Nation Topics - Youth
News and Features
Russell Simmons was never a young voter. The 46-year-old hip-hop tycoon
cast his first vote in a presidential election seven years ago, he says,
at the age of 39.
A recent article in the Washington Post described some suburban
high schoolers preparing for their proms by spending nearly $3,000 to
rent an H2 Hummerzine, "complete with six TVs, a DVD
Last fall, a half-dozen child psychologists lurked around New York's
Yale Club at a convention called "Advertising & Promoting to Kids"
in search of new, higher-paying clients.
The universe of online computer games is home to 200,000 players at any time. It's also where you can find the newest innovation in military recruiting.
When a girl becomes her school's designated slut, her friends stop talking to her. Pornographic rumors spread with dazzling efficiency, boys harass her openly in the hallways, girls beat her up. "WHORE," or sometimes "HORE," is written on her locker or bookbag. And there is usually a story about her having sex with the whole football team, a rumor whose plausibility no one ever seems to question.
Even those of us who weren't high school sluts and don't recall any such outcast from our own school days have become familiar with her plight--through media stories and the growing body of feminist-inspired literature on female adolescence, as well as the talk shows and teen magazine spreads that have made her their focus. What's harder to understand is how the label persists when the landscape of sexual morality that gives it meaning has so drastically changed--well within living memory. If the sexual revolution didn't obliterate the slut, wouldn't the successive waves of libidinous pop stars, explicit TV shows and countercultural movements to reclaim the label have drained it of its meaning? What kinds of lines can today's adolescents, or those of the 1990s or 1980s, for that matter, possibly draw between nice and not nice girls?
Emily White's Fast Girls sets out to look at the central dilemmas of the slut label. Two earlier books that have focused on the slut--Leora Tanenbaum's Slut! Growing Up Female With a Bad Reputation, a collection of oral histories, and Naomi Wolf's Promiscuities, a reflection on girls' sexual coming-of-age in the 1970s that combines memoir with a casual survey of the women Wolf grew up with--rely primarily on the subjective narratives of women and girls to explore the slut phenomenon. Paula Kamen's Her Way: Young Women Remake the Sexual Revolution surveys the sexual mores and activities of young women, but not specifically of teenagers. White is the first to combine different methodologies in an attempt to write specifically about the functions and significance of the teenage slut--in her words, "to shed some light on that space in the high school hallway where so many vital and troubling encounters occur."
White spoke to or corresponded with more than 150 women who had been the sluts of their school (whom she found largely by soliciting their stories through newspaper ads), and she spent "a couple of weeks" observing in a Seattle-area public high school. She also offers cultural criticism--of horror movies and the riot grrrls, for instance--as well as a digest of psychological, sociological and post-structuralist theory pertinent to the subject. White's evident ambition makes it all the more frustrating that the book's impressive breadth doesn't translate into thoroughness or rigor.
When White interviewed the women--most of them white, middle-class and from the suburbs--who responded to her ads, the stories she heard had certain similarities. There was a "type" of girl who tended to be singled out: She developed breasts earlier than other girls; she was a loud, vocal extrovert; she was self-destructive, tough or wild; often she had been sexually abused; and in one way or another she was usually an outsider, whether she had moved from a different town, had less money than most kids or belonged to some peripheral subculture. Some women described themselves as having been promiscuous, but more said they were not as sexually active as their (untainted) friends, and none of them had done the things that were later rumored. Often the first rumors were started by bitter ex-boyfriends or jealous friends. Once they caught on, the ritual torments and "football team" fantasies inevitably followed.
These similarities make up what White calls the "slut archetype," and for much of the book she riffs on the common factors of the stories, with chapters dedicated to subjects like the role of suburbia, the slut's social isolation and the preponderance of sexual abuse. Though sprinkled liberally throughout the book, the women's testimonies are only a launching point for White's meditations. She writes about these interviews in a way that at times both romanticizes and condescends to the women. "She walks so confidently in her boots," writes White of one 18-year-old, "causing tremors in the ground beneath her feet. She presents herself as a girl who has crawled up out of the underworld, who has found her way through the isolation and the drugged dreams.... It is a way of coping, this tough act. It's a start." Still, despite certain problems of credibility, this overwrought style is pretty effective at conveying the anguish of the ostracized adolescent girl (if only by echoing her earnest self-dramatization). It's much less suited to considering the girl in social and cultural context.
In editing and interpreting her interviews, White emphasizes their similarities at the expense of the kind of detail that makes a particular social universe come to life. Her time observing the Seattle-area high school students inspires mostly familiar observations. ("The cafeteria is high school's proving ground. It's one of the most unavoidable and important thresholds, the place where you find out if you have friends or if you don't.") Only about half the time do we get any real sense of the sort of community an interviewee grew up in or what the social scene was like at her school. There's even less detail about precisely how she fit into the hierarchy before the slut label took hold, whether she was perceived as threatening or flirtatious, what her past relationships were like with girls, boys and teachers. Even worse is that for all their lack of texture, the women's stories are by far the most interesting part of the book; when White pulls away to supply her own commentary, it's usually vague and predictable--precisely because she's not attuned to the details that would reveal how the slut really functions in the teenage universe. Although she acknowledges that the slut myth is much bigger than any individual girl behind it, she is also attached to the literal-minded notion that the girl being labeled has some kind of privileged relationship to the slut myth--that her individual story is the slut story, and the women's emotional recollections of abuses and scars collectively explain the slut myth. In fact, to understand the myth we need to know at least as much about what the rest of the school is thinking.
White suggests that "the slut becomes a way for the adolescent mind to draw a map. She's the place on the map marked by a danger sign...where a girl should never wander, for fear of becoming an outcast." But, given the arbitrary relationship White found between the slut label and a girl's actual sex life, does the slut myth really have any practical applications for girls? Do they limit sexual activity out of fear of these rumors? Are there particular sex acts that can bring censure in themselves? Can social status insulate some girls from slutdom, regardless of how much they fool around? White doesn't directly pose these questions, but one of her findings hints that, though they may fear the label, kids themselves interpret slutdom as primarily an expression of social status rather than a direct consequence of sexual activity: "Girls who at one time might have been friends with the slut recede as her reputation grows; they need to be careful how they associate with her or they will be thought of as sluts along with her."
The slut doesn't seem to point to an actual line that a nice girl can't cross; she commemorates the fact that there once was such a line, and suggests that the idea of a line still has currency, even if no one can figure out where it is anymore. It's no surprise that she is such a popular subject for third-wave feminists; her ostracism seems to have implications not only for residual sexism but for the way that we personally experience sex and desire.
Ididn't think I had a personal connection to the slut story. For most of my adolescent years, which were in the late 1980s and early '90s, I was very good, and too awkward to attract attention from boys. In the schools I attended there were whispers about who did what, and some girls were considered sluttier than others, but there was no single figure who captured the imagination of the whole class.
Then I remembered something about one of the girls I was closest to from age 10 to about 13 or 14. We didn't go to the same school, but for much of the time we both attended Saturday Russian classes held in her kitchen by an elderly neighbor. She was the only one of my friends who was, like me, born in Russia, though her family still lived in Philadelphia's immigrant neighborhood while mine had moved to a more prosperous, non-Russian suburb several years earlier. My family had a bigger house. We had, thanks to my American stepdad, more American ways of doing things. I was a better student. I think she was more popular at her school than I was at mine; at least, she was more easygoing and sociable. I never felt in awe of her, as I did of other friends. I was not always nice to her, though usually I was.
She knew more about sex in our early years than I did, but, like me, she didn't go out with anyone in the time we knew each other. She was pretty, in a round-faced, unfashionable way that made me think I had a discerning eye for appreciating it. She always seemed more developed than I was. (That may not have been true in any measurable sense.) At some point in those years, though it didn't particularly affect our friendship, and I don't remember thinking about it while I was actually with her, I began to spend nights casting her as my proxy in every kind of pornographic fantasy I could conjure.
It's always difficult to figure out the relationship between cultural fantasies and mores, on the one hand, and actual behavior and sexual self-image on the other. You could probably spend a long time listening to teenagers and still not get to the bottom of how the slut myth filters into their own lives. Still, the site of the slut's continuous re-creation, the high school hallways, deserves closer scrutiny, and the mysteries of her endurance await further exploration.
They're looking for help with college and a reason to believe in government.
Chelsea Clinton bristles at the antiwar movement while she attends Oxford.
It's a slippery slope that these two lawgivers would have us tread.
In Canada, Maude Barlow gave a stirring speech criticizing the free-trade agenda of the Summit of the Americas.
If you are the parent of a newborn, beware. Fourteen to eighteen months from now your child will be programmed to nag for a new toy or snack every four hours, "branded for life" as a Cheerios eater or a Coca-Cola guzzler and placed in the loving care of a market researcher at the local daycare center.
That, at least, was the view of early childhood development presented by the 400 children's-market honchos at the third annual Advertising & Promoting to Kids Conference, held in New York City on September 13-14. Conference-goers attended sessions on topics like Building Brand Recognition, Marketing in the Classroom and The Fine Art of Nagging ("40% of sales of jeans, burgers and other products occur because a child asks for the product"). They cheered winners of the Golden Marble Awards for best breakfast-food and video-game commercials.
The marketing confab was held as the government released a report documenting the growing commercialization of public schools and also as the Federal Trade Commission blasted media companies and the advertising industry for deliberately marketing violent films and products to children. Although kids have been targets of marketing for decades, the sheer amount of advertising they are exposed to today is "staggering and emotionally harmful," says Susan Linn, a Harvard Medical School psychologist who studies media at the Judge Baker Children's Center in Boston. Linn and other child psychologists, educators and healthcare professionals led a protest outside the Golden Marble Awards to draw attention to the effects of the $12-billion-a-year kid-ad industry, including the epidemic of obesity in children and increasing violence in schools. "It's appalling that creativity is being rewarded in the service of manipulating children," Linn says. "We hope this is the beginning of a national movement to challenge this."
In fact, this fall has been a good one for grassroots opponents of corporate commercialism. The Madison, Wisconsin, school board voted in August to terminate its exclusive beverage contract with Coca-Cola, making it the first school district in the country to cancel an existing marketing deal [see Manning, "Students for Sale: How Corporations Are Buying Their Way Into America's Classrooms," September 27, 1999]. The board cited "overwhelming public opposition" as the reason for its decision. That action came hard on the heels of successful campaigns to stop proposed school-marketing deals in Oakland and Sacramento, California; Philadelphia; and the state of Michigan, where a cola contract involving 110 school districts was shot down. In October the American Dental Association passed a resolution urging its members to oppose the marketing of soft drinks and junk food in schools, and the American Psychological Association, under pressure from many of its members, agreed to form a task force to examine whether it is unethical for psychologists to advise companies that market to children. Meanwhile, ZapMe!, the in-school marketing company, abandoned its educational business after failing to convince enough schools to accept its offer of free computers in exchange for delivering student eyeballs to advertisers.
"We're seeing a dramatic increase in local resistance to all forms of corporate marketing to kids," says Andrew Hagelshaw, executive director of the Center for Commercial-Free Public Education, in Oakland. "The issue has finally hit critical mass with the public." Hillary Rodham Clinton has jumped on the bandwagon. Citing a "barrage of materialistic marketing" aimed at young children, the Democratic candidate for senator from New York wants the government to ban commercials aimed at preschool children and to prohibit advertising inside public elementary schools. Anticorporate activists welcomed Clinton's proposals but said they don't go far enough. Opponents of a New York City school board plan to finance free laptop computers for students through in-school advertising say her proposals won't protect millions of high school students. Nor would the proposals apparently affect the commercial in-school TV program Channel One, whose market is primarily middle school students.
Corporate lobbyists are already putting the heat on members of Congress who might support legislation reining in children's advertising. Hagelshaw believes the real battles will take place in local school boards and state legislatures, which may be more receptive to anticommercial arguments. There's never been a better, or more important, time for local activists to step up the pressure on corporate exploiters of children.
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