A Modest Proposal
Girls Gone Mild: Young Women Reclaim Self-Respect and Find It’s Not Bad to Be Good
by Wendy Shalit
Random House. 352 pp. $25.95
Wendy Shalit’s charming, moving, sometimes heartbreaking new book has dispiriting news for men over forty: now is an even better time to be a male adolescent on the hunt than when we were boys. It seems that the word “no”—the sound of which became familiar in response to our own adolescent importunities—has dropped out of the female vocabulary. Today’s girls have become so inured that, simply to be agreeable, they willingly yield to boys’ demands without feeling the least desire themselves.
What is more, according to Shalit, the institutions that formerly supported girls in their hesitations and demurrals have now, to a greater or lesser degree, abandoned them. For girls still “on the fence” about sex, the family, the schools, the mass media—even the feminists—too often conspire to push them off. As Shalit tells it, describing the case study of a fifteen-year-old whose boyfriend is pressuring her for sex:
Everyone—the pediatrician, the school nurse, the girl’s therapist—is encouraging her to use birth control. Her mother is looking for a doctor who will recommend abstaining from sexual activity, but she can’t find one. She keeps hearing, “The kids are all doing it anyway; you’ll be saving her life.” Today it is nearly impossible to find a medical professional who cares enough to ask a girl, “Why do you want to go on birth control?” Or to take the time to point out, “If he’s pressuring you for sex, he probably doesn’t love you.”
The consequences of this sexual complaisance are, for girls, dismal—as Shalit copiously documents in a book based both on extensive interviews and on a thorough familiarity with the literature. Thanks to their encounters with boys, sexually active (i.e., promiscuous) girls are more likely than their virtuous peers to suffer from depression, to cut or otherwise mutilate themselves, to attempt suicide, to become victims of bullying, or to become bullies themselves. There is among girls a measurable falling-off of self-esteem, of self-assertion, and of happiness.
These are well-established facts, and surely they had something to do with the gradual and salutary drop-off in teenage sexual activity and pregnancy rates in the 1990’s: the emotional price was just too high. But as has recently been reported, the decline appears now to have halted, for reasons no one can specify. Shalit’s own answer would appear to be that, for many girls, culture is still a stronger determinant of behavior than either reason or instinct.
At some point, she suggests, it was “decided” that the natural tendency of young women to become emotionally attached to their sexual partners was a pathology that had to be overcome. Enter the “bad girl” phenomenon, a logical extension of the feminist notion that girls are exactly the same as boys in all things, including in all things sexual. The bad girl—glorified, for example, in the commercial video franchise Girls Gone Wild as a hard-drinking, hard-partying, aggressively and vulgarly sexy exhibitionist with no constraints on her behavior—enjoys all the privileges and prerogatives of young men.
Or at least that is the fantasy. In real life, unfortunately, she has little or none of that other male sexual quality: cold-bloodedness. The result has been a steady decrease in female freedom, female self-respect, and female individuality—and a steady increase in female misery.
And the good news? Shalit’s evangel is that, spontaneously, many girls are beginning to resist—rediscovering the virtues of self-assertion by rejecting the expectations of others to be “people-pleasing bad girls.” She introduces us to dozens of representative “girls gone mild” who have not only decided to dress and act more modestly themselves but have actively pressured department stores and mail-order businesses to offer less vulgar fashions for younger teens and lobbied schools to stop recommending overtly sexualized books to their students.
She is also confident that these girls speak for many more, and she rests that confidence not only in the proven example of her own subjects but in the power of the unleashed female instinct, even in the face of parental denial, indifference, or disapproval. Shalit quotes one of her correspondents:
I told my mom, you know, “I’m really proud of myself,” and she was like, “What?” I said I’m proud of myself for getting through at least, like, most of high school, and like staying clean you know, like, without any moral scars and things like that . . . and she was like, “Yeah, I know.” She totally blew it off but it’s really the most important thing.
This is a telling anecdote, for more than one reason. Most of us, having been teenage children ourselves, can easily believe that teenage children are capable of any sort of self-degradation. The “bad-girl” phenomenon, taken on its own, is thus understandable enough. Nor is it something new on the sexual scene—bad girls ye shall always have with you. But if it has assumed proportions today that were once unthinkable, that is because it is backed not only by the entertainment media but by legions of parents, teachers, librarians, psychologists, magazine editors, toy companies, editorialists, and other professional kibitzers, all of whom have become complicit in the degradation Shalit describes.
Shalit’s villains—like the figure of Satan in Paradise Lost, they are, in truth, among the more fascinating characters in her drama—are almost always figures of authority, people who have a claim to superiority by virtue of their age, their role as parents, or their professional status. They include the male professor who suggests that a female student “dress more provocatively,” the upper-middle-class do-gooders at NOW who refuse to condemn Girls Gone Wild, the middle-school teacher who encourages her girls to prepare simulated lap-dances for student recitals, “mothers defend[ing] see-through shirts, fathers rally[ing] for cleavage during the school day, and Catholic schoolteachers advocat[ing] for miniskirts.”
In Shalit’s re-creation, the vulgar sexualization against which her heroines struggle is thus in most cases something imposed on them not so much by their peers as by adults, in an act of imperialism de haut en bas. It is the authorities who have gone wild, and the young who suffer.
Frequently, black girls are the ones who suffer the most. In the words of Rashida Jolley, an African-American activist cited by Shalit:
People like to stereotype African-Americans as animalistic or whatever, and . . . say we don’t have control over ourselves. . . . Those same individuals . . . make an assumption that we are just going to have sex anyway, and we aren’t capable of anything else.
There is also a perverse form of class snobbery at work. The particular expressions of female sexuality permitted or encouraged share a style for which the collective term is trash. Tobacco Road has come to Main Street, Park Avenue, and Sheridan Road. And this is an enormous innovation. For centuries, when it came to dress, family habits, tastes in art and culture, or educational ideals, children were urged by their parents to act like gentlemen and ladies. In pre-World War II movies, plucky typists played by Irene Dunn, Greer Garson, or Bette Davis carefully ironed their fluttery blouse collars so as to become the social equals of their bosses and avoid being high-hatted by their prospective mothers-in-law. Even a sluttish Joan Blondell in Three on a Match could be a lady and marry Warren Williams; she did not need a Swiss finishing school for the purpose, just an ironing board.
Ten years ago, Elizabeth Wurtzel, in a now-forgotten book, proposed a replacement for these antique ideals: the Long Island “bitch” Amy Fisher, who at the age of seventeen attempted to murder her older boyfriend’s wife, wielding a different kind of iron for the purpose. On a less lurid scale, parents have freed girls from expectations of lady-like behavior by giving them “Bratz” dolls for their tea parties and inventing the affectionate term “prostitots” for their little darlings.
Why? Shalit describes the process in horrifying detail, but does not ask what has driven it. Her young heroines, standing up to the demands of conformity and vulgarization, are indubitably courageous, and wise beyond their years. Still, the question remains: after generations of feminist lectures on female empowerment, after study upon study of the disempowering damage done to women by their so-called sexual liberation, why do the “sisters” still turn away in disdain from this mini-movement for “mildness”?
Shalit’s book has been attacked by one feminist critic for suggesting that the sex act “should have an everlasting warranty of love attached to it.” To the contrary, writes Nona Willis-Aronowitz in the Nation, all girls should realize that sex
is the ultimate risk, a risk that makes human relationships complicated, intoxicating, and wonderful. It is a risk that women are finally allowed to take without being chastised for it.
Or, as Shalit herself quotes a feminist lawyer barking: “I am very suspicious of telling girls they need to be morally good—that’s sexism right there!”
Protecting young girls from harm is sexism, while dissuading them from virtue is—virtuous? Confronted with this seeming paradox, trying to explain it rationally, an amateur anthropologist might begin by recalling the reason for the existence of sexual repression in the first place: namely, to civilize the world within the household. Conducive to this civilizing purpose is the often explosive sexuality of adolescence, which directs the nubile or sexually ready child out of the home and into the world to find an exogamous mate and continue the dance, founding another household and starting another generation—which must, for a time, be once again repressed.
But now we live in an age in which social organization and technology have worked a profound change in the nature of human households. We have ordinary households with two working and often absentee parents, with economic equality between men and women, with no separation between the spheres of men’s work and women’s work—and with a high and unremarkable incidence of divorce. Could it be that, in these circumstances, parents are, with reason, more anxious than ever to prepare children for life outside the home—a home that may not exist in a year or two? If so, then perhaps all this dressing-up of their little elementary- or middle-school girls in black fishnet stockings, miniskirts, partly revealed thongs, and cerise halter tops—this exercise in turning them into “prostitots”—is a rationally defensible means of preparing them to survive in a world where courtship is non-existent, chivalry dead, and marriage meaningless, where a man’s contribution to the family is fleeting, and where female aggressiveness toward other, rival females is to be taken for granted, a matter of expedient common sense.
End of thought experiment. If there is anything to it, then more than one book, brave and wonderful though this one is, will be needed to help turn us around. But Girls Gone Mild is definitely a good place to start.