Monday, March 7, 2011

The Denigration of Teen Girls

Why do teenage girls get so much flack?

I was reminded of this by one of the new Allstate commercials, in which Dean Winters portrays "Mayhem", an embodiment of various disasters than destroy your possessions. Other commercials in the series have him represent mishaps and natural disasters like wind storms, but in this example he represents a teenage girl (in a pink truck, of course) who carelessly and callously hits another vehicle (because she's texting and gossiping, of course).

I find this depiction particularly unfair given that, although teen girls increasingly self-report risky behavior, teen boys are still more prone to car accidents, a fact that is reflected in car insurance rates.

Of course, the problem is much more widespread than one Allstate commercial. "Teenage girl" has become a synonym for "frivolous and gossipy". I think anyone who knows teenagers, however, also knows that they are a varied and frequently very serious bunch. I, for instance, spent my teenage years worrying about global warming and participating in math competitions. And if teen girls are the shallowest, most frivolous demographic on Earth, then why in heavens name do we so predominantly use them for babysitting? Isn't the fact that we regularly choose to entrust the care of our children to teen girls a strong argument in favor of their competence and reliability?

If you don't believe me, there are plenty of youth organizations dedicated to public service (Junior Red Cross, Habitat for Humanity, the Girl Scouts.) Check them out. I guarantee you'll find a teen girl who could teach you a thing or two.

PS: When I google "teenage girl", there are so. many. references to sex and violence. It is extremely creepy.


  1. I really like your larger point about the depiction of teenage girls, but I want to comment on the issue of driving and gender.

    To be fair (and don't worry, I am not about to defend Allstate), they do have another commercial depicting a careless and callous teenage boy riding a lawnmower and destroying his parents' property. Interestingly however, the boy seems to be intentionally destroying property, because obviously we all know that males are better drivers than females and only females are unwittingly involved in vehicular destruction. Sigh.

    I'm pretty proud of my driving skills. My mother taught me to drive and she is an awesome driver. Every so often, a man will compliment my driving skills and I can't help but wonder, do men ever receive compliments for their driving skills? Or would that be akin to telling a man that he knows a lot about sports (another thing for which I receive frequent praise)?

  2. That's a really good point. Men being good drivers is considered neutral - all the best NASCAR/Indy drivers are men, right? - so when a woman can manage to get to the next town and back without wrecking while applying mascara in the rearview, it's something worth praising.

    There's a real "boys will boys" element to the idea that guys will do violent/dangerous things that sometimes result in the destruction of property that is NEVER raised with women or girls in pop culture.

  3. As someone who spends all day around 14-20 year olds (that 21 does NOT include college students in this calculation, sadly), I find most teenagers, male and female, to be flighty, arrogant, lazy, and full of importance they have not earned.
    And yet, I still love teaching them. Go figure.

  4. I think we should remember that exaggeration is the essence of comedy, and these spots, like many commercials today, attempt to be humorously clever. And, as someone noted, male irresponsibility is the focus of other Allstate commercials. (Note, too, that the allegorical "Mayhem" is played by a man.) Moreover, while I agree that teenage girls oughtn't be unfairly maligned, there appears to be a degree of truth to the notion that girls do a good deal of texting while driving. Oprah's made a big deal out of it.

    You are right to be dismayed by the countless internet sites that advertise "teenage girls". That any should hint at violence is alarming.

  5. Dana, I can tell you that I am sick of the "bitches be crazy" type of humor that so many people rely on. I am also sick of the "men are doofuses" stuff. It's all coming from the same place: gender essentialism. Just because men are also portrayed badly sometimes doesn't mean there isn't a feminist point here. If men and women are being made fun of in different ways, it's worth examining where the differences lie. Rarely are teenage boys shown as shallow airheads the way girls are. Single-minded, reckless, irresponsible, maybe, but not outright brainless. Looking back through history, there have been countless attempts to downplay the intelligence of women.

    One thing I've found through teaching, and life, is that some men haven't often given these ideas a lot of thought. That's what we like to call "male privilege." It's going to be something one of us writes about in the future, but here's the short version: most people have some kind of privilege (white privilege, straight privilege, class privilege) and that doesn't mean they're doing something wrong, but it does mean that they (we, really) have an obligation to consider how our privilege might be coloring our views of a situation, or affecting our experiences. Does that make sense?

    Finally, commercials that aim to be "humorously clever" usually miss both marks, from what I have seen.

  6. Jess, I completely agree with your second point about privilege coloring people's ideas, even unconsciously. And I agree that "bitches be crazy" humor is tired and seldom funny. And I am happy you brought up the "men are doofuses" point, because that has been the most prevalent theme in comedy for the past twenty years. I love Homer Simpson, but he's the prototype for what I am talking about. Still, you are wrong about teenage boys not being portrayed as airheads. Jeff Spicoli is a famous example. And on Modern Family, one of the daughter's boyfriends is total airhead. Granted, that daughter is not portrayed as the brightest, but the second daughter is.

  7. Dana, do you think sexism is a problem in the 21st century?

  8. Is that a serious question? If it is, I don't appreciate the implication.

  9. I know you think sexism is an issue. I'm just wondering where you see it manifested.

  10. I cannot speak as a woman, of course, but from my own perspective, I still see considerable inequality in some vocations in terms of pay and promotion. If women cannot get equal pay for equal work I see manifest ways in which men as well as (obviously) women are held back. Plus, it simply isn't fair. There has been progress, of course. I think a majority of college students these days are female, and women are much better represented in the fields of medicine and law and the media, too. This may just be anecdotal, but I see far more women than men in the broadcasting programs at UF.

    That said, I am still immensely, immensely troubled by some of the outright misogyny in the media. I don't mean what is represented in silly stereotypes on sitcoms. Rather, I am enraged by some of what I hear in popular music. Eight or nine years ago I waged an angry letter-writing campaign against Coors for hiring Kid Rock as their spokesbastard. Kid Rock is a horrible, horrible person. Or, at least, his "music" is unbelievably anti-female. I don't keep up with him, so maybe he's calmed down, but his older stuff was so bad that I couldn't imagine how any large corporation, no matter what they sold, could employ him as a representative. I was dismayed when Coors wrote me back saying "Kid Rock is an American patriot".

    Finally, and I don't know if this is sexism, but I worry that women and girls are far, far too hard on each other, and can be shockingly cruel, especially those who are at an already vulnerable age. Boys pick on each other, and I got beat up plenty when I was little, but seldom were any of my conflicts especially pyschological. That is, none of the boys beating me up was trying especially hard to make me doubt my self-worth. I worry that girls sometimes say and do awful, awful things to hurt one another.

    That's just three things I can think of off the top of my head.

  11. Oh my god, Kid Rock is THE WORST. So is Coors - there's actually a boycott against Coors, has been for decades, for being anti-gay. I couldn't drink their beer if I wanted to, but good luck ordering it in a gay bar, heh.

    I think we're in agreement on all of these issues, actually. I want to see more research done on gendered bullying. For whatever weird reason, I was always bullied by boys, not girls, which I think is outside the norm, if I can recall my statistics properly. I have always wondered if that's because they somehow sensed before I did that I'm not a total gender conformist (queer, etc.).

    Also, the journalism school here in general has more women, and I don't really know anything about that. I should ask my friend Amy, she got a masters degree there, I think. She might have more insights.

    It's always interesting to play around with numbers (which I am terrible at) because you can look at how many people are entering a given profession, and it can look somewhat equal, but once you start scratching the surface in terms of pay, type of position, etc., it can start to tilt back toward displaying sexism. Not always, but sometimes. Medicine, for example, tends to have WAY more female OB/GYNs (or pediatricians) than brain surgeons. Not that OB/GYNs aren't entirely necessary and important, but there's a gender-bias thing going on there, too.

    As far as men and women being held back: I think this is part of the "patriarchy is bad for everyone" thing. I have a post coming out this week or next week about why there are so few male teachers.

    Thanks for your response - I knew we'd find some common ground, and that always makes for a more productive conversation than us shooting individual examples from the media back and forth at each other. :)