Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Girls Gone Mild

Girls Gone Mild: Young Women Reclaim Self-Respect and Find It's Not Bad to Be Good
By Wendy Shalit
Random House
Reviewed by Melissa

The plight of adolescent girls in America isn't a new topic. Years ago, I read Deadly Persuasion by Jean Kilbourne, which documents the negative role advertising plays in girls' and women's lives. I've also recently picked up Reviving Ophelia, by psychotherapist Mary Pipher, which discusses eating disorders and the tendency for young girls to collapse under the pressure of being a teenager. Neither of these books are new, and they are not the only ones on the market dealing with this topic.

So, it's not surprising that Wendy Shalit felt a need to write Girls Gone Mild: Young Women Reclaim Self-Respect and Find It's not Bad to Be Good.

There's very little about the world of young women and those who argue about them and those who sell things to them that Shalit doesn't attack: from Bratz dolls ("If a little girl is young enough to be coloring and wearing glitter stickers, then she's probably still to young to be worrying about boys and looking 'hot'") to feminists ("If our top women leaders require forty-five minutes and the intellectual equivalent of root canal work to merely suggest that taking off your clothes and playing with dildos in public is not the be-all and end-all of women's happiness, and even then feel bad about having said anything against it .... we've got serious problems") to her own critics ("It suddenly dawns on me that all the writers who have attacked me, calling modesty illegitimate and an 'elite white' concept, are in fact elite white people themselves") to society at large ("A society that is hostile to innocence is by definition hostile to children") to causal sex ("Having sex for its own sake, without waiting to integrate our deepest emotions and hopes, at best becomes boring, fast. At worst, men and women end up competing over how cruelly they can use one another. And in between, there is much confusion").

In response to the above, Shalit offers what she's found: teenagers, especially girls, rebelling by being "good girls". It's an argument against the "inevitability factor": kids are going to do it anyway, so here's your condoms. Shalit argues that it doesn't have to be inevitable, and in fact, that expectation is most likely harmful.

I appreciate the defenses that Shalit provides. She insists that modesty is not a negative thing. It's "not about shame...; it derives from knowing the true worth of something." It's refreshing, to me, to have someone point out that clothes, and the way a person dresses, is, in fact, all about how you portray yourselves to others. But she doesn't stop there. She points out that our society is increasingly misogynistic, imposing a double standard on men and women:

Nowhere is the politicization of dress more evident than in our deep-rooted belief that a girl or woman who undresses for the general public is "comfortable with her body," whereas one who keeps her body hidden is "ashamed of it."... Only women are called on to prove that they are "comfortable" in this way. There is no equivalent for men. Nor does anyone ask men to prove that they are "comfortable with their romantic hopes," for example, by proposing to women they've just met off the street. Why is disrobing in public equated with "bravery" or "comfort" for women in the first place?

She also encourages kindness in girls ("If they are given a choice between being docile and being a bully, many mothers and experts today choose bullying. But are those really the only two choices for young women? What about being confident, and also kind? That to me would be true girl power."). She speaks with girls who demand and inspire respect from their peers. And she comes to the conclusion that by embracing these virtues, girls are in fact liberated. "When compared with the stifling situation of having to constantly look good and make boys feel good," she writes, "the old challenge of being good becomes more appealing with each passing year."

Most of her book is extended interviews with people who have written into the website Shalit started, ModestyZone, and others she sought out for various reasons. Because of this, the book has a very chatty feel to it (lots of "like"s and "you know"s) which I often found distracting. But, in spite of all that, I admired the confidence and self-awareness of the young women Shalit talked to.

For instance, Robin, 15:

"It's best just to not care what other people think of you and be your own person. If you're doing everything because someone else tells you to do it, then you're not your own person; it's not you. If you dress like everybody else dresses, or talk the way everyone else talks, then it's not you talking -- it's your friends." To her, pushing sexualized clothing on younger and younger girls is part of a society that does not value women: "I think our culture values men more... [and] external stuff, like 'Make more money; be more independent.'"

Or Taylor, 14:

It's like if you're a good girl, you'll have a baaaad time, you're going to be boring or something like that. but there's nothing wrong with being a good girl! Because , you know, you put yourself in a position of being a girl who's classy and having dignity, and eventually people will treat you as such. I think it all comes down to vibes, and the vibe you give up. If you give a vibe, "OK, just take me!" -- you know what I'm saying -- then that's the vibe people that people will pick up, and they will approach you as such.

My main problem with this book was not its content or its message, but the audience. Who is Shalit writing for? Concerned parents of girls? It's mostly just preaching to the choir, there. Yes, we know that the world is a harsh place for girls, and thank you for reminding us what we can do to help. Teen girls? Again, will those who aren't at least halfway convinced of the "badness" of society read this? Yet Shalit says in the intro, "If I can persuade just one person inclined to make fun of the 'good girl' to reconsider his or her scorn, then as far as I'm concerned, this whole enterprise has been worthwhile." But what person inclined to scorn those riding against the tide will open this book?

Perhaps someone will, and they will be convinced by her arguments. But, if not, then Shalit at least has succeeded in reminding those who think like her that they are not alone. And, for that, the book's worth reading.


Booklogged said...

Wow! This sounds like a refreshing, bold book that is definitely needed for our times. Wonderful review, Melissa. You got my blood boiling with rage at the purveyors of immodesty, casual sex, self-gratification, etc. and yet gave my heart a reason to leap with hope that something is being done. I'm buying this book to read and leave on the end table so my daughters will be tempted to look it over.

Anonymous said...

I read Shalit's book "A Return to Modesty" (which I think she wrote first) a few months ago and I really liked it. I felt that she made a very strong case that our society's turn from modesty and morals has put women in a very bad position relationship- wise, safety- wise, emotionally- wise etc. (She did get a little long- winded at times.)
Another book that I read at the same time and dealt with some of the same issues was
called "What Are Mothers Didn't tell Us: Why Happiness Eludes the Modern Women" by Danielle Crittenden. I recomend it highly (even more than Shalit's book, actually). They were both, of course preaching to the choir, like you said Melissa, but sometimes it is nice to have what you believe reaffirmed in an intelligent way.