In my last blog I talked about how many of the most interesting and important new faces in Feminism are teenage girls and how they are quickly coming into their own at the forefront of the Feminist movement. It is perhaps not surprising that so many teenage girls are becoming active and vocal Feminists, because teenage girls as a group are probably more in need of Feminism than almost any other.
As anyone who follows popular culture and the news can tell you, society does not think much of teenage girls. They are stupid, whiney, over-excitable, hormonal, boy and celebrity obsessed, shallow, materialistic, annoying, spoilt brats who these days wear far too little clothing, are too promiscuous and are desperate for attention. To be told you are acting like a teenage girl is an insult and has become a by-word for behaviour that is irrational, emotional and obsessive. In particular, the types of media that are heavily marketed towards teenage girls are the target for a great deal of vitriol. The hatred professed for artists like Justin Beiber in the comments section of youtube videos and elsewhere is hard to separate from the fact that his fan base is heavily made up of teenage girls. There is also a great deal of resentment when teenage girls openly express a liking for types of media that are not traditionally marketed towards them. The concept of the “Fake Geek Girl” is a manifestation of this and I witnessed it recently in the reaction of some Doctor Who fans to the announcement of the casting of Peter Capaldi as the next Doctor. They declared themselves pleased that an older actor had been cast, so that the fandom could be rid of teenage girls who only watched it because they found the Doctor “hot”. Their assumption was that the many teenage fans of Doctor Who were not proper fans, they only fancied Matt Smith. The result is that teenage girls are stuck in a double bind where they are condemned both for liking the media that they are “supposed” to like and the media that they are not.
Teenage girls are in actual fact one of the most vulnerable groups in our society. According to RAINN, girls aged 16-19 are 4 times more likely to be the victim or rape, sexual assault or attempted rape than the general population and the Rape in America study carried out by the National Victim Centre suggested that up to 60% of women who have been raped were under 18 years old at the time. They are also extremely vulnerable to abuse within relationships; in the US, around 1 in 3 teenage girls are subject to physical, verbal or emotional abuse by a dating partner. As well as rape and sexual abuse, many teenage girls are subject to street harassment and catcalling. My own personal experiences of street harassment suggest that teenage girls are often targeted specifically for harassment. I found as a teenager that I received more, and more threatening harassment while in school uniform than I did out of it. I was more likely to have men try to talk to me on the street, I had men follow me onto buses or stare openly at my body. Often apologisers for street harassment try and claim that teenage girls get harassed because they look or dress older than they are. But if that is the case, why was I harassed while in school uniform, the unmistakable sign of someone who is under-age? Why do I experience less street harassment now as a 20 year old than I did at 15 when I am more likely to be wearing “revealing” clothes in public? My view is that teenage girls are targeted because they are perceived to be less able to fight back, less likely to protest their harassment, to shout back, to call the police and are more likely to be scared and ashamed when they are catcalled. Potentially this is partly why they are so vulnerable to sexual abuse as well, because they are seen as easy targets. For street harassers whose aim is to assert their dominance or to disturb or scare women in public, teenage girls are an easy target. What has struck me most is how scary and disturbing unwanted sexual attention and street harassments is for very young women. They are still essentially children, but receiving sexual harassment largely from fully grown men when they are still in very early stages of understanding their bodies and understanding their sexuality. When a young woman’s first introduction to sexual attention from men comes in the form of catcalling and harassment from adult male strangers, what are we as a society teaching her about her body? About sexuality? About men?
Recently, there has been a disturbing trend, in particular here in the UK, of blaming teenage girls who have been sexually abused by fully grown men for their own abuse. In August, a 13 girl who was the victim of sexual abuse by a 41 year old man was described as “predatory” by the Judge who passed sentence on her abuser. Other public examples of victim blaming have been all too common in the wake of allegations of sexual abuse by Jimmy Savile and other television stars at the BBC in the 1970’s and 1980’s. Eddy Shah, who was arrested and charged with the rape of school girl, claimed that teenage girls who were sexually abused by celebrities were “to blame”. And in the US, there was the recent case of the 14 year old girl raped by her middle aged teacher was described by the judge as being “in control of the situation” and “older than her chronological age”. She committed suicide three years after her rape. The idea that teenage girls are to responsible for their sexual abuse, tempting fully grown men into wrong-doing is a deeply entrenched one, and one that discourages victims of crime from coming forward, and creating social acceptance for child abuse. The lack of social stigma about the sexual abuse of teenage girls is such that Roman Polanski, who was convicted of raping a 13 year old girl before fleeing to avoid incarceration, was given an Oscar for Best Director. And in 2009 over 100 of the film industry’s most influential people, including Woody Allen and Martin Scorsese, signed a petition for his release when he was arrested for the crimes in Switzerland.
This form of victim blaming is at heart due to the relentless sexualisation teenage girls in every form of media sexualisation It is completely commonplace and in the UK, it has become a national joke that each year on results day, newspapers will fill their pages with images of pretty, blonde teenage girls, preferably in vest-tops or summer dresses, hugging each other or jumping ecstatically. This is disturbing enough when the young women are receiving their A levels, but when there is a similar trend for young women receiving their GCSE’s, it takes on an even darker light. The Daily Mail has also come under frequent fire for its sexualisation of teenage girls and children. It recently described the 8 year old daughter of Heidi Klum as a “leggy beauty” and in 2011, it printed semi-naked photos of the then 17 year old singer Taylor Momsen. In 2010 a photo of the then 17 year old Miley Cyrus which showed her underwear captioned “Extra Hot” was printed. The irony is considerable since the newspaper frequently publishes articles complaining about the sexualisation of teenage girls, while simultaneously being one of the worst culprits of it in mainstream British media. And if you ever need a single example to demonstrate how sexualised teenage girls are, remind yourself of the fact that “Teen” remains one of the most popular search terms used for porn worldwide.
Society as a whole teaches teenage girls that their sole worth is to be sexually attractive to men, we ignore or mock their interests and intellectual pursuits but then we trap them in a double bind. When teenage girls do attempt to live up to what society tells them should be; sexy, attractive to men, they are mocked and bullied. The phenomenon of “revenge porn” and frequent incidents where teenage girls have had sexually explicit of naked photos or videos of themselves posted online without their consent or had the threat of it used against them has lead to tragic consequences, with young women committing suicide due to the harassment they receive. Media criticisms of “selfie-culture” has also been largely focused on young women, labelling teenage girls who post pictures of themselves online as an example of the shallow, appearance and attention obsessed nature of the younger generation. It is no accident that the controversial Time Magazine cover on “The Me Me Me Generation” featured an image of a young woman taking a picture of herself on an iphone.
We, as a society, and we as Feminists owe young women so much more. Individual young women such as Tavi Gevinson and Malala Yousafzai are doing huge amounts for Feminism and the cause of women’s rights in general, and we need as adult Feminists need to have their backs, and the backs of girls like them. We need to start making teenage girls a priority, we need to focus on creating a world where they are not sexualised at an early age for the consumption of older men, but are given the tools and space to safely explore their own sexualities in their own time. We need to create a world where a girl’s first experience of sexuality is not via harassment, cat-calling, assault or rape. We need to create a world where their achievements and passions are not mocked or resented and where their involvement in popular culture and Fandom’s is valued for the vibrancy and imagination they bring. We need to stand up and defend them, challenge the assumption that to be a teenage girl is to be shallow, overly-emotional, and desperate for attention and shout the great things that they achieve from the roof tops.
Alexandra is studying History at the University of York and will be entering her second year this autumn. She is the founder and president of York Feminists, a Feminist discussion group at the University of York.