Friday, December 29, 2006

Middle School Girls Gone Wild

Lawrence Downes (post from the NYT below) is right; I've witnessed middle school talent shows which are centered around girls' gyrating to pop music that was clearly intended for an adult audience. In fact, through running programs for girls, I have personally stopped girls rehearsing a version of the dance they thought they would showcase at our program's talent show, running around yelling " We are NOT dancing to Milkshake!" while the refrain"My milkshake brings all the boys to the yard" was blasting. And even with this vigilance, somehow a few bars of Snoop Dogs "Drop it Like it's Hot" still made it on stage. And just like Mr. Downes' experience, parents did shout and applaud at the girls' moves. I was conflicted, at the very least, about all of this.

In no way do I want to teach girls that sexuality is bad, that moving their bodies in any kind of way is inherently bad. There are so few messages for girls that their pleasure is important, and that their sexuality is okay and positive. Stopping their last minute improv to Milkshake (although the right thing to do) becomes problematic for me-- what message did they get from me? What did they learn in that moment?

Girls (and boys) both need to be able to evaluate the media, including the music they listen to and watch, movies, magazines, web, etc, and unfortunately they need to be able to do it at younger and younger ages. Helping young people connect the music industry to larger social justice issues and their own lives is absolutely key. Why are these images/lyrics about women and their bodies still so pervasive? Who's buying them? and why? Who's making the popular music that celebrates women as whole people with accomplishments beyond breasts, bootys, and sexual favors? It's out there.

Girls (and boys) also need the opportunities and outlets to understand that their bodies are good, sexuality is good, and that they have choices around how they express themselves through their clothing, their movement, their selection of dances at the talent show. Part of what is at play here is that there are so many commercial images of women gyrating and men as the center of affection, attention, money, and other symbols of "success" that these are the only options that many middle school aged youth see as ways to express their gendered selves or their sexuality. If they see an alternative at all, the messages they get about their bodies are often the Just Say No or Close Your Legs variety. Caught between these two messages, most young people are going for the shaking and bouncing. I don't blame them.

While boys are not necessarily shaking it on stage in talent shows, I've seen versions of talent shows where boys are in fashion shows, posing in outfits not suitable for middle schoolers, and lavished praise as the center of attention, for how they look. It may be more subtle than what girls do, but it's teaching a role, none the less.

And boys do dance. At the talent show I went to, while the girls were shaking it and the parents were cheering, a three year old younger brother was executing all the moves perfectly.

From today's New York Times Op Eds

Published: December 29, 2006
It’s hard to write this without sounding like a prig. But it’s just as hard to erase the images that planted the idea for this essay, so here goes. The scene is a middle school auditorium, where girls in teams of three or four are bopping to pop songs at a student talent show. Not bopping, actually, but doing elaborately choreographed re-creations of music videos, in tiny skirts or tight shorts, with bare bellies, rouged cheeks and glittery eyes.
They writhe and strut, shake their bottoms, splay their legs, thrust their chests out and in and out again. Some straddle empty chairs, like lap dancers without laps. They don’t smile much. Their faces are locked from grim exertion, from all that leaping up and lying down without poles to hold onto. “Don’t stop don’t stop,” sings Janet Jackson, all whispery. “Jerk it like you’re making it choke. ...Ohh. I’m so stimulated. Feel so X-rated.” The girls spend a lot of time lying on the floor. They are in the sixth, seventh and eighth grades.
As each routine ends, parents and siblings cheer, whistle and applaud. I just sit there, not fully comprehending. It’s my first suburban Long Island middle school talent show. I’m with my daughter, who is 10 and hadn’t warned me. I’m not sure what I had expected, but it wasn’t this. It was something different. Something younger. Something that didn’t make the girls look so ... one-dimensional.
It would be easy to chalk it up to adolescent rebellion, an ancient and necessary phenomenon, except these girls were barely adolescents and they had nothing to rebel against. This was an official function at a public school, a milieu that in another time or universe might have seen children singing folk ballads, say, or reciting the Gettysburg Address.
It is news to no one, not even me, that eroticism in popular culture is a 24-hour, all-you-can-eat buffet, and that many children in their early teens are filling up. The latest debate centers on whether simulated intercourse is an appropriate dance style for the high school gym.
What surprised me, though, was how completely parents of even younger girls seem to have gotten in step with society’s march toward eroticized adolescence — either willingly or through abject surrender. And if parents give up, what can a school do? A teacher at the middle school later told me she had stopped chaperoning dances because she was put off by the boy-girl pelvic thrusting and had no way to stop it — the children wouldn’t listen to her and she had no authority to send anyone home. She guessed that if the school had tried to ban the sexy talent-show routines, parents would have been the first to complain, having shelled out for costumes and private dance lessons for their Little Miss Sunshines.
I’m sure that many parents see these routines as healthy fun, an exercise in self-esteem harmlessly heightened by glitter makeup and teeny skirts. Our girls are bratz, not slutz, they would argue, comfortable in the existence of a distinction.
But my parental brain rebels. Suburban parents dote on and hover over their children, micromanaging their appointments and shielding them in helmets, kneepads and thick layers of S.U.V. steel. But they allow the culture of boy-toy sexuality to bore unchecked into their little ones’ ears and eyeballs, displacing their nimble and growing brains and impoverishing the sense of wider possibilities in life.
There is no reason adulthood should be a low plateau we all clamber onto around age 10. And it’s a cramped vision of girlhood that enshrines sexual allure as the best or only form of power and esteem. It’s as if there were now Three Ages of Woman: first Mary-Kate, then Britney, then Courtney. Boys don’t seem to have such constricted horizons. They wouldn’t stand for it — much less waggle their butts and roll around for applause on the floor of a school auditorium.

Friday, November 10, 2006

"Bad Girls" in the news again

Girls often make the news when something goes wrong and the Bad Girls phenomena is nothing new. I graduated from a Baltimore City high school in the 1980's when Baltimore had the highest teen aged pregnancy rate in the country. I have seen the Bad Girls phenomena take many forms.

Here a story covered on Oct 31 by the NY Daily News was also picked up by City Limits focuses on when girls are violent. Here is the article. More commentary to follow this weekend:

'Bad girl' statistics get worse
34.3% rise in females in juvenile detention
Tatianna McDonald, then a 14-year-old sixth-grader, was among the pack of teens that mugged actress Nicole duFresne before she was murdered on the lower East Side in January 2005.
More city schoolgirls are landing in juvenile detention now than a decade ago - while crime among boys is dropping, a new report reveals.
Last year, 1,037 girls younger than 16 entered city detention facilities, up from 772 in 1992, according to the report by the Citizens' Committee for Children.
The 34.3% increase came as the number of boys admitted by the city's Department of Juvenile Justice fell 30%, from 5,769 to 4,023.
Experts blamed the spike among girls on many things, from increases in family violence and female aggression to violent images in the media.
"There is a lot of victimization leading to this," said CCC boss Gail Nayowith.
"Whether physical, sexual or emotional," she said, "[it] can sometimes be the first step to lead them to delinquency."
Other advocates say the rise could be partially because authorities and parents are more willing to prosecute young females than in decades past.
"Before we would have called them incorrigible," said Meda Chesney-Lind, author of "Beyond Bad Girls" and a criminologist at the University of Hawaii. "Now we're relabeling them and detaining them."
Dr. Herbert Mandell, medical director for the charity KidsPeace, blamed a "breakdown in some of the supports in the community and home."
He told the Daily News, "Girls just aren't getting the kind of protection from dad, older brother, siblings and schools as they used to, and that's very sad."
Media images of aggressive women, like Angelina Jolie's characters in "Tomb Raider" and "Mr. and Mrs. Smith," may also fuel combative behavior.
"Anybody who grows up with a television at home sees more violence ... than I did growing up," said Heather Nicholson, research director of Girls Inc.
In recent years, the city has seen several high-profile crimes committed by young girls, including the horrifying 2005 murder of 11-year-old Queenie Washington by a 9-year-old playmate.
At a City Council hearing on the problem yesterday, Department of Juvenile Justice Commissioner Neil Hernandez testified that there is a strong connection between domestic violence and juvenile crime.
The CCC report calls the increase in female juvenile criminals a "quiet crisis" and urges officials to conduct a citywide assessment to collect more data on the girls.
"We need to find out what's going on with these girls, why they are getting into trouble," Nayowith said.
"We need to understand what their needs are." Originally published on October 31, 2006

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Girls Are Not Chicks

Since I have become almost singlemindedly obsessed with language since starting the WGFG blog, it seems appropriate to post about my favorite coloring book Girls Are Not Chicks by Jacinta Bunnell and Julie Novak.

Girls Are Not Chicks inspires girls to imagine fairy tales where girls avoid the gender confines of magic slippers and poisoned apples to become the heroes of their own stories. It's like the product of a writing assignment your lone feminist Language Arts teacher in middle school would have given you, only published as a coloring book for the world to buy and not sitting in a box in your closet with the rest of your pre-adolescent memorabilia.

In one of my favorite pages, a picture of Rapunzel is accompanied by the text:

This time, she had some power tools, a roll of duct tape, a Tina Turner album and a bus pass.

Independence and resourcefulness sounds like a much better message for girls than the passivity of waiting for prince or wishing on a star. Challenging gender stereotypes is What’s Good for Girls and the choice of coloring book as the medium is particularly inspired. Order it at

In NYC? Support independent media and pro-woman materials at the independent bookstore Bluestockings where I picked up my copy of the coloring book and The Village Inky zine (a must read if you are a Mom or not a Mom). I am shocked I lived in NYC for over two years before stopping by. Don’t let that happen to you! and yes I promise to figure out the hypertexting options and how to upload pictures ASAP.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Childhood is a Journey Not a Race

This is a quote on a t-shirt in the Fall, 2006 catalog from the Syracuse Cultural Workers that arrived in my mailbox today.

How can we support girls to enjoy the journey of growing up as a girl in a culture that promotes the race to womanhood? I'll be pondering that and more over the next few days.

Until then, check out for Girl Power shoelaces, Girls Can DoAnything! t-shirts, Every Girl Every Boy posters and books including 33 Things Every Girl Should Know About Women's History, Respect: A Girl's Guide to Getting Respect and Dealing When Your Line is Crossed, and What Are My Rights? 95 Questions and Answers About Teens and the Law.

Saturday, September 30, 2006

Nashers and Rockers

Check out two great solutions about how two Brooklyn, NY based organizations refer to the girls involved in their programs.

Sadie Nash Leadership Project calls the teenage girls who attend their program "Nashers" which is a great solution. Not only does it avoid the whole girls/young ladies thing, the word Nashers also helps create a sense of belonging to the larger organization, which is a key to success with all young people.

Girls at the Willie Mae Rock Camp for Girls are often called "campers" or "rockers" which also works. Although campers is certainly accurate, I prefer rockers. It supports the concept that you don't have to be an expert at something before you can refer to yourself as that thing, whatever it may be. Also, it's sassy. Who thinks of girls as rockers?

Both Sadie Nash Leadership Project and the Willie Mae Rock Camp are What's Good For Girls. Check them out: Sadie Nash is a leadership program for girls 14 - 21 in Brooklyn which supports girls as they think through what they believe and how to take action in their communitities.

Girls ages 8 - 18 form bands, learn instruments, write a song, and perform it all in one week of camp.

Anyone else out there with some solutions?

Friday, September 29, 2006

What Do I Mean By Girls Anyway?

Let me be clear. I don’t mean women. Girls are 18 and younger, and anyone 19 and over can officially be called a woman. Programming for girls in the non-profit world typically encompasses the 6 – 18 year old age range with certain exceptions.

I’m intrigued by women who refer to themselves and their friends as girls, as in “Let’s go girls.” Often, the women who use the word “girls” are looking for an alternative to the word “guys” and are coming up short. What options are there? “Ladies” or “gals” smack of another era altogether. Saying “Let’s go, women” comes off as a little weird, formal, and somehow impractical for every day use.

Even if you think that women calling each other girls in every day life is not such a big deal (and many smart savvy women I know don’t have a problem with it) what about groups of women organizing and calling themselves “Wonder Girls” as a NYC group of women are doing? I am guessing it’s meant as a fun, Gen X way of responding to more mature established women’s organizations which could use an infusion of youthfulness. I'm all for young smart women organizing themselves to make a difference in the world, but women calling themselves girls is problematic.

Flip the coin, and you have the problem of what to call girls themselves. With young girls, you can simply say “girls,” but as girls hit 11 and 12, the word no longer fits. A tilt of the head and the look that says “I am not a child” is what you might get in response if you try. Professionals working with girls struggle for alternatives, often landing on “young women” or “young ladies.” There are worse things to call young people, but I think it is just as problematic to start calling girls, “women” or anything that intimates adulthood at age 12, as it is to call grown women, “girls.”

Why is this such a problem? Girls are growing up in a mediated culture which sells them adult clothing at younger and younger ages, in a world where the song “Candy Shop” is not about chewing bubble gum, and with high-pressure expectations in relationships, school, and staying on track towards a positive future. Professionals who work with girls can help preserve a girl's world by helping us to find language that recognizes their development into their teen years, but doesn’t place adult expectations on them. And women can help us by letting the word “girl” belong to those 18 and under.

What do you think?


What’s Good for Girls will raise the visibility of girls who are being themselves, building on their strengths, and taking action on what they believe. Girls rarely make it into the media for their accomplishments. When they do, I’ll link to their stories and celebrate their success!

WGFG will also highlight the work of the girls’ organizations that support girls that use a positive strengths-based approach. I’ll focus on the small neighborhood and community based organizations that lack the visibility of the large national organizations with Communications Staffs and National Budgets. I’ll start with NYC orgs, but plan to highlight programs from all over the country.

I’ll also keep an eye out for media trends about girls. What’s happening out there? And is it Good for Girls?