Thoughts on teenage girls, ‘Living Dolls’, sexuality and power on Women’s Day 2016
Some Thoughts about teenage girls, sexuality, power and Living Dolls on International Women’s Day
The other week I stopped two fifteen year-old girls taking duckface, cleavage selfies in a history lesson. The drill was automatic: straightened hair to the front, shirt semi-unbuttoned, eyes wide and pout. The photos were not for the benefit of their families that’s for sure.
Shortly after this, four girls aged about 19-23 joined me around the table of a train on the way back from London…it was 6pm on Saturday evening, they were playing Bieber/R&B on public mode fom a phone and rooting around for lost eyelash glue while shouting. They were uniformly dressed the same – black body-cons finishing at the knicker-line, heavy make-up and cleavage that might look glamorous at the Oscars but out-of place at Kings-Cross on a freezing February Day unless you were sex worker. I asked them to turn their music off public mode: ‘excuse me, it’s been a really long day, so do you mind turning it down a few notches? Thanks’ before putting my own earphones in.
Surprisingly, they wasted the rest of the journey to Peterborough bitching about me, while I pretended to zone out to Sounds of the Rainforest – ‘Aww look at her bless, she’s so small…work work work.’ They thought I’d done a hard day’s slog in an office rather than a play-date with actors in a studio. I started looking at them neutrally and realised, regardless of any moral compass, that the involuntary pity worked both ways. I felt sorry for them, (I presumed from the tower in my world that their sense of release was limited to sex and Saturday night drinking) and they saw me as someone disempowered. From the tower in their world, I was missing out on Saturday night drinking, Bieber (What Do You actually Mean?) and ‘getting lively’ in a group like theirs. I don’t know if they appreciated the six/seven-year age difference. I was stopping them from ‘getting lively.’ Bizarrely, my original impulse to tell them off like a teacher on duty was replaced by the feeling of being ostracized on the school bus in 1998.
Where was their power derived from? There is obvious power in dressing to foreground your sexuality…and its specific. It specifically alerts heterosexual men to your availability as a sex-object and because of that will incline many of them toe the line, dance the dance and walk the tight-rope necessary to getting closer to that object. It is a costume of manipulation. Were these girls baring as much flesh as is legal in a public place to ‘feel sexy for themselves?’ No. There is nothing inherently wrong in leading with your sexuality when relating to the adult world, but there was something about the uniformity of how they presented, the discomfort they must have felt (I was cold in a shirt, tank-top and coat) and the many layers of makeup and fake bits they had applied that unnerved me. My students were promoting one aspect of themselves to launch upon the virtual theatre of Instagram/Facebook and twitter like driven PR machines. This Amazonian army I sat next to were emphasising one aspect of themselves so strongly that they transcended the rationale of place and purpose and the extreme qualities of their exposing costumes belied the hidden reality of their natural selves. But their outward confidence was fully embodied and I’ve no doubt that their performance of sexuality would be tagged ‘self-expression’ and maybe it is…of one, narrow self. I’ve always wondered if, in the context of modern mating, a man can think clearly enough to identify and question a woman’s other selves/facets when that one, animalistic framing is offered so strongly. Does looking beyond become impossible or irrelevant? I guess I’ll never know.
These two episodes reminded me of Natasha Walter’s very brilliant book ‘Living Dolls.’ Published in 2010, it addresses the hyper-sexualized media-culture we live in and how the new feminism, perhaps exemplified by nineties ‘girl-power’, has given validating rhetoric to performances of sexuality tailored specifically to men rather than the identities of women…at least, that’s how I understand it. She says:
‘…focus on independence and self expression is now sold back to young women as the narrowest kind of consumerism and self-objectification.’
There’s a clear anecdote in the book about her trip to see ‘Bratz’ the movie. Most of the pre-adolescent girls who saw the movie with her that day loved the storyline of fashion, flirting and The Bratz local fame as budding pop-stars. One girl was disappointed that ‘they didn’t go on an adventure.’ Walter suggests:
‘But there aren’t many adventures on offer in this part of our culture, in which the main journey of a young girl is expected to lie along her path to winning the admiration of others for her appearance.’
With this in mind, the image projections of my students and those girls on the train could be aligned to the aspirations of a stereotypical fifties debutante ‘look at how attractive I look…so please want me, want me, want me.’ If I was allowed, I’d like to ask my students to identify with their bodies less and themselves more. I’d like to say ‘you are not your bodies; your bodies are one window to yourself.’ It is fun to be fashionable, it is fun to be sexy, although bare flesh and sexiness are not synonymous. But what happens when life doesn’t reward you for those things? What happens when generations identify with their bodies so much, with reference to the virtual theatre, that the ‘body-project’ overrides relationship to the larger world? Disappointment? Disenchantment? Dissafectedness? It’s a case for education isn’t it?
Happy Women’s Day! T