This is a very exciting week for me, with my book written especially for teen girls, The Girl with the Butterfly Tattoo, now on sale! At the launch party I was honoured and touched to be surrounded by inspiring men and women, including the writers Nina Funnell and Emily Maguire, who gave passionate, articulate and thought-provoking speeches. I wish that all of you Enlightened Amazons could have been there to hear what these incredible women had to say. For now, I’m sharing Emily’s speech here, as today’s guest post.
Emily Maguire is the author of three novels and two non-fiction books. Her articles and essays have been published widely including in The Monthly, The Australian and The Age and in 2007 she received an Edna Ryan Award (Media Category) for her writing on women’s issues. Emily was named as a 2010 Sydney Morning Herald Young Novelist of the Year and is the recipient of the 2011 NSW Writers’ Fellowship. Her latest book is “Your Skirt’s Too Short: Sex, Power, Choice.”
About five years ago, I found myself increasingly annoyed by the overwhelmingly negative, often completely, stupidly wrong media coverage of young people, particularly young women. As I’m sure many of you have noticed, almost everything written or screened on TV about teenage girls presents them as either sex-mad airheads or sweet, delicate flowers. Either out-of-control tarts ruining society or innocent angels being ruined by society.
As a writer, I felt I was in a good position to address some of this crap. I wrote about my own experience as a teenager and about the lives of teenage girls and young women I knew. I undertook research in order to understand and write about the teenage girls and women I didn’t know, and along with some analysis of the representation of young women in pop culture and the mass media, this became my first non-fiction book, Princesses & Pornstars.
I – and my publisher – decided that a revised edition, especially for teens, was worth doing. So I did a second round of researching and writing, and the result was Your Skirt’s Too Short.
Thanks to these two books, I’ve spent the past four years speaking to and about young women across Australia. And among the many things I have learnt, two related facts stand out: 1) the majority of teenage girls are thoughtful, hard-working, creative, perceptive and resilient; and 2) many adults have absolutely no idea that this is true.
Consider these headlines from mainstream newspapers in the past year:
‘Lies, scams and deceit – just your average teenage girl’ (The Age, April 2011)
‘Our Teens Undress to Impress’ (Daily Telegraph, June 2011)
‘Do you know what your daughter’s doing tonight?’ (the (sydney) magazine, June 2011)
No wonder so many girls feel misunderstood. The version of their lives presented as news is a salacious cartoon; the characters meant to represent them are sexually loose magnets for trouble, not necessarily because they’re bad, but because they’re morally retarded and culturally illiterate.
The sad thing is that, often, parents buy into it, thinking that they’re learning essential information that will help them raise their daughters safely, when all it will really help them do is either infect their daughters with their own fear and panic or utterly alienate them.
To illustrate, here’s a short excerpt from an email I received from a 16-year-old Adelaide girl:
Seriously, I am so sick of my mum acting all suspicious every time I check my phone, just because she read another stupid story about teenagers sending crotch shots to each other. I’m too embarrassed to wear a bikini to the beach and she thinks I’m going to send people pictures of myself naked?
I was reminded of something a 17-year-old email buddy wrote:
It’s like ‘teen girl’ is this newly discovered species. Nothing we do has ever been done by humans. Nothing we feel has ever been felt. We are ‘teen girls’ doing things for our mysterious ‘teen girl’ reasons.
She’s right: so much of the media coverage takes this weird anthropological distance. The reporter stands back and pokes at the edges of this bizarre tribe, notes one aspect of their interactions, writes down the two most adult-shocking sentences and then declares some terrifying truth about the entire species.
We need a reality check: despite the often hostile world we adults have created for them, the majority of girls are not dopey, fragile creatures lurching from life-threatening crisis to life-ruining mistake. They work part-time, play sport, have supportive friendships and thrilling romances. They’re passionate about books, music and sport. They have exciting plans for when they finish school, and most have a good chance of fulfilling them.
Of course, the general awesomeness of teenage girls shouldn’t be taken as evidence that all is rosy in their world. There is, for example, the barrage of media messages about their apparent physical unacceptability. According to the 2010 Mission Australia Youth survey, body image is the number one personal concern of young people in Australia. Sexual assault also remains a major problem, with 38% of female secondary students reporting an experience of unwanted sex.
And of course dangerous abuse of alcohol and other drugs happens, though nowhere near as universally as media reports would lead you to believe. Nevertheless, it’s an issue and one that disproportionately affects those girls who are already vulnerable and at-risk for various other reasons.
So what to do? How do we protect girls without turning them into frightened rabbits or making them feel attacked and ashamed? How do we empower young people to tackle the tough parts of life without over-directing or under-preparing them?
The short answer is: Dannielle Miller.
With her first book, The Butterfly Effect, Danni helped parents understand what was going on in teen-girl world in general and – more importantly – how to reach out to their daughters and find out what was going on with them in particular. That is key: anyone can collate research reports and make observations about what girls are buying and wearing and doing. Very few bother to actually speak to the girls themselves, to ask them why they do what they do, how they feel about it, what they wish was different. Even fewer manage to establish the kind of trust and respect that allow girls to open up about their lives and their inner selves.
Danni writes so accurately, so insightfully about girls because she speaks to them, and they sense that she is on their side and so they speak to her. It sounds simple, but it isn’t – and, as I’m sure anyone who has read The Butterfly Effect alongside other parenting manuals or guides to teen girls will attest, it makes all the difference.
And now, with this, her second book, The Girl with the Butterfly Tattoo, Danni brings her hard-earned insight directly to the girls themselves. The book’s approach to the big issues – body image, drugs and alcohol, sex and love, friendship, school and work – is personal but grounded in evidence. The practical advice is sensible but never prescriptive, and certainly never delivered from the high horse of moral authority. And the affirmations that close each chapter are to-the-point and have the potential to be genuinely empowering. Danni’s voice throughout is that of a trusted, trusting, wise-but-never-superior older sister. You know she won’t put up with your crap, but you also know she’s got your back. She expects a lot from you, but only because she thinks so very, very much of you.
In a world where girls hear countless conflicting messages about how they should live and who they should be, Danni Miller is a guiding light. Educator, activist, writer, mother, friend, mentor, feminist – every aspect of Danni’s life and being is directed towards helping girls navigate their teen years not only safely but with actual joy. Rather than encourage girls to attempt to avoid pain through making themselves meek and ultra-cautious, Danni encourages them to confront the hard stuff and stomp all over it. She doesn’t just want girls to be okay – she wants them to be magnificent and to know it.
Thank you, Danni, for this marvellous book. May its wisdom enter every teenage heart.
You may also wish to listen to a radio interview I did with Adelaide’s Amanda Blair on my new book at this link: http://www.fiveaa.com.au/audio_the-girl-with-the-butterfly-tattoo_104563 It was a very lively discussion and is well worth a listen.