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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.

Miley Cyrus.
Miley Cyrus: the Zaphod Beeblebrox of 2013. Photo: Getty

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.