Most people are familiar with the debates about shielding our young from the most overt effects of the patriarchy- rejecting pink and blue toy aisles; relabelling traditionally gender specific activities as to be enjoyed by all (sports, dolls, dressing up etc.); campaigning for more gender neutral school uniforms. We are also are all aware of the serious and urgent business of addressing the issues affecting older teen girls- sexual exploitation; negative body image; dealing with harassment, banter and bullying. All of these things are part of a spectrum of harmful societal attitudes, conducts and frameworks that are, quite rightly, being resisted. All with the noble aim of making the world less hostile to those who want the freedom to be themselves and not conform to the norms this shitty world has doled out to them. So far, so agreeable.
But I want to put forward another way in which girls lose out- in which they are ridiculed, demeaned and dismissed. And it’s going to seem much less important when stacked up to the concerns mentioned above but to me it is more commonplace, insidious and seemingly trivial that it is all the more pervasive. And it seems to be hardly ever addressed. I’m talking about the way traditionally ‘girly’ cultural tastes, particularly for the pre-teen/adolescent females- are labelled as ‘silly’ thus rendering them less important. The way that young girls are portrayed as rather overly sensitive, superficial and downright hysterical and that this is reflected in the fact that they seem to gravitate towards a load of sentimental nonsense when it comes to music, films, books etc. And that makes them silly. Certainly less cool and credible as those (often boys) who like sports and science and rock music. Being dismissed as ‘silly’ can be just as damaging as any other insult because what it is basically saying is- these things (these silly things) are not important. And if you like these unimportant things then you too become unimportant- your tastes and feelings and thoughts become irrelevant.
I am going to say as a disclaimer at this point that in order to get this point across we have to allow a little bit of generalisation- I am aware that boys and girls are not homogeneous groups. I know some girls like football and some boys like One Direction and that’s fine. I know not everyone identifies so resolutely with one gender when they are growing up and that boys are impacted negatively by the pressures of the patriarchy as well as girls. However, this article is about those things that are still overwhelmingly considered to belong in one of the neat, ‘pink and blue’ style gender boxes and how girls who make those traditional choices are getting the bad end of the deal.
Let’s set a scene- February, 1996. Boyband behemoths and Gary Barlow song-peddlers Take That announced they were to split. For many a blessed relief or completely inconsequential event. For others…..not so much. Cue weeping; screaming; wailing; angry outbursts; disbelief and most infamously- a helpline set up for those afflicted with the former. The emotional avalanche that followed the breaking up of this band is still remembered today and still mentioned with a snort of derision at the idea that someone would need professional help to comfort them through the ordeal of a boyband splitting up. How ridiculous! They’re just a band for god’s sake! There are more important things in the world! It’s all very silly looking back on it now. I would boldly assert that the majority of fans who were plunged into an emotional crisis by this news were girls. Young girls. They were the ones sobbing, self harming and risking the wrath of telecommunications tyrant Bill Payer in order to access professional help. It seems to have been the same throughout music history- girls fainting at Beatles concerts; Bay City Rollers fans decorating themselves in garish tartan; One Direction fans forming some online vigilante group to hunt down Harry Styles detractors. Proof it would seem that girls are just too hysterical to be taken seriously. Girls often like things that aren’t considered particularly cool by the cynical, sneering, NME-reading knobbos of this world- boybands, hearththrobs, rom-coms, Jo Jo bows. And to me that is not only absolutely fine but also a much purer and non-self conscious display of genuine preference.
I have lost count of the amount of adult females I have heard proudly assert that they were not ‘typical girls’ growing up; that they played with Matchbox cars instead of Barbies; that they came out of the womb listening to The Smiths and have never even heard a Backstreet Boys song. That would all be fine if a) it were true and b) it wasn’t colluding with the idea that this makes them somehow superior to those girls who went a more traditional route. Because liking something girly is not as cool. Because (and here’s where the patriarchy comes in)- being a girl is not as cool.
Contrast that with the way boys interests are treated with a bit more back slapping respect. Football is a perfect example. As a society we rarely ridicule the male football fan- of any age. Quite the contrary, we venerate the father-son bonding experience of football, we barely bat an eyelid at the child who wants a Manchester United bedspread, lunchbox, lampshade and sticker book. We extend that tolerance to the adult male who still follows that team (maybe we would ridicule an adult male for having a football team themed bedspread- I don’t know). If a boy/man cries because his beloved group of overpaid thugs have failed to win a shiny trophy then that is widely tolerated. I fail to see how that is any different from someone crying because Justin Bieber is no longer touring (I made that fact up- don’t worry Beliebers he has not announced his intention to stop touring).
There is a sexist bias in credibility and ‘cool’. If a woman’s favourite performer is Celine Dion or Taylor Swift or Adele- that’s naff, it’s not cool, it’s silly. If a man’s favourite performer is Oasis or David Bowie or Motorhead- that’s credible, that’s grown up, that’s cool. Well fuck that.
Teenagers have a worldwide spending power of approx $819 billion and a hefty chunk of that belongs to girls. So I think we can all give them some respect because every Zac Efron DVD and Bieber poster is contributing to the economy. Society doesn’t seem to moan when adults spunk money up a wall on ‘grown up/cool’ stuff like mobile phones and cars and kale salads. And so society shouldn’t dismiss the fact that a 15 year old wants a Drake calendar.
Arguably, the things girls like are important vehicles for their growth- I’ve written before that boybands are an incredibly useful tool for pre-teens and teenage girls as they are a sanitised and therefore safe means of exploring your sexuality. It doesn’t have to be full of guitars, angst and social commentary for it to be important.
Basically, my point is, the designation of anything girly, fluffy, glittery, saccharine and well, NAFF as something that doesn’t require any respect and the harder, grittier, sportier, darker stuff as cool and credible is one of the ways the patriarchy keeps teenager girls in their place. It trains them to be submissive adults, capitulating to male interests and priorities as these are more ‘important’. It ensures that we still socialise girls to believe that the things they like are not as important or deserving of respect. In other words, that they are not as important or deserving of respect. And that is obviously unacceptable.
I’m not saying we all need to become Jonas Brothers fans but the next time someone, anyone tells me what floats their boat and what cheesy crooner they are currently listening to, I’m going to say ‘wow, that’s cool- tell me more’. I will encourage them to wear the silly t-shirts, make the silly banners for concerts, cry on their own You Tube channel about some star I’ve never heard of. Because I want to make silly the new cool.