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.