Unrequited Love: Musings on Girls Gone Mild

"Strange as it sounds, upholding social standards has become the 'radical' position today." -- Wendy Shalit

Had Wendy Shalit not adopted the tone of a beleaguered conservative, blaming feminism for turning young women into sluts, I could have gone with her all the way. She's not like those modesty-advocates of yore who fretted that women's liberation would result in coed bathrooms, and then went on to oppose the Equal Rights Amendment. She's different from the rest.

Shalit (who once protested said bathrooms at Williams College) is onto good things with her new book Girls Gone Mild: Young Women Reclaim Self-Respect and Find It's Not Bad to Be Good. In the era of Bratz Babyz and Care Bear thongs, Shalit advocates for self-acceptance over self-objectification, wholesome alternatives to "prostitot" fashion, and magazines that offer girls better advice than the injunction to "be cling-free like fabric softener" when it comes to dating boys. As my bubbe would say, what's there to disagree?

Plenty. But my disagreement is not with Shalit's main point that our culture oversexualizes girls. It's with the way she divvies the moral universe into "us" and "them." I felt moved by Shalit's empathy, inspired by her call for authenticity. I found myself surprisingly open to love. But then I got dumped. My experience of reading Girls Gone Mild was less like true love and more like an unsatisfying affair.

Here's how Shalit dumped me: First, she tries to blame this hypersexual culture on lenient Boomer parents. I have yet to see hard numbers linking Boomer permissiveness to the pressure to have sex early, or to their daughters' low self-esteem. Shalit certainly fails to cite such research, depending instead on anecdotes. I'd counter hers with an anecdote of my own:, my just-pre-Boomer mother was not one of the alleged legions Shalit rails against for encouraging casual sex. And the daughters of Boomers that I know tend to look up to their parents (once they pass puberty) rather than view them with moral disdain, as Shalit's modest rebels do, like female Alex P. Keatons. Still, I'll concede, as Shalit writes, that "What is liberation to one generation can be oppression to the next." Okay.

But she doesn't stop there. In the world of Girls Gone Mild, permissive Boomer parents are lumped together with third-wave feminists to become the dread "them," the dark side of the moral universe. In a chapter titled "Feminism's (Mild) Fourth Wave," Shalit fans the flames of a far less believable intergenerational war. She writes:

"As the third-wavers continue to advocate a public, crude sexuality and younger girls feel oppressed by how public sexuality is, the two sets of women are on course for an inevitable collision."

At 38, I sometimes identify as third-wave, and I have yet to collide with one of Shalit's rebellious young good girls. But would said meeting really constitute such a clash? Her good girl and I would likely agree on much: That the objectification of women in advertising and videos is veering dangerously out of control. That third-wave feminists created some amazing media and books (like Adios, Barbie and Body Outlaws) that provide alternatives to and protest the premature sexualization of girls. That toddlers should not be wearing thongs.

But come on. Feminists are hardly at fault for these developments. Blaming feminism for the evil du jour is a lazy reflex, a formula so familiar that by now it's cliché. It entails caricaturing feminist leaders, overestimating the strength of the "feminist establishment," and underestimating the strength of your own establishment ("You might deduce from the media hype that abstinence education has supplanted sex education, but nothing remotely like this has happened," writes Shalit). It involves casting feminism as a monolith, focusing on its "excesses," and ignoring any nuance among pro-sex feminist points of view (for Shalit, "sex-positive" generally means "emotion-negative" or "emotionally repressed"). For extra sizzle, pit mothers against daughters. Give a new name ("fourth-wave feminism") to the trend you'd like to see replace the old, bad feminism. Stir.

I wish Shalit's decision to use this tired ploy hadn't left such a bitter taste in my mouth. Because the potential for love was real. As the American Psychological Association notes in a May 2007 report, there's a paucity of research on the sexualization of girls, and there's certainly a need for more. Shalit's reliance on the experiences of those who email her is beyond questionable, but she nonetheless peppers her prose with some solid statistics that make you want to run to your local toy manufacturer and stop them before they put Slutty Elmo on the shelves. She emphasizes girls' agency and activism. Among the book's heroes are the girls from Pittsburgh who orchestrated a successful "girlcott" of offensive t-shirts sold by Abercrombie and Fitch with catchphrases such as "Who Needs Brains When You Have These?". Shalit's desire to incite positive social change is admirable -- and genuine.

But Shalit giveth, then taketh away. Her tactics are gratuitously divisive. After celebrating said young activists, for instance, who were hailed by third wave feminists as inspirational, she uses these girls to trump up the so-called intergenerational divide on modesty. She also loses progressive allies in the fight against the pornification of the girls' toy aisle by giving a free pass to advertisers and corporations. And she loses feminists young and old by conflating the inappropriate, premature sexualization of girls under age 18 with the entire project of sexual revolution.

When it comes to her opinions on women over 18, Shalit loses even more potential allies. In her desire to socially legislate the sexual behavior of adult women, she makes it impossibly clear that she is playing for the opposing team. To her credit, she anticipates such criticism and insists that she is not advocating we turn back the clock. But like a lover scorned, by the time we get there, I find her hard to believe.

So you can see why I'm heartbroken and hopelessly alienated by beleaguered-sounding statements that cast those of us who believe in the standard of freedom (that is, allowance for sexual experimentation among women over 18) as being dead set against morality. In Wendy's world, secular Boomer parents and, really, anyone over 35, seem incapable of grasping the concept of inner virtue. As a fellow at the Woodhull Institute for Ethical Leadership, I'm all for bringing ethics back to the table. Shalit writes, "The enlightened postmodern chick is always post-morality." Enlightened? I hope so. Postmodern? Whatever. Post-morality? I just don't think that's me.

To me, ethics and morality apply to the way we craft our arguments. More moral dichotomizing is hardly what women, what girls, what any of us need now, as I argue in my book, Sisterhood, Interrupted: From Radical Women to Grrls Gone Wild. I look forward to the day public conversation about women, girls, and sex teases out the differences between sexual expression and experimentation among college-aged women and the inappropriate, premature sexualization of girls under age 18.

I also look forward to solid research on what the APA calls the "adultification of young girls" and the "youthification of adult women" -- and its effect on the way that boys today become men. Shalit's book is a beginning. But I guess I wanted more from the relationship. I wanted what the girls in her book want: I wanted respect.

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