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.

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.