I’m going to list a few things and I want you to think about how you feel about those things. Twilight. The word “like”. Moscato. Constantly being on a smartphone. Frappuccinos. Rom coms. Excessive eye shadow. Crushes. Gossip. Queen bees. Valley girl voices. YA fiction.
If you’re like many people you probably rolled your eyes at a number of these things. They might have come across as juvenile or vapid. Excessive. Unnecessary. Self centered. Stupid. This was a list of things that I associate with teenaged girls. It’s not uncommon for teenage girls to be a stand in for all that we dislike about the world. We use them as shorthand for immaturity or self centeredness or an obsession with looks and popularity. Most particularly when we want to imply that someone is attention seeking, we tend to associate them with teen girls (either directly or by saying they’re acting “high school”, which really tends to mean “high school girl”).
Now to some extent we brush off all teenaged experiences. Teen boys tend to get pigeonholed as lusty sex addicts, and when we want to talk about stupid choices it’s a go to to mention the teenage years. But there’s a special derision in American culture for the teen girl, that chattering, high pitched voice, bleached blonde and straightened hair, and the uniform of Uggs and leggings for pants.
Teen girls are considered far more youthful than boys, more frivolous. Where boys are sexual and/or aggressive, girls are air headed. And yet teen girls are considered the epitome of femininity: once you hit about 21 you’re starting to get past your prime as a woman. We idealize young women’s bodies and then dismiss all their preferences, abilities and thoughts, so that the best thing a woman can be is at a stage in her life when we don’t take her seriously in any way.
It’s far too easy to veil our sexism under the guise of criticizing teen culture. It’s far too easy to say that Twilight is stupid without thinking about why young women are interested in it, what it does for them, or how it interacts with larger culture. It’s too easy to dismiss vocal affectations as annoying, obnoxious, or stupid sounding when there is nothing inherently worse about them than any other vocal pattern (ask a linguist!). Let’s stop and think for a moment: what’s actually wrong with wearing leggings for pants (and cut the slut shaming before you answer)? What about speaking with a high pitched voice? Bleaching your hair? Reading about romance? Of course the answer to all of these questions is a resounding nothing. Sure, some of these things might be affectations or putting on airs as a way to fit in, but if high school is not the period during which you experiment with different versions of self, then what is?
As Dianna Anderson points out, many times we act as if we’re criticizing things for being youthful or overly simple (in this case YA fiction), but that oftentimes the things we criticize have as much variety and depth as any supposedly “adult” version (e.g. sweet wines or internet speak). Further, she notes that oftentimes there is a huge category that gets lumped into one negative stereotype because it is associated with women (in this case, YA fiction encompasses a huge number of books in a wide variety of genres and styles, but because it tends to have more female authors and to be geared towards women, it is dismissed).
Sure there are things that deserve our criticism that happen to be marketed towards young women (see the aforementioned Twilight series). But too often we just criticize things because they are for young women, as if it’s a crime for teenage girls to have tastes that aren’t All Serious All The Time. And beyond simply being unnecessary criticism, it also plays into sexist notions of women as vapid, bubble-headed, juvenile, and stupid. It tells us yet again that women have to perform femininity but when they do they’re not as good as men.
Screw that. Young ladies? Like what you like. Go drink a damn frappuccino, giggle a lot, paint your nails in bright colors, and read whatever the hell you want. There is nothing wrong with being young and female.