Ever since the giddy, popcorn and T. Swift-fueled “Truth” games of seventh grade slumber parties, those two words have become a default response to countless puzzled male faces. From Sex and the City to Gossip Girl, generations of chick flicks and girl-power soap operas reinforce the idea that no crush, no kiss, and no hook up, no matter how “casual” or “on the D-L,” is to be withheld from a girl’s close circle. This notion that open communication about one’s love life is natural and even essential for women is a driving concept behind Lulu, a 2010 website and iPhone application that allows women to anonymously rate men as potential romantic partners. Lulu advertises itself as a “network to unleash the power of girl talk and empower girls to make smarter decisions—starting with relationships.” By allowing girls to publicly review men with whom they’ve been romantically involved, Lulu takes the Sex and the City mentality that nothing gets past a girl’s best friends and transforms it to suit the vast and impersonal world of social media. Creating a database of a girl’s male contacts, Lulu aims to help girls navigate the messy world of dating in the twenty-first century.
I was introduced to Lulu this fall by a close friend from high school. Over the past few months, the app had exploded in popularity across her school’s campus, and she became an avid user. On the whole, she treated the app as an exciting development in social media; she clearly found reading her ex-hookups’ profiles entertaining, and she also believed that Lulu could legitimately assist and empower young women. As she described the app’s premise—girls rate boys to help out their fellow girls—I became immediately interested in this unique exercise in putting “girl talk” to practical use. As a college freshman, I was particularly struck by the degree to which an app like Lulu could help girls avoid a myriad of dangers associated with today’s hookup culture, including the threat of date rape. Over the course of the fall, I had become acquainted with a brand-new social landscape, where crop-tops and miniskirts were sexy, not slutty, vodka bottles were displayed in dorm windows, and “hooking up”—which previously encompassed anything from first to third base, could now also imply sex. The hotbed of party life, I learned, was the Street: a row of rather imposing, quite proper looking mansions that, around eleven-thirty at night, miraculously filled with pounding music, awful beer, and hordes of damp and pulsing bodies. The Street made it possible to begin the night with a familiar group of girls and end it in the bedroom of a boy you’d just met.
While many students described this “no-strings-attached” approach to sex as liberating, engaging in spontaneous and casual sexual acts also has its risks. Nearly every single freshman girl I’ve spoken to admits to regretting at least one late-night hookup. They provide varied explanations for these less-than-romantic experiences, from the clichéd “he looked so different in the dark,” to being so flattered by the prospect of attention from an upperclassman that it was difficult to say no. While these situations are consensual, many girls nevertheless leave feeling ashamed or compromised. In theory, an app like Lulu has the potential to substantially reduce girls’ likelihood of entering sexual situations where they will feel used. Before becoming romantically involved with a boy, a girl could consult Lulu to ensure that he is, so far as other girls are concerned, a respectful partner. Ideally, Lulu’s transforming the world of girl talk into an online database could enable girls to make informed decisions about whether or not a guy is really worth following home.
Yet after swiping through the hot-pink-and-black profile screens of several familiar boys, I was disillusioned. Rather than meaningful information about how particular girls felt boys had treated them, most profiles shared little more than whether or not a boy had nice abs or bad breath. In general, Lulu seemed far less concerned with the legitimate dangers associated with blindly entering intimate situations and far more interested in, well, “who’s charming, who’s a catch, and who’s crushable,” as the app description promises Lulu will reveal. As I attempted a rating, I learned that this superficiality is built into the reviewing system itself. Rather than allowing girls to freely describe a boy to their peers, Lulu has users choose from a set of pre-written hashtags. While some of these, such as #f**kedmeandchuckedme and #onetrackmind might legitimately help girls evade difficult and potentially dangerous sexual situations, the vast majority are concerned with personality traits and other qualities, such as manners and personal hygiene, which, though relevant to a successful relationship, are of little consequence to a girl’s safety.
To be fair, Lulu makes no claim to be an app for safety. Lulu is a self-proclaimed forum for “girl talk,” and the line between “girl talk” and gossip is difficult to discern. While the term gossip generally holds negative connotations, gossip is not without value. After all, girls talk for a reason. First and foremost, gossiping is fun, as almost any thirteen-year-old mall rat can affirm. Moreover, gossip is a source of information, however unreliable that information might be. It is through gossip that we build reputations, and through gossip that we learn whom to trust and whom to stay away from. By expanding the small-circle gossip most girls are familiar with into an expansive social network, Lulu shows us the “power of girl-talk” on an unprecedented scale. And like any gossip, the “girl talk” of Lulu has the potential to be at once extremely helpful and hurtful. Without a doubt, tagging a boy with “#deathbreath” or a “#fastfooddiet” can help a girl avoid an unpleasant hook up experience. Yet these tags read as being as snide and venomous as they are informative. Is saving a fellow girl from a less than romantic night genuinely worth disclosing embarrassing, potentially quite hurtful information about a boy?
Of course, users need not worry about their guys’ reactions for one major reason—the app is off-limits to all men. From the stylized cursive “L” on its icon to the Gossip Girl style tone of its app description, Lulu emphasizes that it is an app for girls alone. In fact, Lulu is the first app to restrict its user base by gender. Linked to Facebook, Lulu allows access only to those who have listed themselves as female on their Facebook profiles for over a year. By presenting itself as an all-girl environment, Lulu evokes a sense of slumber-party security, drawing on the “we’re all girls here” mentality that makes it OK to be sassy, be crude, and share dirt. Yet despite this illusory sense of secrecy, the information girls post to Lulu is hardly out of guys’ reach—any curious boy can easily access his Lulu profile with the help of a female friend. While he can view this information, however, he cannot edit it. In an era where we are constantly reminded to censor our online selves, having an online profile, accessible to all women, over which one has no control seems unnerving, especially when that profile is primarily concerned with personal, potentially embarrassing topics like hygiene and sexual performance.
I recently received a text message from a high school ex who, having reviewed his own profile through a friend’s account, wanted to know whether or not I had rated him (I hadn’t). This interaction stood out to me as highlighting the anxiety and paranoia such a lack of control over one’s digital presence can create. The boy in question had received a 5.7, and a number of unflattering hashtags including #stage5clinger, #temptertantrums, and #loserfriends. I couldn’t deny that there was some degree of truth in many of these comments, but they still felt mean, and I didn’t blame him for suspecting the work of an unhappy ex. Unlike girl-to-girl gossip, where the recipient presumably knows her source and can make a reasonably informed judgment about the validity of the information she is receiving, Lulu equally factors every user’s input into a boy’s cumulative rating. As a result, vengeful, post-breakup boy bashing has the potential to seriously distort a boy’s digital image.
As a whole, the app seems driven by an almost militant sense of girl-power; the social and sexual profiles of countless boys and men are under the control of an entirely female user base. While purportedly a forum for girls to help other girls make “smart decisions” about relationships, Lulu is essentially a database for anonymous hookup gossip, and the help that girls might lend each other on Lulu comes at the cost of the public and permanent humiliation of their past partners. Ultimately, Lulu undermines the ages-old notion that any intimate relation, however casual, involves a degree of trust. This is not only a promise not to “kiss and tell,” but also, ideally, a pact of mutual respect. For both men and women, intimacy can entail vulnerability, not only in a physical sense but also an emotional one. Optimally, an act of intimacy involves an understanding that this vulnerability will be respected. By selling Lulu as a space for “girl talk,” Lulu urges girls to breach this pact, on the terms that women already gossip, that sharing personal and even embarrassing information about romantic partners is nothing new. Yet the truth is that, on Lulu, a girl is not gossiping with her close friends—she is gossiping to a sprawling social network. The “dirt” she gives on a particular boy is essentially being published, to remain a part of his online identity so long as Lulu’s database stays active.
Lulu is an imperfect system for rating romantic partners even when separated from the ethical questions it raises. By only allowing girls to rate guys, it is blatantly hetero-normative: girls cannot rate other girls, nor can guys rate other guys. Moreover, the fixed criteria by which the app establishes ratings for boys are extremely general. Lulu calculates individual scores for appearance, manners, humor, ambition and commitment based on a short series of multiple choice questions, drawing the overall rating from these five criteria. In weighing each of these areas equally, general scores ignore the fact that, for different girls, certain traits bear more significance than others. Additionally, these ratings entirely disregard other traits, such as spontaneity, honesty, and creativity, which many women might value above Lulu’s five. By rating all men using the same five criteria, the app assumes all women are seeking a certain type of man, ignoring the subjective nature of romantic attraction.
Girls are essentially rating boys according to Lulu’s criteria for attractiveness, not their own. The fact that girls do not actually have direct control over boys’ numerical ratings, the most prominent part of a boy’s profile, gives Lulu, rather than the raters themselves, the real power to decide which boys are worthy of attention. For example, even if a girl thinks highly of a boy, indicating that he is not “ambitious” will automatically decrease his rating—even if she feels being laid-back is more attractive in a boy than consistently aiming for A’s. Lulu’s narrow vision of attractiveness is further evident in the way that the app categorizes its pre-written hashtags. While many hashtags could be considered either attractive or unattractive depending on a girl’s subjective views, all are classified by Lulu as being indicative of either positive or negative qualities. For example, playing video games, being a “trekkie,” and smoking cigarettes are inherently unattractive according to Lulu, though plenty of girls are attracted to gamers, nerds, and bad boys. Because of this, Lulu fails at precisely what it aims to do: to provide girls with honest, accurate information about men’s viability as romantic partners.
Yet despite these flaws, both ethical and practical, Lulu has established a strong presence in high schools and colleges across the country. Originally marketed to sororities, Lulu has since won over countless young women outside of the Greek scene, including, in my experience, plenty of girls who recognize its potential viciousness and its ineffectiveness as a rating system. Given its controversial nature, I think that much of Lulu’s success stems from the fact that it is fun. Like the subtly cruel gossip that colors high school hallways, using Lulu is amusing in all of its childish insensitivity. There is something irresistible and addictive about swiping through Lulu’s over-the-top girly screens, reading up on the scandalous, intimate details of an unfamiliar boy’s sex life. By digitalizing gossip, Lulu turns it into a game. It is tempting to say that the app’s pettiness and simplicity reduce its capacity to do real harm—that while Lulu enables girls to shame their past partners, that harm is done on Lulu and therefore cannot be regarded seriously. Yet if gossip has the power to hurt us, gossip broadcast across the Internet is an even more volatile weapon.