Girl Constructed in Two Nonfiction Texts

Sexual Subject? Desired Object?

in Girlhood Studies

ABSTRACT

In 2016 two nonfiction titles exploring girls and sexuality and presentations of the sexual self received extensive media attention, thus shaping a construction of girl in popular media. In this article I examine how Nancy Jo Sales’s American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teenagers and Peggy Orenstein’s Girls and Sex: Navigating the Complicated New Landscape construct girls as sexual subjects and desired objects. In a close reading of the texts I consider how the authors constitute girl and the ways in which girls navigate society’s expectations and constructions of them as sexual subjects. I use the words of girls themselves to examine the dissonance between authorial constructions and the post-feminist culture that emerges in the texts on the one hand, and the girls’ language on the other.

As Catherine Driscoll reminds us, “Girls are brought into existence in statements and knowledge” (2002: 5). In the United States, representations of girls in a wide variety of media shape our cultural knowledge about girlhood. These narratives about girls develop into what we might call cultural knowledge. This happens as independent narratives gain popular attention through research reports, news stories that can be positioned as demonstrating emerging trends, and fictional representation. Two examples of texts that present girlhood to adults and then, through adult interpretation, form narratives of girlhood come to mind. In the early 1990s the popularity of the text Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Lives of Adolescent Girls (Pipher 1994) led to subsequent cultural discussion focused on a narrative of girls at risk that then led to girl power programs (Currie et al. 2009; Ward and Benjamin 2004). In the early 2000s, this cycle repeated itself when Queen Bees and Wannabees (Wiseman 2002) was adapted into the film, Mean Girls (2004); this introduced a narrative that centered around mean girls and relational bullying.

In 2016, two nonfiction texts, written for an adult audience, Peggy Orenstein’s Girls and Sex: Navigating the Complicated New Landscape (hereafter Girls and Sex) and Nancy Jo Sales’s American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Life of Teenagers (hereafter American Girls) were published. These texts received media attention (Gross 2016a; Gross 2016b; Holbrook 2016; Levy 2016; North 2016) and articulated a narrative of girls navigating sexual activity in a manner that left them facing various forms of risk. In Girls and Sex, Orenstein explores how young women think about and engage in sexual activity; she weaves in research related to girls’ sexual practices. Sales takes a different approach in American Girls in focusing on how girls represent themselves and communicate through social media, and emphasizing her interpretation of an online environment as being hypersexualized. The texts depict a girlhood dominated by sexism in which girls are sexual objects who practice complicity in their own objectification. However, a closer reading of what the girls themselves say in these texts indicates that they are aware of their own desires; they explore ways to control their own narratives, and struggle to do so in a culture that positions them as desired objects. However, the authors seem to ignore the ways in which the girls try to assert agency while being aware of the cultural forces that have an impact on them. The voices of the girls in the text provide a counterpoint to the authorial voices that presuppose the girls-at-risk narrative and, even worse, that the girls themselves are unaware of this narrative.

In this article, I examine both texts to identify how they construct girlhood. My purpose is to probe, on the one hand, how these two authorial perspectives critique the influence of American culture on girls’ choices, and, on the other, the ways in which the girls’ words present their own contrasting narrative. Since the emphasis of both texts is on sexual practices, I explore the narratives of girl as the desired object in Sales’s American Girls in which, furthermore, her subjectivity is not explored or acknowledged as anything other than problematic, and as desiring subject in Girls and Sex, in which the girl is recognized as having the agency of desire. I attempt to identify how the texts construct girlhood within existing narratives related to girls’ sexual behaviors.

Theoretical Perspective, Questions, and Analysis

Our beliefs about the development of knowledge and the objectivity of truth influences the questions we ask and the answers we develop. Joey Sprague points out that “abstract individuation creates systematic biases” (2005: 17). Therefore, it is imperative that we lay bare the epistemology that guides abstraction. Standpoint theory suggests that “knowledge is constructed in a specific matrix of physical location, history, culture, and interests” (41). It acknowledges and concerns itself with the “distortions created by power imbalances due to gender, race/ethnicity, class, and nation” (53). I ask questions grounded in a feminist standpoint that assumes that power guides what is valued as knowledge. Simply put, there are two assumptions regarding power that influence both how I ask the question and how I analyze the construction of girlhood. The first is that we live in a patriarchal culture in which power rests with men, allowing them to shape narratives through institutions. The second assumption is that age is a part of identity in which youth are outside power structures. In a patriarchal culture, gender-based power imbalances underlie the narratives of girlhood and these are further complicated by issues related to race and class (Currie et al. 2009; Driscoll 2002; Harris 2004). The implication of the second assumption is that a power imbalance exists when adults control and perpetuate structural institutions in a manner that others youth (Harris 2004; Woo 2012). I interrogate the framing of the two titles as one who is aware of these assumptions and their influence on both the questions I ask and the answers I construct.

Feminism and Girls

As mentioned above, girlhood is a constructed concept negotiated in particular moments and in particular cultures (Driscoll 2002; Griffin 2004). In North American culture, girlhood is mediated through adults who have the power to constitute institutions and produce narrative through mass media (Griffei 2004; Lesko and Talburt 2012). Girlhood itself becomes an object of study, a product to sell, a narrative of other. Girls exist in this culture and shape their own subjectivity (Baumgardner and Richards 2004; Currie et al. 2009; Taft 2004). Therefore, feminist conversations regarding girlhood will influence girls’ construction of their subjectivity while they are interacting with these narratives. As feminist conversations and the attendant backlash enter the mainstream through media landscapes girls must negotiate their own understanding of the emergent narratives of girlhood.

I consider the construction of girlhood in these texts, and the negotiation between object and subject as a cultural moment of postfeminism. Postfeminism is a contested concept; on the one hand it is represented by a critique of second wave feminism while constructing itself as feminist (Sanders 2004) and, on the other, it is represented by the 1990s girl power movement in which the need for equality is self-evident (Griffin 2004), and is, therefore, a rejection of feminism. There is an interaction between the two representations in which feminism becomes the “depoliticization and reduction of [itself] to a justification for lifestyle, and commodification” (Lotz 2007: 79). The result is that currently girl power is built on the language of choice with a neoliberal focus on the individual for whom feminism is no longer necessary (Gill et al. 2009; Taft 2004). As the girl power movement of the 1990s was being commodified, packaged, and sold in popular culture, a girlish femininity emerged as a version of feminism that one chooses (Baumgardner and Richards 2004; Baumgardner and Waters 2014). Choice being the operative term, as Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards write, “Feminine things weren’t truly the problem; being forced to adopt them was” (2004: 61). In response, a critique regarding girls’ agency about the commodification and selling of girl power and femininity emerged (Gill et al. 2009; Harris 2004; Taft 2004). Postfeminism’s focus on choice, empowerment, and the agency of girls has particular import to girls as sexual subjects and/or desired objects since the so called depoliticization of feminism suggests that one’s choice to present as a sexual object is a feminist act. This is evident in Orenstein’s and Sales’s text as girls use the language of choice and empowerment in speaking about their sexual subjectivity, and in recognizing their position as objects.

Sexual Subjects, Desired Objects

Historically, adults have concerned themselves with youth and sexuality, particularly in relation to girls (Driscoll 2002). Primarily, two narratives dominate: “sexuality as risk; and sexuality as resistance” (Kehily 2012: 226). When issues of desire and empowerment are at play, these two themes collide. For instance, Deborah Tolman (2002) writes that girls are presented as objects of male desire rather than as desiring subjects. She writes, “While sexualized images of adolescent girls are omnipresent, their sexual feelings are rarely if ever portrayed” (2002: 8). This affects how girls engage in sexual practices and how they understand their own desire.

As the commodification of girl power has promoted empowerment to young women regarding their sexual presentation and activities through images of women as sexy, a focus on the sexualization of girls has occurred (American Psychological Association 2008; Lamb and Peterson 2012; Tolman 2012). Rosalind Gill and colleagues highlight the sale of sexual subjectivity framed as “playfulness, freedom, and above all, choice” (2009: 148). This postfeminist girl power cooption has narrative consequences. For instance, Sharon Lamb and Zoe Peterson question whether “empowerment include[s] a subjective sense of efficacy, desire and pleasure” (2012: 704). When sexuality has been commodified and sold to girls, what is their agency? That Lamb and Peterson cannot find an answer indicates how complex the issue of agency is in a world that objectifies girls, and sells sexual freedom as an empowered choice. Tolman (2012) suggests that there may be more to the question: we need to interrogate young women’s narratives of desire more deeply. The texts of Orenstein and Sales display the points that Lamb and Peterson make as central to the issue of empowerment as girls grapple with the pressure to be sexual subjects in a culture that positions them as desired objects.

American Cultural Narratives

As researchers interrogate issues of subjectivity common themes emerge in more popular media. One theme is the need to control how girls present themselves. From one perspective, we expect girls to present themselves as demure, but, conversely, there is pressure on them to be sexy. Currently the urge to control girls’ presentation of self plays out at an institutional level through dress codes ranging from banning leggings to controlling the length of skirts and shorts, and the freedom to bare shoulders (Levy 2016; Needles 2017; Pearlman 2017) while the fashion industry sells sexy (American Psychological Association 2008; Gill et al. 2009). As is clear here, girls experience competing expectations of dressing in a demure manner that does not attract male attention as well as seeming sexy. Both these expectations are rooted in a narrative in which girls are sexual objects.

Another common theme in popular media is the need for young women to protect themselves from assault. In high profile sexual assault cases, focus has coalesced on the victim’s actions, in particular, her sobriety. In Stuebenville, Ohio, a 16-year-old girl was assaulted and some in the community questioned her story because she had been drinking—despite many images of the assault appearing on social media shared in the community (Macur and Schweber 2012). Another case in Maryville, Kansas, involving a 14-year-old girl resulted in similar community backlash against the victim as reported by Dugan Arnett (2013). The Slutwalk movement began when Michael Sanguinetti, a Toronto police officer, made the infamous comment that “women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized.” This narrative constructs the girl as a slut responsible for her own assault (Arnett 2013; Macur and Schweber 2012). It uses the regulatory power of the term slut to control girls’ sexual practices, thus placing them in a position that dictates that the only acceptable way to behave is as (sober) object without desire (Attwood 2007; Tolman 2012).

In examining the construction of girl by both Orenstein and Sales, I question whether the texts contribute to simplified narratives or more complex, nuanced understandings of girlhood. Do the authors construct girls as objects or as subjects?

Methodology

The popularity of the Orenstein (2016) and Sales (2016) texts ensures their contribution to cultural narratives related to girlhood. In my study, I used a modified qualitative content analysis to examine how these texts contribute to a specific narrative of girlhood in relation to sexual practices. Initially, I read the books to establish their broad themes and the relationship of themes to the sociocultural context from which the books arose. My second and third readings focused on how these themes were constructed and whether or not there was any nuance to the themes that challenged the dominant narratives of girlhood. I focused on the actual words of the girls quoted in the texts, and how the authors interpreted these words so as to construct girls. Emergent themes included the presentation of body, how expectations of prude and slut are navigated, the relationship between choice and risk, and the negotiation of a culture that sees girls as sexual objects while marketing representations of girls as sexual subjects.

Constructing Girls in Girls and Sex and American Girls

In Girls and Sex (2016) and American Girls (2016), the girl who emerges is one thoughtfully navigating a confusing world in which she is told to be sexy, not sexual. She feels empowered to have sex on her own terms, managing emotional and physical risk. She sees herself as the inheritor of a postfeminist culture, convinced that equality has been achieved. Meanwhile she accepts responsibility for traversing the patriarchal structures of institutions such as dress codes that focus on girls’ clothing. She recognizes the role of the male gaze and discusses the influence of the rise of pornography on gendered relationships. However, the authors often present the girl as lacking the capacity or knowledge to enact power and agency in her sexual encounters. She claims agency in physical presentation, the loss of her virginity, and her choice of sexual practices. She is defiantly embarrassed when harassed by boys for what she wears, loses her virginity under the influence of alcohol, is at risk of sexual assault, and becomes labeled a thot (that ho over there) or a slut. She judges herself and others using markers familiar to women such as appearance and sexual partners. In short, the girl constructed by both Orenstein and Sales for adults is one simultaneously in control and confused while constructing her identity as a sexual subject.

Sexy not Sexual

The sexualization of girlhood is common throughout media (American Psychological Association 2008) but Kari Lerum and Shari Dworkin (2009) argue that sexualization does not equal objectification. Girls are commonly presented as objects of male desire in media (American Psychological Association 2008; Bae 2011; Gill et al. 2009; Tolman 2012), and yet girls coopt media images to present a self that is meant to evoke empowerment through choice (Bae 2011). This is grounded in the postfeminist narrative that the choice to be sexy is a feminist action (Baumgardner and Richards 2004). The girls in these two texts are conscious of inherent tensions in adopting a version of sexy that is based on male desire while being empowered to make that choice.

The girls in Orenstein’s text use the language of empowerment in discussing their choices of presentation. For instance, Camilla speaks out in public regarding dress codes: “If I want to wear a tank top and shorts because it’s hot, I should be able to do that and that has no correlation to how much ‘respect’ I hold for myself” (Orenstein 2016: 8). Camilla argues that she can choose how to dress without positioning herself as a sexual object. Sales introduces girls who discuss posting pictures of “butts and boobs in a bikini” and doing “all these thot poses” (67). The girls see physical presentation as branding themselves, and position themselves based on the likes that photos receive. In both texts, girls are clearly aware of the need to be sexy, and they suggest a power and confidence in their presentation of their physical selves, but also demonstrate an awareness of a complication in their presentation. Girls are clearly aware of the male gaze—“Sometimes I feel like all the posting is just for guys” (74). Camilla describes the experience this way: “I feel really hot and this is going to be a good day. Then as soon as I got to school I felt like … automatically I wasn’t in control. People are staring at you, looking you up and down and saying things. … It was dehumanizing” (15). Camilla suggests that she was a victim of consistent harassment in stating, “Four out of five days I go to school I will be catcalled” (9). As a young woman, Camilla wants to dress in a way that she feels represents her confidence but her attire leads to her objectification by schoolmates and this makes her uncomfortable. She uses the language of empowerment but, in practice, she exists in a culture in which she lacks power; this leaves her confused.

Orenstein portrays girls as using the language of choice and girl power while struggling to negotiate a world that objectifies their bodies. She writes,

The body as product however, is not the same as the body as subject. Nor is learning to be sexually desirable the same as exploring your own desire … It’s not surprising that girls feel powerful when they feel ‘hot’: it’s presented to them over and over as a precondition for success in any realm.

(2016: 43)

Sales does not treat her girl with as much nuance. She writes, “It was perplexing to hear that, more than two decades since the ‘girl power’ movement, some American girls still felt this anxious need for male approval” (Sales 2016: 73). This suggests that the onus is not on the creators (including us) of the cultural messaging girls receive but on girls themselves to resist the messaging. Sales resists entirely the notion that branding one’s self as a sexual being can be anything other than a need for male approval, despite the ways in which the girls themselves struggle with articulating their own discomfort with this notion.

Virginity

As a desired object, girls’ virginity (and its status) has long been the subject and obsession of patriarchal institutions. Girls, as Driscoll proposes, “Come to be virgin” as a marker of adolescent femininity, thereby “designating girls’ maturity as something gifted by men” (2002: 140–141). Adults expect girls to remain virgins, and policy and education have only emphasized this expec tation. The emphasis on abstinence-based sex education as a governmental policy is one example of how this is culturally stressed. Another example is the purity movement that Orenstein explores. Society constructs the loss of virginity as a transformation into womanhood, and so girl has come to equal virgin. Virginity has a very specific definition in this narrative: the act of penis-to-vagina penetration causes the loss of virginity. This narrow definition fails to incorporate the many other sexual acts in which one might engage. More importantly, it codes the loss of virginity as a heterosexual rite of passage, disregarding, for example, homosexuality and its practices, and therefore silencing the experience of queer youth. This is true, too, for trans, bisexual, and asexual young people. Accepting this definition, the girls in Orenstein’s and Sales’s texts construct virginity as a significant marker and code the loss of virginity as a rite of passage, but one they control. One girl states, “I thought it would be like this whole new world after I had sex for the first time! … ‘You have sex, you will be transformed’” (Orenstein 2016: 82). Girls suggest that the reality does not meet expectations. Brooke admitted that before she had sex she was “thinking more about what it would be like to remember it.” She says, “The truth is losing your virginity is the least sexy sexual act there is” (80). Another girl states, “I am just afraid if I lose it to someone who doesn’t really care, something bad will happen. Or it will just be so disappointing” (Sales 2016: 323). Since the loss of virginity is structured as transformative girls explicitly attempt to manage its loss either by trying to make a memorable experience of it or, conversely, wanting to “get it over with” (Orenstein 2016: 83). Girls are also aware of competing narratives related to virginity. One girl claims, “And you can be any sexuality you want to be, too, except for pure” (87). She was referring to a competing cultural message that says that one should not be a “prude” (Sales 2016: 53). Despite the competing pressure to not be sexy and not be a prude, the emphasis on virginity has led to narratives of “it just happened” (Tolman 2002: 2) and also sometimes to risky behavior as documented in these texts. Girls thoughtfully consider their identity as virgins, and their choices regarding virginity are embedded in cultural constructions emphasized in media and policy. Girls feel empowered by the choice, while the narratives of virginity still inhibit them.

Sluts, Thots, and Empowerment

Orenstein and Sales present girls as trying to manage their sexual activity. The authors frame sexual activity as primarily approached in a casual man ner, often referred to as hooking up. The increased casual engagement in a variety of activities from kissing to engaging in oral sex has led to moral panics regarding hooking up and its relative dangers (Armstrong et al. 2010). The engagement in hooking up appears to threaten patriarchal norms regarding women’s responsibility for remaining virgins, or, at the very least, having few sexual partners in the context of monogamous relationships. This focuses attention on the number of partners girls have as they navigate between being appropriately experienced, but not too experienced, while exercising their own sexual subjectivity.

Girls see themselves as empowered in their choices as sexual subjects. They might consciously make a choice “to get drunk and make out with someone” (Orenstein 2016: 123), adopting an “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” attitude (Sales 2016: 123). This type of statement can lead to the cultural judgment of girls as naïve, as not understanding the risks (social, emotional, as well as physical) of casual sexual encounters. Both Orenstein and Sales participate in perpetuating this judgment. Sales argues that girls adopt a “hypermasculinity dressed up in a porn-star package … reflecting misogyny” (2016: 241). Her point seems to be that girls do not understand how a patriarchal culture is directing their choices, and that, therefore, the girls lack agency in their sexual practices. Orenstein suggests that girls do not examine how cultural structures related to patriarchy have an impact on behaviors while exploring how girls generally experience less physical satisfaction than boys, positing this as a double standard. They position girls as being unwitting participants adopting the façade of choice in a hypermasculine culture without any awareness of the implications of hooking up. One way in which girls navigate the double standard is by managing how many sexual partners they have. Brooke states, “I guess I would feel icky if my number started to climb into the double digits” (Orenstein 2016: 98). The concern over numbers does reflect the regulatory power the word slut still has on controlling girls’ behaviors (Attwood 2007). Girls are clear that they are often called “thot, slut, whore” (Sales 2016: 150) as a way of denigrating them. By looking more closely at the girls’ language one can see that they are not naïve. Rather, they are negotiating a double standard, however inexpertly.

A challenge to the narrative of the casual sexual encounter resulting solely in risk is that girls may see engaging in hooking up as a protective act. Hooking up is a way of avoiding the risk of rejection, loss, or heartbreak (Armstrong et al. 2010). Sarah clearly articulates this when she says, “I’m terrified about the idea of being exclusive with him” (Sales 2016: 346). Another girl specifically asks about “the fear of falling in love or being in love” (Orenstein 2016: 111), indicating that she avoids the possibility of love. Additionally, this attitude may allow girls to focus on personal ambition related to school, or on their female friendships. While Sales, in particular, in her relating that one girl looked “lost” (362) after discussing a hook up, suggests that girls face emotional risk through doing so, the girls themselves demonstrated many reasons for their choices. Additionally girls may adopt the persona of slut despite the regulatory power of the word (Attwood 2007) by constructing it as a positive, an answer to the double standard by self-labeling. One girl “gleefully” described herself as “the slutty friend” (Orenstein 2016: 124) suggesting that her behavior is liberating. Despite their adoption of the label for themselves, girls do not accept being called a slut or a thot by others. In both adopting and rejecting labels they display discomfort with them and their use in demarcating cultural sensibilities related to sexual activity, the number of partners one has, and the status of one’s relationship to one’s partners. In short, girls justify decisions in narratives related to hooking up and to the labels of slut and thot. This is problematic but one should not dismiss the problem as being a function of ignorance. These girls are negotiating the power of choice within the structures that still ascribe value to them as objects and that seek to constrain their behavior.

Girls at Risk

The narrative of girl at risk is not new, and therefore the need for protection has long historical roots (Driscoll 2002; Tolman 2002). However, with the recent attention on above mentioned cases in Ohio and Kansas, along with attention being paid to Title IX and to how universities handle rape allegations (Bazelon 2015; Koren 2016; Tracy and Barry 2017), a new conversation around consent has emerged, as Stephanie Auteri (2016) reminds us. Females aged between 16 and 19 are 4 times more likely than the general population to be victims of rape, attempted rape, or sexual assault (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) 2016), and 58 percent of youth report never having had a conversation with their parents about the importance of “being a caring and respectful sexual partner” (Weissbound et al. 2017: 3). Girls, being aware of issues related to consent, recognize the risk of sexual assault but they still demonstrate confusion. In employing a narrative of accountability, they often take on responsibility for their own roles in being assaulted, rather than placing responsibility on the perpetrator of the assault. In these texts, girls often use the dominant narrative of the responsibility of girls to protect themselves. Holly said,

I’d like to say he didn’t know how drunk I was … but I don’t know. My friend who is in an organization that fights rape on campus said that by definition I couldn’t consent, so I was raped. And I almost … I guess I am fortunate that I don’t remember.

(Orenstein 2016: 132)

Another girl, Maddie, who had a similar experience said,

Legally? … Yes, I was [raped]. Asking for a condom doesn’t imply consent. But the way everyone treated me afterward … People would say ‘Oh you had to switch schools because of that? That’s nothing.’ And guys are like, ‘Oh that’s not rape.’

(Orenstein 2016: 204)

Both Holly and Maddie struggled to make sense of the narratives of consent and rape. Girls who have not experienced assault also struggle to make sense of the notion of consent and of naming an act as assault. For instance, one girl said, “Like running trains on people … That’s taking advantage of girls when they are drunk” (Sales 2016: 330). It is significant that the girl does not name the event as rape.

Sales, in particular, highlights risk to young women in regard to sexual assault, arguing that blame lies with the online porn culture as something she argues young people are emulating. Sales positions young women as ignorant not of the risk but of their own role in promoting risk through emulation. She tells stories of girls at Halloween dressing as “total sluts” (2016: 319) in costumes more suitable to pornographic texts. She follows girls on Spring Break who are aware of the risk of rape so take responsibility for their own drinks, but documents that they still become inebriated and use a language of passivity—“getting passed out” (312). She specifically ties this to emulating a porn culture. Sales seems to perpetuate the narrative of the responsibility girls have for protecting themselves in a hypersexualized culture. Orenstein tends to display more empathy while still constructing a narrative of girls willing to put themselves at risk so that they are liked or make a boy happy. While a superficial reading of Orenstein would lead one to think girls should take responsibility for their own protection, she more actively engages with the culture within which the girls exist and its impact on them. She advocates for a change in the approach we take towards sex education, asking for more openness that focuses on communication and, even, pleasure. She recognizes that we have raised “a generation of girls to have a voice, expect egalitarian treatment” (236) but that has not extended to how girls’ sexual subjectivity is constructed.

Conclusion

Examining how girls are constructed in a text written by an adult for an adult audience also provides us with an opportunity to examine how a girl constructs herself through her own words. Both Orenstein and Sales position the girl as other, promoting a discourse of girls as becoming (Currie et al. 2009; Eisenhauer 2004). They display an authorial distance that suggests that, as adults, they know more, or better. This is true of Sales who finishes her book by musing on her past, and saying that she wants girls to “have this experience of feeling close to someone, feeling valued and loved” (375). This ignores the ways in which millions of girls were (and are) not valued. Orenstein has her girls look to a future that Anita Harris describes as a “keenly anticipated time when girls would enjoy greater freedom and opportunities.” But Harris points out that although “we are [now] in such a moment, these experiences have not been straightforward” (2004: xx). Orenstein’s and Sales’s texts demonstrate that Harris’s anticipation and this struggle still exist, not only for them as authors but also for the girls themselves. While Orenstein and Sales (in particular) frame girls as being at risk in their objectification of self, the girls themselves recognize that risk perhaps more than the authors realize. If we look closely at the girls’ words we can see that they are not ignorant of the tensions between greater opportunities and a culture that still positions them as objects—either of desire or of fragility—in need of protection. We return to Camilla as she speaks out against a dress code that suggests that she is in need of protection, but still feels the pressure to be sexy and the objectification that brings. Or perhaps we can revisit the girls who adopt the language of choice and power while presenting themselves as objects of desire on social media, presenting themselves as they “need to be who [others] want [them] to be in order to get attention and likes.” They know they are presenting a self, a self that might not be “who they really are” (Sales 2016: 114). It is not that they do not engage with this debate about power in adopting and using the ways in which women are objectified. The adult voice of these two authors in these texts leaves little room for this understanding; it contributes to the construction of girls as naïve others.

Acknowledgments

I acknowledge the valuable conversations with Danielle Lehman that had an impact on the development of this article, and the insight and constructive criticism of Dr. Cheryl Stenstrom. Thanks to the reviewers for their constructive criticism and the suggestions that helped me strengthen this article.

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  • KorenMarina. 2016. “Telling the Story of the Stanford Rape Case.” The Atlantic6 June. https://www.theatlantic.com/news/archive/2016/06/stanford-sexual-assault-letters/485837/ (accessed 12 June 2017).

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • LambSharon and Zoë D. Peterson. 2012. “Adolescent Girls’ Sexual Empowerment: Two Feminists Explore the Concept.” Sex Roles 66 (11–12): 703712. doi:10.1007/s11199-011-9995-3.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • LerumKari and Shari L. Dworkin. 2009. “‘Bad Girls Rule’: An Interdisciplinary Feminist Commentary on the Report of the APA Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls.” Journal of Sex Research 46 (4): 250263. doi:10.1080/00224490903079542.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • LeskoNancy and Susan Talburt eds. 2012. “A History of the Present of Youth Studies.” In Keywords in Youth Studies: Tracing Affects Movements Knowledges eds. Nancy Lesko and Susan Talburt1124. New York: Routledge.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • LevyLaurie. 2016. “Teaching Body Shaming to Young Girls: School Dress Codes.” Chicago Now16 August. http://www.chicagonow.com/still-advocating/2016/08/teaching-body-shaming-to-young-girls-school-dress-codes/ (accessed 10 June 2017).

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • LotzAmanda D. 2007. “Theorising the Intermezzo.” In Third Wave Feminism ed. Stacy GillisGillian Howie and Rebecca Munford7185. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • MacurJuliet and Nate Schweber. 2012. “Rape Case Unfolds on Web and Splits City.” The New York Times16 December. https://nyti.ms/2jMlCSf (accessed 12 June 2017).

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • MunfordRebecca and Melanie Waters. 2014. Feminism and Popular Culture: Investigating the Postfeminist Mystique. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • NeedlesAllison. 2017. “Claiming it’s Sexist, Puyallup High School Students Protest Dress Code.” Seattle Times17 May. http://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/claiming-its-sexist-puyallup-high-school-students-protest-dress-code/ (accessed 12 June 2017).

    • Search Google Scholar
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  • NorthAnna. 2016. “‘American Girls,’ by Nancy Jo Sales.” New York Times16 March. https://nyti.ms/2kpNJaX (accessed 12 June 2017).

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • OrensteinPeggy. 2016. Girls and Sex: Navigating the Complicated New Landscape. New York: HarperCollins.

  • PearlmanCatherine. 2017. “Invitation for Principal to Take My Daughter Shopping After Dress Code Violation.” Today Parenting Team16 May. https://tinyurl.com/ycq4jbg7 (accessed 12 July 2017).

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • PipherMary. 1994. Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Lives of Adolescent Girls. New York: Putnam Adult.

  • Rape Abuse & Incest National Network. 2016. “Children and Teens: Statistics.” https://www.rainn.org/statistics/children-and-teens (accessed 12 June 2017).

    • Export Citation
  • SalesNancy Jo. 2016. American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teenagers. New York: Alfred A Knopf.

  • SandersLise Shapiro. 2004. “‘Feminists Love a Utopia’: Collaboration, Conflict, and the Futures of Feminism.” In Third Wave Feminism ed. Stacy GillisGillian Howie and Rebecca Munford4959. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • SpragueJoey. 2005 Feminist Methodologies for Critical Researchers: Bridging Differences. Walnut Creek, CA: Rowman & Littlefield.

  • TaftJessica K. 2004. “Girl Power Politics: Pop-Culture Barriers and Organizational Resistance.” In All About the Girl: Culture Power and Identity ed. Anita Harris6978. New York: Routledge.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • TolmanDeborah L. 2002. Dilemmas of Desire: Teenage Girls Talk about Sexuality. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

  • TolmanDeborah L. 2012. “Female Adolescents, Sexual Empowerment and Desire: A Missing Discourse of Gender Inequity.” Sex Roles 66 (11–12): 746757. doi:10.1007/s11199-012-0122-x.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • TracyMarc and Dan Barry. 2017. “The Rise, Then Shame, of Baylor Nation.” The New York Times9 March. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/09/sports/baylor-football-sexual-assault.html (accessed 11 July 2017).

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • WardJanie Victoria and Beth Cooper Benjamin. 2004. “Women, Girls, and the Unfinished Work of Connection: A Critical Review of American Girls’ Studies.” In All About the Girl: Culture Power and Identity ed. by Anita Harris1528. New York: Routledge.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • WeissboundRichardTrisha Ross AndersonAlison Cashin and Joe McIntyre. 2017. “The Talk: How Adults Can Promote Young People’s Healthy Relationships and Prevent Misogyny and Sexual Harassment.” Making Caring Common Project. Report to the Harvard Graduate School of EducationCambridge, MA.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • WisemanRosalind. 2002. Queen Bees & Wannabes: Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques Gossip Boyfriends and the New Realities of Girl World. New York: Three Rivers Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • WooYen Yen. 2012. “Age.” In Keywords in Youth Studies: Tracing Affects Movements Knowledges ed. Nancy Lesko and Susan Talburt111115. New York: Routledge.

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Filmography

WatersMark. 2004. Mean Girls. USA.

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Contributor Notes

Mary Ann Harlan is an Assistant Professor in Library and Information Science at the School of Information at San Jose State University. Her research interests focus on information practices of adolescents, in particular how everyday information is experienced, and the actions embedded in information experience. Her current focus is on how girls experience literature to construct their own understandings of their identities as girl. E-mail: maryann.harlan@gmail.com

Girlhood Studies

An Interdisciplinary Journal

  • American Psychological Association. 2008. Report of the APA Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

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  • ArmstrongElizabeth ALaura Hamilton and Paula England. 2010. “Is Hooking Up Bad for Young Women?Contexts 9 (3): 2227. https://doi.org/10.1525/ctx.2010.9.3.22.

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  • ArnettDugan. 2013. “Nightmare in Maryville: Teens’ Sexual Encounter Ignites a Firestorm against a Family.” Kansas City Star12 October. http://www.kansascity.com/news/special-reports/maryville/article329412/Nightmare-in-Maryville-Teens%E2%80%99-sexual-encounter-ignites-a-firestorm-against-family.html (accessed 12 June 2017).

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  • AttwoodFeona. 2007. “Sluts and Riot Grrrls: Female Identity and Sexual Agency.” Journal of Gender Studies 16 (3): 233247. doi:10.1080/09589230701562921.

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  • AuteriStephanie. 2016. “When Should Kids Start Learning about Sex and Consent?The Atlantic28 April. https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2016/04/when-should-kids-start-learning-about-sex-and-consent/480264/ (accessed 10 June 2017).

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  • BaeMichelle S. 2011. “Interrogating Girl Power: Girlhood, Popular Media, and Postfeminism.” Visual Arts Research 37 (2): 2840. doi:10.5406/visuartsrese.37.2.0028.

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  • BaumgardnerJennifer and Amy Richards. 2004. “Feminism and Femininity: Or How We Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Thong.” In All About the Girl: Culture Power and Identity ed. Anita Harris5967. New York: Routledge.

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  • BazelonEmily. 2015. “Have We Learned Anything from the Columbia Rape Case?The New York Times29 May. https://nyti.ms/2jVZcu3 (accessed 10 June 2017).

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  • CurrieDawn H.Deirdre M. Kelly and Shauna Pomerantz. 2009. Girl Power: Girls Reinventing Girlhood. New York: Peter Lang.

  • DriscollCatherine. 2002. Girls: Feminine Adolescence in Popular Culture and Cultural Theory. New York: Columbia University Press.

  • EisenhauerJennifer. 2004. “Mythic Figures and Lived Identities: Locating the ‘Girl’ in Feminist Discourse.” In All About the Girl: Culture Power and Identity ed. Anita Harris7990. New York: Routledge.

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    • Export Citation
  • GillRosalindGiovanni Porfido and Róisín Ryan-Flood. 2009. “Beyond the ‘Sexualization of Culture’ Thesis: An Intersectional Analysis of ‘Sixpacks’, ‘Midriffs’ and ‘Hot Lesbians’ in Advertising.” Sexualities 12 (2): 137160. doi:10.1177/1363460708100916.

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  • GriffinChristine. 2004. “Good Girls, Bad Girls: Anglocentrism and Diversity in the Constitution of Contemporary Girlhood.” In All About the Girl: Culture Power and Identity ed. Anita Harris2944. New York: Routledge.

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  • GrossTerry. 2016a. “Teen Girls and Social Media: A Story of ‘Secret Lives’ and Misogyny.” Fresh Air. National Public Radio. Washington D.C.29 February.

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  • GrossTerry. 2016b. “‘Girls & Sex’ and the Importance of Talking to Young Women About Pleasure.” Fresh Air. National Public Radio29 March.

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    • Export Citation
  • HarrisAnita. 2004. All About the Girl: Culture Power and Identity. New York Routledge.

  • HolbrookSharon. 2016. “Parents Need to Talk to Their Daughters About the Joys of Sex, Not Just the Dangers.” Washington Post29 March. https://tinyurl.com/y82pspkj (accessed 12 June 2017).

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    • Export Citation
  • KehilyMary Jane. 2012. “Sexuality.” In Keywords in Youth Studies: Tracing Affects Movements Knowledges ed. Nancy Lesko and Susan Talburt223227. New York: Routledge.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • KorenMarina. 2016. “Telling the Story of the Stanford Rape Case.” The Atlantic6 June. https://www.theatlantic.com/news/archive/2016/06/stanford-sexual-assault-letters/485837/ (accessed 12 June 2017).

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • LambSharon and Zoë D. Peterson. 2012. “Adolescent Girls’ Sexual Empowerment: Two Feminists Explore the Concept.” Sex Roles 66 (11–12): 703712. doi:10.1007/s11199-011-9995-3.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • LerumKari and Shari L. Dworkin. 2009. “‘Bad Girls Rule’: An Interdisciplinary Feminist Commentary on the Report of the APA Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls.” Journal of Sex Research 46 (4): 250263. doi:10.1080/00224490903079542.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • LeskoNancy and Susan Talburt eds. 2012. “A History of the Present of Youth Studies.” In Keywords in Youth Studies: Tracing Affects Movements Knowledges eds. Nancy Lesko and Susan Talburt1124. New York: Routledge.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • LevyLaurie. 2016. “Teaching Body Shaming to Young Girls: School Dress Codes.” Chicago Now16 August. http://www.chicagonow.com/still-advocating/2016/08/teaching-body-shaming-to-young-girls-school-dress-codes/ (accessed 10 June 2017).

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • LotzAmanda D. 2007. “Theorising the Intermezzo.” In Third Wave Feminism ed. Stacy GillisGillian Howie and Rebecca Munford7185. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • MacurJuliet and Nate Schweber. 2012. “Rape Case Unfolds on Web and Splits City.” The New York Times16 December. https://nyti.ms/2jMlCSf (accessed 12 June 2017).

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • MunfordRebecca and Melanie Waters. 2014. Feminism and Popular Culture: Investigating the Postfeminist Mystique. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • NeedlesAllison. 2017. “Claiming it’s Sexist, Puyallup High School Students Protest Dress Code.” Seattle Times17 May. http://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/claiming-its-sexist-puyallup-high-school-students-protest-dress-code/ (accessed 12 June 2017).

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • NorthAnna. 2016. “‘American Girls,’ by Nancy Jo Sales.” New York Times16 March. https://nyti.ms/2kpNJaX (accessed 12 June 2017).

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • OrensteinPeggy. 2016. Girls and Sex: Navigating the Complicated New Landscape. New York: HarperCollins.

  • PearlmanCatherine. 2017. “Invitation for Principal to Take My Daughter Shopping After Dress Code Violation.” Today Parenting Team16 May. https://tinyurl.com/ycq4jbg7 (accessed 12 July 2017).

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • PipherMary. 1994. Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Lives of Adolescent Girls. New York: Putnam Adult.

  • Rape Abuse & Incest National Network. 2016. “Children and Teens: Statistics.” https://www.rainn.org/statistics/children-and-teens (accessed 12 June 2017).

    • Export Citation
  • SalesNancy Jo. 2016. American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teenagers. New York: Alfred A Knopf.

  • SandersLise Shapiro. 2004. “‘Feminists Love a Utopia’: Collaboration, Conflict, and the Futures of Feminism.” In Third Wave Feminism ed. Stacy GillisGillian Howie and Rebecca Munford4959. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • SpragueJoey. 2005 Feminist Methodologies for Critical Researchers: Bridging Differences. Walnut Creek, CA: Rowman & Littlefield.

  • TaftJessica K. 2004. “Girl Power Politics: Pop-Culture Barriers and Organizational Resistance.” In All About the Girl: Culture Power and Identity ed. Anita Harris6978. New York: Routledge.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • TolmanDeborah L. 2002. Dilemmas of Desire: Teenage Girls Talk about Sexuality. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

  • TolmanDeborah L. 2012. “Female Adolescents, Sexual Empowerment and Desire: A Missing Discourse of Gender Inequity.” Sex Roles 66 (11–12): 746757. doi:10.1007/s11199-012-0122-x.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • TracyMarc and Dan Barry. 2017. “The Rise, Then Shame, of Baylor Nation.” The New York Times9 March. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/09/sports/baylor-football-sexual-assault.html (accessed 11 July 2017).

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • WardJanie Victoria and Beth Cooper Benjamin. 2004. “Women, Girls, and the Unfinished Work of Connection: A Critical Review of American Girls’ Studies.” In All About the Girl: Culture Power and Identity ed. by Anita Harris1528. New York: Routledge.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • WeissboundRichardTrisha Ross AndersonAlison Cashin and Joe McIntyre. 2017. “The Talk: How Adults Can Promote Young People’s Healthy Relationships and Prevent Misogyny and Sexual Harassment.” Making Caring Common Project. Report to the Harvard Graduate School of EducationCambridge, MA.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • WisemanRosalind. 2002. Queen Bees & Wannabes: Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques Gossip Boyfriends and the New Realities of Girl World. New York: Three Rivers Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • WooYen Yen. 2012. “Age.” In Keywords in Youth Studies: Tracing Affects Movements Knowledges ed. Nancy Lesko and Susan Talburt111115. New York: Routledge.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • WatersMark. 2004. Mean Girls. USA.

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