If girls are made of sugar and spice, the spice must be hot pepper flakes--or so it would seem from the run of bad press they have received this summer. A spate of new books tells us our daughters are mean or aspiring to be, sexually aggressive or about to be, wilder than we want to think, downright nasty and as self-doubting as ever. We seem particularly eager to read about the mess we have made: Check any bestseller list and you will find teen girls in trouble.
"Fast Girls: Teenage Tribes and the Myth of the Slut" by Emily White provides, according to the jacket copy, "an in-depth look at the girls who were labeled high school sluts"; Sharon Lamb's "The Secret Lives of Girls" includes 125 interviews with girls and women about a hidden world of aggression, power plays and sexuality; and Rachel Simmons, author of "Odd Girl Out," focuses on what she calls "the back alleys and hidden corners of girl bullying."
Even an author like Rosalind Wiseman, whose book "Queen Bees and Wannabes" deals with both boys and girls, finds herself categorized as a "teen-girls-in-crisis" writer. At a recent National Coalition of Girls' Schools conference in Rhode Island, Wiseman, co-founder and president of the Washington, D.C.-based Empower Program, told her audience that her book was less about the myriad ways girls fall short of the mark and more about how to teach teens to work together in a collaborative, cooperative atmosphere. But, she said, interviewers and reviewers tend to focus only on the part of her book dealing with girls' inhumanity to girls.
Why the sudden obsession with female adolescent angst? Girls are actually doing quite well, thank you, attending college in greater numbers, taking their rightful place in the previously male-dominated worlds of math, science and technology, and competitive athletics. Things seem to be going well--except on the bookshelf. There must be something else going on here.
Perhaps it's this: We are still too quick to consider girls the second sex. We assume that whatever they are doing, it is wrong. They eat too little or too much; they are too silent or they wage verbal warfare. Somewhere along the way, they must have hit a nice stretch on the continuum, if only we had bothered to tell them.
Our initial concerns were genuine; 10 years ago Carole Gilligan and Lyn Mikel Brown sounded an important alarm about adolescent girls and their sinking self-esteem. But in our guilt at having missed the early signs of trouble, we seem to have overreacted. Now we take the approach that girls need to be closely monitored, lest they slip another problem by.
As eating disorders became commonplace--the topic of movies-for-television--we watched for new crises to confront. Self-mutilation held our interest, but only briefly, and now we have moved into the more promising field of psychosocial difficulties. The potential is tremendous. A girl no longer has to show physical symptoms to be branded a troubled teen. All she has to do is exhibit some of what used to be considered typical transitional behavior, and she risks being pigeonholed.
Of course these problems exist. They break parents' hearts and girls' spirits, and they require our compassion and attention. The question is, are they as pervasive as they seem? Ask a teenage girl and you might be surprised at how angry her answer is.
I recently spent a year at Marlborough School, a private girls' school in Los Angeles, and at the Young Women's Leadership School of East Harlem, a new public school for disadvantaged girls in New York City, researching a book on single-sex education. If the students I met are any indication, girls do not see themselves the same way the headlines do, and they are sick of their bad reputation. They would like the world to know that good girls exist, and that the aberrational behavior we read so much about does not represent the majority.
They reject the pathologizing of girlhood--the notion that almost anything a girl does is by definition abnormal. While I was at Marlborough, cultural historian Joan Jacobs Brumberg spoke to students about her research into girls' self-image and how it had changed in the last 100 years. She spoke of what she called an epidemic of "bad body fever" among today's teenagers--a preoccupation with good looks rather than good work. She talked about narcissism; she encouraged the girls to think about the larger universe.
Parents and faculty loved the presentation. The seniors who met with Brumberg afterward did not. They were tired, they told her, of being tarred with the same old brush; they were appalled by girls who obsessed over losing five pounds and keeping their boyfriends. They wondered at the illogic of adult expectations: In addition to being excellent students, they were supposed to eat healthily, get enough exercise and make a commitment to good grooming--but if they did so, someone was sure to accuse them of worrying too much about their appearance.