Monday, August 25, 2008

Book review: What's Happening to Our Girls?

Maggie Hamilton, What’s Happening to Our Girls? Camberwell, Vic., Penguin, 2008.

Maggie Hamilton’s recent book promises to explain why girls today are developing “too soon”. The ostensible answer is that they are being sexualised and inducted into consumer culture from the moment that they can focus their eyes on their first Barbie doll. One thing Hamilton fails to explain is how this process differs from the way in which popular media and ubiquitous technology impact upon boys. Most frustratingly, her book has no semblance of historical perspective. We are told that these changes have happened “in a few short years”. How, then, are we to explain the dramatic difference between today’s girls and girls of prior generations? Or perhaps we could ask ourselves what was life like for girls in the past who married and had children in their teens as the norm or who were sent to work in factories prior to puberty? When Hamilton asserts that girls “are being forced to grow up faster than ever before”, “ever before” seems to discount any period in culture prior to fifty years ago.

There are a number of specific gripes I had about the book that mostly related to a lack of analysis of research material. Hamilton notes that marketing for Barbies used to be aimed at girls aged 6 to 8 but that they are now “purchased for toddlers up”. This is a purely anecdotal example, but my friends and I had Barbie dolls prior to school-age in the 1980s. It does not seem particularly unusual for Barbie dolls to be bought for pre-school girls in comparison with previous decades. Hamilton also glosses over Barbie’s origins as what she terms “a sexy German cartoon figure” (16). Yet she attributes major significance to Bratz dolls, who are deemed to wear raunchy clothing and whorish make-up, in the sexualisation of girls. A serious consideration of the role of dolls in sexualising young girls would need to take greater account of the Bild Lilli doll (the inspiration for Barbie) and its origins as a sexy doll marketed (and priced) for adult consumption. The comment included from a kindergarten teacher that observed that girls “no longer play mother” because Bratz dolls have transformed play to include girls “becoming” the doll ignores a long history of girls playing with fashion dolls (of which Barbie is a long-produced exemplar). Juliette Peers' study of the history of the doll would have been an illuminating place for Hamilton to see how the fashion doll changed play with “baby” dolls more than a century ago.

As a non-academic study, perhaps this lack of critical analysis can be forgiven, but a number of unconsidered statements cannot. On the subject of violence among girls, Hamilton argues that “[f]or at-risk girls, the kinds of heroines found in such movies at Charlie’s Angels and Million Dollar Baby are like role models.” The heroine of Million Dollar Baby (played by Hilary Swank) becomes crippled because of her determination to participate in the male-dominated sport of boxing. Her trainer turns off her life-support system to spare her a lifetime of staring at the ceiling, as she tragically can no longer move or speak. It is hard to imagine how anyone could feel that this film might promote violence among at-risk girls. The simple representation of a girl participating in a violent sport does not necessarily glorify it.

The worst of these offences, however, relates to Hamilton’s discussion of “rainbow parties” in which girls supposedly perform oral sex on boys at parties while wearing different shades of lipstick. Boys purportedly obtained a "rainbow" of lipstick colours on their penises after these free-loving parties. A quick Google search would have reminded Hamilton that information found online should not be taken as fact without some further investigation. The rainbow party seems to be little more than a moral panic or urban legend and should not be listed as symptomatic of contemporary girls' sexual degradation.

Nevertheless, there are some positive aspects to Hamilton’s book. She draws attention to some worrying statistics including one study that suggest that 11 year-olds today score on average two to three years lower on cognitive tests than children fifteen years ago. She also wisely attributes some blame for shopping-obsessed girls to mothers themselves (amongst the hyperbole about five-year-olds with shopping addictions). The book also considers the suicides of Victorian teenagers Stephanie Gestler and Jodie Gater in 2007 with some degree of complexity. Rather than entirely blaming the emo subculture, Hamilton concedes that there were other factors involved in their decisions to end their lives. Nevertheless, there is still a simplistic suggestion that parents should learn about subcultures to “understand what their daughters may be battling with or trying to express”, as if subcultural involvement is a necessary indicator of suicidal or anti-social tendencies.

In sum, Hamilton's work is admirable for the amount of research time spent with girls and those who work with girls. What is lacking, unfortunately, is a critical eye for judging this material and for contrasting it with how girls have been positioned historically and even internationally. As the book's common refrain "local figures are hard to come by" indicates, Hamilton has sought out a grab-bag of worrying statistics sourced from different countries and pertaining to girls of various socio-economic groups. The picture we derive from this scattered information cannot be coherent with no framing context to show us how today's girls are socialised differently to boys or how a Bratz loving, Britney-woshipping tween is different to a girl of twenty or even a hundred years ago.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Girls Gone Tame at the Dolly Awards

The headline reads "Girls' Wild Night at Teen Awards". It is a Sydney Morning Herald story about the Dolly magazine Teen Choice Awards, which were held last night to honour the most popular entertainers for its teen girl readers. I am imagining a rampage. Fuelled by the caffeine of sponsor-provided Pepsi Light (watch your figures, girls!), the exclusively female audience invaded the stage, molested "Pin-up boy of the week" and girlhandled the fragile-looking one from The Veronicas.
When I see the words "wild" and "girl", I also can't help but think of the popular US phenomenon of "Girls Gone Wild" DVDs in which college girls on spring break flash their breasts at the camera and dabble in girl-on-girl erotica. Arrested Development parodied this aptly with its alternate series, Girls With Low Self-Esteem
Anyway, I am about to let you down severely here. This, according to the first line of the article, is what happened at the awards ceremony: "THE crowd screamed like teenage girls at the Dolly Teen Choice Awards last night, reserving some of their loudest cheers for a young actress with an impressive pedigree." The crowd --of teenage girls-- screamed like ... teenage girls. Let's leave the profundity of that statement aside. Is this necessarily "wild" behaviour? Girls have been screaming at events since The Beatles. Possibly they even did so for particularly attractive lute players in Medieval times. My goodness, if all a girl has to do be wild is "scream" and "cheer", what makes a "domesticated" girl? A silent one?

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Olympic Girl Singer "Flawed" in Appearance

Today brings us the news of a Chinese Milli Vanilli scenario. "The girl in the red dress", Lin Miaoke, actually mimed the song “I Sing for My Motherland” at the Beijing Olympics opening ceremony to a recording of the voice of another girl, Yang Peiyi. If we revisit our repressed memories of the spandex-panted Milli Vanilli, the group was comprised of two fit, attractive young men who lacked abilities in the vocal department but were the media front for significantly less-marketable (yet talented) R&B singers.

The difference in this instance is that there was no commercial imperative to relegate the authentic singer to the background of the event. While not “right”, it was understandable that pop music sold to teenagers had to come in an attractive package that could be featured in magazines, included on fold-out posters and salivated over in video clips. Now we are witness to a scenario where it is in the “national interest” for the child performer of a song to be perfectly attractive.

If China could have found its own Nicky Webster, who was considered to have the right combination of voice and appearance for the Sydney opening ceremony, we’d not be commenting on the need for beauty to accompany talent in another area. We could also think of other examples relating to the Olympics to confirm that this is not a peculiarity of Chinese attitudes toward girls and women. Remember the Australian swimmer Petria Thomas and how her endorsements paled in comparison with “more attractive” athletes such as Susie O’Neill, who was admittedly more successful when they were competitors, and Samantha Riley.

The specifics of the choice of the “right” girl in Beijing make some telling points about how we think of girls. Reports suggest that initially a ten-year-old girl had been chosen to perform the song. She was ditched for being “too old”. Yet at seven, our real singer, Yang was evidently too young. One of the key reasons she was not deemed attractive enough to sing in person was because of her “uneven” teeth. Most children go through the same process whereby their baby teeth fall out and adult teeth grow through at an uneven rate until they settle several years later. China did not want a “cute” child with endearing uneven pearly whites, but a child who had the features almost of a woman (in terms of adult teeth), but was still supremely youthful in appearance. Like girlish porridge, ten was too old, seven too young, but nine was just right. 

The girl chosen for her appearance also necessarily had feminine long hair in comparison with Yang’s shorter but practical (and cute) bob. Lin also seems to have more of a wide-eyed look which may not only be about a marker of innocence but privileging of a slightly western visual aesthetic.

Intriguingly, we’ve not had a boy fulfil the role of singer and representative of national identity at an Olympic opening ceremony in recent times from what I can recall (although a boy springs to mind for the Melbourne Commonwealth Games in 2006). Would we value a boy for the qualities of his voice alone? Is it only girls who must look good while they excel at singing and swimming?

While there is some suggestion that Lin did not know it was not her own voice on the recording that was played at the ceremony (both girls purportedly sound "similar", but not similar enough it seems), her media comments about the event are telling. She was delighted with the performance because "I felt so beautiful in my red dress". Like consumers who demand perfect red, shiny apples that turn out to have little flavour, we seem to be applying visual standards over substance in how we think of girls too.

Daring Books for Girls (And Boys)

Behold the long-awaited image of a shelf in the children's section of Foyle's Books in London. Apart from the famous "Daring" and "Dangerous" books are pocket versions and numerous other imitations.
I have received a sponsorship from the University of Melbourne's Writing Centre for Scholars and Researchers to write a popular history of the Girl Guides, so I hope the popularity of these nostalgic books is a strong reflection of reader interest in girls and adventure. As my PhD only considered the origins of the Girl Guides, I'm currently delighting in looking at all the strange and unusual material I can find in Melbourne's libraries on the Guides. The sheer wealth of material is staggering. There's everything from local association recipe books to a handwritten journal of a Guide's trip to an international camp in the 1920s, complete with her own photographs of the event pasted in. My favourite photograph so far is from a newspaper and was reprinted in a Guiding magazine. It shows a warehouse in Queensland full of boxes upon boxes of Girl Guide biscuits. There is a woman and a man sitting atop the boxes enjoying a cup of coffee and eating a biscuit. Yet placed somewhat inappropriately amidst all the Guide biscuit boxes are several cartons of XXXX beer.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Fairy and Princess Indulgence: When Wishes Shouldn't Come True

Monica Dux, a fine former Melbourne Uni-ite, has written a piece in today's Age about the madness that is the pre-school girl obsession with fairies and princesses. Called "Girls Can't Thrive in a Puff of Pink" she muses on why fairy princesses abound at every pre-school turn. As she points out, there's certainly nothing wrong with young girls who genuinely covet pink frippery breaking it out for special occasions or dress-ups, but why do we see so many fairy princesses tagging along for the weekly grocery shop? It's not like the lone boy who insisted on going along to Safeway in his Spiderman pyjamas, there are fairy-ballerina-princesses, complete with wands, at every suburban Westfield Shoppingtown at this moment.

As the poor baby above, weighed down by an oversized crown that she doesn't seem to particularly want there, suggests, this trend perhaps is a reflection of parental attitudes to femininity rather than the children themselves. If girls do begin to desire wings and tiaras, it seems that it is often because we have told them that they should. This is not a new cultural effect, as we've been through the "why are girls given toy ironing boards and kitchenettes while boys get power tools and earthmovers" discussion many times before. I wonder if the fairy and princess obsession is borne out of parental consideration of their child as unique. There is a well-known tendency in children's literature for child protagonists to discover that they are "special". A heroine (or hero)'s uninteresting regulation parents prove not to be her own and the story reveals that she actually has royal lineage or a special magical quality. Just think of Harry Potter discovering that he is really a wizard and can escape (at least for most of the year) dull (and abusive) suburban life with the Dursleys.

Many children have the fantasy that they are just biding time with an ordinary Mum and Dad before their supernatural or magical parents make themselves known. Are the parents of these little princesses and fairies enacting a slightly different form of this typically childhood fantasy? One in which their daughter is actually a princess. A real princess can't be displayed in public in a tracksuit, but must be shown off in a highly feminine, impractical-for-toddlers outfit.

I visited Disneyland Paris last month and was surprised to see so many little girls making their visit to the park dressed in Disney Princess dress-up gowns. Perhaps it was one occasion where a little indulgence would not be inappropriate but I wonder how far the fantasy is indulged and for whose benefit. I can hear the mums of my mother's generation saying "don't be ridiculous" if their girls demanded to go to the shops in a fairy costume. I can't help but thinking it's parenting style rather than girls themselves that are primarily responsible for fairy rings sprouting across suburbia.

As a footnote, the child in the top-right photo is part of a kind of anti-princess photoshoot.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

What's Happening to Our Girls? Same as Always?

I promise to be a good blogger. After three weeks overseas, I am returning to regular posting. I have been buried in Girl Guide books for the past week, but set out this evening to find something contemporary to discuss in my "first-post-back".

I must start out by saying that I find it problematic when people make judgements of books that they have not yet read. I am about to do something of the sort, but am aware it must be more of a comment on the way that this newly published book is being marketed. I will save the review of the substance of Maggie Hamilton's What's Happening to Our Girls for when the book arrives in my mailbox.

Hamilton conducted two years of interviews with teachers, medical professionals and girls themselves in order to "get an insider's view on what girls are experiencing at present, from birth to the teenage years." Professor Ghassan Hage, at a university seminar a month ago, spoke about undertaking years of research, publishing his conclusions in the newspaper and the resultant frustration of someone who has thought about the topic for five minutes saying simply "I disagree". I don't wish to deny the work Hamilton has done here, nor that her research was rather extensive and may support her conclusions. However, some of the promotional information for this book seems to draw on long-held beliefs about controlling the behaviour of women, rather than reflecting any startling new trend. While there are undeniably issues of concern to do with the commercialisation of childhood, the prevalence of eating disorders and sexual abuse, I cannot agree with the statement that "in a few short years our girls have become vulnerable."

The first question posed on the Penguin publishing website for the book asks "Why are girls as young as five years old concerned about their looks and addicted to shopping?" Is this statement projecting some naive version of childhood on today's young girls? From the point at which we can recognise what is considered attractive in our culture, we begin to compare ourselves to others.

As a five-year-old, I knew that my short brown hair was not subject to the same admiration as the long, swinging ponytail of a light-blonde classmate. Why did I feel the need to wear my best dress (bought for a ball) to the opening of a "house" my grade one class had built out of egg cartons? The suggestion in this statement that very young girls have only just begun to be aware of their outward appearance and how it compares to that of others seems to nostalgically recall that girlhood was once a period of innocent, carefree days (untainted by the gendering affects of our culture) climbing trees and collecting tadpoles. The very first magazines for girls published in the UK in the 1880s project a strong concern with maintaining the attractiveness of the body and fashion.

And I must ask if it is even possible for a five-year-old with no income and mode of transportation to have a shopping "addiction". Perhaps a vain parent who wishes to treat their child as an extension of their designer identity, but an "addiction" seems a strong term to use. Incessant nagging does not an addiction make.

The next question the book seeks to answer concerns the twin evils of sex and alcohol: "Why are they having sex and binge-drinking so young, responding to chat-room predators, and bullying their peers via email and text messages?" I must read the book to discover what "so young" translates as. The overall cast of this sentence is that girls are victims more than ever before, and are persecuting one another to a greater extent.

Is teen sex a new phenomenon, or just one that is not as concealed as it once might have been? Can we compare the age at which girls were married in the past and look at the age at which sex is now deemed acceptable (rather than something to be concerned about) in light of changing historical perceptions? This statement is concerned about girls having sex at all. It's perhaps a well-worn point, but the political and media attention devoted to girls having sex and drinking alcohol as a tragedy, compared with the low-volume of comment on these issues as they relate to boys, reveals that when young people drink and have sex it is only considered problematic as it relates to girls. The mere act of girls drinking is troublesome. They don't even need to drive while smashed or get in a fist fight for it to be enough to enact a new law dissuading them from drinking sweet, fizzy alcoholic drinks.

The point about chat-room predators seems a little bizarre in that it seeks to find an answer for the actions of criminals in the behaviour of children. We may as well ask why children used to sometimes fall prey to men who offered them a bag of lollies if they got into their car. Are we blaming girls themselves for the adult creeps who lie to girls online for sexual gratification?

Finally, is an alteration in the media used for bullying indicative of a shocking increase in its prevalence among girls specifically? If email and text messages had been a method for victimising those at the bottom of the high school scrapheap in the past, would they would have been invoked with just as much hierarchical glee as embarassing notes on lockers, vicious rumours and practical jokes? And what about the use to which boys are putting their camera phones? Remember the girl who was sexually assaulted, urinated on and then subjected to a video of the incident being uploaded to YouTube?

One of the key claims of the promotional book blurb is that girls "are being forced to grow up faster than ever before." Faster than girls who once became wives before puberty? Faster than pre-teen girls who were compelled to work as soon as they were able to help support their families little more than a century ago (and still today outside the affluence of the West)? Faster than girls who grew up during World Wars and the Depression?

I'm pleased to see a study of how culture works to the detriment of girls being published by a major publishing house, and will read it keenly and post again afterward. The publicity for What's Happening to Our Girls? nevertheless presents a nostalgic view of girlhood in the past as devoid of sex, drugs and torment about appearing appropriately feminine.