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Category: Gender stereotyping

Sex-obsessed. Boy-crazy. Annoying. Not so fast — teen girls are much better than that.

This post originally appeared on News Corp’s popular online opinion site RendezView. 

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“Lies, scams and deceit — just your average teen girl.” “Lost innocence: Why girls are having rough sex at 12.” ‘Drug toll … A generation of teenage girls riddled with fear and anxiety is overdosing in record numbers.” “The Invincible — A startling exposé on this generation of young women who show no fear about the dangers of sex, booze, or even the sun.”

Another day, another media headline urging us to view adolescent girls as either vulnerable victims in need of protection, or as a wanton and wild demographic we need to be protected from.

Worrying about the younger generation is nothing new. An inscription found in a 6000 year-old Egyptian tomb highlights the enduring nature of our fears that youth are lost: “We live in a decaying age. Young people no longer respect their parents. They are rude and impatient. They frequently inhabit taverns and have no self control.”

But thanks to this digital age the hand-wringing dialogue that surrounds our daughters in particular — no matter how well intentioned it may be — is now forming the running commentary for the lives of many teen girls.

Author and feminist Emily Maguire, in her essay “Sugar, Spice and Stronger Stuff” asks us to consider how the teen girls who see and hear these discussions might feel:

“Teen girls are not a separate species — they walk among us. They see and hear and read the same things we do, including all those features about sexting and raunch culture and under-age sex. They notice how those articles are always illustrated with photos of teenage bodies in tiny skirts or low-cut tops, the faces blurred or heads lopped off. They are aware of the way serious news sources and trash media alike use their bodies to sell papers even as they express deep concern about how girls are using those same bodies — their own — for pleasure …

No wonder so many girls feel misunderstood and alienated … And when loving parents buy into it they end up either alienating their daughters or infecting them with their own fear and panic.”

There is in fact a longstanding tradition of using scare tactics as a means of controlling women and this starts early. Fairytales are some of the first cautionary tales told to girls. These stories provide clear messages about obedience, adherence to traditional gender roles, beauty and virtue, and the dangers inherent in being an ambitious woman who seeks any form of power (cue wicked witches). They also often emphasis the need for girls to have male protectors; whether these be handsome princes or kindly kings.

There is also a longstanding tradition of omitting the bravery and resilience of young women from our cultural narratives. We tend not to share stories of girls who thrive and strive, or broadcast statistics that highlight the positive.

Here in Australia teen pregnancy, cigarette smoking, illicit drug use and alcohol drinking rates and all down. Meanwhile school retention and academic performance rates have significantly increased for girls. It seems we have a generation that are not as self-obsessed as we’d like to paint them as being. 80 per cent of Girl Guides over the age of 10 commit two or more hours each week to volunteering; almost double the amount of time contributed by adults.

Anecdotally, as an educator who works with thousands of teen girls every year across Australia I’ve observed that girls are doing remarkably well in a culture that often doesn’t seem to like them very much, or have much faith in their decision-making capacity.

And when we are not choosing to ignore, we sometimes choose to conceal. Historically, we have attributed the achievements of adolescent girls to those of much older women. Case in point, 15-year-old Claudette Colvin who in 1955 was arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white passenger on a segregated bus in Montgomery, Alabama.

Colvin’s act inspired the civil rights movement that followed as nine months later middle-aged Rosa Parks became the public face for this movement. Colvin has since explained “[t]hey (the leaders of the civil rights movement) thought I would be too militant for them. They wanted someone mild and genteel like Rosa.”

None of this is to say that there are not very real issues teen girls struggle with that we do need to address; body image angst, disordered eating, self harm, binge drinking, navigating technology safely, developing and maintaining respectful relationships. These are some of the issues I’ve devoted my career to supporting girls to manage. But the answer lies in education — not moral panic, or policing and patronising. We must give girls the skills they need to make informed choices and encourage them to turn their critical gaze on their culture, not themselves and each other. We must present them with more positive role models. We must actively seek out opportunities to celebrate their wins. Importantly, we must also make it OK for them to take risks and make mistakes.

Dr Briony Scott, Principal of girls’ school Wenona, in her essay on “Women and Power” called too for a change in perspective:

“In the years that I have been a principal, it is abundantly clear to me that families are doing a magnificent job but they do so in the face of cultural expectations that would lead them to think otherwise. There is a social and cultural normalising of the belief that raising girls is an almost impossible task. Along with this comes a presumption that when anything does goes wrong for girls, it must be because they are depressed, mentally fragile, and/or prone to anxiety.

Such a view, apart from being inherently presumptuous, trivialises those young women (and men) who genuinely struggle with their mental health, and pathologises what is fundamentally, a normal developmental path. It does an extraordinary disservice to young women who are simply navigating the road to adulthood.”

Let’s not feed the self-fulfilling prophecy that teen girls are either troubled or trouble.

Because the real picture? It’s far brighter.

I don’t believe self-defence training is “victim blaming”. And I’m a feminist.

I’m a proud feminist. And I’m the CEO of Australia’s largest provider of in-school workshops for teen girls that help develop self-worth and resilience. And I promote self-defence classes to young women.

Here’s how, and here’s why.

The uncomfortable truth? Teen girls are likely to experience violence in their lifetime; this can occur in a wide range of contexts ranging from schoolyard bullying and peer based aggression, through to street based harassment and stranger intimidation, through to physical assault and sexual violence.

And while we all agree this is a situation that needs to be urgently addressed, where feminists disagree is on the kind of advice, if any, which should be given to girls given this reality.

Some argue passionately that any attempt to modify young women’s behaviours is in effect victim blaming, and that the onus on change must always be placed squarely and solely at the feet of those who would harm.

I agree that often the dialogue on what women should do to stay safe, particularly after high profile media reporting on the death of a woman, can become (sometimes unintentionally) focused on what women wear, where they choose to go, whether they chose to drink alcohol. It focuses on limiting women’s freedoms.

This is never helpful. This is never OK. And it tends to assume that men who would harm are strangers lurking in dark alleys, waiting for their next vulnerable victim. As the statistics on domestic violence here in Australia clearly show, this is not always the case.

However, if self-defence is framed within a context of unpacking victim blaming and emphasising why violence is always the fault and responsibility of the perpetrator, and never the fault or responsibility of the victim or survivor, it can do much to shift this type of thinking. In fact, at the end of our sessions, many girls have approached us to explain how for the first time they felt understood; “I’ve always felt like maybe I must have somehow been to blame for my boyfriend hurting me like that. I now know that it had nothing to do with me …”

Importantly too, there must be an emphasis on the fact that we must also never blame a victim who doesn’t (for whatever reason) act assertively or fight back when in a threatening situation. Any of us, even trained professionals in the army or police force, can freeze in the face of danger. By explaining the body’s instinctive fight, flight or freeze survival mechanism, again much can be done to alleviate victim blaming and shaming.

In this age of body-image angst, self-defence classes also challenge the myth that women’s bodies are merely ornamental. Girls can be fast, strong and powerful; they can set physical boundaries. They can take up more space.

And girls can learn how and when to set verbal boundaries: “Stop! I don’t like it!”. Self-defence classes encourage girls to find their voices which is in contrast to the passivity-push that would have us believe girls should be sugar, spice and all things nice; seen and not heard.

In addition, girls are encouraged to shout-out not just for themselves but for others too; we also teach ethical bystander behaviour. There is great strength in connecting girls to each other and in fostering a sense of sisterhood.

And let me tell you, girls love all of this. Our self-defence workshop would be one of the ones girls rave about the most in their evaluations of our work. There is always laughter, giggling and a real delight in feeling powerful rather than powerless.

Finally, there is plenty of evidence to show self-defence classes can be useful in certain contexts. After news of an English women who had been trained in martial arts beating her sex-attacker unconscious broke recently, journalist Rhiannon Lucy Cossett argued that it was her own knowledge of self-defence that had saved her in an attack too; “After fighting off my attacker … (I kicked, scratched, punched, wrestled him to the ground, and told him he was a motherf****r) … I am baffled as to why self-defence has become so apparently outmoded, because it helped me when I needed it most. I grew up with a mother who used to run workshops for women who were victims of domestic violence in South London. It was she who taught me to face my attacker kicking and screaming, and in doing so she saved my life.

“That’s not to say that I might not have frozen … you cannot predict how any human will react, and I speak only for myself — but I am baffled that it is not taught more in schools. Why not have kickboxing and martial arts in PE lessons? Ultimately, extra-curricular karate lessons proved more useful to me than netball ever did.”

And what do the schools we have worked with say?

I have had emails from three different school principals in the years since we have been running these courses thanking us for giving their students the information they needed when they were in a potentially dangerous situation. On all three occasions their girls had been harassed on trains and knew to follow their instincts, move away quickly and to let other adults around them know they were feeling unsafe. Importantly, they also knew it was not their fault that they had been targeted: “They felt angry rather than ashamed which is just as it should be.”

And I have had many, many messages from teen girls that have told me that they suspect knowing that it is OK to set boundaries (and how to do this assertively) has kept them safe in a myriad of different situations. Everything from being bullied in the playground by other students, to being cornered at a party by a guy they trusted who tried to coerce them into sex.

Doctors Jill Cermele and Martha McCaughey, women’s self-defence advocates and founders of site “See Jane Fight Back!” also argue: “Self-defence challenges the belief that rape is thwarted only by the perpetrator “coming to his senses”, through bystander interference, or divine intervention. “Yep. In a perfect world? It would not be necessary to focus on how women and girls can learn assertiveness and self-defence skills. But we do not yet live in that world.

And while the vital work to help curb violence continues, so too should the programs for girls and women that provide options and strategies for keeping safe.

Knowledge is power. And I choose to pass power on.

This post originally appeared in News Corp’s popular online opinion site RendezView. 

 

Selfish – or is it?

The general consensus on why young women in particular seem to be preoccupied with taking and sharing pictures of themselves (“selfies”) was best summed up in a post today on women’s website Mamamia by author Susan Carland;

… for most of us, selfies are about validation and acceptance of others. It’s a vanity that is paradoxically self-doubting. Far from being about confidence, the toxic combination of selfies and social media feed our worst insecurities about our appearance because they are entirely reliant on the approval of others. While social media in general exacerbates this sentiment, with the whole value of every tweet, status update, or article anchored entirely to the number of likes, RTs, favourites or shares they get, the selfie is by its very definition superficial. It is a loud and desperate shout into our own ponds: please validate how I look.

I’ve never been entirely convinced by this line of argument. Yes there are posts that seem to seek attention and validation ( and is that really so hard to understand, or to provide anyway?) but I also see girls post plenty of pictures of themselves that are rather genuine attempts to capture their mood or feelings in a moment. These posts do not scream of vanity or a need for reassurances; these pictures speak of wanting to share and connect. “Here’s me looking relaxed after studying all week”. “I have a new dress and I feel so happy about that!”. “Look guys – I have glasses now. They’re actually really cute. Huh?”

Today I want share a post by a young Canadian feminist blogger, Anne Theriault. I think she offers something more than the usual criticisms. And I agree with Anne – I love seeing my Friend’s selfies too. It’s reprinted this here with her permission.

A few of my "selfies" - excited to have received flowers from a client, relaxed in Byron Bay, with my teen daughter, heading out as a Finalist in the InStyle magazine Awards ( charity and community category).
A few of my “selfies” – excited to have received flowers from a client, relaxed in Byron Bay, with my teen daughter, heading out as a Finalist in the InStyle magazine Awards ( charity and community category).

Dear Friends Who Take Selfies,

I want you to know that I love it when you post pictures of yourself. I know selfies get a lot of bad press, but I think they’re rad. They give me a little window into your life, and you’d be amazed at how much I can get out of one little photo.

I love your pictures because I love seeing what you’re wearing – the outfits you build give me ideas about how to mix it up with my own wardrobe, and seeing you work your shit gives me courage to try clothing that I otherwise might have thought was too outlandish or revealing.

I love seeing how you do your hair and makeup. You look like a hot babe and I wish you would make YouTube tutorials explaining how you get your eyeliner just so. I want you to post pictures every time you change your hair, because seeing you cycle through all those neon colours gives me great ideas about what to do next with my own hair.

I love when you take selfies in your house. It’s neat to see where you live. When your place is cluttered, it makes me feel better about my own messy apartment. When your house is neat, it encourages me to get my shit together and do the damn dishes already. I like seeing the things you own and the art you put on your walls, because those things tells me so much about who you are and what you care about.

I love when you take selfies while on vacation. I don’t get to travel often, so your pictures allow me to live vicariously through you. The excitement on your face when you take a selfie at the Trevi Fountain or by the Arc de Triomphe is perfect and beautiful. I’ve seen a thousand pictures of the Louvre Pyramid, but the most interesting ones are the ones with you in it. If I wanted to see a picture of the Great Wall of China all on its own, I could just google the damn thing. You’re what makes those pictures special.

Mostly I love your selfies because I love seeing you feel good about yourself. I love how your face glows when you look like a million bucks and you know it. I love when you celebrate yourself. You deserve to be celebrated.

It’s easy for people to roll their eyes at selfies and make jokes about girls who just want attention, but the truth is that for lots of women – especially women of colour, trans women, disabled women and all the other women who see their existences erased in mainstream media – posting pictures of themselves is a way of challenging our culture’s narrow beauty standards.

Selfies are a way of saying, “I love myself, and I will fight anyone who tries to change that fact.”

Selfies are not a question. They’re not asking “Do you think I’m pretty?”

Selfies are a statement: “I am here.”

I see you.

I love you.

You matter.

Your selfies are inspirational. That might sound corny, but it’s true. When I see you love yourself, it helps me love myself. I suspect the same is true for lots of other people who see your pictures.

So please keep taking selfies. Please fill my Facebook and Twitter feeds with your wonderful face. Every picture you post fills me with so much joy. I love seeing you.

 

There’s nothing idle about gossip. It’s an important social skill.

I find unpacking stereotypes fascinating and important work. The following post was first published by RendezView. 

As a teen girl I swapped secrets with my friends; they were an essential form of currency in girl world. The more I knew about another girl, and the more she knew about me, the more entwined we became. Sleep-overs were often mere excuses for giggling combined with frenzied disclosure.

Know me. Accept me. Align yourself with me.

Afterwards came the betrayals. Secrets that had unintentionally slithered out, or were later swapped with others in a calculated move aimed at gaining status within our group. Tellingly, although I recall feeling deeply betrayed when my tokens of truth were revealed, I also recall knowing this was just the way of things. And admitting to myself that I too was capable of leveraging what I knew if I thought it meant I could gain popularity.

Know what I know. Accept me. Align yourself with me.

It’s always puzzled me then that we tend to look at the furtive whispering of young girls and dismiss these as mere Mean Girl machinations. To do so is to fail to understand the way we all solidify friendships, and practice social manoeuvring.

There are actually very complex sets of rules which govern friendships and the telling and banking of secrets; girls have to be quite sophisticated to master and maneuver themselves within those rules. Watching Olivia Newtown John’s character Sandy in the musical Grease excuse herself from the sleep-over action at Rizzo’s to go and brush her teeth left me gasping as a teen – what a rookie mistake! She’ll then leave herself vulnerable to becoming the object of analysis! Cue the mocking “Look at me I’m Sandra Dee.”

There is plenty of research to show that close friendships, the sort developed largely through the sharing of hidden truths, also serve vital functions in promoting a sense of self-worth and belonging. Many researchers in fact believe gossip is an evolved psychological adaptation that enabled individuals to achieve social success in our ancestral environments. In the paper “Who Do We Tell and Whom Do We Tell On? Gossip as a Strategy for Status Enhancement” researchers Andrew, Bell and Garcia argue that; “ Gossip can be an efficient way to remind group members of the importance of the group’s norms and values; an effective deterrent to deviance; and a tool for punishing those who trangress.”

And it seems it’s not just young girls who instinctively are drawn to information sharing. Professor of Applied Pscychology Niobe Way in her book, “Deep Secrets: Boys’ Friendships and the Crisis of Connection,” argues that boys relationships in early to middle adolescence rely too on sharing “deep secrets”; “Boys openly expressed to us their love for their friends and emphasized that sharing “deep” secrets was the most important aspect of their closest male friendships…. I realized that these patterns among boys have been ignored by the larger culture…”

Way goes on to explain that due to cultural pressures to become a “man” during late adolescence (and thus be emotionally stoic and autonomous) boys begin to lose their closest male friendships, become more distrustful of their male peers, and in some cases, become less willing to express their emotions. “They start sounding, in other words, like gender stereotypes.”

It seems secrets may well be timeless fundamental building blocks in building positive, strong friendships; for both genders. Adolescents with close friendships have lower rates of depression, suicide, drug use and gang membership and are more likely to stay at school. As it is in fact young men that seem to struggle most with feelings of isolation and a lack of belonging during late adolescence, could it be that we need to stop demonising the sharing of secrets and labelling this act as solely the domain of gossip girls?

By now, I have learned, as most middle aged women do, not to give away quite so much quite so often, to so many. However, I still know that it is the sharing the secrets that lubricates my close friendships. Now our revelations tend to take place via text, or via Facebook. There is no time for lengthy deep and meaningful exchanges; it’s secrets-via-shorthand. The stories we swap, however, are still just as real and raw. Feeling like a fraud at work. Worrying that our once-predictable bodies seem to be turning on us in new and entirely surprising ways. Deciding there are days when being a parent feels impossible and we dream of running away. Fat. Ugly. Bored. Sad. Angry. Resentful. Scared. Scarred.

My friends not only listen to this confessional, but know me well enough to know that my feelings shall pass. They know these moments of doubt and anger don’t define me– they are often not even the real me. And I listen to them purge too. And often? Rather than being a bitter or despairing exchange it becomes funny. Side-splittingly funny. There is much humour to be had in facing the dark when one does so holding a friend’s hand.

It is through these exchanges that we feel known, understood and connected.

And it is no secret that these are the feelings all young people deserve, and urgently need to feel, too.

Whisper on.

Gamers: they sit in dark basements and become serial killers. Or do they?

What is the one thing teen boys say they wish adults better understood about their lives?

Forget raging hormones, academic angst and peer pressure. When my team and I run our personal development workshops with young men the thing they tell us they feel is the cause of most inter-generational misunderstanding is their passion for computer games.

“I wish my parents knew that just because I like gaming doesn’t mean I am a loner or that I’m going to become a serial killer.” “I wish the adults that mock me for the games I play would at least learn a bit more about them, and how skilled I am at playing them, first.”

The very fact that we tend to only ever target in on young men when fretting about gaming highlights how misinformed we tend to be. The reality is that almost half of those who play are female, and approximately a third are aged over 35 years old (yes, it seems that we have already had a generation of young game-loving people emerge as adults, and yes most are happy, well adjusted and productive members of society).

The reality too is that gaming is actually highly social; players work together to solve problems, share tips and tricks, compete with one another. My biggest complaint when my son plays?

There’s too much noise as he’s animatedly chatting via Skype to the mates he’s teaming up with online.

And make no mistake. Gaming does develop valuable skills. It is a fluid intelligence mega-booster, encouraging participants to seek novelty, challenge themselves, think creatively, do things the hard way and network.

There are many surprising socio-emotional benefits associated with gaming as well. It has been shown to be helpful in alleviating depression (it is believed games distract people from negative thought patterns), in developing intrinsic motivation (gamers learn to overcome one obstacle after another), and in developing the type of 21st century skills that employers require (not only the familiarity with computer operating systems, but the ability to work and collaborate virtually).

As for the notion that games are violent, whilst it is true that some of the most popular games like Minecraft are not, many do have violent elements. While this doesn’t thrill me, it also doesn’t surprise me. Children’s games have long explored such impulses; be it through playing with toy weapons or soldiers, or through role-plays such as Cowboys and Indians.

The real question is whether playing these types of games leads to more violent behaviour, and on that point the findings are mixed with most studies concluding that whilst for a person predisposed towards violence this might be triggering, for well-adjusted individuals it is not. In fact, some young men I talk to say that when they are feeling angry, playing a game that is aggressive can be a helpful way of channeling that rage safely.

All this is not to say we should white-wash the very real issues that need addressing in gaming such as the sexist and abusive way in which some female players and game developers are treated (something my son thinks is shocking) and debates around ratings. Games like the Grand Theft Auto series, which tend to attract the type of media interest that may have contributed to the current culture of fear and misunderstanding, are rated R (18+). They will, of course, like all forbidden fruit, appeal to younger kids as well and just like when they wish to view films that are not suitable for them, it is then that parental boundaries need to be established.

Leena van Deventer, a game narrative lecturer at RMIT and Swinburne Universities, argues parents have actually never been in a better position to engage with the games their children play, and setting boundaries is aided not only be the games rating classification system, but by better parental restrictions that can be set on game devices. “We don’t have to play every game before our kids get it, these days either”, she says. “We can jump on YouTube and watch a complete play-through of the game and decide whether it’s the sort of game we want our child to play.”

It is true that like anything a young person becomes passionate about, gaming can become addictive. However, It seems odd to me though that whilst we wouldn’t dream of shaming a young person who was obsessed with locking themselves off into their room to read books, it tends to be open season on the gamer.

The way to connect with our children about anything is to open ourselves to their interests, instead of reflexively dismissing the things they love as harmful or trivial. Rather than policing and patronising, we need to empathise with, and understand the world of, young people. Only then can we positively engage with them and effectively support them.

We need to be prepared to get in the game.

This article was first published by RendezView. 

Beyond Victimhood

On Sunday I woke to the news in the Telegraph that teenage girls were “riddled with fear and anxiety” and, overdosing on paracetamol.

Was this behaviour really impacting on an entire “generation” as the article claimed?

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The reality is that although the data cited from the NSW Health Report on the Health of Children and Young people Report (2014) does show self-harming behaviours have increased from between the periods 1993-1994 and 2012-2013, even now, at its peak, hospitalisation rates for intentional self-harm for females aged 15-24 effects 0.46% of the 100,000 surveyed. Hardly a generational scourge.

Yet even one girl resorting to self-harming behaviours is a girl too many.

We should be concerned about the mental health of all young people. And if we are serious about concerns over self-harming behaviours in young people, then we should be taking to the streets in protest over the very high rates of self-harm reported in children currently in detention. The recent Australian Human Rights Commission Inquiry found from January 2013 to March 2014, 128 children aged between 12 and 17 engaged in actual self-harm and 171 threatened self-harm in detention.

But there’s something else we should be concerned about  too. And that’s the way in which we discuss young women. Because it is really not helpful.

If the times we live in are toxic for girls in many ways — think of the huge pressures on them to be not only thin and hot but to be smart and successful; to be everything, all at once —then equally toxic is the way in which the media and our society often chooses to engage with them.

When we are not reducing them all to damsels in distress, we are shaming them as viscous vamps, obsessed with taking “selfies”. There is a salacious pleasure taken in critiquing their mean girl cyber exchanges. In lamenting the length of their skirts. In hyper analysing their every mistake.

Even those who should have teen girls’ best interests at heart, the people who write parenting books, often describe teen girls in terms that are less than kind or generous of spirit. Walk down the parenting aisle of any bookstore and you’ll find plenty of covers depicting adolescent girls as sluttish or surly. As one girl said to me after a seminar, ‘If I came home and found my mum reading a book that presented girls in the way some of these books do, I’d be so hurt. We don’t read books entitled Parents are Pains in the Arses, do we?’

The reality is that whilst certainly girls do live in changing times and are learning to navigate and make sense of the always –on cyber world, the beauty, fashion and diet industries’ obsession with pushing a narrow ideal of what makes a woman loveable, and increased academic and workplace pressures, so too are we all. 

And you know what? We mustn’t loose sight of the fact that many girls are doing remarkably well despite all this.

Case in point? The incredible teen Sophie Delezio whose story also appeared in the Telegraph right under the expose on teen girls and self-harm in my news feed. Ms Delezio is one feisty female; after surviving both horrifc burns and later being run over by a car, she is now thriving in Yr 9 at a girls’ school and setting a goal to compete at the 2020 Paralympics as a rower.

More generally, here in Australia teen pregnancy, cigarette smoking, illicit drug use and alcohol drinking rates and all down. Meanwhile school retention and academic performance rates have significantly increased for girls.

It seems too we have a generation that are also not as self-obsessed as we’d like to paint them as being. 80% of Girl Guides over the age of 10 commit two or more hours each week to volunteering; almost double the amount of time contributed by adults.

Anecdotally, as an educator who works with thousands of teen girls every year across Australia I’ve observed that girls are doing remarkably well in a culture that often doesn’t seem to like them very much, or have much faith in their decision making capacity.

Stories about girls in crisis are valid and valuable for they alert us to the challenges they face. But make no mistake, for every media report of girls in crisis, there are statistics and stories aplenty of remarkable young women doing extraordinary things.

Let’s not be blinded by the numbers.

Let’s not be blinded either to the strength and resilience of girls.

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I shall be the opening keynote speaker at the Critical Agendas Girls and Education Conference in August, Melbourne. My talk will expand on these ideas: 

“Beyond Victimhood: Why girls need to reclaim their agency and how many young women already are.”

Sexting, cyber -bullying, dieting, drinking. Whilst it is vital to acknowledge the issues that some girls do struggle with, so often the dialogue veers towards labelling girls as victims or shaming them. How can we move towards empowering girls to respond resiliently when faced with life’s inevitable challenges and a culture that doesn’t seem to like them very much? How are some girls already speaking out and reclaiming their girlhood? 

What can schools do to further empower young women?

Hope to see you there! 

 

Princesses who will rule the kingdom

The following post was first published by the Daily Telegraph newspaper 2/1/15. 

Sisters Chloe Joy and Emily (my inspiration for this post) before and after a "Frozen" singa-along movie session.
Sisters Chloe Joy and Emily (my inspiration for this post) before and after a “Frozen” sing-a-along movie session.

I’ll let you in on a little secret. Princesses? They are often far more resilient than we give them credit for being.

Over the course of the Christmas holidays I had the opportunity to watch a gaggle of little girls, aged between three and five, at play. They were a blur of bare-feet, tousled long hair and flowing Princess gowns.  Apparently, a 200-piece ribbon and hair clip set left under the Christmas tree was urgently required to be opened for immediate distribution. There was much plotting, and then rounds of relentless lobbying of parents, until this wish was granted.

Nearby an exhausted little sister, still in her pink swimmers from the beach, was curled up asleep cuddling a doughnut. This dessert obsessed “Sleeping Beauty” was quite literally growling at any would-be-stylists who ventured too near, or tried to wake her.

It struck me that despite our concerns over the tyranny of pink and it’s feared innate capacity to render girls immediately docile, none of these little women were in the least passive or afraid of displaying leadership qualities.

How very interesting that whilst the grown-ups spent most of “No Gender December” worrying about the dangers of pink and blue, and what toys to permit poor Santa to bring, the kids just got on with the job of playing.

That’s not to say I think initiatives that raise awareness about how gendered the toy shelves are don’t have merit. Yet education is key – not attempts to ban.

I find young people fascinated when I explain that the segregation based on hues that is now so common is in fact a relatively modern phenomena.  Up until the introduction of chemical dyes in the mid-late 1800’s, children predominately all wore white. However, when colour was used, pink was frequently chosen for little boys; particularly those of high social standing. Early renaissance art depicts baby Jesus frocked in pink, whilst Queen Victoria’s third son Prince Arthur was depicted in both pink and white.

In fact, we see this pink-for boys trend popularised even in the 20th Century. A 1918 editorial from Earnshaw’s Infants’ Department stated that pink was:

“…a more decided and stronger colour…more suitable for a boy; while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for a girl.”

Today, however, marketers have firmly latched on to pretty-in-pink for females, using this to sell everything from pens to tool boxes (and then adding a hefty mark-up for the pink privilege).

Meanwhile the types of toys on offer don’t seem to have changed with the times at all. Kitchen sets are still frequently depicted with a girl on the packaging, whilst the dress-ups featuring the professions that are urgently attempting to recruit more women (such as construction and the sciences) are plastered with pics of little lads.

It is helpful then to call into question such stereotypes. But it’s not helpful to panic or worse still stigmatise those children, like the girls I witnessed, who want to embrace their inner pink-glitter-ribbons-sparkly-trinkets self.

Smart parents get this. Growing up I was very much Team Barbie. And that was ok. My sister meanwhile was pro-The Lone Ranger, Tonto and Steve Austin The Bionic Man. And that was ok. My parents didn’t seem in the least phased by our different tastes and we certainly never quarrelled over this; rather it seemed to us incredibly convenient for it meant we had dolls of both genders ready to animate.

Smart celebrity parents Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt get it. When their daughter Shiloh started requesting to only wear traditionally male clothes and be called John, they respected these wishes and recently publicly announced their decision in order that the rest of us might too.

Rather than closing the toy box lid, and our minds, the key is to be open when it comes to issues relating to gender and identity. And to realise as well that what our children see modelled in their homes matters most.

All the budding royals I saw at play had smart, ambitious mums and dads who both actively parent them. Within that social circle too are an incredibly loving gay couple, and happy and successful singles. A virtual rainbow of grown-up possibilities. It is this Kingdom that will shape them. The rest? Mere props.

Feminism, girls and the economy, the art of being alone: my week in the media.

I’ve had the opportunity to contribute to, and write, some really interesting pieces for various media outlets this week. I want to share the highlights with you here.

The always-wise Dr Karen Brooks unpacked the reluctance some (including our political leaders) have with the term “Feminist” here: Why is feminism such an uncomfortable word?

Increasingly, young women are afraid to align themselves with feminism in case it makes them a social pariah. They also feel too intimidated to join the often robust dialogue about what it means to be a feminist in contemporary times for fear of how they’ll be spoken to or silenced or (mis)understood. An example of this can be seen in Helen Razer’s response to Watson’s speech (“a boxed kitten makes great digital capital” – ouch).

This lack of generosity towards fledgling feminists and their position needs to be addressed.

Dannielle Miller, author and CEO of Enlighten Education, runs workshops with tens of thousands of young women every year. She says less than 10 per cent call themselves feminists even though most admit they’re not quite sure what a feminist is. But once they understand, they see it makes sense to be one. “After all,” says Miller, “why wouldn’t you believe in gender equality?”

I loved having the opportunity to contribute and offer an insight into how young women feel about the women’s movement. As I explained in a previous blog post, for me, finding Feminism as a teen girl felt very much like finding Home. Finally, a place where I felt known, understood, accepted and challenged! I still find the sisterhood to be the most incredible source of inspiration and validation. What a joy then to be able to introduce the next generation to a movement that is still very much needed – and in desperate need of their perspectives!

One of the ways in which I connect young girls to Feminism through Enlighten’s Real Girl Power workshop is through humour (which is a great way too of instantly debunking any “feminists can’t be fun” stereotypes). We begin by exploring what popular culture will often tell us girl-power should look like and deconstruct how the phrase has been used to sell women everything from cleaning products to super-stomach-sucking-elastic pants (irony much?). You may read more about this workshop here. 

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Ninemsn ran the results of a huge UK survey on teens conducted by the Schools Health Education Unit. The key findings? 

The state of the economy is not just a bother for bankers — teenage girls seem to be absorbing the stress too, with a survey suggesting their confidence has dipped since the world was thrust into a Global Financial Crisis (GFC).

Cyber bullying is also taking its toll, according to the UK survey of 30,000 school students, with a third of 10 and 11-year-olds saying they fear being bullied.

Teens’ confidence ratings had been consistently improving between 1990 and 2008 when 41 percent of 14 and 15-year-old girls said they had a high self-esteem.

But that dropped in the following six years, with only 33 percent now saying they feel good about themselves.

Why might the economy may be impacting on girls in this way? I am quoted in the article: “Children are economically dependent on their parents and their families and those pressures filter downwards. Often the first things that tend to go are branded items, such as cosmetics and new clothes, which are the kinds of things that really matter to teenagers…Having the right shoes or brand of jeans can seem like such a critical thing for trying to fit in with a peer group. There also is social stigma about being the ‘poor kid’… I would imagine a lot of young people are feeling a sense of shame, which is impacting on their sense of self and their self-esteem.” I also helped explain why we may still be seeing huge concerns over body image and technology in this article so do check it out.

Finally, I wrote an Opinion piece for the Daily Telegraph on the art of being alone. Although this was aimed at all readers, not just those who care for young women, you may find some of the ideas on the art of connection useful.

More people are living by themselves than ever before. In fact one in 10 Australians live alone. Single, however, does not necessarily mean lonely. Countries with high levels of people living alone actually score well on international happiness ratings.

Is it because these solo artists are content in their own company?

Not entirely.

Despite the popular rhetoric around the appeal of “me-time,” the reality is we are social creatures and need human interactions in order to be happy.

Social researcher Hugh Mackay, author of The Art of Belonging, argues that “communities can be magical places, but the magic comes from us, not to us”.

The key then is to learn how to venture out and connect. And even more fundamentally, to learn that it is OK to do so. It is this idea that I explored in my writing.

Enjoy!

 

 

What is it with witches?

The following post was co-written with my colleague Nina Funnell. It was originally published by US website Feministing. 

Pointed hats, black cats, broomsticks, cauldrons: Halloween is a night for celebrating witches. It seems timely then to reflect upon our relationship with these complex figures in fiction, and our culture’s recent attempts to rewrite the witch figure as good, wise and strong. It’s a depiction which directly contrasts with traditional narratives where witches are presented not only as evil outcasts and temptresses, but often also as victims.

In the traditional fairytales witches are typically depicted as socially-undesirable interlopers seeking to cast wicked spells and destroy youthful innocence and beauty. In these tales, which often revolve around binary opposites, the heroines are pretty, young and chaste. The witch, meanwhile, is ugly, old, and may seek to seduce. A perversion of the idea of “woman as nurturer” these women engage in attempts to harm or kill children (Snow White, Sleeping Beauty) and may even engage in cannibalism (Hansel and Gretel). Unlike the virtuous protagonist, who often aspires to little more than marital monogamy, the witch is presented as unmarried and non-maternal – a direct threat to the traditional family values upheld by the protagonist.

Variants of these stories, and of the role of the wicked witch-like figure appear in many cultures. In Native American folklore, for example, the tale “Basket Woman,” features a giant hag who creeps up on children when they are naughty or up past their bedtimes. After hitting them on the head with her walking stick, she collects the bodies in her basket, and later boils them in her pot for dinner.

Intended as cautionary tales, these stories provide clear messages about obedience, adherence to traditional gender roles, beauty and virtue, and the dangers inherent in being an ambitious woman who seeks any form of power.

And in the era when many of these tales were written, the dangers weren’t just theoretical. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, approximately 100,000 supposed witches were put to death across Europe. Women who rejected the rule of the church and other prevailing male power structures of the day were especially vulnerable, and older, unmarried, poor women were most at risk.

At one stage during the 17th century in France, the moral panic became so intense that people also took to burning cats (said to be a witches familiar) and for a period, pets-on-pyres took off as a morbid form of entertainment.

Throughout the early 20th century, witches continued to be painted as monstrous outcastes and villains. They also continued to function as a cipher for moral lessons about female power. In the opening scenes of The Wizard of Oz (1939), Dorothy is chased by a woman on a bicycle, who later reappears as the Wicked Witch of the West, now mounted on a broom. With the passing of time, much gets lost in translation. However for an audience in 1939, a woman mounting a bicycle was a well understood symbol of female independence and ambition. There was, at the time, an intense moral panic over women on bicycles, since the mode of transportation enabled women- and poor women in particular- freedom of movement and independence. The bicycle was such an important symbol of female empowerment that suffragette Susan B. Anthony once commented that bicycling has “done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. It gives women a feeling of freedom and self-reliance. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel…the picture of free, untrammelled womanhood.”

In fact men were so concerned that women might be enjoying their bicycles a little too much, that special grooved saddles were invented to prevent against the possibility of clitoral stimulation. It’s no mistake then, that the virtuous Good Witch of the North, floats around in a bubble: no mounting necessary.

Following on from Glinda The Good Witch, the 1960’s sitcom Bewitched, presented us with another blonde, attractive ‘good’ witch, through the character of Samantha Stephens. Here the witch was domesticated and sanitized, and although Samantha had powers, she viewed them as at odds with her identity as a wife, and would only resort to using them in order to please Darrin, her mortal husband, or to create domestic bliss.

Towards the end of the 20th century, however, we notice a sudden and radical shift in how witches are portrayed. As the Girl Power zeitgeist of the late 90’s took hold, suddenly youthful female power was celebrated, not feared. It’s no coincidence then, that at this exact point in time witches also suddenly receive more sympathetic and even favorable treatment within popular culture.

Shows such as Charmed and Sabrina the Teenage Witch burst onto the scene, depicting witches as young, attractive and fashion-conscious. Through the character of Willow Rosenberg, Buffy the Vampire Slayer also presented witches in a positive, empowered light.

Harry Potter then introduced us to the highly principled and studious Hermione, perhaps the first witch to be held up as an exemplary role model for young women.

All of these later texts allowed girls to tap into different girlhood fantasies through the lens of supernatural powers. Suddenly girls were able to consume these texts and imagine what it might be like to outsmart your teachers (Harry Potter), defeat enemies (Charmed, Buffy) or even rotate through thousands of outfits with a simple snap of the finger (Sabrina). Through these likeable characters, girls could imagine what it might be like to have the power to control their own worlds.

Importantly, in these modern texts witches are no longer isolated outcastes, but crucially, they are connected to other witches through their covens. No longer victims, these witches all survive until the end of the story.

More recently still, Maleficent and the musical Wicked have both retold existing stories about witches (Sleeping Beauty and The Wizard of Oz respectfully) only this time around, the witches are painted as sympathetic, complex protagonists. No longer a cliché caricature, the witch has been embraced as a complex, multi-dimensional character.

What’s clear is that as social attitudes towards female power and independence have shifted over the centuries, so too, our depictions of witches have also evolved.

This Halloween there will be those who chose to dress like fairy-tale inspired crones, others who prefer the wholesome good witch look, and other still who prefer to dress as the sultry enchantress.

Regardless of which witch mounts her broomstick and patrols our suburban streets October 31st, what is clear is that our fascination with this evolving figure is enduring.

 

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click to enlarge

 

 

In praise of feminist fathers

The following guest post is by my friend and colleague Nina Funnell. It was first published by Mamamia. Nina is a Sydney based journalist, author and speaker. Her writing has been published in academic journals, newspapers, magazines and on online news sites. She has authored multiple book chapters and co-authored Loveability: An Empowered Girls Guide to Dating and Relationships (Harper Collins, 2014) with me.

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Nina Funnell

I was ten years old the first time I attempted a ‘death drop’. Hanging upside down by the knees on the school monkey bars, a crowd of kids gathered around to watch. No-one we knew had ever performed a ‘death drop’ before and I was going to be the first brave soul to try. “Be quiet! She needs to concentrate” ordered my best friend, Sophie. “Give her space.”

For a few minutes I hung perfectly still, focused on what I was about to do. The plan was to release my legs, spin through the air and land on my feet. With adrenaline pumping, my courage spiked and suddenly I let go.

A second later I crashed to the ground. I had performed a glorious belly-flop and now lay winded, gasping for air. Of course this was all well before the days of AstroTurf, and kids were made of sturdier stuff. There was no way that a bad start was going to discourage me.

In the coming weeks both Sophie and I would learn the trick to the death drop: to complete the move successfully, one must first swing through the air like a pendulum and only release the knees when one’s body is parallel with the ground.

After that there was no stopping us. Before school, at recess and at lunch we would dominate the bars. Then late one afternoon when my dad picked me up from Afterschool Care, I took him to the monkey bars, eager to show him my new skill. Seeing his daughter beaming with pride, he asked me whether I would like a set of my very own bars at home. I was ecstatic.

That weekend dad and I headed to the hardware store to gather supplies. At home he showed me how to use the measuring tape, drill and saw. He explained why we needed to dig deep holes for the wooden pylons and he let me mark out the spot where I thought the bars should go. This was our special project, just me and dad working together.

In time we moved house and the decision was made to leave the bars behind. But I still look back at that afternoon helping dad build them as one of the great memories of my childhood.

I was reminded of those events not long ago, while out to dinner with a friend who had recently become a father for the first time. As we talked about the birth and the baby, he suddenly lowered his voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “You know,” he said, “I’ve always thought of myself as a pretty progressive guy. I mean, I’ve always believed in gender equality and thought that I’d treat a son or daughter exactly the same. Dinosaurs for the girls. Glitter for the boys. All that caper. So throughout the pregnancy we never asked about the sex of the baby. What should it matter, right? Treat the baby the same no matter what. But everyone kept predicting we were having a girl and I began to think so too… So when our beautiful baby girl burst forth sporting a nice healthy scrotum I was stunned.”

I laughed.

“But that’s not it. You see, I genuinely believed we were having a girl, and when I found out we had a son everything changed. In a split second my whole view of the pregnancy, my whole mindset shifted from thinking ‘I have to protect this little baby’ to ‘I have to enable this baby, I have to show him the world and teach him how things works.’ Isn’t that terrible? And here’s the kicker, I didn’t even realise that I had this completely different approach to parenting girls until that very moment.”

Now it was my turn to be stunned. It was such an honest, insightful admission and I couldn’t help but wonder what biases of my own I might be blind to.

Of course my friend is not alone. Research shows that right from birth many parents treat their sons and daughters differently, even if they don’t intend to. While boys are statistically more likely to die during infancy, and are generally more fragile as infants than girls, studies show that both mothers and fathers react quicker to a daughter’s cries than to a son’s. Studies also show that adults tend to cuddle girls longer than boys but are more likely to encourage boys to explore, try new things, and take risks.

Right from birth we fret about girls. We worry that when a girl comes crashing down to earth – bellyflop style- she won’t be able to get back up again. So we treat girls as precious objects in ever great need of protection. But there is a danger that when we wrap our girls in cotton wool, all we really teach them is to be afraid of the world around them.

And just like boys, girls want their dads to teach them things, to show them how the world works, to enable them in some way. I think back to my own childhood and my strongest memories of my dad involve him helping me to learn new things: how to ride a bike, how to read, and how to cook his legendary ‘daddy dinner’ (a cheese, tomato and carb extravaganza).

As an engineer dad was also constantly explaining how the world around me worked. Even when I was not particularly interested in a given object, his enthusiasm for the science behind things was contagious. His own curiosity about the world made me curious.

But perhaps his greatest parenting moments occurred when dad found ways to combine his interests and knowledge with my own hobbies and amusements. As a child, I remember that there were few things more validating than having my parents express a genuine interest in my world. But what was truly enriching was when they took the time to teach and involve me in their hobbies too.

And the lessons stuck. I recently purchased my first home, a true ‘renovators delight’, as they say. As dad and I headed off to Bunnings together for the first time in years, he was astonished to hear me parrot back at him some advice he had given me as a small child on the proper care of paint brushes.

Perhaps he shouldn’t have been all that surprised. For better or worse, kids absorb their parent’s words along with the wisdoms they impart.

So I am thankful for all the great dads who teach their children to be curious about the world, not afraid of it. I am thankful for dads who pick their children up, dust them off and tell them to keep trying, no matter how badly they may have bellyflopped. And most of all I am thankful for fathers who involve their sons and daughters, in equal measure, in learning about the world and how to embrace living in it.

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