When I was a freshman in college, I wrote an essay for a writing class wherein I described myself as being a “girl.” I was eighteen years old, a burgeoning writer, naïve in many ways but generally adept at language. The word seemed precise, if not necessarily inspired. My professor, a white man in his late twenties, whom I have slightly more empathy towards now that I am in my late twenties, pulled me aside and told me he was uncomfortable with my usage. “Girl” evoked a kind of innocence and vulnerability he thought it best I distance myself from as a young woman in a university. The word was x’d out in red pen and “woman” was squiggled definitively on top.
This moment, very early on in my writing career, cemented a kind of truth that, ten years later, I still have not entirely come to terms with as a writer—that the “girl-self,” in all of its messy incantations, is something to be avoided if one wants to be seen as a serious person existing in the world. The experience of the young female character is both lauded and held in considerable contempt in equal parts in our culture. One of the claims leveraged against the “girl” as a kind of icon in 2012 is that the representation lacks a fundamental kind of authenticity, that real women are not vulnerable little creatures and that girls who are to be admired are as edgy and aggressive as their male counterparts. This attitude toward a particular brand of female identity is as closed-minded as saying that a drag queen should resist the tropes of adult womanhood, or that a butch lesbian should resist more masculine dress and behaviors. For some women, myself included, girlhood made a very real and visceral impact on my experience as a person coming into the world.
Earlier this year I read Caitlin Flanagan’s newest book, Girl Land, aware of the feminist controversy surrounding it. In her book, Flanagan argues that the experience of female adolescence is unique in its emotional breadth and scope, that this coming-of-age is biological, rather than cultural in origin, and that we are not serving girls well if we ignore the fact that the experience of female adolescence is marked by increased vulnerability. Certainly, this specific experience of female coming-of-age is not entirely universal. But as someone who has taught girls, who used to be a girl, and who still identifies with my girl-self pretty strongly, I found the emotional core of her book honest and important. Flanagan’s book charts a particular experience of femaleness that is both fetishized within our culture, and also held in serious disdain.
While the experience of girlhood that Flanagan charts may not be universal, it is still an experience of the world that is often devalued and ignored. Women are taught to get through girlhood as quickly and painlessly as possible, and most feminist discussions of female adolescence have been marked by seeing girls as either victims of societal pressures beyond their control, or champions at resisting these pressures. Flanagan’s assessment of girlhood as a very real human experience that is a result of physical and psychological changes, rather than social pressures, is incredibly taboo in feminist circles for reasons I understand, but that I think ultimately hurt women. Even if the experience of girlhood that Flanagan posits is limited in scope, in that her portrayal of girlhood throughout the book is generally cisgendered, able-bodied, white and middle class, she provides ample evidence that while American culture has changed its views on girlhood based on social mores and changing attitudes towards the girl as an icon, the needs of girls of every generation, for a safe introduction to the world of adulthood, has stayed pretty much the same.
At the end of last year and the beginning of this one, two young women interested in exploring identities steeped in girlhood were simultaneously made famous and torn down. The reason Marie Calloway and Lana Del Rey are polarizing figures in our culture has less to do with their perceived lack of talent (lots of young male writers and musicians produce art that is still in its formative stages) and more to do with their embodiment of this particular brand of “girl”—soft, gentle, interested in love and human connection. The fact that this experience of girlhood is habitually de-valued among intellectuals, artists and academics is unfortunate and a sign that we clearly have become a culture where women are empowered to make choices, but only those choices that best mimic the experiences of men.
One only has to look at the language surrounding female characters that we are supposed to hold as role models. We are allowed to love the heroine of the new Pixar movie, Brave, because she resists these traditional girlhood ideals. Katniss from Hunger Games is praised for being a huntress, while Bella from Twilight is dismissed for having a high school crush. My interest in bringing up these two stories is not to comment on the actual storytelling (hating on Twilight in liberal, feminist circles is about as controversial as dissing George W. Bush or standing up for the rights of baby seals) but to focus on the way that our current culture continues to actively dismiss the feminine as having any experiential value or importance at all. This is very important when considering the results of VIDA and how female writers are being presented and represented today. If we continue to dismiss whole swaths of female experience as inherently lacking value, we will continue to relegate burgeoning girl writers to chick lit; we will, in other words, keep telling women who don’t fit our model of appropriate girl behavior to sit down and shut up.
The continuous debate in feminist circles about what choices constitute feminist ones is really about grappling with our history, how to respect it and how to, perhaps, eventually overcome it. This debate is often falsely characterized as a merely generational one between second- and third-wave feminists, but I think the issue is significantly more complicated than that. In seeking to tear down the film industry’s reliance on female stock characters, we often actively remove agency from women who fit the model of archetypal femininity. Nowhere is this phenomenon made more clear than in the lambasting of “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” characters, where any affection for traditionally feminine things is automatically seen as inherently pandering to male desire or illustrative of a character who does not have individual agency or autonomy. We’ve become comfortable as a culture undermining gender norms by playing with traditional stereotypes. Katniss is lauded as being a feminist symbol, by virtue of the ways she undermines femininity, while Peeta is praised for undermining traditional masculinity. I’m unconvinced that this type of play is inherently subversive or effective in dismantling stereotypes.
In the opening line to her song, “Roman’s Revenge”, Nicki Minaj aggressively barks, “I am not Jasmine/I am Aladdin” as a way of signifying that she is no sidekick. In order to inhabit this particular kind of power, Minaj, who generally plays up a highly sexualized and feminized image, has to disavow the female character and take the male’s name. Is this a sign of flexible gender roles or a sign that the female is still commonly regarded as the second sex? If the dialogue regarding Marie Calloway and Lana Del Rey is any indicator, the reality is, whether we like it or not, probably the latter.
True agency will come from allowing women to write their experiences without punishing them for doing so. This doesn’t mean not being critical of writing itself, but it does mean not automatically dismissing writing that doesn’t bluntly or unequivocally empower women to be a certain way, or critique a past that didn’t enable women to get to the point where we are today. This is why I find films and books that underscore the lack of empowerment for women in the past so inherently problematic. In continuously positioning the aggressive, anti-feminine female (who still looks, I might add, pretty, young, and feminine) as being the height of empowerment, we fail to acknowledge the way our culture still holds the female figure in contempt. We enjoy watching Peggy from Mad Men grow up and spread her wings, fluttering away from the sexism rampant in the 1960’s advertising world where she works, in part because it makes us feel safe, sure that our path is one of real progress.
At a get-together recently, several friends and I all played a game where we had to come up with a time in the past we would like to live, or which great historical figure we would like to be. This game is terrifying as a woman. We have to augment the reality of that past to find a place for ourselves within it, or pretend that our female-selves could be male figures, since 99% of the time throughout history it has been men whose stories are considered important enough for us to listen to. Did the girls and women who lived through these generations feel that way during the times they were living? Do we feel that way right now? The fact that women can now behave in more stereotypically aggressive and masculine ways doesn’t change the fact that the “feminine” is still generally dismissed as being weak-willed, stupid, or caving to a particular kind of male gaze.
The truth is, in 2012, we still have no idea how to write about, or even talk about ways that women can act as moral agents because, in our heart of hearts, we as a culture don’t believe they actually are. Female agency, the idea that women are moral actors operating in the world, is only demonstrated, interpreted, or analyzed in response to male agency. This is a problem that impacts other aspects of fiction writing and filmmaking, including the inclusion of minority characters who are consistently tokenized, rather than championed as individuals. We believe that women and minorities are allowed to take center stage only if they represent a particular frame of reference. We say that a particular female character reflects the ways in which any and all female characters would react, as opposed to the way that this particular female character reacts, and in doing so we make female characters stock characters, rather than full flesh and blood human beings.
I am in my late twenties now, the tail end of my girl years. The girl-self has actively informed my identity for as long as I can remember. Like all identities, mine is strongly informed by how the outside world perceives me. I’ve enjoyed the privileges of girlhood, and also the challenges that come with the territory. As a young professor and writer, I’ve sometimes received advice about ways to kill the girl-self, to hide her away from view. Don’t use “I feel” statements. Don’t show too much emotion. Don’t wear clothes that are too feminine. Be blunter than you may want to be. Don’t smile too much. As if girlhood is a natural disability that must be overcome if one is to find strength as an adult. But the experience of being a young, feminine female isn’t necessarily disempowering unless we tell ourselves the common story that this experience of femininity is silly, frivolous, and meaningless. We get messages all the time telling us that we have to make a choice between strength and femininity, and this dichotomy seems to have strengthened over the past decade. Perhaps this is due to the past ten years of war, which has led to the increasing idealization of traditional masculinity. And the Internet age probably has a lot to do with it as well: the compartmentalization of our political beliefs, our pop culture interests, our moral, religious, and philosophical mores, seeing the world in terms of absolutes. Will I visit Hello Giggles or Jezebel? Will I define myself by “liking” cute dresses or samurai swords? The more Google streamlines our searches and markets to us based on algorithms that seek to illustrate who we “really” are, the more we are shaped by how other people seek to define us, and the more young women are positioned to define themselves in pre-crafted models of who they can potentially be.
Of course, these trends affect everyone, men and women alike, but I think they are particularly dangerous to young women who already are afforded such a small slice in the collective discourse. Caitlin Flanagan’s assertion that girls might need the space to write in their diaries, rather than post online, was met with disdain by a number of reviewers who argued that closing girls off from the world is always dangerous. In reality, I think we could all benefit from taking a step back and giving ourselves the time to define our emotional selves through something other than a public, digital space that seeks to tell us who we are for the explicit purpose of marketing us our own identities.