Guest post: Shaming and taming teenage girls

This is a guest post from Australian feminists Nina Funnell and Dannielle Miller.

Nina Funnell is a social commentator and freelance opinion writer. She works as an anti-sexual assault and domestic violence campaigner and is also currently completing her first book on “sexting,” teen girls and moral panics.

Dannielle Miller is the founder and CEO of Enlighten Education, Australia’s leading provider of workshops for teen girls (Enlighten works with over 20,000 girls every year). Dannielle is also the author of The Butterfly Effect – A positive new approach to raising happy, confident teen girls (Random House, 2009). She blogs at The Butterfly Effect.

“America’s favorite shame machine, Lindsay Lohan, has embarrassed herself yet again! …Look away now if you don’t like to watch people throw their dignity in the trash..”

Look away now if you don’t like to watch the media revel in shaming young female celebrities. The above quote wasn’t lifted from of the plethora of “trash” mags, but rather from online site Jezebel, a site that claims to be offering “celebrity, sex and fashion…without airbrushing.” No airbrushing but, it would seem, with an extra dose of female venom – or, as we like to call it, fem-ven. Sadly, Jezebel is not alone in reveling in dishing up the dirt on young women.

Much of popular culture perpetuates the idea that young women can simply not be trusted, particularly if they have money, fame or any kind of power. Think everyone’s favorite targets; Lindsay Lohan, Miley Cyrus, Kim Kardashian… Going by all the recent reports which document young women stripping off and partying on, you would be forgiven for thinking that young women are simply out of control.

Think too of the more troubling way in which teen girls are presented by those who are supposed to have their best interests at heart. How many books on teen parenting have featured either surly looking misses with arms folded on their covers, or titles which claim to help parents “survive” adolescent girls (please note – girls aren’t carcinogenic).

The general consensus seems to be that girls are running wild and must be tamed, or shamed- stat!

Never mind that teenage girls are considered more mature than their male counterparts. Never mind that girls continue to outperform boys academically. Never mind that girls aged 16 to 24 are safer drivers and have higher tertiary enrollment rates than boys in the same age group. And don’t even consider the drastically lower incarceration rates of young women compared with young men.

The problem is not that young women are irresponsible but that the media is interested only in the few who are.

The moral panic over young female celebrities is so intense that many people forget that in some ways young men are more at risk than young women, yet curiously there is no moral panic surrounding the boys.

As women who work with teen girls on a weekly basis, let us reassure you – it’s not that amazing young women are not out there. Young women are doing great things. The problem is one of visibility. The media rarely reports on young women in an affirmative way. Apart from the odd report of a young female sportsperson or aspiring fashion model, there is surprisingly little on offer.

As a young woman, unless you fit the category of innocent virgin, or vulnerable victim the chances are the media will vilify you. But why is there such a witch-hunt for young female celebrities? Just as many young male celebrities take drugs and misbehave. Hello almost every rap star / gangsta wannabe on the planet! Hello Charlie Sheen!

So why the double standard? And how does the double standard fuel the moral panic over girls as vulnerable and highly susceptible to negative influences? More to the point, are paternalistic offers of protection really just veiled offers to control girls?

The sexuality of teenage girls produces a cultural anxiety that results in the social scrutiny of young women’s bodies and behaviours. When teenage girls develop curvy bodies and active libidos they can no longer be neatly categorised by those who would prefer to view them as asexual beings. This unsettles many in the community.

Some then deal with their anxiety by projecting it back on to the bodies and actions of young women through extreme regulation and control. Some men police young women as a way of policing their desire for them. Similarly, some older women who are threatened by younger women’s sexuality deal with this anxiety by trying to police them.

But the vast majority of teen girls have not committed any crime and are guilty of nothing more than testing boundaries and trying to make choices in an increasingly complex, adult world. When we work with young women they tell us they are sick of being “lectured”, told off for “doing everything wrong” and policed.

Setting boundaries is vital but let’s stop the vitriol and panic and aim for a more empathetic, strengths based approach to raising girls. Let’s respect the competencies they bring to discussions and let’s build on their capacity for ethical decision making.

The real crisis? The fact that we are further alienating and isolating our young women by perpetuating a self fulfilling prophecy that all girls will be difficult and deviant.

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6 Comments

  1. Posted November 14, 2011 at 9:19 am | Permalink

    Some people would say “so what, no big deal, it’s Hollywood!” but I have to say preach sister; preach at the last statement you made. People have this ideology from all this media attention on teenage girls that they should be afraid of how “unpredictable” and “wild” we are. And it affects my life because the choices I make will be backfired with a “you’re just a teenage girl, you don’t know what you want.” every statement I make or opinion I give is not valid because I am a teenage girl. And turning 18 as a girl is not the same as a boy turning 18; they still see me as this ticking bomb.

    I’d love to wait and say; well a couple of years from now people will take me seriously, no they won’t, because then I’m feminist women. And what really kills me is the audacity of some people to say sexism doesn’t exist.

    It’s final, I’m moving to Iceland the moment I can.

    • Posted November 16, 2011 at 9:05 am | Permalink

      Good news is you figured it long before I did! I was well into my 30′s before I recognized the pattern of denigrating women. And I agree being an adult won’t fix this dilemma because then you’re just a Feminist. I’m so thankful for sites like this because if they didn’t existed I wouldn’t have anyone to relate too. Everyone in my life just simply think I”m radical and paranoid.

  2. Posted November 14, 2011 at 12:07 pm | Permalink

    I read a really informative article about this awhile back that did an in-depth analysis on this. It had alot of info, quotes, etc. from those in the media, especially some of trashier mags, but also with some sociology professors, etc.

    Basically what they found is this:
    -> The vast majority of those who consume this gossip – be it reading magazines, watching entertainment tonight, etc. are women
    -> Alot of these women want to see female celebs brought down because, essentially, they are jealous. Jealous that they get attention they don’t, jealous that they aren’t as beautiful as these celebs, don’t have as much money, etc. They want to believe that they are at least as good as these women, but the only real way to do that is to make these women look bad somehow.
    -> By comparison, these women do NOT, absolutely do NOT, want to read negative stories (in general, some stories are exceptions) about male celebs because they don’t want to ruin the fantasy. They want to believe George Clooney or whoever else is a great guy. They don’t want to think he’s a jerk or it ruins the fantasy they have on him

    In focus groups that show different types of stories they found this played out almost perfectly. I.e., most of the women liked the negative stories about female but hated the negative stories about male actors.

    Apparently this is backed up by actual sales results, where media companies have seen a direct correlation between how much money they make and what type of content they provide. In particular they’ve found that bashing male actors tends to not play well to their target audience. It doesn’t sell well at all.

    I really don’t know what to think about all this. On one hand I’m incredibly insulted by the whole “jealous woman” meme. On the other hand, I find it hard to disagree. Not so much for personally, but I have friends who are into this stuff, and I hear them talk about it, and talk about these celebs, and I have to say what I hear seems to back up the above.

    I don’t know what the answer is to all this. It’s hard to blame the media for producing content that sells. Yet it’s hard to blame the population because who do you blame and who do you change it?

    This is a very important topic and I’m glad it’s being discussed here. I hope we have more articles on this in the future.

  3. Posted November 14, 2011 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

    I can’t say I disagree with most of the points here. It is curious that there isn’t the same constant policing of young men as it true with young women. Maybe it’s because the expansion of basic freedoms women enjoy now are relative new. Men being violent or deviant is nothing new.

    We really, as a society, need to get young men under control. I wish I were wise enough to stumble across the silver bullet solution, but I do know that making an effort is more than most do.

    • Posted November 14, 2011 at 4:00 pm | Permalink

      Y eah it was easier for say, Drake Bell, to do a R-Rated film and do “Family oriented” work. But why is it so easier for male idols than for young women in the same business?

  4. Posted November 14, 2011 at 5:50 pm | Permalink

    “The moral panic over young female celebrities is so intense that many people forget that in some ways young men are more at risk than young women, yet curiously there is no moral panic surrounding the boys.”

    do we think its because people EXPECT it from boys and when a girl does it its so shocking that it should be reported?

    I totally agree with you btw – by media’s reports you’d think there was some sort of epidemic of crazy girls syndrome going on in this country. When the reality is we have an epidemic of responsible, well educated, successful, striving for excellence young women we should be proud of.

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