This blog mentions eating disorders and sexual assault in passing so take care of yourself if you find those things difficult to read about!
A quick glance at twitter will inform you that today is the International Day of the Girl, with many charities and individuals alike seizing the opportunity to talk about fundamentally important issues like access to education, gendered experiences of poverty, and violence against women and girls. So far, so good. A quick glance at twitter will also inform you that Zoella is about to upload a new baking video, #ANALLCAPSHASHTAGABOUTHARRYSTYLESISTRENDING, Justin Bieber is number one in 10 countries and that the X Factor is back on tonight. Are you rolling your eyes yet?
Chances are, quite probably. Because while it’s pretty easy to click a hashtag showing you care about the large-scale issues facing teenage girls, it’s apparently somewhat less easy to treat them as humans worthy of respect in the process of meaning it. For as long as 17-year-olds have been writing heartfelt love letters to war-bound soldiers or fainting in the audience of Beatles’ gigs, ‘teenage girls’ have been a reliable synonym for ‘laughable’, and their interests a steadfast yardstick for bad taste. We can all think of someone who smugly takes pride in pretending not to know the latest Taylor Swift song and makes jokes like ‘Kylie Jenner? What is one of those?’, all bright-eyed and bushy tailed to elicit a laugh and to hide the fact that he lives a sad and unfulfilling existence. You know the guy, he probably wears very practical clothing and likes Top Gear and moaning about how real music is dead now and Kanye West should never have headlined Glastonbury.
Unlike this fictional but sadly representative fun sponge of a man, teenage girls are almost the literal embodiment of power’s antithesis. They’re young, they’re female, they’re giggly and loud and excitable; they’re fundamentally not suited up middle-aged white men nodding slowly and weighing things up and signing off texts with a single initial. Which is why it’s so easy to automatically relegate the things they like and care about to the domain of screaming fangirls only, while the interests of white men are framed as universal. Very Serious and Cultured Grown-Up Adults will seriously defend to the death a song with 16 words as the epitome of all art in the same breath as dismissing viewers of belief-defying make-up artistry as airheads lacking in agency and with a brain full of pink fluff and glitter in place of critical thought. They will go to sports matches and cry when their team loses, and then sneer at teenage girls who were upset when Zayn left One Direction. They will buy their sons, brothers and nephews video games and football stickers, and sigh upon parting with cash for a Justin Bieber poster. They will watch the ploughing of money and resource into marketing that tells teenage girls – often by playing on their insecurities – that they should listen to, watch or buy the next big thing, and then they’ll laugh when they do as they’re told.
Dangling things in front of teenage girls and sniggering when they grab them doesn’t stop at what they choose to consume and enjoy, but even creeps into the realms of how they choose to consume and enjoy it. Take sites like Twitter and Tumblr and the fact that, before their existence, the only people afforded the privilege to talk publicly in their own voices about the things they cared about were journalists, commentators and politicians, the vast majority of whom look suspiciously like those middle-aged white men mentioned above. You might think that since 99.9% of the internet is built by and for them, they might not be too bothered about what goes on in the other 0.01%… but you’d be wrong. Because where teenage girls have seized the opportunity to talk on their own terms by cultivating tiny pockets of online communities, you can rest assured they’ll be met with a steady flow of disparaging tweets, people correcting their grammar, and a GQ article writing them off as hysterical and animalistic to boot. Selfies get the same treatment; as the first example I can think of of young women being able to control images of themselves in the public realm, you’d be forgiven for calling them revolutionary. It’s primarily teenage girls that take them, though, so instead it’s narcissistic and shallow, and won’t they be embarrassed when they’re older. Teenage girls express themselves in ways fundamentally not intended for the universal middle-aged white man, so what they have to say can never be worth hearing.
This subordination of female teenage voices takes an even darker turn when you consider how it plays into gender inequality more broadly, something those welling up at Malala before rolling their eyes at Directioners would do well to take note of. When we don’t take the voices of teenage girls seriously, we end up with the under-diagnosis of eating disorders, written off as ‘teenage girl problems’. We end up with victim-blaming narratives that dismiss and minimise the experience of teenage abuse survivors because teenage girls are, like, too busy being hormonal and thinking about boys to be reliable witnesses on their own experiences. We end up with the playground politics that play girls off against each other by saying they need to be at once pretty and ditzy to attract their male peers, but ‘not like other girls’ to be taken seriously. We end up with the idea that ‘I just get on better with guys because they’re easier’ is a cool thing to say, rather than being the saddest thing I’ve ever heard, because anyone who’s ever been a 14 year old girl knows there is no group more supportive, fun and empowering than a teenage girl gang done right.
It’s sadly ironic then, that we’re so intent on tearing down teenage girls for being teenage girls when they might just be the group that needs solidarity the most. Walking the tightrope between teenage angst and womanhood is no mean feat, especially when misogyny is snapping at your heels on both sides, albeit in different forms. That’s not to say boys have it easy – god knows being a teenager isn’t entirely a barrel of laughs for anyone – but society as a whole seems ready to give them room to grow and make mistakes in a way we just don’t afford to young women. Boys will be boys, and boys will start actual riots over football results, but get a bit over-excited on a hashtag and girls are the scourge of the earth. You’re a precious, innocent flower and then you’re a shrieking harpie and then you’re a moany woman and there isn’t really any time in between to catch your breath or change your mind or stop helplessly nodding along as the world tells you how to be but then admonishes you for not being good enough at being it.
There are teenage girls, everywhere, defying this process by carving out their own spaces and taking the inevitable flack that comes with doing so: Abby Tomlinson, founder of the #milifandom who proved that girls can make important and advanced contributions to politics in their own language and on their own terms; Amandla Stenberg who, at just 16, is schooling the world on everything from intersectional feminism to cultural appropriation, all alongside tweeting about fashion magazines and the hilarity of slapstick comedy in Vine form. These girls, and the many millions of others who don’t have their platforms, show that teenage girls can at once care about pop music and Hollyoaks and floral dresses, whilst also taking their rightfully deserved place in adult conversations around politics, inequality and feminism. They deserve better than their caricature as a one-dimensional, superficial mass of deely-boppers and high-decibel screaming, and we all deserve better than the society we create when we perpetuate this. Liberating the ‘typical’ teenage girl also liberates the atypical one who is marginalised for not fitting in, the effeminate boy who is bullied for not being masculine enough, the non-binary teenager who can’t find a place within the strict battle lines drawn by childhood.
This International Day of the Girl, then, let’s take teenage girls seriously. Let’s acknowledge that they can be complex and multilayered human beings and that their interests and modes of expression are legitimate and important. Let’s accept that they are full to the brim of creativity and enthusiasm and ideas that if we only just harnessed, could make them powerful enough to take over the world. Let’s realise that, after the way we’ve dared to hold them down for so long, it’s a wonder they haven’t tried it yet.