The following guest post is by the wonderful Angela Mollard. Angela is a columnist, parent and author of parenting book The Smallest Things. I loved contributing to this post (originally published in Sunday Life, May 25) which is reflective of articles I’ve written on this very theme, including a piece that was published in the feminist anthology Destroying The Joint; Beyond jeering – an unapologetic love letter to teen girls.
Remember when we could barely get through a week without a pity party for Jennifer Aniston?
“Poor thing,” we’d collectively exclaim, as another magazine cover would reveal she was permanently lonely, grievously scarred by Brad, intimidated by Angelina and either pregnant or DEVASTATED by baby loss, often in the same week.
Occasionally she’d find a new boyfriend and the magazines would go on 24-hour bump watch, or she’d get her hair cut and look particularly foxy, and we’d all breathe a sigh of relief and think, phew, thank goodness for that, Jen’s alright.
It’s a thing we do with young women — build them up, obsess about their hair/clothes/boyfriends/character, then when they do something silly, or we get bored, you can feel the global tut of disapprobation.
“What’s that, everyone? An apology for treating me like one big sop story for so many years?”
It happened to Gwyneth Paltrow (Oscars speech 1999) and Anne Hathaway, and right now it’s Jennifer Lawrence — “oh I tripped again, is it still cute?” – who’s about to plummet from acclaim to disdain.
It’s one thing if you’re famous and can mitigate the fallout with a $5 million campaign for Chanel, or a trip to the Bahamas with your 30 favourite besties. But when the scorn and the faux hand wringing leaches down to young girls as a whole, we really need to step away from our assumptions and see them for who they really are.
Because if you believe the hype — and the occasional breathy columnist — girls are in crisis. They hate their bodies, they can’t communicate with boys, they’re obsessed with selfies, they’re the victims of porn-style sex, and they have terrible relationships with their parents.
No one talks about boys like this unless they’re a young footballer running amok, in which case they’re the architect of their own stupidity.
Well I’m calling bullshit, because if every sentence that starts with “girl” then ends with “neurosis”, “body-obsessed”, “eating disorders”, “anxiety” “self-harm” and “social media addict”, we may as well hand-deliver the script at birth and leave them to live it out. Girls can’t be what they can’t see and yet there’s an industry thriving on telling them how badly they’re messed up.
So here’s what I see.
I see girls communicating better than ever. It may not be face to face, but they’re expressing themselves and talking about their lives, whether via Facebook, Instagram, Kik or Snapchat.
Dannielle Miller, author of Loveability: An Empowered Girls Guide to Dating and Relationships, points out that social media has broadened their friendships beyond the school gate.
“Look at Debbie and Sue in Puberty Blues — they either had to meet up or talk on the phone. Today’s kids are powerfully connected and that’s reinforcing their human relationships.”
Yes we hear of girls being “dumped” online or via text, but wasn’t it ever thus? I’ll never forget Mark Munro (sorry mate, but I’ve waited years for this) enlisting his friend. “Angela, it’s Tim here. Mark doesn’t want to go out with you anymore. Bye.” There are still those jerks (of both genders), and long may they be pilloried.
What else? Oh, I see literary heroines aplenty. Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games and Tris from Divergent make Little Women look like, well, little women. But it’s John Green’s The Fault In Our Stars — due out in cinemas on June 5 — that’s become a social media supernova.
Quirky, philosophical and funny, it tells the story of two teens who meet at a cancer support group. Like Love Story, the best-selling book in the US in 1970, it’s bittersweet, but with none of the “love means never having to say you’re sorry” nonsense. The characters, Hazel and Gus, are the furthest thing from clichés, but their love is every teen’s — “As he read,” says Hazel, “I fell in love the way you fall asleep: slowly, and then all at once.”
Granted, one of the agonies of modern love is the public way in which it is played out. Status updates and Facebook feeds give a constant reminder, but as Miller points out, that’s not “teen typical”. As she says: “All of us are trying to make sense of relationships in the age of technology.” Seeing the person you love move on brings pain, but it also grows greater resilience.
Porn? Yes, it’s a thing. But increasingly visible are the messages to counter it. In her school workshops, Miller teaches girls how to set their own boundaries and to challenge the idea that “boys do” while “girls get done”.
As for fears that they lack “commitment” — that relationships are now referred to as “having a thing” — it’s just semantics. As a 21-year-old friend told me: “The idea that we don’t have real flesh and blood relationships is just stupid. Me and most of my friends are in relationships and we talk about our feelings, hopes and aspirations.”
Body image concerns and learning how to protect themselves from abuse remain critical issues for girls. But as Jennifer, Gwyneth, Anne and now J-Law have proved you are so much more than the messages peddled about you.