December
31st 2009
“A Girl’s Life”

Posted under: American history, art, childhood, class, Gender, race, students, the body, women's history

smashpatriarchyI watched Rachel Simmons’ A Girl’s Life last night on PBS.  It offered four in-depth profiles of girls from different class and ethnic backgrounds facing four different major challenges in adolescence today:  body image, cyber bullying, violence among girls, and academic achievement.  Interestingly, there was no discussion of sexuality whatsoever–neither homosexuality nor heterosexuality.

My one word review?  Meh.  Longer version:  the show’s four main subjects and interviews with other groups of girls were interesting and their stories poignant, but I didn’t think that their stories were framed in terribly interesting or useful ways.  This is clearly a matter of taste and disciplinary training, but I thought that framing the stories around a theraputic model–using sociology and psychology, primarily–made the show rather limp.  (Then again, PBS’s marketing of the show is aimed at parents of girls, and suggests a somewhat more serious and specific self-help-program-for-your-daughter-and-you than Dr. Wayne Dyer or Suze Orman offer during those endless pledge week marathons.)

There was no historical context (as in, how new are these problems?  How does girlhood today fit into a longer view of U.S. female adolescence?), and zero political context, either:  the word feminism was never, ever used by Simmons or any of her subjects (or their parents).  Although many of the questions Simmons asked throughout the show were clearly feminist, the overall message was one of postfeminist individual uplift.  (Let’s just say that Simmons will fit very comfortably on Oprah’s couch, if she hasn’t visited her set already.)  Simmons is the author of Odd Girl Out:  The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls, which is about girls bullying girls, which may also explain why patriarchy and the aggression of boys against girls plays no part in her movie.

In this respect, A Girl’s Life shares the same flaws with a Denver Post article today about the opening of a single-sex public girls’ school in Denver.  The article refers repeatedly to the “social distractions” that begin in the  middle school grades as the rationale for girls-only middle and high schools, but they don’t define these “distractions” clearly, implying that it’s just hormones and heterosexuality that are the likely culprits.  (One parent specifically mentions seeing girls defer to boys in math classes, but that’s the only indication that “distraction” may in fact be intimately intertwined with male privilege being exercized by boys and reinforced by teachers.)  I’m all for single-sex education, but let’s not wrap it up in the language of Mars-versuu-Venus “brain differences,” as do many of the experts quoted in the article.  After all, it’s that “different brains” ideology that gives us crap like this–science for girls, which apparently means pink, underpowered microscopes!  (H/t to reader and commenter Kathie.)  I loves me my pink–but give me full-strength full-on feminist pink, please.

If you watched it too, what did you think?  Even if you didn’t watch it, how do you think adolescence today compares with your adolescence?  I have to say that although technology clearly can make bullying feel more pervasive and aggressive, Simmons’ film forced me to remember very clearly teh suckity suck of junior high school nearly 30 years ago:  7th and 8th grade were the only years in my life in which I was tripped in the hallways, threatened with being beaten up after school, had my budding breasts groped in a classroom by a boy, and was mysteriously and cruelly dropped by friends who I had been close to since 5th grade.  Good times, good times.  I have a number of friends with middle school and junior high school children now, and I always, always, always try to reassure them that everybody hates these years and that things will only get better after junior high.

Now, friends:  over to you.

25 Comments »

25 Responses to ““A Girl’s Life””

  1. The History Enthusiast on 31 Dec 2009 at 9:43 am #

    Oh, how I love the picture you used for this post!

    I agree with your argument that the show lacked any deeper analysis and steered clear of “feminist” issues. What particularly bothered me is that no one wanted to talk about what boys do to girls, and although I didn’t expect to hear the word “patriarchy,” the concept of male privilege went virtually unnoticed.

    The stories of these girls, though, just made me about to cry. Perhaps that was just my empathy for their situations, and the fact that like you, I was groped and otherwise bothered by boys as a child and junior high sucked. It may have been a useful documentary for parents (in certain respects), but as a historian I wasn’t too impressed.

    Though, to be fair, I did get a phone call part-way through and I missed about 15 minutes toward the end.

  2. grandoc on 31 Dec 2009 at 9:44 am #

    I thought the show was moderately gripping. In my high school in Westchester county NY.in the 50′s, with a fairly diverse socioeconomic mix, females often were at the top of the math and science classes- not seen as a big or threatening deal. There was not a lot of dumbing down. Not many female sports -before Title 9. I don’t think there was much bullying – but no high tech stuff either. Six years later my sister told me that the days of the “well rounded student” were almost over. You were either a jock, or nerd, or what ever. There was a book written about our high school several decades ago which attested to that division.

    A local small publisher in our NE state made her mark by getting state mandated bullying courses in schools – after her child was bullied. I probably got a lot more accomplished at my college before it went coed. I don’t say that in a sexist sense. I am easily distracted.

  3. LadyProf on 31 Dec 2009 at 9:56 am #

    To me the omission is as much anthropological as historical: it’s so friggin’ taboo in U.S. culture to mention group-based supremacism and privilege. We have abstract nouns to summarize oppression, but we don’t elaborate on these categories with particulars, except ones safely consigned to the past. There used to be slavery! Women couldn’t vote!

    When someone pipes up with, “I think that was racist,” or “Sounds like sexism to me,” she or he will be shouted down, even (especially?) in liberal circles. Under the discourse rules, we all must admit the theoretical existence of racism and sexism and so on, but we’re not allowed to comment on their manifestations in contemporary culture, as quotidian injustices. During his campaign, Obama was allowed to make one brief, witty comment about not getting picked up while hailing a cab. If he had insisted that he’d been wronged, he would have been pilloried.

    And here comes Simmons, interested in dominance and bullying as you say, but refusing to discuss how being female relates to being oppressed. Gender hierarchy is in the air we breathe, but in public space we can’t speak about it.

  4. Historiann on 31 Dec 2009 at 11:02 am #

    Thanks all for your incredibly insightful (and historical) comments. LadyProf, I think you really hit it on the head with the taboo against talking frankly about power structures in our society. Interestingly, Shelby Steele made a similar point in an op-ed the other day on “Obama and our Post-Modern Race Problem.” He writes:

    America’s primary race problem today is our new “sophistication” around racial matters. Political correctness is a compendium of sophistications in which we join ourselves to obvious falsehoods (“diversity”) and refuse to see obvious realities (the irrelevance of diversity to minority development). I would argue further that Barack Obama’s election to the presidency of the United States was essentially an American sophistication, a national exercise in seeing what was not there and a refusal to see what was there—all to escape the stigma not of stupidity but of racism.

    Go read the whole thing. I don’t agree with him entirely, but I think his analysis of “the emperor’s new clothes” is parallel to LadyProf’s point about patriarchy and gender issues.

    History Enthusiast–I agree with you that the individual stories were quite moving, especially the last one (which you may have missed) about the East Harlem girl who triumphs and wins admission and enough financial aid to attend Bates College. But–for however many girls like that, how many more are lost because they didn’t have her particular luck in having parents who prioritized and supported her education, and a school that pushed her to succeed and offered her the same custom-tailored counseling that kids in fancy prep schools get?

    Grandoc: interesting point about girls in math and science in the 1950s. Your point raises the question whether things got worse for girls in school once they were seen to be competitors for the same educational opportunities and professional positions as the boys? That is, when girls (such as those in your affluent suburb) were assumed to be headed back home after earning their M.R.S. degrees, it was okay for them to do well in science and math, precisely because they weren’t probably going to do much more than become (at most) secondary school teachers.

  5. cgeye on 31 Dec 2009 at 11:35 am #

    Funny how the bullied girl went into a clique of outcasts, only one “friend” who sexually assaulted her (which those text messages and emails did) recants and gets praised for it… and none of the other girls are even identified, or brought to any lasting task — and, they are still popular.

    So the system worked as it should; the scapegoat stopped bothering them, and she was weak enough to go running to mommy. And the solutions are centered on those who squeal, insted of the system that creates and reinforces bullies in the first place. Just because girls don’t shoot up schools, it’s considered a self-esteem problem? Clueless social science fucks…

    Funny, also, that no one goes deep into the disputes that flare up into social or physical violence… and it’s as if boys don’t participate in this. The skanks in the next segment, who escalated to knives? The top bitch gets pride-of-place with her own personal counselor. Tell me how that changes the neighborhood dynamic that perpetuates gangs in the first place? Am I wrong in thinking that if a gang videotapes and broadcasts their own beatdowns, its members should be prosecuted? I don’t give a fuck whether girls are sentenced more harshly than boys — I’d simply want the penalties for boys to be escalated, not the whole problem to be massaged by counseling. The one-on-one counseling’s there just to reduce the prisoner load, or at least postpone imprisonment until the adult jails can take them, ’cause you can’t seriously tell me that gang leader’s going to turn her life around when her mom and stepdad even refuse to be on the show, saying they’ll try harder. Yeah, performance for the camera =/= action, but that lack of any adult relative in that segment is borderline racist — the cyberbullied girl *has* Parents Who Care, whilst that ghetto chick’s being raised by .

    Another thing this pablum of a special failed to note is that people with low impulse control sooner or later attack outside their cliques — and that’s *us*. Gang videos serve the purpose of advertising successful completion of initiation muggings. Ask the Denver DA about the hate crimes black gang members inflicted on non-black citizens, and whether the girls involved were ‘cute’ because they wore pink. Sheesh. I’m certain the producers thought they were doing a good thing, but their critique of mean girls has as much punch as Luce’s THE WOMEN, and contains just as much borderline misogyny, in its assumptions that men and boys have no stake or agency in letting things get this bad.

  6. cgeye on 31 Dec 2009 at 11:37 am #

    (that’s raised by [insert animal image here]… )

  7. cgeye on 31 Dec 2009 at 11:47 am #

    And the worst, the most offensive part of how girls are violent and that’s bad? No one teaches them how to fight *better*. They don’t punch or block or have a goal that disables their opponent and ends the fight efficiently, which, yes, means that girls don’t really end their feuds because they’ve had enough.

    I know, it’s *bad* for women to be aggressive, but we have a female *cop* decrying their skills. Can’t she, trained in combat and firearms, teach those girls about what she’s seen? Why in the hell doesn’t she get them to a boxing trainer or sensei, who would give them a code of behavior? Boys don’t tear hair out, and they don’t fight superfically because they’re afraid of damaging their looks — but they end their fights sooner, and they get over them because they have rules to help them with this. Boys are more aware of the personal consequences of starting and stopping a fight; girls, at least in this special, aren’t.

    If girls will fight anyway (and let’s not forget that group’s being marketed to by the military, law enforcement and adult gangs), why not take them seriously? Women fighting ignorantly are fighting handicapped, and I bet they know this — which is why fights most likely escalate up to knives and guns earlier than they do with guys. Just categorizing physical fighting with the same shallow viewpoint seen in their cyberbullying discussion does a disservice to the real stakes these girls feel are there.

  8. Indyanna on 31 Dec 2009 at 11:51 am #

    On the soc/psych framework versus a historicized one, I’m just guessing, but I think those disciplines are a bit more pragmatic about the benefits (to them) of being co-opted for cultural explanatory purposes, and maybe more willing to put up with fuzzy borrowing. That’s not to say they wouldn’t be carping about the details on their in-house vehicles, including blogs. But they might be a bit more inclined to see power (for them) coming from lending their tools to the wider culture.

    Just a guess. That said, I didn’t see the show. Jr. high was a nightmare, for too many reasons to cite here. Were the girls generally smarter and better students in most subjects? No question. Were there consequences for that? I can’t remember. That last point, about the M.R.S. degrees, however, is probably relevant here.

  9. quixote on 31 Dec 2009 at 11:58 am #

    LadyProf: Under the discourse rules, we all must admit the theoretical existence of racism and sexism and so on, but we’re not allowed to comment on their manifestations in contemporary culture

    Bingo. Just the absolute bullseye.

  10. Historiann on 31 Dec 2009 at 12:06 pm #

    cgeye–I had the same thoughts about the girls fighting that you had, namely, 1) why isn’t this being taken seriously as a violence problem (as you wrote, “Just because girls don’t shoot up schools, it’s considered a self-esteem problem?”, and 2) why not teach these girls to fight like the boys as a strategy for channeling their aggression appropriately?

    And you’re exactly right: no consideration for why girls target one another, or how this fits into the bigger picture of gender and power in our culture.

  11. quixote on 31 Dec 2009 at 12:08 pm #

    I don’t have children, and hence no grandchildren, so maybe I haven’t got a clue what goes on in junior high. Otoh, I’ve taught college forever and deal with slightly older young people all the time. So, with that caveat, my impression is that the biggest difference from my own youth is the normalization and pervasiveness of porn culture.

    Women with hopes and dreams and their own desires don’t appear in that world, and sometimes it seems as if young girls have no sense of self, of who they are, what they want. Just the fact that it’s necessary to tell them that sex is for their pleasure too. :boggle: In the sixties, only recovering Victorians needed that information. We were never going back to that.

    Hah.

  12. Historiann on 31 Dec 2009 at 12:32 pm #

    quixote–I think you’re right about the mainstreaming of pR0n and pR0n culture, and the alienation of girls from their own bodies. Some of that was underway 30 years ago, only it was anorexia and bullimia that were the fashionable means of acting out contradictory cultural pressures. Now, girls and young women submit to the demands of pR0n culture and get talking into thinking it’s about expressing their own sexuality, rather than catering to rather manufactured and immature male fantasies.

  13. Digger on 31 Dec 2009 at 12:32 pm #

    LadyProf wrote: “Under the discourse rules, we all must admit the theoretical existence of racism and sexism and so on, but we’re not allowed to comment on their manifestations in contemporary culture”

    I totally agree with this. With the caveat that patriarchy and feminism seem generally to be so taboo, that even admitting their theoretical existence is verboten. Ditto the total lack of discussion regarding sexuality. Perhaps a producer or editor somewhere felt that they would alienate the audience? Or, perhaps the filmmaker self-edited.

  14. truffula on 31 Dec 2009 at 12:34 pm #

    I’m with quixote, how can a documentary purporting to be about the experience of girlhood not address the normalization of porn culture? It’s impolite to call somebody sexist and as a result we’re not allowed to talk about sexism.

  15. Historiann on 31 Dec 2009 at 12:39 pm #

    Digger–good points. I wonder if sex was something she couldn’t get the girls to talk about and/or get the parents’ permission to air?

    I thought it would have been interesting to include a lesbian or queer kid. (Although sexuality wasn’t a topic explicitly explored, none of the kids involved identified themselves as gay.) That seems to be something that–in some schools and places, at least–has changed a lot. Calling each other “gay” was something that happened 30 years ago, but no one embraced that identity openly. Some kids do come out in jr. high and high school now.

    I remember reading an essay by David Sedaris a few years ago, in which he remarked upon meeting a neighbor’s snarky, disaffected, and openly gay teenaged son. He marveled at the fact of being out in high school, and said something to the effect that this kid takes for granted something we never dreamed would be possible. He felt like a polio survivor on crutches meeting a beneficiary of the polio vaccine who takes his healthy legs for granted.

  16. Historiann on 31 Dec 2009 at 12:42 pm #

    truffula–you’ve got it, exactly. As in the hunt for the mythological being called The Racist, we don’t want to see systems of oppression, we want to pretend that entire global and systemic power structures are maintained by certain Evil Ones rather than by many or all of us. (Conveniently these Evil Ones are so unbelieveably evil that very few people will be able to be defined as such. As one angry wag once commented, rape is such a heinous crime that it never happens. We find other things to call rape because it’s such a terrible crime.)

  17. grandoc on 31 Dec 2009 at 1:15 pm #

    Yes indeed. When you graduated from Smith or Holyoke in the late 50s or early 60s it was MRS or Katie Gibbs secretarial school for you. Ouch. Zero to two women in our med school class. I am embarrassed.

  18. cgeye on 31 Dec 2009 at 1:52 pm #

    I’m spitting mad because of all the pulled punches, and once I start seeing them, they’re everywhere.

    Like Zoe Saldana being touted as a feminist acting icon, because she starred in two boy-friendly, male-identified parts in STAR TREK 11 and AVATAR. Like seeing Diablo Cody backpedal on the snarky misogyny underneath the feral misanthropy of JENNIFER’S BODY. Like WHIP-IT — a movie where girls and violence are dealt with in a way that doesn’t revolve around guys, or result in horror — sinking like a stone.

    This is what we’ve settled for? Really?

  19. Katherine on 31 Dec 2009 at 3:25 pm #

    I take cgeye’s point about girls not having good rules to fight, but I would also put out a concern for those of us who believe that fighting is wrong. Pacifism doesn’t doesn’t fit into the junior high school (or high school) ethos. Not fighting is a hard option, for which there is not much vocabulary, for boys or girls.

  20. Professor Zero on 31 Dec 2009 at 3:45 pm #

    Yes to several people above: it is now OK to call individual people racists and sexists but not to talk about racism and sexism generally. Everything gets reduced to some moral failure and to an attitude problem (because individuals accused of racist and/or sexist acts can say they didn’t mean it, they don’t believe those things).

    I had more or less figured that out and I’ve had the point about porn culture made to me before, but it’s right now that one has landed.

    When I was a small child sex education was just coming back into schools post 50s and one of the points constantly being made was that if kids did not get this information from better sources, they would get it from porn.

    Now we’ve had abstinence only education for a while, and porn culture. NO WONDER life has become so confusing.

  21. Knitting Clio on 01 Jan 2010 at 7:16 am #

    I missed it because I was watching the American Masters program on Louisa May Alcott on our other PBS station. I’d recommend this — it’s quite good although I’m kind of lukewarm about the historic reenactments part of it.

  22. Historiann on 01 Jan 2010 at 7:38 am #

    KC–thanks for the tip. I’ll try to catch that when it comes around out here. There has been quite a LMA revival going on lately–I read a very fine biography of her and her father a few years ago, John Matteson’s Eden’s Outcasts. And I think Susan Cheever and other writers have written more popular histories of the Concord, Mass. crowd.

  23. Rachel Simmons on 03 Jan 2010 at 11:16 pm #

    Thanks for writing about the show. I’ve enjoyed reading the comments. I agree that more could have been said about sex and sexuality, though I can tell you it is very difficult to get appropriate permissions for these conversations, particularly where television is involved. I often argue, in writing and in my workshops, that heterosexism has left the intimacy of girls’ relationships underexplored and often rendered invisible — when in fact the most intense relationships girls have, and the place where they learn most of what they know about intimacy, is generally with each other.

    I’m not sure this was the project in which to explore male privilege, however. This is a program aimed primarily at parents.

    Finally, we were not able to get enough funding for more than one hour of programming (in contrast to the companion show, Raising Cain, which was about boys and 2 hours long). It was excruciatingly difficult to cram everything into that one hour. Not that this excuses omissions — but it’s important information to include.

    Anyway, thank you for the discussion and for your insightful review.

  24. Historiann on 03 Jan 2010 at 11:42 pm #

    Rachel–thanks so much for stopping by to comment, and to share more information from behind the scenes. How very sad, and telling, that you were able to raise money for only an hour on girls’ lives. That seems to speak very clearly to the subject of male privilege that I and my readers wrote of in this review!

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