A Dive into Seventeenery

It’s the magazine my mom urged me to get back when I was twelve and having mean girl issues with some of my friends. “I know it’s for older girls, but it seems like it’s about the stuff you’re facing now.” She was right. And I think that was intentional.

For my girls’s studies exploration this week, I’m taking a peek at what makes Seventeen magazine tick. In truth I haven’t cracked a teen magazine since my baby sister was in middle school. (I got fed up after two sentences, scoffing that there’s no way a thirteen-year-old really wrote the Who Wore It Better blurbs.) Before that, I think my last teen mag went out with dial-up. That really dates me, but you get the idea.

As I buzz through the relationship and life advice on the Seventeen site, I find what amounts to a mixed bag and total jumble of stuff contributing to our society’s ideal of girlhood. Most telling—to me, anyway—is the navigation menu. First comes Celebs, then Fashion, Beauty, THEN Life, then Prom. Organized, no doubt, for the topics’ popularity and clickability, the section is a revealing look at what teen girls are accessing when they come to Seventeen. The hierarchy is pretty clear, and it’s odd that the great articles about applying for college or decompressing after stress are hidden four deep under Life, while a parade of pretty stuff drowns out the first three spots. Not that there’s anything wrong with Pretty. It just could stand to switch places with Life.

One article that I’m a little on the fence about is titled “Hero Boy Carries Around Tampons and Pads to Support the Girls at His School.” On one hand, the guy is a high school kid who seems to have been making an earnest attempt to support girls. The article tells a decent story of a guy who believes in gender equality and squashing the idea that periods are icky and verboten as far as conversation goes. He’s really trying to make a difference here, but the article talks about detractor bullies who have attacked him for his menstrual solidarity.

But hang on. Why is this thing calling him a hero? For starters, there’s the hero/damsel trope, which hyper-girlie culture seems to love. When girls stand to face the horrors of menstruation, here comes a prince to save them. At the heart of this “hero” business is the idea that girls need a gentleman to swoop in and save them when they’re unprepared for their own flow. I’d like to think the “hero” bit was added tongue-in-cheek by the editors in a reflection of the relief that shoots through any girl who’s ever gone to school and realized too late that she needs a pad. But I think that’s just where the problem lies: Should we just be saying things, like “This guy is a hero!” if we don’t really mean that? Doesn’t that kind of thing just perpetuate the idea that girls who read Seventeen are helpless without their male allies? Most of the teen mag readers I knew as an adolescent were among the smart girls at school. After all, they were the readers. So this hero/damsel dichotomy didn’t really apply to them. This, to me, is a weird headline that promotes an unrealistic and culturally backward ideal of what Seventeen readers are and how they should relate across gender lines.

But at least, it is neat that we have guys finally talking about periods without freaking. So that’s a win.

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Bookish Broad Strokes: I Am Malala

malalaI have two Kate Spade journals, and it was really hard not to bring home another one when I came home from City Creek this weekend. Mine are both black, in a shout-out to my love of simplicity and elegance. One says “Leave something to the imagination” in a gold sans serif, and the other is a hand-lettered quote: “With freedom, books, flowers, and the moon, who could not be happy?” The latter holds a series of terse notes from books I’m reading, perfect fodder for a blog post series. The more you write down what you read, the more you remember. It’s a goal I have, to be able to remember things as keenly as my dad remembers how they moved Abu Simbel when the new dam went in.

Enter my journal, and the things I want to remember about my most recent read, I Am Malala: The Girl who Stood up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban.

1. Malala Yousafzai was named after an Afghan heroine—Malalai of Maiwand—who inspired defeat of the British in the Second Anglo-Afghan war. Malala’s father gave her that name to reinforce his teaching that girls are to be praised and valued in society every bit as much as boys. He has worked for all of Malala’s life to ensure that she understands her value and uses her voice to make her world a better place.

2. Pakistan was created as an Islamic state in 1947 after India gained its independence from British rule. Mohammad Ali Jinnah founded the new country as the world’s first Islamic state with a keen sense of religious freedom in the new territory. A series of overthrows gave Pakistan periods of both dictatorship and egalitarian rule, where citizens cycled between brutal and unfeeling leadership and egalitarian legislation.

3. Benazir Bhutto was the first female prime minister in the Islamic world, and she was eventually assassinated for her participation in the public sphere. Malala takes her example as a call for girls everywhere to feel at ease as leaders and educated thinkers. When I looked up women in leadership across the world, it’s interesting to note that many Middle Eastern countries are well ahead of the United States for women’s representation in government. The United States is below Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq but is only slightly ahead of the quite westernized UAE. Bhutto and other Middle Eastern women representing bravely in their governments really gives me pause about how the west views the east as inherently backward and uncivil toward women as authority figures. We are still waiting for our first woman president here in 2015 United States.

4. In Pashtun culture, white is a masculine color.

5. Malala’s father correctly notes that Maryam is named in the Koran when detractors try to say that women are not named there, deliberately, because they do not deserve a public voice. This is Mary, mother of Jesus of Nazareth, who is a prophet in the Koran. Malala and her family have a knack for pointing out how Islam isn’t one big bad omen for women and shouldn’t be enforced that way.

6. Malala notes that thing about Khadijah—the prophet Mohammad’s first wife—being a once-married, older, savvy business owner, whom Mohammad worked for and adored. It goes to show that there are so many examples of strong women in Islam (like Aisha dictating hadith), and how the Taliban’s militancy often overlooks the positive light in favor of patriarchy and control. The piles of money in the book’s glossy picture spread show why this is a thing.

7. Malala’s pen name for her anonymous blog project was Gul Makai, from a Romeo and Juliet–esque Pashtun tale in which the girl, Gul Makai, plays a huge role in convincing the parents that the union is okay. Malala’s girl power and feminist activism comes from a very informed place and bears nuances that mark her as a revolutionary in world discourse on girls.

8. Against all literary elitism, Malala is both a Nobel Prize winner and a Twilight fan.

9. People can talk all they want about Malala only gaining worldwide recognition because she is a girl who was shot. At the end of the day, the fact remains that she engaged in so much brave activism before she became a target that she scared the Taliban into taking action to silence her. They took away her country and (temporarily) the nerve that made her smile, but they haven’t taken her voice or her faith in a better Islam.

10. Malala’s region of Pakistan experiences what it does because too few people speak up.

A Look at MTV’s Sixteen and Pregnant

This week I encountered another MTV gem for the first time: Sixteen and Pregnant. The episode I watched dealt with Iowa teen Farrah, a high school cheerleader. The show chronicles her trip from teen with a boyfriend, to single mom.

At the opening of the episode, Farrah announces in voice-over that she will be tackling the pregnancy solo. As she thinks through her options—keeping her baby or putting her up for adoption—Farrah goes against her ever-logical mother’s recommendation of adoption. From this point forward, it’s all on Farrah, with a little support from her family.

“I don’t want to sound needy, but how much…would you help a little bit?” Farrah asks her mother one night after staying up with the fussy baby. Wanting to teach her daughter independence, Farrah’s mother steps back and leaves the ball in her daughter’s court. As a single, first-time mom, Farrah realizes she’s bitten of a hefty amount of physical and emotional stress that is much harder to tackle than she’d hoped.

As the episode progresses, we see Farrah arguing with her mother, the accused “control freak” who believes she is doing her best for her daughter and granddaughter. The whole thing sets Farrah into tears more than once, and her sign-off reveals a less-than-happy ending to the show along with a hopeful ideal of the future. Through it all, the young mother is happy that she is now raising her child. She knows that it’ll be a long road, but she’s committed to teaching her daughter everything she needs to know.

“I want her to know what’s a good relationship and what’s a bad relationship,” says Farrah, of her new daughter, Sophia. The baby’s father had been the jealous type, and Farrah broke it off when she learned of her pregnancy because she herself understood the difference between having a jealous boyfriend and being alone. This feminist inclusion surprised me, based on my expectations formed by the other MTV reality shows I’ve seen. It struck me as progressive to show a teenager who not only grapples with being a single mother but does so at her own choosing, with the understanding that tackling parenthood alone is better than forcing a two-parent situation with an abusive or jealous partner.

On the other hand, Sixteen and Pregnant as a whole seems to follow the typical scripts about teenage pregnancy: that teenagers underestimate the work and responsibility involved in caring for a child (as with Farrah’s episode), or that having a baby even within a happy, committed relationship isn’t as easy as it looks (as with another episode, featuring teenage Tennessee mother Maci). The episodes seem to touch on good and bad, focusing on parenting hardships like scraping together enough money for the baby, and making decisions about personal schedules as well as the very choice of how the baby will be raised. When comparing the show to a documentary-style piece, The Gloucester Eighteen, it’s interesting to note the holes that MTV leaves in the pregnant teen narrative. The most striking difference to me was that in the Gloucester profile of eighteen girls who became pregnant during the same school year, most seemed to be of middle or working class, while the MTV girls are—unsurprisingly—from affluent families. The MTV perspective shows well-made-up girls of means (is that—yes! A smokey eye and updo in the delivery room!) making choices about whether to keep their babies, working desk jobs while still in high school, going to college as a matter of course, receiving free daycare from family, and driving around in nice cars that they didn’t necessarily have to pay for. One girl featured on MTV gets a two-level apartment with her boyfriend—noting that she had to save up for the microfiber furniture—and another girl lives in her poshly decorated bedroom on the upper floor of her parents’ slickly restored Council Bluffs bungalow. The teens featured in the Gloucester documentary, however, have jobs at places like bait shops and Dunkin’ Donuts. They have to quit high school, while the MTV girls I saw both went on the accelerated track to graduate and head off to college. Finally, coming from more affluent means, I presume the MTV girls had more access to information about safe sex than one Boston-area girl featured in Gloucester, who lacked any information about sex and became pregnant at twelve.

All of this is not to say that MTV didn’t try to convey how hard teenage pregnancy is. There are moments in the show that seem to glorify pregnancy just a little bit—having a fun baby shower with lifelong girlfriends, or announcing that the teenage boyfriend has proposed with a rock bigger than most adult women receive. But for the most part, the intent seems to be to get teen viewers to walk away during the credits, going, “Soooo glad that’s not me.” It’s just that maybe there’s more to illustrate than the plight of cheerleaders who have well-off parents and the prospect of working at the lucrative family business, sans professional skills or college education. They hit on the basics of teen pregnancy prevention—letting girls know that babies are money sponges, watching a girl tearily smear her eye makeup after realizing she can’t take her baby to the gym—but they fail to mention the important stuff that can keep girls from being thrust unwittingly into that situation in the first place: the politics of sex ed in US school systems, or the availability and affordability of child care. The tone of Sixteen and Pregnant feels less ridiculous and ever so slightly less scripted than other reality fiascos, so it seems to me that MTV has undertaken an earnest push to nip teen pregnancy in the bud. The MTV website does offer information about safe sex and links to a Bedsider.org video describing available birth control methods, but none of that is mentioned at any helpful length in the show itself. I think to make this show stick with teenagers—I mean, as something beyond a fun soap opera experience—MTV would do well to mention more prevention than dwelling on the financial and energy-driven side of going to bed a teen and waking up, a mom.

My Super Sweet 16

Mysupersweet16“It’s Shika, bitch.” A burst of glitter dances off the screen to reveal this week’s featured sixteen-year-old on MTV’s series My Super Sweet 16. It’s the network’s teenage answer to inexplicable hits like Toddlers in Tiaras and Jersey Shore, a visual escape into the real lives of entitled teenage girls. Reality TV remains popular with teens and particularly girls. It’s a way to see outside of their own social circles into the glam of someone else’s. But for all the show’s ritz and drama, it’s worth a shot for teenage girls to question why this thing is on the air.

On the face of it, there isn’t much wrong with following around a teenager in party-planning mode, chronicling her journey from little girl to the momentous and sexy destination of womanhood. The coming-of-age for girls event is widely celebrated in American culture, reaching everywhere from the sweet sixteen itself, to the religiously grounded bat mitzvah, to the culturally significant quinceañera. There’s a lot to be said for gathering friends and family in a show of mutual support for girls as individuals, a celebration that’s totally separate from the only other big celebration in life: marriage. That said, this isn’t really what’s going on in My Super Sweet 16. And the effect is profoundly damaging.

Today was my first experience with the show, and aside from the major feminist red flags of excess, vanity, entitlement, and overall bitchiness running rampant through the docudrama, the most glaring pitfall about the show is its mode of delivery. The show is billed as reality TV—a term I use very loosely. It’s fairly common knowledge these days that all reality TV is just a big, scripted mess that only exists because some TV producers stumbled upon a gem with shows like The Real World that underpaid aspiring actors to fumble through some day-to-day drama while purporting to be “just living” in front of the camera. Most adults are familiar with the drill: Executives churn out these shows faster than most of us can watch them, and when you compare today’s reality TV with that of the nineties, it seems that the production value is steadily decreasing. The drama is all staged, and the people in the show are just acting, a dimension that seems particularly transparent when you have to find high-school-age contestants. Everything feels fake, and the scripted drama fails to land, giving the educated adult viewer little reason to believe that what she is seeing is real or even worth taking in.

For kids, though, it isn’t quite as clear cut, and that’s where the damage comes in. While it’s valid for girls to want to see other girls their age starring in their own TV shows—as a nod to the fact that their voices are being heard on an international scale—it’s manipulative for adult executives to market a disingenuous product like My Super Sweet 16 to them. Many teenagers are smart enough to see through the facade (that the diva who demands a $150k diamond necklace isn’t really as diva-ish or unreasonable as she performs on screen). But, the show is insulting to those girls in its assumption that it will be viewed as “reality.” In addition to selling girls short, shows like this one do a disservice to the girls who don’t fully understand the show’s fabrication by showing them that it’s okay to be not only entitled and demanding but also cruel and shallow in the pursuit of getting what you want (the party). It takes the positive ideas of something like a quinceañera, a celebration of coming of age and a loving tribute, and uglies it up into a falsely progressive world where the girl is taught to get what she wants using extremely negative means. In the Yashika episode specifically, the party’s theme is Diamonds Are Forever, a campaign that could just as easily be a corporate-driven ad placement (I’m looking at you, De Beers) as the misguided infatuation of teenage girls who are not only tied up in the idea of matrimonial diamonds but also have zero regard for the cost—not to mention the politics—of owning something that exists only to bestow value on its wearer.

More than the obvious damaging content (the diva, the fake drama), the peril ultimately lies in the fact that this is what MTV thinks of their teenage girl market. With all of MTV’s experience breaking out as a new and subversive media outlet for teenagers, this is how they see half of their market?

Erin Learns a Lesson

Kirsten arrived on Christmas. She was a pretty blonde from out of town, sporting a blue prairie dress and an amber necklace. She was smart but a little hard to understand through her thick Swedish accent. Plus, she’d been grieving. Her best friend had been claimed by cholera on her way over and was buried at sea, so even though Kirsten tried her best to have a good time in her new home, anyone could tell that she had a lot on her mind.

The moment I laid eyes on the American Girl books, I was hooked. I remember milling around my grade school library, an eight-year-old looking for something smart to read. It was a tough age when it came to picking out books. I was too big for picture books but not quite ambitious enough for the Brontës or even Louisa May Alcott. But I liked history. And I did not like reading about boys all the time. When I saw a cover featuring this blonde Swedish girl smiling up at me from her life in the 1840s, I knew these books were for me.

KDMC_main_1The Kirsten books were my first experience with the enormously successful American Girl franchise. The doll came later. Having burned through stories about Kirsten, Molly, and Felicity, I found myself sleeping over at a friend’s place—who, looking back, was one of two children and came from a family that was used to spoiling itself. My friend walked around her family’s Midwestern farmhouse with Samantha, the Victorian doll, tucked proudly under her arm. “She comes with the checkered dress, but I also got the party outfit,” Erica said, beaming. “I’m asking for the sailor outfit for Christmas.” A few weeks later, my first American Girl catalog arrived in the mail, and I made a weekend of circling what I wanted and placing my notes indiscreetly before my mom’s dinner plate.

When I look back on my first eighty-dollar doll and her pricey wardrobe, I’ve bounced back and forth about whether I should see American Girl as a positive or negative force for girls. Like anything marketed to children, the company seems to offer good ideas mixed with bad habits.

It’s no small accomplishment that American Girl has been responsible for lighting a flare for reading in little girls. The chapter books are an easy read and have enough illustrations to keep even beginning readers interested. The books dwell in history, revealing social and political dimensions to girls who may not otherwise receive those messages in context. My first time reading Molly I was introduced to the concept of gender stereotypes (Molly’s World War II–era class donated to the war effort by having the boys collect scrap metal and the girls knit socks), and my first read through Samantha showed me the disparate conditions of the wealthy heroine and her best friend, who had to work at a factory so her family could eat. Today, an American Girl reader can learn about girls from the 1760s onward, with a variety of races and traditions represented. The dolls offer diversity that is both historical and contemporary, and the catalog even takes a whack at ableism by offering a doll-sized wheel chair. When a girl connects strongly with her book, she buys the doll, a tool for helping her to actualize the positive stories she’s read and become actors in the drama of play that helps girls develop into who they’ll eventually become.

In addition to the books and dolls, American Girl released a magazine in the early nineties, featuring articles on how to be better friends and community members—just like the figures in our American Girl books. Growing up, I owned an American Girl play kit, complete with script and prop suggestions, so I could gather my friends on the playground and act out a scene that was both historical and good for our collective self-esteem as growing girls. That day I played with girls who I didn’t normally play with but who loved American Girl, so the play helped me build the confidence I needed to expand my social circle.

All of this says a lot for a contemporary toy company, but it makes sense to a feminist critique to dig a little deeper. While I still position the books as extremely positive and fairly diverse tools for girls’ intellectual development, I struggle to look beyond the idea that the books are really just ads for toys. While most every middle-America kid can name the author of Harry Potter, most would be hard pressed to name just one of the American Girl writers, whose names are de-emphasized for the sake of promoting the brand as a monolith. The cynic in me catches on this minimizing of who actually wrote the literature as well as the dolls’ push for materialism among the youngest of female consumers. American Girl has a handful of megastores in the United States, each one catering to what seems to be mostly affluent, mostly white families who can afford not only the pricey doll and endless permutations of accessories, but also the cross-country trip involved in the visit.

“The place was packed, and everyone had their dolls. They brought one out for me to have tea with,” my dad said, after taking my younger sisters to the Chicago store. “It was unreal.” The underlying message issuing from the stores is that American Girl is a special rite of passage, that middle-class American families can be expected to provide this enormous expense for the sake of their daughters’ happiness. My dad saw the store as a fun experience that you sort of owe to your daughters to provide (at least in his case, where the store is only an hour away). And he may be right—it’s all just a good time. But the materialism behind it all tells me that I should at least be careful, if not outright damning, about the message.

The doll itself also comes with gender and social expectations that can be confusing for girls. For starters, the original three dolls were all white and all came from the middle (or upper) class, an idea that clearly illustrates who American Girl thought of as the “American Girl.” The dolls also present girls with the ever-present programming of learning to be mothers over their toys instead of interacting with them as peers—the dolls emulate tween-age girls but look more like toddlers with their adorable tooth gap and self-closing baby-doll eyes. Finally, the whole point of the dolls is to make money, and it’s staggering to realize how much parents are willing to spend to give their daughters a slice of the American Girl experience. This idea instills, at an early age, that not only is shopping fun but it is also necessary in order to fit in with a desired peer group. American Girl seems to have taken an age group that was relatively unmarked by fashion must-haves and expensive fads and introduced an expensive product that these girls must own in order to fit in.

At the end of the day, I see the franchise as, for the most part, another benign addition to aisles of girls’ toys that teach them to perform femininity, and teach boys not to (unless you’re in your fifties, taking your daughters and their dolls to tea). For all the good the books brought me, and for the little bit of socializing that came from owning the doll, I’ve always seen American Girl as more of a positive force in my life than a negative one. But I still wonder why all our parents’ eagerly bought these tokens of affluence and social belonging for us, when just a few years earlier, they would have waved away our requests for some other piece of eighty-dollar junk. Is the doll and the superstore something I’d do for my daughter? Are the dolls really a special rite, or just eighty-dollar excuses to take people’s money? I’ll probably always have questions. Either way, today I’m a feminist, with fond memories of my pint-size Swedish immigrant, lazing in the closet with her anachronistic saddle shoes and a doll-sized iMac.