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Mixed Messages

Be tough yet feminine. Belong but be yourself. The conflicting pressures that girls must face can be crushing. And experts say we are just beginning to discover the price that our society must pay.

September 05, 1996|ELIZABETH MEHREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Thirteen-year-old girls steal cars. Fourteen-year-old girls stab each other with screwdrivers. Fifteen-year-olds fight with their hands until one ends up in a coma, all because she slept with the other's boyfriend.

If more girls are committing crimes today, even more are tempted to do so. Life for many young American females is a rough pale echo of what their mothers experienced. The pressures they feel, the traps they avoid or succumb to are in fact greatly different and more dangerous than what even their older sisters faced as adolescents. Teetering between childhood and womanhood, they confront demands--to be tough but feminine, to be cool but an individual--that leave little latitude for error. "At-risk youth" is not just a hackneyed phrase for many of these young girls. It's a cultural understatement.

Equal-opportunity badness--the increased presence of girls in the juvenile justice system--is only one indication of how the lives of young women are changing. Pressures mount even for those who will never confront a cop or a judge. Revisions in welfare law will, for example, greatly affect their status if they are single mothers.

Many of these girls, moreover, are having children. If their own lives lack boundaries of control, how can they possibly be expected to care for a new generation?

A surprising number of criminally inclined young women have been sexually abused, experts are learning. Even more often, because they live in a society where children are highly eroticized, they know far too much about sex and far too little about its potential consequences.

They may wear baby-doll dresses. But look out. When some well-intentioned authority figure tells them to "be strong," they take that entreaty seriously.

Taking note of the quiet, largely overlooked outbreak of law-breaking girls, it seemed appropriate to take a cultural thermometer reading: to check in with some thoughtful observers on the social health of young women.

Michele Serros

At the California Youth Authority prison in Camarillo, Michele Serros' inmate-students had to be persuaded that poetry had anything to do with their lives. But by the end of Serros' 10-week class, there were tears of joy as the girls watched their names typed onto the anthology of their work. Mostly, Serros says, they wrote about redemption. Serros, a 29-year-old short story and poetry writer who lives in Culver City, remembers the surreal occasion when she first addressed the prisoners.

"It was odd, because I was one of five women who were there to speak. The other women, I felt, were very patronizing, telling them to act like young ladies, because once they leave this place, they'll be in the job market--telling them to make sure they wash, wear nice clothes, nobody likes to see a girl in ratty jeans. I was so embarrassed, because I was there in jeans with big holes.

"After I spoke, this group of eight Chicanas--really tough looking, no eyebrows, lots of tattoos--called me over. They said, don't take this wrong, but are you gay? I realized that they thought that in order to read my works aloud, I'd have to have a lot of confidence, be very masculine and that I must be a lesbian. One girl said, 'I write poetry, but I would never share it with anybody.'

"That made me think why there were so many young Latinas there. The only reason I could think of was that there was such a strong communications gap within the family. Things just aren't discussed. My own father, very much machismo, is very tight-lipped. Talking is embarrassing. It brings shame. So a lot of these young girls are getting all their information right on the street. I had one girl in my workshop, she was 13. I found out she was in for killing her grandmother. I thought, wow, she can do something like that, but she could never show me her poems.

"Some girls would shove little hand-written notes at me. Same thing when they would give me their poetry, it was like last-minute, shoved into my hand, with a look that said: Don't show nobody else.

"I remember there was an elderly Anglo woman speaking to this hard-core Chola girl--and she was just listening. That would be wonderful, if more people would just listen to these girls--not be so biased, not make assumptions. When I held up my book [a collection of short stories called 'Chicana Falsa,' published in 1993 by Lalo Press], it was a very big deal to see the Spanish surname on the jacket. The girls who were clicking their tongues and rolling their eyes when I was introduced as the poetry teacher, those were the ones who at the end of the 10 weeks were sending me notes saying please come back, we don't have a lot of women like you. I think they were just happy because I was Latina, and I wasn't a security guard."

Lisa Krueger

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