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Tag: Emily Maguire

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.

This is what teen girls need and deserve. THIS.

I recently posted the following on my Facebook page. It quickly attracted over a hundred shares so I thought it worth sharing with you here too.

Sometimes I see things marketed towards teen girls under the guise of “empowerment” that make me feel deeply uneasy. It’s fine if girls want to dabble with cosmetics, or focus on styling. These things can be enormously fun (getting a pedi or having my hair blow-dried are amongst my favourite “me-time” things to do). But they aren’t by any stretch of the imagination going to “empower” you or genuinely improve your sense of worth long term ( just make you feel pampered perhaps, and help you to conform to a narrow definition of beauty). Besides, I’d argue that girls are already bombarded with messages about what defines beauty in this culture; the average young person sees between 400-600 advertisements every day and at least 50 of these will provide girls with a direct message about what size, colour, shape and look they need to have to be considered “worth it”.

Obviously I believe in my company Enlighten Education‘s approach. It focuses on the whole girl ( positive body image, managing stress, fostering positive friendships, money management, navigating cyber world, establishing and reaching career goals, making healthy dating and relationship choices, feminism). Enlighten is also non-commercial, non-denominational and strategy based; a program developed by experienced educators. And it’s incredibly engaging! We’ve been doing outstanding work in this space for over 10 years and have won numerous Awards for our work ( including being a Finalist for an Australian Human Rights Award twice).

But I also strongly believe in the work others are doing in this space. There are some books for teen girls that all young women should have on their book shelf ( apart from mine of course!). Emily Maguire‘s “Your Skirt’s Too Short: Sex, Power and Choice.” Rebecca Sparrow‘s “Find Your Tribe” and “Find Your Feet.” Abigail Bray’s “Body Talk: A Power Guide For Girls.” Kaz Cooke’s “Girl Stuff.” Melinda Hutchings‘ “It Will Get Better.” For younger Christian girls Sharon Talbot Witt‘s books.Local bloggers / writers to follow include Rachel Hansen: Good Talks on all things related to sex education, Nina Funnell for brilliant analysis on culture and ground-breaking work on respectful relationships, BodyMatters Australasia for support with eating disorders, and lots of the stuff at Birdee ( which is written by young women) is very interesting – although the language can be strong so it’s for an older teen reader. Internationally, A Mighty Girl and Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls are brilliant. Intensive in-school workshops on cyber safety by PROJECT ROCKIT also look very good (I’ve not seen them deliver, but hear wonderful things).

Let’s demand GREAT things for our girls!

In keeping with the goal of expecting great things for girls, I want to share with you here an extract from a new book from one of the authors I mention above, Rebecca Sparrow. Bec’s newest title, “Ask me Anything” will be in stores this November ( University of Queensland Press). I was thrilled when she asked me to respond to a couple of the very real questions she had teen girls ask her in this title as I couldn’t love this book anymore if I tried. Bec’s writing for young women is exactly what they need and deserve; it is positive, authentic, highly engaging and, above all, wise. Listening to her voice here is like being embraced in a warm hug isn’t it?

More of this for girls please. More.

Bec and I.
Bec and I.

Q. I’m ugly. So how will I ever get a boyfriend?

Define ‘ugly’ for me.
Ugly in what way? Because let me tell you what ugly means to me. Ugly is someone who is racist or homophobic or sexist. Ugly to me is the person who belittles others to make themselves feel better. Ugly is the person who mocks others, who celebrates at the misfortune of those around them. Ugly is disloyalty and unkindness. Ugly is the person who is verbally or physically abusive to others.

But I don’t think that’s what you’re talking about.

You’re calling yourself ugly because you have too many freckles or big ears or chubby thighs. You think you’re ugly because you hate your stupid flat hair or your boobs, which are too small (or too big) or that scar above your left eye.

Darling heart, that’s not ugly. That’s called you learning to love yourself. Nobody is perfect. We all have things we dislike about ourselves – even supermodels like Megan Gale and actors like Jennifer Lawrence. Life is about loving what you’ve got. And it’s about putting your best foot forward. If you’re feeling like one big hot mess (and everybody does at least once a week!), there’s nothing wrong with reading up on how to dress to suit your shape. There’s nothing wrong with talking to a hairdresser to get a great haircut that suits you to a tee.

But it’s not your face or your cute skirt or your haircut or a thigh-gap that someone falls in love with. It’s your spirit. Your personality. It’s the way you really listen when people talk. The way you always nail the art and culture questions when you play Trivial Pursuit. It’s your kindness, your patience, your famous lip-smacking chocolate cake. It’s the joy you bring with you, your compassion, your empathy. It’s the way other people FEEL when they’re around you. It’s your ability to see the good in others. It’s your glass-half full attitude. It’s the delight you take in laughing at yourself. It’s your passion for human rights OR saving the orang-utans OR student politics. It’s your confidence when you walk into a room with a smile that says you know you belong there. Confidence is magnetic.

You’re ugly? No you are not.

And the boyfriend will come. Give it time. Wait for the person who loves the quirky things about you that make you special. Wait for the person whose eyes light up when you enter the room. And that person who loves you madly, deeply will arrive. There is a lid for every jam jar, as someone once said to me.

And PS you don’t “get” a boyfriend, dear girl. YOU get to CHOOSE someone. If you wanted a boyfriend (or girlfriend) that badly you could have one by now – you and I both know that. You could nod your head at the next desperate teenager you come across. But you’re talking about someone special. And maybe you’re not quite ready yet anyway? Because if you’re sitting around thinking you’re ugly, if YOU can’t appreciate how awesome and magical and beautiful YOU are – then how can someone else see it? Fall in love with yourself first and that then gives permission for others to follow your lead and fall in love with you too.

A teen girl’s guide to surviving Valentine’s Day

The following extract is taken from the book for teen girls I co-wrote with Nina Funnell, “Loveability: An Empowered Girl’s Guide to Dating and Relationships.” It is published by Harper Collins and may be purchased here. 

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I had been single for six months when I was writing this chapter. Most of the time, I felt genuinely excited about what the future might look like, and I knew it would be grand, with or without a partner. However, there were some things that sent me falling into a spiral of self-despair, such as when I saw a card in a newsagent that read ‘Happy birthday to my darling wife’. What if no one ever bought me a card like that again? I had received my share of romantic cards in the past, from my ex-husband and ex-boyfriend, but I wanted more! Was I doomed to a card-less life? Curse you, Hallmark! *Danni waves her fist in the air.*

Well, take that pain and multiply it to the power of ten and you get Valentine’s Day for singles. True? Suddenly the world is filled with playful cards for cool couples to giggle at together, and mushy cards for the old-school romantic types. Oh, it’s a day for lovers.

And don’t they love sharing their love (read: flaunting it)? When I used to teach in high schools it always amused me that many girls relished carrying around their cards, flowers and teddy bears all day. They didn’t leave them in their lockers — oh no, half the thrill was in showing them off. And it seemed that the bigger the bear, the bigger the love must be.

I really don’t begrudge those who are struck by Cupid. Love is a beautiful thing worth acknowledging — every day, not just on Valentine’s Day. I really am a romantic at heart, too.

But when you’re on the outside of it all, it can sting.

I called Nina after the ‘no cards for me’ incident and she gave me such great advice: receiving a card like that never makes someone feel as wonderful as it makes those who don’t receive one feel worthless. ‘It’s a whole big mind mess up,’ she said. ‘Don’t fall for the Hallmark moments.’

See why I love Nina? See? Gold star for relationship advice!

And you know what? One of the best Valentine’s Days I ever had was when I was single. I decided to tackle the day head-on. I invited all my single friends over for dinner and encouraged them to bring each of the other guests a card, chocolate or flower. We ate, laughed and were merry.

And in addition to the very funny and thoughtful gifts I received from my guests that night, I actually did receive amazing bouquets of flowers from two guys who liked me but understood all I could offer them was friendship. They just weren’t quite right for me, and I wasn’t going to compromise.

In my experience, the more you have going on in your life and the more comfortable you are being single, the more other people will want to be with you. You will also be less likely to just jump into any old relationship so you can have the ‘Hallmark moment’.

Apart from throwing a ‘Single and Fab!’ party like I did (or as one friend likes to call it, a ‘Galentine’ party to celebrate your best gals), you might like to try the following ideas for coping with Valentine’s Day when you’re single:

• Focus on all the love you have in your life. Give hand-written notes (or cards and flowers if that’s your thing) to your best friends and favourite family members. I always feel better when I am loving towards others; some of the love definitely bounces back.

• Be daring. Send a note or a card to someone you have a crush on. (Do it anonymously if you prefer; Valentine’s cards were traditionally meant to be sent by secret admirers.) It will be quite thrilling — trust me. A friend of mine and I did it when we were in the senior years of high school, and writing out our notes, hunting down our crushes’ addresses and then mailing them off was such delicious, laugh-until-you-snort fun!

• Author Emily Maguire offered me this top-shelf suggestion: ‘Young single women who love all the hoopla associated with Valentine’s Day … could consider embracing it all for a good cause. Like organise a red velvet- swathed, heart-shaped, chocolate filled, white-teddy-bear-decorated, rom-com screening fundraising event for a related cause such as marriage equality or safe-sex education.’

• Go totally Grinch and have an anti- Valentine’s Day party. I’m talking about getting together with your friends and watching horror movies rather than romantic comedies, wearing your PJs rather than party frocks and making the talk a relationships free zone!

• Take some time out to do a loving kindness meditation. It’s an ancient Buddhist practice in which you sit quietly and wish love, peace and happiness on the people in your life, including yourself and even people you dislike. People who do it regularly boost the feel-good chemicals in their brains and make themselves more likely to experience loving moments in everyday life — basically, they become their own love factories. After studying this effect, the psychologist Barbara Fredrickson believes it’s time to rethink our whole concept of what love is. The passionate, romantic, Romeo and Juliet type of love may be more of a myth, while true love is all the little moments when you have a positive emotional connection with another person during your day. Sure, you might have such a moment with a romantic partner, but you just as easily might have one with a good friend, your little sister or that random person who just held the door open for you because you had your hands full. ‘If you don’t have a Valentine, that doesn’t mean that you don’t have love,’ says Fredrickson.

From "Loveability: An Empowered Girl's Guide to Dating and Relationships."
From “Loveability: An Empowered Girl’s Guide to Dating and Relationships.”

“Pink is for girlie girls” – more things we should never say to girls.

Last week I shared three of the five things I, and the other noted Feminists I asked to contribute, believe we need to stop saying to girls now. You can read this post here: “That skirt is sending out the wrong message” and 5 other things we should never say to girls.  It’s now time to share the other messages that, even though they may be well intentioned, do in fact have the potential to harm.

4. “She is only interested in exploring her sexuality as she’s troubled.”

It can be confronting for us to accept that our children will grow up and become sexual beings. However, self-motivated sexual exploration and age-appropriate information about sexuality are vital to our daughters emerging as healthy, whole women. Given that for many girls puberty will start in their early teen years, we should start having conversations with them about sex and sexuality while they are young. We need to offer them alternative voices and role models of sexuality to those they are exposed to in the media and in pornography. This is especially important given that advertisers and broadcasters certainly will be targeting them with messages about sexuality long before their early teen years; to me it seems damaging for girls who are just developing their own sexuality to be influenced largely by porn-inspired examples of sexuality. I am concerned not just because there are too many hyper-sexualised messages bombarding our girls, but because the ideal being presented to them of female sexuality is so narrow. Just as we are told that only a leggy size-8 model can be truly beautiful, we are now being told that only a busty, wet and wild blonde (who is solely focused on male pleasure) can be truly sexy. Women’s (and men’s) sexuality is, in reality, so much more diverse and complicated.

But before we can begin having truly meaningful conversations around our girls’ sexuality, we need to also establish a positive and non-judgemental attitude because in my experience, a negative or stigmatising attitude towards girls’ sexual development may cause harm, particularly when it comes from parents, teachers or other trusted figures. 

Writer Emily Maguire offered an important caution against pathologizing female sexuality:

The idea that teen girls are asexual unless ‘activated’ by some external force. This is so common – this denial of the fact that teenage girls might be into sex (doing it, talking about it, imagining it, whatever) because they’re sexually developing human beings. It’s like, a boy who is distracted by lust, eager to gain sexual experience and proud of himself when he does so, is normal. A girl who acts this way is a dupe with low-self-esteem, a cautionary tale. Yes, there are external pressures on girls to look and behave in particular ways related to their sexuality, but more acknowledgement that not all sexually active/interested teenage girls have had their sexuality imposed on them by advertisers, pop culture or predatory men would be good. In fact, a lot of them, a lot of the time, are simply doing what feels good. (Or what they think might feel good, getting better at figuring out what that might be as they go along).

Nina Funnell, who co-wrote Loveability: An Empowered Girl’s Guide to Dating and Relationships, with me, also warned against shaming:

We still teach girls to equate promiscuity with low self-esteem and poor self-respect. Meanwhile boys are told that it’s only natural that they would want to sow their wild oats. The reality is that both boys and girls have sexual urges, libidos, pumping hormones and a desire for physical intimacy, pleasure, arousal and connection. So why do we shame girls, and teach them that they must have low self-esteem if they crave the exact same thing boys crave?

5.  “Pink is for girlie girls!”

Emily Maguire in her essay  “Letter to the Girls I misjudged” laments the fact that as a young girl she associated all things traditionally girly with weakness and took great pride in being seen as “one of the blokes.” This idea was extended by Clementine Ford in her post “Betraying Our Girlhood”;

Taking up arms against the demonisation of girlhood isn’t about reclaiming our right to love lipstick or dresses or have the occasional conversation about Ryan Gosling’s bottom – although those things are all perfectly fine. The fierce determination to distance ourselves from anything perceptibly “girlie” only furthers the stereotype that women who like “girlie” things are stupid and one-dimensional – and indeed that girlieness itself is stupid and one-dimensional. Some girls – like me – rejected boys’ toys entirely as children, loved pink and watched movies about high-school girls falling in love, yet they still grew up to be strident feminists. We’re all different.

As adult women, Nina Funnell and I have both admitted to each other (almost tentatively for fear of losing some feminist credibility) that as little girls we were bower-bird like in our pursuit for all that was shiny, pretty and pink. We adored our Barbies, were besotted by anything princess-like and suspect that were they around back then — we would have sold our little glittered-up souls for a Bratz. And yet like Clementine, we somehow managed to turn out just fine ( we explored this idea in a piece published by the Sydney Morning Herald: Barbie’s not an issue if girls can think for themselves). Raising healthy, well-adjusted girls has less to do with the toys they play with ( or the colours they chose to wear) and more to do with the values we instill in them. By teaching our children to think critically about cultural goods and by equipping them with skills to navigate complex cultural messages we will be empowering them for life. Education — not panic — enables girls to see clearly, think critically, and reinvent their worlds.

Girls too need to be told that there are many ways in which they can chose to be a girl and a woman. Enlighten Education Presenter, and Manager for WA, Nikki Davis agreed:

When I work with teen girls I tell them upfront that I have always been attracted to very traditionally “girlie” things – I demanded to choose my own (usually pink) clothes from age 3, dressed up as a Princess at every available opportunity and I still love high heels and make up. I then go on to tell them how important feminism is to me and how powerful I believe we all can be as women.  I love to see the relief on the faces of a number of girls in the room as they realize that they don’t have to trade in their nail polish or love of clothes to be strong and independent with opinions that matter. I think telling girls that they have to fit into any sort of “mould” is incredibly limiting and we risk perpetuating age-old ideas around women having labels like ‘sporty’,  ‘girlie’ or ‘tough’. There’s no reason why a woman can’t be all of those things if she chooses to be!

Once again, I’d love to hear from you. What messages do you think we deliver to young women that are harmful? 

 

Fictional Future Girls

 

My first experience with dystopian fiction, with a genre of novels that explore a future that is bleak, corrupt and almost without hope, was in High School when we read Z For Zachariah. I recall finding the main character Ann introspective and indecisive; there was much contemplating on loneliness and praying (as I attended a Catholic girl’s school I wondered at times whether they had chosen this novel as yet another way of attempting to convince us that talking to God would indeed come in handy one day – particularly if we found ourselves in a post nuclear wasteland).

How different the introspective Ann seems in comparison to today’s post-apocalyptic action heroines.

Perhaps as a backlash to our seemingly insatiable thirst for paranormal romance fiction which tended to feature beautiful and often passive damsels in distress in need of a charming Vamp to save them, we are now being bombarded with kick-butt, clad in-black, hair-tied back warrior girls ready to literally fight for freedom. The Hunger Game’s Katniss, Divergent’s “Tris”, Disruption’s Maggie and The Maze Runner Trilogy’s Brenda all out-kick, out-shoot and outsmart not only the boys around them, but society itself. Bam! Girl Power!

Or is it? Writer and Feminist Emily Maguire in her thoughtful “Letter to the Girls I misjudged”, published in Sincerely, an anthology of letters derived from the Women of Letters events, laments the fact that as a young girl she associated all things traditionally girly with weakness and took great pride in being seen as “one of the blokes”; “It was the most wonderful compliment I had ever received and [it was] reinforced every single day when I heard the things people said about girls … the simple, contemptuous way that almost everybody – kids, teachers, even members of my own family – used that word, ‘girl’, as the ultimate insult.”

Clementine Ford extends on this idea it in her post “Betraying Our Girlhood”; “Taking up arms against the demonisation of girlhood isn’t about reclaiming our right to love lipstick or dresses or have the occasional conversation about Ryan Gosling’s bottom – although those things are all perfectly fine. The fierce determination to distance ourselves from anything perceptibly “girlie” only furthers the stereotype that women who like “girlie” things are stupid and one-dimensional – and indeed that girlieness itself is stupid and one-dimensional. Some girls – like me – rejected boys’ toys entirely as children, loved pink and watched movies about high-school girls falling in love, yet they still grew up to be strident feminists. We’re all different.”

The Bechdel test was first introduced by Alison Bechdel’s in a comic strip titled “The Rule.” It is a guide that can be applied to works of fiction such as films and books to assess gender bias. It asks whether at least two women talk to each other about anything other than a man. This new era of female protagonists would pass this with flying (suitably dark and masculine) colours as they are rightly too busy in survival mode to gossip about boys. But it struck me that it would be also a speedy test to administer in many cases as these females tend to only really befriend boys and rarely confide in the few other female characters that appear. Apart from having males as their love interests, these girls also only have males as their “besties”; Katniss has Peeta, Tris has Will, Maggie has Gus, Brenda has Jorge. In perhaps the ultimate rejection of their gender, the female action figures seem to also only be able to relate to the fellers.

So despite the fact that I have devoured all of the books above as they are fabulously addictive reads, it is this seeming rejection of the feminine and of females that has begun to trouble me. I am troubled too that the power the future female fighters we’re presented with possess is very much a traditional male version of power. It’s all kick-boxing, weapons, sensible black pants, and fearlessness. Not that there’s anything wrong with this when one is in survival mode– but nor is there anything necessarily wrong with power that presents itself in other more traditional feminine ways – such as through the capacity to form social connections and form and nurture alliances.

There are many ways to be not only to be a girl, but to be a powerful person. Fiction that depicts this would indeed be truly futuristic and visionary.

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What’s So Bad About Being A Girl?

The following post was written by Emily Maguire for this month’s Girlfriend Magazine. Regular readers will know I am a huge fan of Emily’s work, and particularly of her fabulous guide for young women, “Your Skirt’s Too Short : sex, power choice.”  I was deeply honoured when Emily agreed to launch my own guide for teen girls, “The Girl With The Butterfly Tattoo – A girl’s guide to claiming her power.” You may read the passionate, articulate and thought-provoking speech Emily gave at this launch here: Celebrating The Awesomeness Of Teen Girls

I was delighted to have been interviewed for the following article as I think many parents will find helpful in supporting their daughters to move beyond limiting stereotypes – including those that would have us betray our girlhood.

Previous posts which explore similar themes may also interest: Barbie’s not an issue if girls can think for themselves ( co-written with Nina Funnell and originally published in the Sydney Morning Herald), and It’s time to reclaim the power of pink, a guest post by Clementine Ford which was originally published in Daily Life.

Emily Maguire and I at the launch of "The Girl With The Butterfly Tattoo."
Emily Maguire and I at the launch of “The Girl With The Butterfly Tattoo.”

Earlier this year, after winning her Best Actress Oscar, Jennifer Lawrence gave a press conference in which she answered some seriously dumb questions with kick-arse humour. Her performance was widely praised, but it was the response from Aussie pop culture site Pedestrian TV that was really striking. The entire press conference, they wrote, was ‘an exercise in being a dude’.

Now, they weren’t insulting JLaw or implying she looked anything less than feminine; they were paying her a compliment by declaring that she had moved beyond being a mere girl and into the realm of dude-ishness.

It’s the kind of compliment that the teenaged me would have killed for. All I wanted was to be ‘one of the boys’, because I thought that meant being cooler, smarter and all around better than other girls.

Katie, 19, can relate. A few years ago it was a point of pride that she hung out with dudes, wore sneakers and hated pink. She remembers noticing that boys used ‘girl’ as an insult and hassled each other by saying ‘oh, look that’s your favourite colour’ whenever they saw something pink. ‘Of course at fifteen you want to be liked by boys and don’t want to be seen as lesser than them,’ Katie says. So for her, rejecting girliness was a case of ‘if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em’.

For me, the habit of equating maleness with awesomeness started very young. In the books I loved, the female characters were duller than dull. They stood in towers watching their own hair grow or spent their days cleaning up after dwarves or step-sisters. When I daydreamed about living the stories I read, I was always a boy, because a boy was always the hero.

Many little girls today are getting the same message. According to the Geena Davis Institute of Gender in Media only 29.2 percent of characters in kids films and TV shows are female. And to make it worse, many of those characters play no role in the story except, as Davis puts it, ‘as eye candy’.

It’s not only kids’ shows, though. Joanne Rowling, creator of Harry Potter, was told by her publisher to follow the path of many other female writers and publish her books under her initials so that readers wouldn’t be put off by the apparently awful fact that a woman had written them. Meanwhile, in our national capital, government minister Kate Ellis (who is young, pretty and always nicely dressed) has faced catcalls of ‘here comes the weather girl’ when speaking in parliament.

Even female pop icons get in on the girl-trashing game. When Katy Perry wants to insult an unreliable, moody guy she accuses him of acting ‘like a girl’, and Taylor Swift differentiates herself from her rival by comparing her own tomboy style (T-shirts and sneakers) to the other girl’s penchant for short skirts and high heels.

Of course some girls do feel more comfortable in jeans than dresses, and plenty of us enjoy hanging out with our dude pals, and that’s fine. This isn’t about girly vs tom-boy style, but about the fact that many people seem to think being overtly feminine means being dull or dumb. You can’t help being female, this line of thought goes, but if you want to be taken seriously you should try very hard to not be too girly about it.

It’ a problem 15 year-old Hannah is used to confronting. ‘I love pink. I love sparkles. I love fluffy pens and hair-clips and sticking butterflies on everything.’

What Hannah doesn’t love, is the assumption that she’s stupid because of her ultra-girlish appearance. ‘One of my teachers calls me ‘Princess’, which might sound nice, but he says it in a really sarcastic way. It’s frustrating because I’m actually good at that subject, but he treats me like an idiot anyway.’

Disturbingly, Hannah’s experience of being belittled by an adult is not unusual. Indeed, Dannielle Miller, author of The Girl with the Butterfly Tattoo: a girl’s guide to claiming her power reckons that putting down girliness is more of a problem with adults than amongst girls themselves. After all, it’s adults – not girls –  making movies where girls are only there to be pretty, writing girl-insulting songs, denigrating female MPs and treating pink-loving students as if they’re stupid.

Miller thinks most girls understand that ‘the glitter and frills are a thin veneer; underneath that they can still be feisty and fierce.’ But even if you understand that, it can be hard to express yourself in a way that you know may cause others to look down on you. Miller’s advice is for girls to ignore the haters and stay strong. ‘Playing around with identity is fine. Don’t let anyone judge you on it.’

It’s advice Katie has taken to heart. Nowadays, she happily gets ‘dolled up’ in a way she never would have when she was younger. ‘I do get concerned that people might label me as “vain” or “dumb”, but I know that’s not the truth, so I just do what I want.’

So go ahead: wear a sparkly unicorn onesie and eat pink cupcakes while giving your girlfriends makeovers. Or don’t, because that’s fine, too. But the next time someone compliments you by saying you’re just like a guy, compliment him right back by telling him he’s so awesome, you’re going to make him an honorary girl.

Girls have been hungry for this revolutionary heroine

My post below was originally published by The Sydney Morning Herald, 24/3/12.

If sales of the books and early movie tickets for the new teen fiction series The Hunger Games are anything to go by, it seems teen girls are starved for a heroine with real fire. Author Suzanne Collins quite literally dishes up spark with her character Katniss Everdeen; a reluctant leader of a revolution who becomes popularly known as “the girl on fire”.



Comparisons to the wildly successful Twilight trilogy are inevitable, because the heroines in both find themselves torn between two lovers.

But this is where the comparisons should end. Bella and Katniss would have little to talk about. While Twilight’s Bella is the quintessential damsel in distress, Ms Everdeen is far more likely to protect, rather than need protecting.

Katniss kicks butt. Frequently.

After reading the trilogy, I admit I didn’t quite understand the extent of the fervour. When yearning for a female rebel, I prefer the home-grown heroine of the Tomorrow, When The War Began series, Ellie Linton, to the rather emotionally limited Katniss. And while interesting enough, the premise is not particularly original. The series is set in a post-apocalyptic North America where children are made to compete in a brutal, televised fight to the death. The world depicted is incredibly corrupt, the adults all seem absent or deeply flawed.

But it wasn’t written for me, so I’ve asked girls why it resonates with them. The New York Times attributes some of the buzz to the clever use of social media by the film’s marketers. But that alone does not explain it. The answer is more simple – girls are looking for an alternative to the limiting stereotypes our culture keeps dishing them up. And on this point, I hear them loud and clear.

Emily Maguire, feminist and author of the book for teen girls Your Skirt’s too Short, makes this striking observation about how we culturally treat young women.

“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 … 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.”

If the times we live in are toxic for girls – 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 how the media and society choose to engage with young women. We lecture and lament, police and patronise. Rarely do we acknowledge that we struggle with many of the same issues our girls struggle with and many ordinary girls are doing extraordinary things and making sensible, admirable choices.

Katniss is too busy surviving to send provocative messages of herself via text, too committed to leading the revolution to engage in mean-girl gossip. If she goes hungry, it is because she cannot find food rather than because she is dieting. And she is ultimately determined to take down her society rather than let it take her down.

Girls no longer wish to be dished up sugar, spice and all things nice. Nor do they want to be offered faux empowerment via raunch culture.

So what if I found parts of the series laboured and pessimistic? These books have tapped into the real need teen girls have to be viewed as multi-dimensional and fierce and have got them thinking and talking, about leadership and loyalty.

And that’s a win

 

Celebrating the Awesomeness of Teenage Girls

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.”

Nina Funnell, Emily Maguire and Dannielle Miller celebrate the launch of "The Girl with the Butterfly Tattoo"

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.

Danni with her family at the launch.

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.

The Girl with the Butterfly Tattoo: A girl’s guide to claiming her power

The countdown has begun!

Ever since my book on raising teen girls — The Butterfly Effect — came out, mothers and daughters have been telling me they wish there was a version for teens. So I am thrilled to say that The Girl with the Butterfly Tattoo: A girl’s guide to claiming her power is to be released on 1 March!

I loved every minute of writing this book. Teen girls were my inspiration from the very start, and I am bursting with excitement to share this book with them. My aim is to encourage girls to question the limiting messages advertisers, the media and our culture keep pushing: that a girl’s greatest worth is her looks, and beauty comes in only one size and shape. My hope is that The Girl with the Butterfly Tattoo empowers girls to find their strength and be true to their own hearts and minds.

Before the book went off to the printer, I sent it out to several girls for review, and I’m happy to say it received an overwhelmingly positive response. And I am honoured that two feminist thinkers I deeply respect have also put their support behind the book’s messages . . .

Finally a book for teenage girls that does not patronise or attempt to police them! The Girl with the Butterfly Tattoo empowers teen girls to make their own choices. — Nina Funnell, writer, women’s rights advocate and recipient of Australian Human Rights Commission Community (Individual) Award, 2010

Danni Miller is the big sister every teenage girl needs, offering the perfect mix of resolve-stiffening encouragement, soul-touching inspiration and real-world practical advice. — Emily Maguire, author of Your Skirt’s Too Short: Sex, power, choice

To be certain that your girls are among the first to get their hands on this book, you can pre-order (for $19.95 plus $5 postage and handling to anywhere in Australia). Each pre-ordered copy will be signed by me and will come with a beautiful bookmark and Enlighten Education wristband as free gifts. Click here to order now.

For a sneak peak at what The Girl with the Butterfly Tattoo has to offer, check out Chapter 1, “The Battle Within”, for free, by clicking here. I hope that you enjoy it, and share it today with all the wonderful teen girls in your life!

Sugar, Spice and Stronger Stuff

Teenage girls have been getting a lot of media lately, much of it alarmist, with headlines such as ”Do you know what your daughter’s doing tonight?” and ”Lies, scams and deceit — just your average teenage girl”. In on online feature recently, Australian fashion editors had a go at girls for dressing like ”streetwalkers”.

Girls see this media coverage, too, so I guess it’s no wonder they often say to me after an Enlighten workshop that they thought it would be “just another boring lecture about the things we do wrong”.

While we must be realistic about the very real issues that girls are facing, I believe it is just as important to recognise the positives and engage with girls, not alienate them. We need to move beyond finger wagging. I know that Martin Luther King Jr wouldn’t have inspired anyone by declaring “I have a nightmare!”

Writer Emily Maguire’s piece in the Sydney Morning Herald earlier this month, “Sugar, Spice and Stronger Stuff”, touches on this issue and talks about how best to help our girls navigate the sometimes dangerous world in which they live. I am grateful to Emily for allowing me to share an excerpt with you here.

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.”

 

 

We need a reality check. . . . A minority of teenage girls routinely abuse alcohol or illegal drugs. A minority put themselves at risk of social stigma or criminal prosecution by sexting carelessly. A minority of those who are sexually active don’t practice safer sex. But most understand the potential dangers of drugs, alcohol and sex and make choices which minimise those dangers. Those who continue to put themselves at risk need specific, possibly professional, intervention. Impersonal, generalising panic over behaviour is unlikely to change it.

But of course, not all harm can be avoided by even the most sensible girl. There is, for example, the barrage of media messages about their apparent physical unacceptability. According to a 2010 Mission Australia survey, body image is the top personal concern for young people. Sexual assault also remains a major problem with the Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society reporting that 38 per cent of female secondary students have had ”unwanted sex”.

It’s scary stuff. Little wonder that some parents are tempted to lock their daughters in a room free of TV, internet and phone. But one day those girls are going to have to step outside and then what?

Although we wish the world was a safer place and should work to make it so, we need to prepare girls to live in it as it is. This seems obvious when talking about boys: of course they need to learn resilience and determination and rebelliousness against those who would hold them back or harm them. But we’re still so damn precious about girls. We pretend that passivity and fragility are innate, even as we expend a great deal of energy on instilling and enforcing them.

. . .

In her book Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls, Rachel Simmons details the ways in which adults ”discourage the emergence of physical and direct aggression in girls” and ”either encourage or shrug off” the ”skirmishes” of boys. In one study, adults told girls in their care ”to be quiet, speak softly or use a ‘nicer’ voice about three times more often than boys”.

Teenage girls are often criticised for being sullen and underhanded, for resorting to passive-aggressive silences and unexplained bursts of tears, yet we’ve spent a decade or so training them to suppress. What do you do with the natural teenage rushes of emotion and hormones and excitement and rage when you’ve been repeatedly told not to draw attention to yourself, not to argue back, not to speak unless you have something nice to say?

We know girls face a sometimes hostile world and yet we train them to be meek in the face of it.

. . .

If girls are human then they should be allowed to explore the full range of human experience. They should be allowed to look to rock stars as well as pop princesses, pirates as well as sailors, vigilantes as well as stoic victims. They should be allowed to find inspiration in rebels with or without causes.

Fictional role models are a start, but there are plenty of real-life teenagers who demonstrate courage and resilience. Jessica Watson is already a role model for many teenagers, but how about Ellyse Perry who, at 16, played for Australia in both cricket and football? How about Angela Barker who spent her teen years in a nursing home after suffering a severe brain injury and now campaigns for the rights of young people with disabilities? Or Kalinda Griffiths who began her career as an indigenous health researcher at 17? How about the 170,000 young people who are primary carers for parents or siblings?

Poster available at www.enlighteneducation.com.

These kinds of real-life examples don’t just serve as inspiration to teenagers; they serve as a reminder to adults that teenagers of both sexes are capable of much more than our society gives them credit for.

We shouldn’t be surprised. Many teenagers possess powerful self-awareness (the flip side of teenage self-obsession) and a great capacity for constant questioning and insightful cultural critique. What they tend to lack is self-control, the ability to envisage the consequences of their actions and, obviously, life experience. That’s why we adults need to have their backs. We can encourage toughness while offering advice on how to minimise damage to the self and to others.

If a girl knows you’re on her side — that you won’t treat her as stupid or fragile or dishonest or assume she can’t handle anything more challenging than buying top-up credit for her phone — then there’s a better-than-even chance she’ll listen to your advice about when to bite her tongue and when to scream like a banshee. And when something goes wrong, as it inevitably will, it’s more likely she’ll tell you about it if she knows you won’t panic about her lost innocence and vow to guard her with a shotgun until she’s 21.

. . .

There’s the example of the 14-year-old who was at the movies with her friends when a man in his 20s put his arm around her shoulder and asked her to come sit with him. She said no and he went away but she was shaken. Talking it through with her friends, there were suggestions that her outfit was ”kind of sexy” and so maybe she shouldn’t dress like that any more. Others in the group thought that was unfair: her outfit was amazing and she felt great in it. She just needed to be ready for men who thought she was older or looking for a boyfriend or whatever. Together, the girls came up with a strategy: the next time she (or any of them) had an adult man crack on to her she should say — very loudly — ”I’m 14!” and if he persisted, she would — louder still — tell him he should be ashamed of himself for trying to pick up a child.

There’s no doubt the ideas behind this solution came from a thousand conversations with adults and peers and from various forms of media. When it came to the crunch, the girls were able to talk it through, support each other and come up with a strategy that acknowledged unfortunate realities while refusing to cower in the face of them. Talk about empowering.

Unfortunately, when the girl told her parents about the incident, she was banned from going to the movies with her friends. Again, an understandable impulse but the girl feels punished for fighting her own battle and will either stop doing so or — more likely — will be sure to keep future battles a secret.

It can be dangerous out there. We can teach girls to be frightened and meek, to aim to be mere silent witnesses rather than victims. Or we can teach them to fight, not just for themselves but for others who can’t. We can teach them that the world can be terrifying, and that sometimes, they should be terrifying right back at it.


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