“America’s favorite shame machine, Lindsay Lohan, has embarrassed herself yet again! …Look away now if you don’t like to watch people throw their dignity in the trash..”
Look away now if you don’t like to watch the media revel in shaming young female celebrities. The above quote wasn’t lifted from of the plethora of “trash” mags, but rather from online site Jezebel, a site that claims to be offering “celebrity, sex and fashion…without airbrushing.” No airbrushing but, it would seem, with an extra dose of female venom – or, as we like to call it, fem-ven. Sadly, Jezebel is not alone in reveling in dishing up the dirt on young women.
Much of popular culture perpetuates the idea that young women can simply not be trusted, particularly if they have money, fame or any kind of power. Think everyone’s favorite targets; Lindsay Lohan, Miley Cyrus, Kim Kardashian… Going by all the recent reports which document young women stripping off and partying on, you would be forgiven for thinking that young women are simply out of control.
Think too of the more troubling way in which teen girls are presented by those who are supposed to have their best interests at heart. How many books on teen parenting have featured either surly looking misses with arms folded on their covers, or titles which claim to help parents “survive” adolescent girls (please note – girls aren’t carcinogenic).
The general consensus seems to be that girls are running wild and must be tamed, or shamed- stat!
Never mind that teenage girls are considered more mature than their male counterparts. Never mind that girls continue to outperform boys academically. Never mind that girls aged 16 to 24 are safer drivers and have higher tertiary enrollment rates than boys in the same age group. And don’t even consider the drastically lower incarceration rates of young women compared with young men.
The problem is not that young women are irresponsible but that the media is interested only in the few who are.
The moral panic over young female celebrities is so intense that many people forget that in some ways young men are more at risk than young women, yet curiously there is no moral panic surrounding the boys.
As women who work with teen girls on a weekly basis, let us reassure you – it’s not that amazing young women are not out there. Young women are doing great things. The problem is one of visibility. The media rarely reports on young women in an affirmative way. Apart from the odd report of a young female sportsperson or aspiring fashion model, there is surprisingly little on offer.
As a young woman, unless you fit the category of innocent virgin, or vulnerable victim the chances are the media will vilify you. But why is there such a witch-hunt for young female celebrities? Just as many young male celebrities take drugs and misbehave. Hello almost every rap star / gangsta wannabe on the planet! Hello Charlie Sheen!
So why the double standard? And how does the double standard fuel the moral panic over girls as vulnerable and highly susceptible to negative influences? More to the point, are paternalistic offers of protection really just veiled offers to control girls?
The sexuality of teenage girls produces a cultural anxiety that results in the social scrutiny of young women’s bodies and behaviours. When teenage girls develop curvy bodies and active libidos they can no longer be neatly categorised by those who would prefer to view them as asexual beings. This unsettles many in the community.
Some then deal with their anxiety by projecting it back on to the bodies and actions of young women through extreme regulation and control. Some men police young women as a way of policing their desire for them. Similarly, some older women who are threatened by younger women’s sexuality deal with this anxiety by trying to police them.
But the vast majority of teen girls have not committed any crime and are guilty of nothing more than testing boundaries and trying to make choices in an increasingly complex, adult world. When we work with young women they tell us they are sick of being “lectured”, told off for “doing everything wrong” and policed.
Setting boundaries is vital but let’s stop the vitriol and panic and aim for a more empathetic, strengths based approach to raising girls. Let’s respect the competencies they bring to discussions and let’s build on their capacity for ethical decision making.
The real crisis? The fact that we are further alienating and isolating our young women by perpetuating a self fulfilling prophecy that all girls will be difficult and deviant.
This post was co-written with Nina Funnell. Nina is a social commentator and freelance opinion writer. She works as an anti-sexual assault and domestic violence campaigner and is also currently completing her first book on “sexting,” teen girls and moral panics. The post was first published by US site Feministing.