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.

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