Miley Cyrus: the Zaphod Beeblebrox of 2013. Photo: Getty
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Laurie Penny on girl trouble: we care about young women as symbols, not as people

For all those knuckle-clutching articles about how girls everywhere are about to pirouette into twerking, puking, self-hating whorishness, we do not actually care about young women.

Another week, another frenzy of concern-fapping over teenage girls. A few days ago, I was invited onto Channel 4 News to discuss a new report detailing how young people, much like not-young people, misunderstand consent and blame girls for rape. The presenter, Matt Frei, tried to orchestrate a fight between myself and the other guest, Labour MP Luciana Berger, because it’s not TV feminism unless two women shout at each other.

As we approached the six minute, time-for-some-last-words mark, Frei was clearly floundering. It turns out that even respected broadcasters with years of experience have no idea how to handle the twisted narrative about girls, and sex, and how adults feel about girls having sex, and what precisely it is about all of this that constitutes news. He turned to Berger and said - I quote - “Miley Cyrus - should we just ignore her? Is she good or is she bad? What’s your judgement on her?”

At which point I had to stop myself yelling Oh Fuck Off Fuck Off Just Fuck Off And Do Not Speak Ever Again at the camera in front of me. Which is a terrible way to treat an innocent piece of hardware.

When the off-air lights blinked, I felt like I’d just gone through a Shakespearean shadow-play of the public conversation about young women right now, and it scared me. Berger and I had both come onto the programme to talk seriously about agency, about education and the importance of respecting young people, and instead we stumbled from slutshaming to pat ten-second pronouncements about sexual violence to manufactured controversy to worrying about the age of consent to deciding whether Miley Cyrus is empowered or exploited or both in the space of six minutes and twelve seconds exactly. Clearly, teenage girls aren’t the only ones who are confused.

Teenage girls, however, don’t get to put down the notes on that painful, awkward confusion and switch to the next topic.They don’t get to change the channel. Moral panic is the register in which young women are spoken to and about, always.

It should be no big shocker, then, that the second study out this week, a report by the charity Girlguiding, suggests that girls’ self-esteem is not just low but falling, year-on-year. As with any sociological study, the nature of the questions being asked - how much do girls care about make-up? How many wear nail-polish, push-up bras, high heels? - reveals as much as the answers do, in this case about our priorities around girls and the women they’re becoming. When we cannot help muster our masturbatory outrage over whether or not young girls are wearing push-up bras - always with the padded bras - should perhaps be less surprised to be that “87 per cent of girls aged 11-21 think women are judged more on their appearance than on their ability”.

The tone of the reports on girls’ lack of confidence, on the persistence of myths of ignorance about rape and sexual violence, is as patronising as ever. The implication is that girls fret about their appearance, are confused about sex and consent and worried about the future because they are variously frivolous or stupid.

They aren’t. They know perfectly well what’s going on, and why. It is not silly for girls to believe, for example, that society judges them on their appearance when it manifestly does and will continue to do so when they have become adult women unless we bring down patriarchy first.

The Girlguiding report finds that, as well as being miserable, self-hating and cynical about the prospect of equality, young women are terrifically ambitious. They work hard, and they want to do well in their careers. This is not a contradiction.

Ambition is demanded of us because we know mediocrity is not an option. When society tells women that if we are just averagely good-looking, or averagely smart, or reasonably high-achieving, we will never be loved and safe, perfectionism is an adaptive strategy. We learn that if we want love and security, we have to be perfect, and if it doesn't work out, well, that means we just weren't good enough. And we know it probably won’t work out well. Girls aren’t fools. They know what is being done to them. They know what means for their futures in terms of money and power.

Girls get it. An under-reported, crucial facet of the study is the extent and cynicism of girls’ concerns about economic equality and unpaid work. A full 65% of girls aged 11-21 are worried about the cost of childcare, and while 58% say they "would like to become a leader in their chosen profession, 46% of them worry that having children will negatively affect their career.

Girls know perfectly well that structural sexism means they can’t have everything they’re being told they must have. They are striving to have it all everyway, striving to have everything and be everything like good girls are supposed to, and it hasn't broken them yet, for good or ill. That's is one reason young women still do so well in school and at college despite our good grades not translating to real-world success. It's one reason we're so good at getting those entry-level service jobs: we are not burdened by the excess of ego, the desire to be treated like a human being first, that prevents many young men from engaging proactively with an economy that just wants self-effacing drones trained to smile till it hurts.

The press just loves to act concerned about half-naked young ladies, preferably with illustrations to facilitate the concern. Somehow nothing changes. And maybe that’s the point. Maybe part of the function of the constant stream of news about young girls hurting and hating themselves isn’t to raise awareness. Maybe part of it is designed to be reassuring.

It must be comforting, if you’re invested in the status quo, to hear that young women are punished and made miserable when they misbehave.

I've said this before, but I'll repeat it: for all those knuckle-clutching articles about how girls everywhere are about to pirouette into twerking, puking, self-hating whorishness, we do not actually care about young women - not, that is, about female people who happen to be young. Instead, we care about Young Women (TM), fantasy Young Women as a semiotic skip for all our cultural anxieties. We value girls as commodities without paying them the respect that both their youth and their personhood deserves. Being fifteen is fucked up enough already without having the expectations, moral neuroses and guilty lusts of an entire culture projected onto this perfect empty shell you’re somehow supposed to be. Hollow yourself out and starve yourself down until you can swallow the shame of the world.

We care about young women as symbols, not as people.

And Miley Cyrus. Ah Miley. The Zaphod Beeblebrox of 2013, distracting attention away from power with well-timed hammer-humping. The way Miley Cyrus has been allowed to dominate months of necessary discussion about young women and what they do, about sex and celebrity and the pounding synthetic intersection of the two which is pop music is the ultimate example of our guilty, horny fascination with young girls’ sexual self-exploitation. We have discussed Miley Cyrus as a cipher for precarious womanhood everywhere to the extent that she has functionally become one.

The ongoing Miley conversation is concern-fapping made flesh. Miley is not the only very young woman doing bold, original or shocking things in public right now, but she’s the one who gets to sum up all girls everywhere. Miley, not Lorde. Miley, not Daisy Coleman. Miley, not Malala Yousafsai. Miley, not Chelsea Manning.

Of course, young trans women and women of colour, however heroic, could never be everygirl. That’s why Rihanna only gets to be a ‘bad influence’ on girls, but Miley somehow is all girls. She is the way we want to imagine all girls - slender young white innocence forever being corrupted, allowing us to stroke out another horrified concerngasm.

In the real world, girls are not all the same. Attempting to make any one woman stand in for all women everywhere is demeaning to every woman anywhere. It tells us that we are all alike, that for all society's fascination with our feelings and fragility we are considered of a kind, replaceable. We’re all the same, and we’re all supposed to have the same problems. And that’s the problem.

In case you hadn’t noticed, I’m angry.

I am angry on a personal level because I have fought for nine years, since I was a messed-up schoolgirl myself, for a world in which women could be treated like human beings, and it sometimes seems like nothing’s changed. It is as fucked-up and torturous to be a teenage girl now as it ever was, maybe moreso. I am angry because in those nine years I have seen countless miserable, self-hating, brilliant girls become miserable, self-hating, brilliant women who have somehow managed to survive and scrape through the shitty, sexist slimepile of rules and threats and contradictions to claw out a sense of self they could live with.

Well, most of them managed to survive. Not all of them. And not all of the ones who did grew up to thrive. I have seen such pain and wasted potential over these years that I could cry, and sometimes, when I’m tired, I do. The emotional violence this society does to teenage girls and young women makes us all suffer in the end.

So please, just stop it. Stop telling girls contradictory things. Stop telling them that they’re worthless if they’re not sexy, beautiful and willing and then shaming them into believing that if they were raped, it must have been their fault for dressing like sluts. Stop telling them they have to be high-achieving and independent and not rely on a man and then hating them for any freedom they manage to hold on to. Stop teaching young women to hate themselves. Stop it.

Because let me tell you something else about young women today. I'm going to say it slowly and clearly so it doesn't get forgotten quite so fast. Young women today are brilliant.

They. Are. Brilliant.

If you are not stunned by how smart, how fearless, how fucking fantastic young women and girls are right now then maybe you’ve been watching too many twerking videos, or only paying attention to the news coverage that reassures us that yes, young girls are miserable, as they deserve to be. But you’d have to be glued to Bangerz pretty consistently not to notice how bloody great this generation is.

Really, they’re great. They know the challenges in front of them and they are determined to overcome them. They’re as bright and ambitious as Millennials, except that they grew up with the internet and they have no illusions that good behaviour will get them everywhere. I don't mean to essentialise; I've met some brutal, boring teenage girls in my time, too. But the cohort is shaping up to be just about as spectacular as it’s going to have to be to fix the mess their parents made.

I believe that today's young women might yet grow up to save this vicious world.

But if we abuse that promise, if we carry on hurting them and insulting them and treating them as trash symbols of our own shame, then maybe we don’t deserve to be saved.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder