Girly Gone Wild

I didn’t reach the age of 45 without kids by accident. In my thoroughly unplanned life, the one thing I always knew I wouldn’t do—aside from bungee jumping—is have kids. So getting into a relationship with a woman who has a kid with her previous partner pretty much catapulted me into part-time unplanned parenthood.

Don’t cringe, this isn’t one of those heart-warming tales of discovery of the joys of parenting in mid-life. Rather, it’s a reckoning with the outrageous levels of enforced femininity on young girls today. From ubiquitous long hair to frilly and sparkly doodads on every piece of clothing and whatchamacallit, the frenzy of uber-girliness and even hypersexiness seems emblematic of the contemporary retreat from feminism. Or post-feminism. Or Girl app 2.0. Or whatever it is I’m supposed to call this era of formal equality dressed in a tween-sized thong with “Juicy” scripted across the front.

With two young nieces, I’ve had glancing interactions with Disney’s princessmania over the past few years. Its idolization of waiflike beauty tends to reenforce stereotypical female weakness and inability to function without a strong male lead, to say nothing of the exoticized images of the few Black and Brown female characters introduced over the years.

But this week—two years into my relationship with a mom—I was stuck having to take an 11-year-old girl clothes shopping. In sum, I’d rather bungee jump.

Exacerbating my troubles is the fact that I have been dressing exactly the same since first grade—straight leg jeans, turtleneck or t-shirt and sneakers or hiking boots, weather depending. In other words, my taste in clothing was pretty much sealed some time around 1972, and, with the exception of a stressful few months in flair bottoms in junior high, I have worn exactly the same outfit my entire life.

What can I say? I’m an unreconstructed tomboy who came of age with Title IX while an 8-track tape of Helen Reddy’s “I Am Woman” blared from my parents’ gas guzzlers.

Since I don’t know how to shop, we went to Macy’s flagship store in Herald Square where every possible clothing style and option is on display on eight floors of mind-bending arrangement. If they don’t have it, I don’t need it.

The kid and I made it past the gauntlet of fragrance spritzers, makeup hawkers and bauble peddlers on the ground floor. This in itself was no easy task, since even though the kid is only 11, a saleswoman explained she could transform my pubescent charge into a new woman, to which I politely explained that she hadn’t experienced initial womanhood to require a makeover yet.

Fashion-challenged as I am, I do have occasion to pass through those ubiquitous everything emporiums—malls—and have noted the fact that even mature women are being pressured to dress like Britney Spears wannabes. But it hadn’t occurred to me how inappropriately tarted up young girls’ clothing has become.

As the author of a political work on sexuality that’s peppered with mentions of fist-fucking and clitoral orgasms, I’m not considered a prude by any sentient being, so take this from whence it comes: There’s something both socially repellent and politically reactionary in the aggressive push to both hyper-feminize and sexualize young girls.

The aforementioned “Juicy” thong in tween sizes really does exist. You can find it next to the plunging necklines of shlinky-shlanky short dresses on the fourth floor of Macy’s if you’re in the market to pimp out your fifth-grader. Now, I understand that not every little girl is like I was, pissed off at the prospect of how developing breasts will get in the way of her jump shot. But under what circumstances is it appropriate for a child who blushes at Glee to show off her budding cleavage?

I recently came across an excellent book by Susan J. Douglas on this topic, The Rise of Enlightened Sexism, a witty, fast read that includes a clever deconstruction of movies and TV shows in a chapter called “The New Girliness.” Douglas is spot-on when she writes:

The turn of the millennium, then, was a watershed era for enlightened sexism. All of these TV shows, films, and books offered a compelling fusion of female accomplishment, girliness, and antifeminism. Indeed, the specter of feminism past was raised to show that it was a musty, petrified ideology that didn’t represent women’s innermost desires, but rather made women shrill, silly, and intolerant, and it repelled men.

The “new girliness” poses itself as radical because it’s offered up by accomplished women who’ve supposedly seen the light, which inevitably emits from a relationship with a man. The sexualization of young girls appears to be, at least partially, about linking even tween girls’ social success to their appeal to little boys. Squint your eyes to block out the iPods and it’s 1962 all over again. Ugh.

I don’t begrudge any girl or woman her mani-pedi or any other other orthodox feminine pursuits. It’s the imposition of these feminine ideals on young girls and women and the accompanying ideology of insecurity, weakness and the inability to function analytically that is so damaging.

It doesn’t seem that we’ll see much change in the current aggressive girlidom without a revival of a women’s movement that not only fights for equal pay and access to abortion and other crucial women’s—and girls’—needs, but challenges the requirement of hyperfemininity that goes along with it.

That’s why I was so enthused to see that a new generation of young women is beginning to call for protests to challenge the assaults on women’s right to choose, even in defiance of many lobbying-focused mainstream women’s groups. And they’ve initiated Slut Walk, which originated in Toronto this past January, and is going global and hitting the streets to take on the oppressively sexist characterization of women who’ve been sexually assaulted.

We have, after all, come a long way baby. So let’s not allow any man—or woman in a peek-a-boo power suit—to push us back.

P.S. The kid decided on black slacks, a black cropped sweater and a sharp blue top with a single rhinestone—her nod to femininity. Then she challenged me to a thumb wrestling contest. I love that kid.

To meet and get involved with some of these young—and not-so-young—fighters for women’s liberation, come to Socialism 2011: Revolution in the Air.

5 responses to “Girly Gone Wild

  1. Sherry, Wonderful story. It is a challenge and I agree that it will take a movement to change these hideous realities. I started step parenting a 10 year old girl who is now 15 and have seen some wild stuff indeed. It’s especially difficult when the other parenting household is way into the wild gear but not into understanding what it means. We’ve had our girly show up at the age of twelve with her hair bleached, at fourteen in heels so high she could not walk, and in all assorted pants so tight that yeast infections became almost chronic. When we provided said child with good reading material on sexuality, “girl power” and picking good friends (age appropriate according to the MD authors and our read) we were accused of being inappropriate (in court no less).
    It’s all very clear to us, but so confusing for a young girl who is trying to figure out if she should be proud of her heritage or be blond instead, be happy that she is athletic and healty or diet to look like the girls on TV, spend her time reading or in the mani/pedi chair. It is heartbreaking to see these fabulous young women concerned with such trivial matters as fashion. A good strong movement will be necessary not only to save themselves from the juicy thong, but also to assure that they will get the education and lives that they and we all deserve. Thanks for pulling this together. We step moms need all the encouragement we can find!

  2. Good article & much important food for thought. However, we must remember to sort out the marketing (saw an article on padded bras for 7 year-olds the other day!!!) and the kid’s taste. I was a jeans & flannel shirt girl, but I’ve made peace with my 8 year-0ld daughter’s attraction to sparkles, lace, ribbons & pink (though she’s in jeans & a Blue Man Group t-shirt today) by making a mental separation for both of us between the wardrobe & the activity. If the wardrobe restricts the activity it’s gotta go, but if she wants to catch frogs in a ball gown,who cares? If she won’t catch frogs because it might get the gown messy or because “girls don’t do that” that’s another story entirely! So far she is happy to collect handfuls of worms, hike, bike, dig, run, jump, do math (well, maybe not so happy to do it but she does!) do martial arts and stand up for herself–and if she wants frilly socks while she’s doing it, well, it’s just clothes.

  3. Love it, good piece. Same reason I do not have children, I live vicariously through my friend’s kids and now a niece. Always curious to see how they deal with growing up with all the damn BS marketed at them.

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