Lawrence Downes writes a powerful opinion in today's NYX, "Middle School Girls Gone Wild." Downes describes the shock, the scene at his ten year-old daughter's talent show when a group of middle-schoolers gyrate to Janet Jackson's latest nasty-you-bad-boy, can't-make-a-good-album (Hang it up, please) ditty:
They writhe and strut, shake their bottoms, splay their legs, thrust their chests out and in and out again. Some straddle empty chairs, like lap dancers without laps. They don’t smile much. Their faces are locked from grim exertion, from all that leaping up and lying down without poles to hold onto. 'Don’t stop don’t stop,' sings Janet Jackson, all whispery. 'Jerk it like you’re making it choke. ...Ohh. I’m so stimulated. Feel so X-rated.' The girls spend a lot of time lying on the floor. They are in the sixth, seventh and eighth grades.
Downes wonders later:
What surprised me, though, was how completely parents of even younger girls seem to have gotten in step with society’s march toward eroticized adolescence — either willingly or through abject surrender. And if parents give up, what can a school do? A teacher at the middle school later told me she had stopped chaperoning dances because she was put off by the boy-girl pelvic thrusting and had no way to stop it — the children wouldn’t listen to her and she had no authority to send anyone home. She guessed that if the school had tried to ban the sexy talent-show routines, parents would have been the first to complain, having shelled out for costumes and private dance lessons for their Little Miss Sunshines.
I’m sure that many parents see these routines as healthy fun, an exercise in self-esteem harmlessly heightened by glitter makeup and teeny skirts. Our girls are bratz, not slutz, they would argue, comfortable in the existence of a distinction.
But my parental brain rebels. Suburban parents dote on and hover over their children, micromanaging their appointments and shielding them in helmets, kneepads and thick layers of S.U.V. steel. But they allow the culture of boy-toy sexuality to bore unchecked into their little ones’ ears and eyeballs, displacing their nimble and growing brains and impoverishing the sense of wider possibilities in life.
There is no reason adulthood should be a low plateau we all clamber onto around age 10. And it’s a cramped vision of girlhood that enshrines sexual allure as the best or only form of power and esteem. It’s as if there were now Three Ages of Woman: first Mary-Kate, then Britney, then Courtney. Boys don’t seem to have such constricted horizons. They wouldn’t stand for it — much less waggle their butts and roll around for applause on the floor of a school auditorium.
There is something amiss here; something I've noticed being back in grad. school where I've been "invited" (or just observed) via Facebook at least 3 "porn-themed" parties hosted/created by women. I'm all for women embracing their sexuality; reveling in their body on the dance-floor and wherever else they choose. I'd love it if our society actually glorified a true female sensuality, where women's shapes, curves, desires weren't pigeon-holed into some pre-pubescent, quasi-soft-porn eroticized image. Our view of what a woman can be, how their bodies should be desired is, as Downes points out, "impoverished." Compared to boys and men, girls and women face an incredibly narrow range of what is considered "sexy," while ironically, it becomes more and more acceptable for girls to aspire to be "sexual" at younger and younger ages (as long as it's limited to talent shows. Don't forget the whore/slut tag once adolescence hits if they stray outside the lines).
Plus, as girls hit adolescence, they're offered a wealth of social networking tools - AIM, MySpace, Xanga, Gootube, whatever's next, offering the comfort of connection, of "friendships" confirmed with a click of the mouse. Thus, female teenagers and esp. undergraduates grow up "connecting" to boys, hanging out. I'm all for the liberating potential of new technologies, but I wonder....
Is it any surprise that, newly single, I've noticed an aversion in women under-25 to actually "dating." We'd all rather just hang out, if things become sexual, that's cool (let's fohget how "relating", urr connecting, leads to dating to, uggg, relationships). Tranquilo. I'm down w/ theat.
Eventually, like every other generation, teenagers have to grow up, become adults, decide what relationships they desire. Such a transition is hard enough as couples are now expected to be "life partners" or "friends for life." These relationships require vulnerability, risk, emotional exposure.
We already have, or at least my cousin and I do, a nice first "under-30" marriage rule. These marriages can implode as one partner needs to do a little more growing, a search for meaning/identity that goes in an unexpected direction. What'll happen as real emotional connection becomes a requirement for a generation used to tools, that at least on a superficial level, offer distance from such real vulnerability?
Probably like the rest of us, they'll just have to muddle through it, with possibly a little more, little later heartbreak, which in the end, might only make the heart grow fonder and stronger (or, could it make some psyches more fragile, delicate, more unable, unwilling to bear heartbreak?).
But we should return to the impact on young girls. Will their upbringing be able to resist such powerful forces? Will their identities be stunted in ways no parent, no uncle can resist, at the level of unspoken norms and "naturally" unavailable opportunities for growth, pressuring them to dance like Janet or Britney does? Will their identity be defined by who they date like Bradgelina?
The final question: how will young mothers and fathers - that first MTV generation now raising their own daughters - balance the fact that consumer choices impact identity, that their girls' bodies deserve a full range of opportunities, that the flow, the opportunities, the abundance of life can be closed off much more easily than they can be opened?
Such enclosures - our consumer gods - close off life's opportunities. They are so obvious as to become invisible, convincing us to stand up and cheer as our little girls gyrate away.