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Sugar, spice and stronger stuff

Parents who teach their daughters to be small and harmless are not giving them the credit they deserve.

Everybody’s worried about teenage girls. ‘’Do you know what your daughter’s doing tonight?’‘ asked a recent magazine feature. ’‘Lies, scams and deceit – just your average teenage girl,’‘ warned a newspaper article a few months ago. And in June, several Australian fashion editors chastised girls for dressing like ’‘streetwalkers’‘ in an online feature titled ’‘Our Teens Undress to Impress’‘.

Adults have been wringing their hands over this stuff since girls were invented and, like most of their kind, these recent articles are aimed not at the demographic they’re writing about, but at their parents. No doubt many of those parents appreciate the intel but how many of them consider what effect the stories have on their daughters? It’s an important question to ask. Teen girls are not a separate species – they walk among us. They see and hear and read the same things we do, including all those features about sexting and raunch culture and under-age sex. They notice how those articles are always illustrated with photos of teenage bodies in tiny skirts or low-cut tops, the faces blurred or heads lopped off. They are aware of the way serious news sources and trash media alike use their bodies to sell papers even as they express deep concern about how girls are using those same bodies – their own – for pleasure.

Parents who teach their daughters to be small and harmless are not giving them the credit they deserve.

No wonder so many girls feel misunderstood and alienated. The version of their lives presented as news is a salacious cartoon; the characters meant to represent them are sexually loose magnets for trouble, not because they’re bad, but because they are morally retarded and culturally illiterate. And when loving parents buy into it they end up either alienating their daughters or infecting them with their own fear and panic.

We need a reality check: despite the often hostile world we adults have created for them, most girls are not dopey, fragile creatures lurching from life-threatening crisis to life-ruining mistake. They work part-time, play sport, have supportive friendships and thrilling romances. They’re passionate about books, music and sport. They have exciting plans for after school and most have a good chance of fulfilling them.

A minority of teenage girls routinely abuse alcohol or illegal drugs. A minority put themselves at risk of social stigma or criminal prosecution by sexting carelessly. A minority of those who are sexually active don’t practice safer sex. But most understand the potential dangers of drugs, alcohol and sex and make choices which minimise those dangers. Those who continue to put themselves at risk, need specific, possibly professional, intervention. Impersonal, generalising panic over behaviour is unlikely to change it.

But of course, not all harm can be avoided by even the most sensible girl. There is, for example, the barrage of media messages about their apparent physical unacceptability. According to a 2010 Mission Australia survey, body image is the top personal concern for young people. Sexual assault also remains a major problem with the Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society reporting that 38 per cent of female secondary students have had ‘’unwanted sex’‘. It’s scary stuff. Little wonder that some parents are tempted to lock their daughters in a room free of TV, internet and phone. But one day those girls are going to have to step outside and then what?

Although we wish the world was a safer place and should work to make it so, we need to prepare girls to live in it as it is. This seems obvious when talking about boys: of course they need to learn resilience and determination and rebelliousness against those who would hold them back or harm them. But we’re still so damn precious about girls. We pretend that passivity and fragility are innate, even as we expend a great deal of energy on instilling and enforcing them. Watch a mixed-sex group of toddlers for an hour. You’ll notice, I bet, some kids are more submissive and conflict-averse than others. I bet, too, the divide is not along gender lines. Some children are less boisterous than others but most little girls are able to express their desires and frustrations with great power.

But then, so soon, their inner fighter is quashed. In her book Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls, Rachel Simmons details the ways in which adults ‘’discourage the emergence of physical and direct aggression in girls’‘ and ’‘either encourage or shrug off’‘ the ’‘skirmishes’‘ of boys. In one study, adults told girls in their care ’‘to be quiet, speak softly or use a ‘nicer’ voice about three times more often than boys’‘.

Teenage girls are often criticised for being sullen and underhanded, for resorting to passive-aggressive silences and unexplained bursts of tears, yet we’ve spent a decade or so training them to suppress. What do you do with the natural teenage rushes of emotion and hormones and excitement and rage when you’ve been repeatedly told not to draw attention to yourself, not to argue back, not to speak unless you have something nice to say?

We know girls face a sometimes hostile world and yet we train them to be meek in the face of it. We do it because we want to protect them from coming into conflict with anyone, ever. We want them to make themselves small and harmless so the large and vicious will leave them alone. The impulse is a good one, but it turns fierce toddlers into teenagers seething with repressed anger and turns those teenagers into frightened, apologetic women who have never considered the possibility that, given the state of the world, they damn well should kick up a fuss. Loudly and often.

There are some cracking examples of girl warriors in recent films and books. True Grit, Winter’s Bone and The Hunger Games all feature powerful teenage protagonists who rise to meet formidable challenges. Some of what they do isn’t pleasant, but so what? If girls are human then they should be allowed to explore the full range of human experience. They should be allowed to look to rock stars as well as pop princesses, pirates as well as sailors, vigilantes as well as stoic victims. They should be allowed to find inspiration in rebels with or without causes. Fictional role models are a start, but there are plenty of real-life teenagers who demonstrate courage and resilience. Jessica Watson is already a role model for many teenagers, but how about Ellyse Perry who, at 16, played for Australia in both cricket and football? How about Angela Barker who spent her teen years in a nursing home after suffering a severe brain injury and now campaigns for the rights of young people with disabilities? Or Kalinda Griffiths who began her career as an indigenous health researcher at 17? How about the 170,000 young people who are primary carers for parents or siblings?

These kinds of real-life examples don’t just serve as inspiration to teenagers; they serve as a reminder to adults that teenagers of both sexes are capable of much more than our society gives them credit for.

Teenagers of both sexes are capable of much more than our society gives them credit for.

We shouldn’t be surprised. Many teenagers possess powerful self-awareness (the flip side of teenage self-obsession) and a great capacity for constant questioning and insightful cultural critique. What they tend to lack is self-control, the ability to envisage the consequences of their actions and, obviously, life experience. That’s why we adults need to have their backs. We can encourage toughness while offering advice on how to minimise damage to the self and to others. If a girl knows you’re on her side – that you won’t treat her as stupid or fragile or dishonest or assume she can’t handle anything more challenging than buying top-up credit for her phone – then there’s a better-than-even chance she’ll listen to your advice about when to bite her tongue and when to scream like a banshee. And when something goes wrong, as it inevitably will, it’s more likely she’ll tell you about it if she knows you won’t panic about her lost innocence and vow to guard her with a shotgun until she’s 21.

For example? A group of Sydney teenagers started a stealth campaign against advertising images they considered degrading. At first they defaced bus shelters with black paint. On the advice of a trusted adult, they switched from illegal vandalism to the still-satisfying practice of slapping protest stickers onto the covers of sexist magazines in newsagents and supermarkets. Or there’s the 14-year-old who was at the movies with her friends when a man in his 20s put his arm around her shoulder and asked her to come sit with him. She said no and he went away but she was shaken. Talking it through with her friends, there were suggestions that her outfit was ‘’kind of sexy’‘ and so maybe she shouldn’t dress like that any more. Others in the group thought that was unfair: her outfit was amazing and she felt great in it. She just needed to be ready for men who thought she was older or looking for a boyfriend or whatever. Together, the girls came up with a strategy: the next time she (or any of them) had an adult man crack on to her she should say – very loudly – ’‘I’m 14!’‘ and if he persisted, she would – louder still – tell him he should be ashamed of himself for trying to pick up a child.

There’s no doubt the ideas behind this solution came from a thousand conversations with adults and peers and from various forms of media. When it came to the crunch, the girls were able to talk it through, support each other and come up with a strategy that acknowledged unfortunate realities while refusing to cower in the face of them. Talk about empowering. Unfortunately, when the girl told her parents about the incident, she was banned from going to the movies with her friends. Again, an understandable impulse but the girl feels punished for fighting her own battle and will either stop doing so or – more likely – will be sure to keep future battles a secret.

It can be dangerous out there. We can teach girls to be frightened and meek, to aim to be mere silent witnesses rather than victims. Or we can teach them to fight, not just for themselves but for others who can’t. We can teach them that the world can be terrifying, and that sometimes, they should be terrifying right back at it.