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.

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