021. The hallmarks of this trend—be it a brightly coloured Telfar bag, a pair of $900.00 Airpods Max or a head-to-toe Lululemon ensemble—assure us that ultimately, shopping can be empowering and wealth is equal to success. However, with the rising criticism of overconsumption, we are left with the question: does an ethical version of a “Material Girl” exist?
CW: references to classism, sexism, racism and homophobia
The so-called “Material Girl” lifestyle is a phenomenon that has circled TikTok ForYou pages since November 2021. The hallmarks of this trend—be it a brightly coloured Telfar bag, a pair of $900.00 Airpods Max or a head-to-toe Lululemon ensemble—assure us that ultimately, shopping can be empowering and wealth is equal to success. However, with the rising criticism of overconsumption, encouragement for sustainable shopping and an emphasis on more meaningful vessels for self-care, we are left with the question: does an ethical version of a “Material Girl” exist?
Materialism and flagrant consumption have been an undercurrent in Western pop culture for several years. From Marylin Monroe showing us that “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend" to Madonna emerging as the archetype of a “Material Girl”, society has been told that materialism can be aspirational, empowering, and emblematic of female success.
Recently, Madonna’s 1980’s lyrical celebration of the finer things in life has found its 21st-century counterpart in Saucy Santana’s bass-boosted song, “Material Girl”. This chaotic and catchy anthem, which found TikTok fame late last year, argues that anyone—no matter the gender—can be a Material Girl (or, more appropriately—Material Gworl).
If you’re on TikTok—or any social media platform for that matter—I am sure you have heard the Florida rapper’s distorted voice blasting “MATERIAL GWORLLL” behind videos of luxury clothes hauls, daily $9.00 iced coffees, or Dyson Airwrap unboxings. TikTok’s unique way of embedding songs in the cultural consciousness has essentially amplified Santana’s endorsement of living a Material Girl lifestyle; however, as empowering as maybe to enjoy life’s little luxuries and live carelessly beyond your means (as full-time students, this gets pretty easy), it leads me to question whether these songs are self-actualising or just fuelling consumerism at a time where overconsumption is rife.
Can you buy your way to empowerment?
The idea of liberation via consumerism has a long history in pop culture and music. For some women—and more recently, people of colour and LGBTQIA+ individuals—consumption has offered a way to exert personal power over societal structures that feel inherently dominating.
Marilyn and Madonna’s past iterations of the Material Girl were heavily defined by female influence over men and the wealth they were gifted as a result of that, which in turn simultaneously “provoked and perverted” the male gaze. This is also true of Carrie Bradshaw, who is arguably the Material Girl of the 1990s. In most Sex and the City episodes, the message of empowerment via consumption and materialism is littered throughout, despite Carrie only achieving complete financial freedom through marrying rich in Big.
In an interview with Office, Santana defined a Material Girl as follows:
“A Material Girl is self-explanatory. We like to find our luxury things in life. We want steak and lobster...I want you to buy me a house. I don't want a pair of shoes. Chanel and pearls is the trick that it takes to keep the girls. So, you know, just being fun, just living lavish, living luxury, being large and in charge.”
In contrast to his predecessors, who were largely attractive white women, Santana’s version of the Material Girl lifestyle as a gay, Black, male rapper– has opened the doors to inclusivity within the persona. With 966,000 videos under Santana’s song “Material Girl (Bass Boosted)” on TikTok, people of colour and LGBTQIA+ individuals—as well as women—are given a platform to embrace the positive empowerment that comes with personifying the Material Girl and, ultimately, live their best lives.
Another important layer to the discourse is that for people of colour like Santana—who have historically been relegated to lower-income lifestyles—the ability to flaunt their hard-earned wealth and achieve the respect, dominance, and power of a Material Girl represents, undeniably facilitates a sense of empowerment.
Survival of the materialist.
Nonetheless, although Santana proves that embodying the Material Girl lifestyle has the potential to empower and lead to self-actualisation, the consumerist habits underpinning the material girl persona are rooted in capitalism.
Lauren Rosewarne, Associate Professor and author at the University of Melbourne who specialises in gender, sexuality and popular culture, believes that the Material Girl trend does not have much to do with feminism at all.
“The idea of using some of the tropes and language of feminism—i.e., ideas of equality and empowerment—have been harnessed by capitalism for several decades already to convince women that acts of consumerism can have political meaning. I see the Material Girl trend on TikTok as an extension of this. This isn't however, about politics; it's about capitalism. Gender equality is not achieved through one person's fashion or beauty purchases.”
In a generation where more people than ever are advocating online to “eat the rich”, we see in the many versions of the material girl trend on TikTok—however satirical they may seem—the same people showing their reliance on capitalistic systems to spark joy.
By extension, regardless of the empowerment individuals may get from participating in Material Girl activities, the trend itself is proof that culture still sees possessions as proof of self-worth, and spending excess money on frivolous things will make you more powerful, desirable and worthy of attention or success.
This belief is embodied in the recently re-popularised story of Anna Delvey (or rather, Sorokin) in the Netflix drama Inventing Anna. In both real life and on screen, Delvey believed that in order to gain respect, status and business opportunities in New York, she had to be viewed as a Material Girl; in her case, that meant impersonating a German Heiress.
By manifesting wealth in her appearance, mannerisms, confidence, and designer items, Delvey conjured up an image of excess wealth, thus convincing New York’s elite to invest their trust in her and demonstrating the ever-present chokehold that materialism has on our perception of status and authority.
In regard to the deeper dangers associated with the Material Girl trend, Rosewarne posits that:
“Getting into debt isn't harmless. Being obsessed with oneself and one's image isn't harmless. But ultimately like most things on TikTok, this will be fleeting, and we'll move onto something else soon enough and the cultural imprint will be small.”
With the often-short-lived nature of TikTok trends bringing a new song, hashtag, aesthetic or lifestyle into the zeitgeist every couple of months, it is difficult to think deeply and critically about how these trends actually impact our relationships with certain aspects of life, and the damaging undercurrents that they may possess.
At its core, then, the Material girl trend underlies societal obsession with consumption, material things and the empowering—yet transitory—feelings that are associated with it.
Can an ethical Material Girl ever exist?
In the case of Santana’s “Material Girl”, I think it’s important to evaluate our relationship to consumerism and critically contend whether it is truly empowering, a dangerous product of capitalism, or perhaps both.
Material Girl culture exemplifies how the world we live in pushes individuals towards consumption for power; however, recent trends have also shown how consumption can also be a source of comfort.
The rising “I deserve a little treat” culture that has permeated the TikTok-o-sphere proves that consumption—however “little” or minor the purchase may be—is often viewed as a reprieve from the trials and tribulations of daily life; that we need a little capitalist pick-me-up every now and again.
Nonetheless, despite the fleeting endorphin and dopamine hit that buying a little treat may spark, the attitude of deserving to consume—especially when paired with larger, more luxury Material Girl-inspired purchases—is paradoxically damaging the world that individuals are using consumption to escape from.
In an era where conversations around sustainability are more frequent than ever and “ethical mean girls” dominating social hierarchies, maybe we should consider a way to balance the essence of a Material Girl, without reversing efforts at sustainability and ruining the world further.
Ultimately, maybe the safest personification of a Material Girl is the attitude rather than the action. In Santana’s interview with Office, he advises that Material Girls “always want to have the best things. Everything that I do and everything I want; I want it to be top-notch. So it helps you work harder because you know that in everything I do, I want to be number one or I want to be top not.”
Essentially, it might not be the tangible purchases that makes one a Material Girl, but the energy and motivation to want the best in life, and the results are just a product of that.