Why Teenage Girls Are Everything That We Love To Hate
By Jessica Pishko
The teenager is inextricably tied to the twin evils of sexuality and capitalism.
“I’d rather do anything than treat teenage girls,” a psychologist friend once told me. He said that teenage girls couldn’t be trusted, that they would pretend to be your friend and then stab you in the back, even if you were their shrink. There was something about the teenage girl that was just too much, seductive and repulsive all at once. They were beyond the understanding of medical science, even, as if their angst defied the laws of physics and chemistry. This doctor was prepared for cadavers and psychotic breaks, but not for the teenage girl.
Teenage girls are everything that we love to hate. They are vain and naive. They are the ultimate consumer, influenced by everything from social media to what their friends are wearing. They make YouTube channels of themselves talking to themselves. They place their fingers in the makeup samples and smear too much on their eyelids. But we can’t keep our eyes off of them.
This doctor was prepared for cadavers and psychotic breaks, but not for the teenage girl.
The teen girl body is our media ideal: unmarked hands, veinless legs, smooth flat stomachs. As a society, we have a lot of practice in assuming that beauty is seduction. We talk about girls tempting men, men who can’t help themselves. “She’s trouble,” people say. “I didn’t know she was a teenager,” others might claim. One judge gave a rapist only 30 days in prison because the 14 year-old victim was “older than her chronological age.” (The victim killed herself.) Men use the teen girl’s body as an excuse, and women condemn her out of fear and envy: I don’t want my daughters to be like that. I wish I was that object of desire.
The teenage girl can’t win. Approaching us, she’s a brazen Lolita; walking away, she’s innocent and naive, which — in a young female body — is also coded as sexual. We project on her all our feelings about lust, about beauty, about neediness and control.
And what does she think? Well, who ever asks?
As a teenager, I was obsessed with myself, which is why I read cover-to-cover Dr. Mary Pipher’s Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls. It was, essentially, a call to arms that both spoke to me and was about me. The book is composed of a set of case studies, like character sketches of teenage girls. There was the popular cheerleader who seemed to have it all, but was really broken inside. The girl who was picked on in school and then got herpes. Entire chapters are devoted to self-mutilation and eating disorders. All the girls in the book are uniquely vulnerable, penetrated on all sides by consumerist culture and patriarchy.
I liked the book, I think, because I wanted to be told that there was something pathological about my mere existence, and I was comforted by knowing that I had a self worth saving from corrupting forces on all sides. I wanted, in some ways, to be told that I was vulnerable because I felt that way. I was, for the same reason, obsessed with the PETA stories about shampoo being squirted in rabbit eyes to test for allergens. I could picture how it felt, to be pinned down and subjected to something you didn’t understand.
But there’s an underlying tension in Reviving Ophelia, and in a high school girl’s experience too. Teenage girls — either despite their sex or because of it — are also intensely dangerous despite all of their capacity to be hurt. Perhaps if Shakespeare’s Ophelia had lived to tell the tale, she might have stabbed someone, too.
The current market for all things “girlish” seems to me a direct attempt to eliminate the danger of sex from society’s gaze. It’s a way to make teenage girls less dangerous. Girls like sparkles and glitter and hearts and flowers. And there’s a big market to reclaim girlishness: crochet, Pinterest, Etsy, coloring books. But these things are sexless, they are cute, they are safely in the realm of the child. Teen bodies aren’t cute; they are sexy. They hover menacingly between child and adult, too close to either for comfort.
In the past, teenagers would have been married before they could cause trouble, locked down into marriage, economic stability, and motherhood. Romeo and Juliet were never teenagers in the way we know the word. Neither were Jane Austen’s heroines. Lydia was only 15 when she ran off with Wickham, and Marianne just 16 when she fell madly in love with the wrong man, then settled for the right one. In this light, their choices make more sense — what 15-year-old picks a good partner? Women — and men — went directly from childhood to womanhood.
Teen bodies aren’t cute; they are sexy. They hover menacingly between child and adult, too close to either for comfort.
The word and concept of the teenager didn’t come into common use until the 1940s, concurrent with the rise of the automobile, when young people of marriageable age could go out with each other and cruise the town. There were only two real reasons to talk about “teenagers,” two reasons they needed a separate word: marketing and moralizing. This era coincided with the rise of mass marketing, and “teenagers” became a coveted demographic. The other reason to single out people between 12 and 20 was to argue that they didn’t embody the right morals. They were dangerous because they did not comply.
As a result, the teenager is inextricably tied to the twin evils of sexuality and capitalism. In particular, teenage girls occupy a special place, because they are both uniquely vulnerable and uniquely dangerous. Teenage girls are assessed, evaluated, and judged by their bodies; they are perpetually for sale. But their internal economy is one that older people find incomprehensible, and therefore irritating or even amoral. We sigh when they talk loudly and take selfies (the ultimate sign of self-absorption) and squeal while tasting all the flavors of ice cream. We say “She’s trouble” and “I’d rather treat anyone than teenage girls.” We subject them to our own evaluation of their worth — as people, as women, as sexual objects — because we don’t want to understand theirs.
I think about teen girls more now that I have a daughter. What will people tell her about herself when she gets older? I think about this when I watch teenage girls, the way they yell and scream, their histrionics. There’s media proclaiming that girls can be boss, “girl power,” alongside media images of nubile bodies moving through space, trying to sell girls power and sex at the same time, as if youth lasted forever.
Despite the over-triumphant proclamations to help teenage girls become stronger and more empowered, I see no move to assert that teenage girls should claim their sexuality. It’s like we can’t decide if teenagers are reproductive masterminds or the next presidents. They are victims. They are killers. They are anything but human. Sometimes it’s hard for me to be sympathetic — after all, I’m not a teenager anymore. When I look at my body, I know I am no longer young. Instead of frightening, I am invisible.
I don’t know if we can have an exploration of women’s rights without really facing the problem of teenage girls’ bodies. Teenagers are undeniably about sex, but without embracing that, there can’t be real female empowerment. We express anxiety about whether teenage girls are “too exposed” or “too sexual”; when they send nude pictures of themselves, we decry (and prosecute) it as kiddie porn. But then magazines put the same girls on the cover. These bodies are just placeholders for what other people want them to be.
I walk across the beach at sunset and watch a group of teenage girls strip to their bikinis and scream as the cold Pacific hit their downy shins. They climb to the top of a rocky precipice, their bare feet scratched by barnacles. They gather and scream and take pictures of each other. One does cartwheels for another’s camera. They are showing off, being narcissistic, displaying their long limbs for everyone else to see. I might have once been annoyed, but now I am glad for them, happy watching them figure something out, not objects or subjects, but just humans.
They stop me and ask me to take their picture, which I do. They ask for another, so I do it again and again.