I remember the first time I truly cringed while watching a TikTok. The video showed a trend where women interrupted their boyfriends at their desks by walking into the room naked and recording the response. Given my general interests at the time — which consisted of watching edits of anime characters playing volleyball and rewatching clips of Persona 5 Royal — the trend appeared wildly out of place on my For You Page.
Fast forward two years, and trends that tie to these sorts of stereotypical and outward performances of cisgender, heteronormative gender roles have only grown on the platform. While some trends can be linked to stereotypical roles men and women might take on in a relationship, others essentialize experiences of a certain gender in general, often to the exclusion of queer identities and relationships. The prevalence of these TikTok trends gives the illusion that a very specific experience is universal among “regular people,” which feels especially insidious. It’s not just a movie or a television show peddling gendered ideas, but anyone with the app.
I couldn’t even begin to catalog them all, but there are some clear trends. First, there are videos that poke fun at things that girls supposedly do. We have “girl dinner,” where girls throw together a shabby collection of snacks and call it dinner. Then we have “girl math,” where women describe the complicated mental gymnastics that lead them to spend too much, or seem unable to manage their finances. And while some of these videos lean into gendered stereotypes, some of them do push back against certain norms — like girl dinner videos portraying women who publicly refuse to cook the perfect meal for a partner.
My feed has also been flooded with TikToks of women “improving” their male partners. There is the “someone cooked here” format, which can be used to imply that women are the source of betterment in men or teach men basic hygiene practices. While on the topic of girlfriends, I’ve recently begun to see videos cataloging the “girlfriend effect,” where women help their male partners dress better.
While each trend has a unique twist, all of them find humor — and relatability — in certain homogenizing narratives about what it’s like to be a girl or boy, or the roles men and women play in heterosexual relationships. In this way of thinking, men do certain things: dress poorly, don’t know about hair conditioner, and think about the Roman Empire. Women, on the other hand, don’t know how to do math, shop too much, and help men become prettier.
It’s hard to know exactly why these formats feel like they’re everywhere, but it’s probably because so many users engage with them. We don’t know the precise nuts and bolts of how TikTok’s For You Page algorithm works. However, investigations and leaked documents revealed that the platform tends to boost videos based on engagement, like time spent viewing, comments, likes, and saves. This means users don’t just see TikToks related to their interests, but ones that have gone viral, creating a platform where wide swaths of users will be shown the biggest trends.
These kinds of videos likely become trends because they’re easy to make. It gives users accessible, repeatable templates. A person doesn’t need to be an editing genius or good at dancing or even appear on video. Participating can literally be as easy as recording a video of your dinner or posting a slideshow that contains photos of how your boyfriend looked before and after you got together. People can chime in without coming up with original content, ideas, or jokes. And with each new video, the trend continues to grow on the platform.
It’s important not to demonize the individual creators who participate in these trends. TikTok rewards people for participating in them, and these gender memes sometimes do give much-needed attention to the problems underlying cis- and heteronormative relationships. Under heteronormative standards, the expectation to cook and play the role of a put-together homemaker generally falls to women. With girl dinner, women are able to push against that expectation by cooking buttered noodles and pairing it with a handful of carrot sticks and Cheez-Its and calling it a meal.
But it’s still aggravating to get served this content as if these stereotypes are universally applicable when they aren’t. Of course, not every girl eats “girl dinner.” Women can most certainly do math as well as men and definitely can be Roman history buffs. Straight men will dress nicely if that’s their cup of tea.
These trends can also erase people who don’t fall neatly into the gender binary. Trans people obviously can relate to human experiences like cooking dinner, but the app hasn’t created viral moments out of such videos. That said, queer users have turned TikTok into a vital resource where people can connect, build a community, and share resources online. Even with normalizing trends, users can find ways to trend-bend and make the algorithm work for them. So while I might not be a fan of the girlfriend effect, maybe I’ll entertain a video about the “coming-out effect,” where a queer person documents their glow-up after they came out.
Browsing social media like this is a drag — who wants to see the same kind of joke video recommended to them three times in a row? But there’s also a social impetus to recognize the impacts these trends could have on TikTok’s many users.
TikTok says that over 150 million people use the platform in the United States. If we understand the gender binary as a social construct and not as a biological fact — which leading scholars do — we need to pay attention to how media shapes gender expression. Every week, politicians are introducing new forms of anti-trans legislation. Understanding the ways gender norms are communicated and reinforced in the U.S. is important now more than ever.