This story is a continuation of the New America Weekly’s Women’s History Month edition.
High school sucked. It was a moment of transition, when almost every teenager around me was just as clueless as the next one; the adults in my life didn’t help when they told me that what I was experiencing wouldn’t really matter in the long run. At the same time as I was attempting to make ever-lengthening strides away from home, my parents seemed to want to hold on the tightest. Hormones made the simplest tasks an angsty ordeal for all involved. And for some strange reason, puberty refused to turn me into the statuesque high schoolers (admittedly played by 20-somethings) whom I had been watching on Disney Channel since I was 10. Amid all of that, I was keenly aware of one fact: Being a teenage girl was the worst thing I could be.
Nowhere was this fact clearer than in the collective vilification of the things I (and thousands of other predominantly teenage girls) loved: boy bands, the Twilight franchise, selfies, YA fiction—the list goes on. I was viscerally reminded of the shame so many girls grow up with in the recent debate over Teen Vogue’s political coverage, which shone an unflattering light on something crucial, and unnerving: There’s a problem with how we view teenage girls.
If teenage girls like it, whatever it is, it usually becomes uncool, vapid, illegitimate. And that’s because we have a tendency to see teenage girls, and especially the way they express their love of something, as incoherent, over-emotional, and irrational. Meanwhile, we often assume that boys’ interests are carefully considered, logical choices, even for something as mundane as comic book superheroes or soccer teams (though, to be fair, there are moments when we do actually admit that teenage boys can be drooling twits). To drive home the fact of how hard it can be for teenage girls to win: When they express interest in male-dominated entertainment, such as comic books or video games, we slap the label of “fake geek girl” on them.
Writing for the British political and cultural magazine The New Statesman, Elizabeth Minkel asks, “Why are screaming girls, overcome with excitement for a group they love, considered a punch line, the pinnacle of immaturity, and something extraordinarily shameful, when the largely male, adult crowds at sporting events openly weep, bellow, paint their naked bodies in bright colours, clutch each other, and even commit physical violence due to emotion, both when their teams lose and when they win?”
Strange: I’ve never heard of One Direction fans burning cars or destroying property, an alarmingly common phenomenon in the aftermath of wins or losses in the sports arena.
Teen Vogue’s political coverage was largely viewed on social media as an aberration. The reactions to Lauren Duca’s prescient piece on Donald Trump’s psychological manipulation of America ranged from baffled to belittlement. One Twitter user expressed with well-meaning shock, “Who would have guessed @TeenVogue might be the future of political news. Unreal coverage of the election.” Another simply snapped, “Go back to acne treatments.”
The deep-seated expectation that a women’s magazine, especially one aimed at teenage girls, couldn’t possibly cover an election cycle marked by rampant misogyny in a smart and nuanced way is not only sexist—it’s downright simple-minded. Who do you think those “grab them by the pussy” comments were referring to? In a distressingly familiar double standard, Playboy can feature hard-hitting articles and interviews, but when Teen Vogue covers the Black Lives Matter movement, minds are blown.
While the influence of editor Elaine Welteroth on Teen Vogue’s political coverage cannot be underestimated (and also highlights the importance of diversity in leadership positions in media), the bewilderment associated with it points to a disheartening phenomenon: We usually don’t expect media targeting teenage girls to be intelligent. And that’s because we tend to view women—especially young women—as unreasonable, emotional, and naïve (all the worse when you consider that this naiveté is often spoken of in explicitly sexual terms).
In 2013, GQ published an article profiling the members of One Direction, the mega-popular (now defunct?) British boy band. And as we know, you can’t really write an article about a boy band without insulting their predominantly female audience. At the height of the Beatles’ popularity, Paul Johnson wrote that, “Those who flock round the Beatles, who scream themselves into hysteria, whose vacant faces flicker over the TV screen, are the least fortunate of their generation, the dull, the idle, the failures.”
Keeping with that shining tradition, writer Jonathan Heaf stated, “By now we all know the immense transformative power of a boy band to turn a butter-wouldn’t-melt teenage girl into a rabid, knicker-wetting banshee who will tear off her own ears in hysterical fervour when presented with the objects of her fascinations.” He doesn’t go so far as to call them failures, instead comparing these teenage girls to “wild bison” and “a dark pink oil slick that howls and moans and undulates with every impish crotch-thrust from their idols’ plinths. Thousands of female fans caught on the cusp of their own sexual awakening.” Because nothing’s as innocent as a 30-something-year-old man writing ad nauseum on the sexuality of teenage girls.
What I’m saying, I guess, is that there’s nothing wrong with the things or the way teenage girls love. But there is something deeply wrong with the rest of us, as a whole. There’s something wrong with the way we treat teenage girls, with how we telegraph, and often explicitly say, that everything they touch or think is desperately uncool and unserious.At least, that is the message heard, whether intended or not, every time an adult bemoans the trials of raising teenage girls but not boys. That is the message heard when journalists express surprise at the fact that sharp, well-argued pieces can exist alongside pieces on what happens when you put lipstick under a microscope. Teenage girls are nuanced, complicated human beings. Indeed, they’ve never been anything less.