A few months ago, some girls from the staff of a zine I help publish and write for, Beast Grrl, were selling copies at the Baltimore Book Fair when a man approached them and announced that he was a newspaper editor. Excited, they gave him a copy of our zine, only to have him pull out a pen and begin correcting it in front of them. I think it’s important to consider the subject of our zine here—though it’s plausible that this man might have felt the need to correct a zine about, say, cats, or popular teen movies, I find it more likely that our feminist mag made him uncomfortable, and he responded by trying to put it down.
This interaction, between teenage girls and someone who feels threatened by them or their success, is one that I’d wager is echoed every day, in all sorts of scenarios, among all sorts of girls. No one wants to listen to teenage girls, and it’s becoming a problem.
Why does this happen? For one thing, teenage girls have to suffer what could be considered the double whammy of being females and considered millennials. It’s no secret that women are at a disadvantage in our world–they struggle to be heard and to have basic rights every day. Meanwhile, millennials are thought of as lazy and self-absorbed—people well-initialed into the world of the selfie. These two factors combined together mean that teenage girls are often judged by surface value, and portrayed as being shallow and self-absorbed. We’re rarely seen as a threat, more often we are considered dumb or boy-crazy. Consider the musician Taylor Swift. Swift is a record-breaking artist, making millions of dollars every year, and yet she’s still thought of as the girl who sings about boys. Yes, this is something she does, but it undermines both Swift’s skill as a musician and her shrewd business sensibilities. She is a master songwriter, and owns her own management company. What will it take for us to start giving her the same sort of deference that her male counterparts, musicians like Bruno Mars or Justin Timberlake, receive?
Why is this a problem? Well, if we keep teenage girls from gaining any sort of agency or power, we stifle their abilities to get anything done. We box away their endeavors, creative or otherwise, as things that are not adequate or interesting. This could also have more serious repercussions. In July, the New York Times published an article, “Reporting Rape and Wishing she Hadn’t”, detailing the struggles a young female college student went through at her school after reporting that she had been sexually assaulted. Among other things, she had to appear at a disciplinary hearing where she was forced to defend her case. The Times reported that, “With no advocate to speak up for her at the disciplinary hearing, panelists interrupted her answers, at times misrepresented evidence and asked about a campus-police report she had not seen.” Meanwhile, at Columbia University, Emma Sulkowicz began carrying the mattress that she had been raped on across campus, as a performance art piece that responded to her school’s lack of disciplinary actions against her rapist. According to the “Rules of Engagement” she created for the performance, she will carry the mattress “Until the man she accuses of attacking her is no longer on campus, whether he leaves or is expelled or graduates.”
These girls are dying to be listened to, and they’ve got things to share that could make the lives of other girls safer, but their schools refused to take them seriously.
We live in the age of Tavi Gevinson, the teenage founder of the online magazine Rookie, and Malala Yousafzai, the teenage Pakistani activist and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, yet our attitudes towards adolescent girls are still often condescending. We need to change how we think about teenage girls, or we’ll typecast them into a box so small that they don’t have room to accomplish anything.