On America and Teenage Girls

If there’s any group we seem to write off in America, it’s teenage girls.

Oh, I know we devalue teenagers in general.  Whenever I read comic strips like Zits, I cringe a little.  Teenage boys are often portrayed as somewhat irresponsible, maybe a little lazy or unfocused; they play too many video games or they have unrealistic life goals like “being a rock star” and they don’t take out the trash and their rooms are a mess.  That, of course, doesn’t give a number of young men nearly enough credit: there are a lot of teenage guys dealing with emotionally difficult situations, who work hard at school, who are dedicated to teams or activities, who are working jobs.  But that’s not really how adults see young men, and it’s not how they’re talked about.

That’s nothing, though, on how teenage girls are portrayed.  Remember the points made in my post about Millenials, about the cover photo of that Time article?  Young women are seen as self-centered, vapid, unfocused; at best they’re pretty faces who might grow up to be something, and at worst they’re slutty, irresponsible, or have “attitude problems”.  The media does its best to keep up this narrative, featuring female characters who are often shallow and petty.  But not everyone could conceivably be Karen from Mean Girls…so where did this come from?

The reality is that teenage girls are hugely undervalued by society.  It’s a brilliant combination of systemic sexism and systemic ageism, a belief that young people have little to contribute and that women are not as valuable as men.  The result is teenage girls who are written off as nothing more than carefully made up dolls with little to contribute.  It’s like a media trope that society has come to project upon real people.

This kind of belief is embedded in everything from our media portrayals of girls to the language we use to talk about them.  We use diminutives when talking about young women, to highlight that they’re lesser.  I still hear adults use words like “teenyboppers” to describe pre-teen and teenage girls.  Say “teenybopper” out loud: there’s NOTHING about that word that implies that the subject of conversation is worthy of respect.  The population the term is utilized for is written off as young, silly, lacking any sense of seriousness.  When we see teenage girls appear in films and TV shows in anything other than a protagonist role, they appear as tropes of whiny, petulant daughters or sisters.  They’re rarely taken seriously, and the message is clear; you don’t need to pay attention to teenage girls.

But the reality is, we DO need to pay attention to teenage girls.  Because the reality is, teenage girls have a lot more to offer than they’re getting credit for.  MORE women aged 15-25 participate in activities such as raising money for charity, engaging in non-political groups, and joining political groups than their male counterparts.  As of 2003, more female college students were likely to have volunteered in the last year than their male counterparts.  (Source: Girl Scouts of America) More women are entering four year universities, and they’re not doing it by texting and painting their nails in class all through high school.  And since we (for whatever reason) expect young people to be ready to make decisions that will impact the rest of their lives by the time they’re 18, the pressure surrounding college acceptance, scholarships, and major decisions is tremendous.  That’s a heavy weight for young women to carry.

On top of that, teenage girls are facing real problems that need to be addressed.  Young women today are navigating rapidly changing expectations about work, relationships, sex, and responsibility, with no clear benchmark for what it means to be a woman.  The result of this is that young women face pressures that their parents may not have, or may face challenges they are unprepared to navigate.  While adults stand by and write these girls off, they’re facing tough choices about sexual activity, going to college, and addressing their health.  Teenage girls are more likely to be victims of relationship violence than their male counterparts, and adolescents are the group at greatest risk for sexual assault.  Teenage girls who are victims of dating violence or abuse at home are also more likely to engage in risky activities such as sex with multiple partners or substance use/abuse.  Fifteen percent of young women suffer from disordered eating activities and behaviors; 90% of those who suffer from eating disorders are teenage and young adult women.  Teenagers in general also suffer from mental health problems such as depression, which often get written off as “moodiness” or “being hormonal” and go untreated, because society has come to accept that teenagers just “have bad attitudes” or “sulk a lot”.  In addition, In 2011, there were over 30 live births per 1000 teenage girls in the United States; teen pregnancy changes the course of young women’s lives in numerous ways, and also desperately needs to be addressed.  These are all legitimate issues that underscore the kind of difficult situations and challenges that teenage girls face-~-all while being written off as “silly”.

And we can’t fix any of those problems until we start treating young women as though they matter.  Until we start telling girls that they’re worth something-~-they, on their own, without boyfriends, no matter what they look like-~-we are never going to be able to address the underlying issues that have come to pose such great barriers to young women.  When young women feel like they need to be validated through things like relationships, or conform to intense social expectations, it puts them at risk to be pressured into things they aren’t ready for, makes it harder to recognize and walk away from dangerous dating relationships, and raises self-esteem issues for girls outside of relationships.  If we are ever going to help young women-~-if we want to empower them to make good choices for themselves, to access their full potential, to grow into strong, successful women-~-we first need to start acting like they are, in fact, intelligent, capable, worthy individuals whose concerns are not just cases of spoiled brats whining about nothing but problems raised by people experiencing genuine struggles.  Teenage girls are going to grow into the women who lead us into the future; we need to start treating them as such.

~ by Randi Saunders on August 27, 2013.

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