Meet the supergirl. She is at the top of her class, kicks ass on the soccer field and the debate team, plays a mean violin and is the life of every party. Everyone loves her: mom, dad, the coach, teachers, the boys at school and, of course, the media. The supergirl is the embodiment of the “go-girl” feminism that has become the staple of mainstream coverage, the focus of feel-good stories about female empowerment. Everything a boy can do, this gal can do and more…and maybe even better.
But as it turns out, all this adulation doesn’t seem to be making the girls themselves very happy. Sure, the “amazing” students like Colby Kennedy featured in an April 1 New York Times article (“a great student, a classical pianist, fluent in Spanish, and a three-season varsity runner and track captain”) may claim to be “living up to my own expectations,” but the supergirl ideal is not quite so liberating for most young women.
“It sucks. Lots of pressure is put on girls to be pretty in the world’s eyes, and still get good grades, and be popular, and have an awesome job, and do extra-curricular activities, and spend loads of time with their families at the same time,” says one twelfth-grade girl. A fourth grader couldn’t agree more: “[There’s a] lot of pressure to be athletic, pretty, and skinny plus smart.”
These comments sum up the findings of a 2006 nationwide study of school-age children conducted by Girls Inc., which found that 74 percent of girls in high school, 56 percent in middle school and an astounding 46 percent in grades three through five say they “often feel stressed.” The numbers for those who “often feel sad and unhappy” are 42 percent, 32 percent and 23 percent, respectively.
The underlying cause for all this misery is summed up succinctly by a sixth grader: “I feel girls are even more pressured than boys because we have to ‘make’ something of ourselves, whereas for boys it’s natural to become [something].” So no wonder middle school girls are just as worried about achievement (73 percent) as appearance (74 percent). These fears only get worse in high school, but the average elementary school kid is already well on the way to supergirl neuroses: 59 percent are worried about getting good grades; 54 percent are concerned about their appearance.
In her book Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters, Courtney Martin writes, “Our mothers had the luxury of aspiring to be ‘good,’ but we have the ultimate goal of ‘effortless perfection.’ This was the term that young women at Duke University used to describe ‘the expectation that one would be smart, accomplished, fit, beautiful, and popular, and that all this would happen without visible effort.'”
Martin argues that young women from the ages of 9 to 29 have internalized the go-girl rhetoric of feminine achievement as a duty to excel. “[My mother] told me, ‘You can be anything you want to be.’ My translation: ‘I have to be everything.'” Or more accurately, be the very best at everything. Anything less is interpreted as failure: a failure to perform, and therefore a failure to please; ergo, a failure to be worthy. “We have called this insatiable hunger by many different names–ambition, drive, pride–but in truth it is a fundamental distrust that we deserve to be on this earth,” writes Martin.
The transmutation of go-girl feminism into the supergirl phenomenon reveals the way in which feminist challenges to gender roles have played out in the world, where our commercialized and still highly gendered culture twists feminist goals into a new set of imperatives. Each successive “wave” of feminism did not radically shift traditional expectations–to be pretty, domestic, maternal, etc.–but simply added to them. The freedom to aspire very quickly becomes the duty to perform, to perfection.
So when 1970s feminists championed a woman’s right to excel in her career, we ended up instead with the ’80s Supermom, the kind of gal who could make vice president, a mean pot roast and the perfect Halloween costume. In 1999, “third wave” feminists like Bust magazine’s Debbie Stoller penned her generation’s clarion call to sexual freedom in her essay “Sex and the Thinking Girl”: “Our mission is to seek out pleasure wherever we can find it. In other words, if it feels good, screw it.” By 2005 we were mired in what Ariel Levy described as “raunch culture,” where being sexually voracious, and of course available, is no longer a feminist choice but “a litmus test of female uptightness.”
Perhaps the most bitter pill is the fate of that glorious feminist ideal, the female athlete, who embodies our aspirations for power, confidence and equality. What we’ve ended up with are scores of top-grade runners, swimmers and soccer players eager to bare all in a bid to prove they’re every bit as hot as the next Playboy model. As Martin points out, even an Olympic medal can’t save a woman from the pressure to be thin and pretty, to be the kind of girl who can score big both on and off the field. One-third of all female athletes suffer from some type of eating disorder, and a National Collegiate Athletic Association survey reveals that a whopping 70 percent of female college athletes aspired to get their body fat lower than the percentage required to menstruate. They represent a new generation of girls being taught, in Martin’s words, “to forgo food; run harder, faster, longer; strive–under all circumstances–to be the best.”
Of course, it would be easy to blame all this on ourselves: women in power, women at home, feminists, antifeminists, first wave or second. We can beat our chests and wonder where we went so wrong. But we now live in a voraciously commercial culture intent on exploiting every aspect of human life and thought–be it sex, religion, politics, race, personal identity, even feminism–to sell that new brand of toothpaste, and more important, to preserve the status quo.
This perverse process of cultural “translation” is inevitable as long as our society–well, our world–devalues women as worthless creatures who need to “earn” respect, love or acceptance by being a hot babe, good mom, school valedictorian, concert pianist, MVP or, preferably, all of the above.
The recent Don Imus incident clearly revealed the hidden perils of the supergirl ideology. For a start, all the achievement in the world won’t protect a woman from being dismissed as a “ho.” But the team’s own response underscored–unintentionally, perhaps–the central, and dangerous, premise of supergirl ideology: Only perfect girls deserve respect. “These young ladies are the best this nation has to offer,” declared a proud coach Vivian Stringer at the press conference. Team leader Essence Carson was no less quick to underline their supergirl credentials: “We are full of bright-eyed athletes that aspire to be great. Not only great on the basketball court, but great in the fields of medicine, music and psychology.”
In other words, they are the kind of girls who clearly can never be “ho’s”–an alarming argument that Snoop Dogg was only too happy spell out in no uncertain terms for the rest of the world: “[Rappers] are not talking about no collegiate basketball girls who have made it to the next level in education and sports. We’re talking about ho’s that’s in the ‘hood that ain’t doing shit.”
So it may be time to step back from all this girl-power cheermongering and recognize a simple fact: Women don’t just need to be free to aspire; they also need to be free to just be. Yes, women can be every bit as good as men in track or mathematics, but we don’t have to excel in either to deserve respect as human beings. Wait, haven’t a bunch of feminists been telling us that all along? Duh!