That’s what little girls are made of, apparently.
In my last post, I took a look at the book Asperger’s and Girls, a collection of essays that attempt to address the needs and concerns about girls with Asperger syndrome. I found the book to be a disappointment overall, but one chapter in particular stands out as especially heinous. In “Girl to Girl: Advice on Friendship, Bullying, and Fitting In,” Lisa Iland, a non-autistic young woman with a sibling on the spectrum, dishes out “practical advice on dealing with the ‘popularity hierarchy’ and ‘levels of relationship’; how to make yourself likeable; using MTV to your advantage; combating bullies; the positive role of gossip; and more.”
Wait, MTV? Really? This book was published in 2006. Although it’s true: when I read this chapter to myself I can’t help but hear Quinn Morgendorffer’s voice in my head. I also get the irresitible urge to open up the Wicked soundtrack and listen to “Popular.”
I’ll (try to) stop there with that kind of mockery, because the images of the vapid blonde “bimbo” and the shallow, self-obsessed social climber are sexist stereotypes in themselves.
The very foundation of this chapter is the pervasive myth of a monolithic “teen culture” wherein the “typical teen” operates within a rigid, gender-segregated social system with a consistent set of rules and a fixed hierachy based on “popularity.” Sure, there are systems governing the distribution of social capital in high school, but this particular concept of teen culture—which endures in part because it is endlessly reproduced in popular media—breaks down really quickly under scrutiny. Who is this “typical” teen? Is s/he white? Brown? Rich? Poor? Urban? Suburban? Rural? Gay? Straight? “Teen culture” does not and cannot describe a single entity. Adolescent cultures are as varied, complex, and dependent on social, economic, and geographic contexts as any other kind of culture.
The chapter starts off with a set of four “Essential Areas to Know In Order to Fit In.” These are: 1. Creating image and appeal; 2. Understanding where to fit in; 3. Meeting Social Expectations; 4. Overcoming Bullying and Mean Girls.
Under the first of these areas, “creating an image,” Iland offers up such wisdom as:
Things that turn friends away initially are clinginess, obnoxious hyperactivity, insults, and being overly opinionated. [Emphasis mine]
Girls who mainstream their image become part of the girl middle class. Their options open to having more friends to choose from in the mainstream, and they also have the option of being friends of the unusual people instead of being confined to that class.
Not every girl has to be “girly” or involved in makeup and fashion, but even athletic girls and self-proclaimed “tomboys” follow the teen code of hygiene and wear hairstyles and clothes that are socially appropriate for their image.
When a typical girl looks at another girl, she decodes her image to determine what level of social status the girl belongs to. The peer then compares herself to that and decides if she should make an effort at friendliness.
So, “girliness” is defined by an affinity for makeup and fashion? And being “athletic” is somehow antithetical to being “girly?” What, exactly, does it mean for a girl to be “overly opinionated?” Does it mean her convictions are too strong? That she has too many opinions? We certainly can’t have girls walking around with too many opinions.
The idea of “class” or “status” is central to Iland’s essay, but she never gets into the details of class markers, instead using extremely vague descriptors like “mainstream,” “moderate,” and “unusual.” This is what I find to be the most reprehensible aspect of the piece. One can’t talk meaningfully about social status without describing the markers of status, those being qualities like race, economic class, gender presentation, dis/ability, sexuality, et cetera. In the hypothetical social context that Iland is working with, a girl’s clothing might seem “unusual” because it makes her look crazy, or working class, or gay and those qualities relegate people to a lower social status. Yet Iland never takes that additional step of interrogating the unspoken reasoning behind peers’ judgements and thereby exposing the social hierarchy as oppressive. She just leaves it at “Try not to look unusual.”
In the “Understanding where to fit in” section, Iland describes the high school social hierarchy. As she imagines it, it looks like something right out of the Disney Channel: cheerleaders and jocks at the “top” among the “Popular/Elite,” most kids somewhere in the “middle,” and at the “bottom” are “Unique/Unusual Groups.” The vagueness that ends up overwhelming the entire chapter continues through this section. What exactly does it mean to be “popular?” Popular with whom? Iland offhandedly asserts that “Whoever belongs to this Popular group has what the other teens at the school want,” but she never says what exactly that is.
I’m only twenty-three—I was a teen not all that long ago. I recall quite clearly that my (public, suburban, affluent, predominantly white) high school’s social structure was far more complex than this simplistic caricature. If I absolutely had to define what “group” I was part of, I’d have to say I was at some intersection between “the smart kids” and “the weird kids”—and as such, the “popular kids” had absolutely nothing that I or my peers wanted, except maybe parents with money. While we had limited social capital in certain circles, the kids whom Iland might identify as “elite” had limited social capital within our circle. That’s how teen society actually works. There is an overarching hegemony—manifest in the realities of economic privilege, white privilege, and heteronormativity, for example—but the system isn’t a simple top-down hierarchy. And that hegemony is oppressive. It should be interrogated and confronted, not just glossed over and tacitly accepted.
Predictably, Iland presumes that the basic social unit of “girl culture” is the “clique,” and she quotes from Rosalind Wiseman’s “Queen Bees and Wannabees” [sic]. Now, I haven’t read Queen Bees and Wannabes, but I’m automatically wary of any text that essentializes girlhood and oversimplifies adolescence via archetypes and buzzwords. Certainly I think Wiseman’s classification of the seven specific roles within the “clique”—which include, of course, a “queen bee” who “reigns supreme” over the other girls—is far too clear-cut. Also, what about peer relationships between girls and boys? Iland only mentions boys in passing, as people to impress with one’s looks because apparently eliciting approval and sexual desire from a male gaze is a “status” boost. What about boys as friends and confidants?
The section on “Meeting social expectations” has some more timeless pearls:
When a teen girl asks, “Do I look fat?” The answer is always no! White lying is an important friendship skill to have in maintaining the fragile self esteem of teen girls.
Quoting a “friend with AS” named “Kelsey”: “Most girls don’t want to talk about science or Star Wars. Find something to contribute to what girls talk about. Listen until you can contribute instead of just interrupting with the topic you want to talk about. It is better to be thought of as shy and quiet than loud and obnoxious.”
Boys, fashion, shopping, movies, and music will always be teen topics of conversation….
Ethnicity and gender are also determining factors as to what greeting [sic] are appropriate.
Beng alone = being a-loner
Girls with AS who spend lunchtime by themselves should practice looking content and busy in being alone. No typical peers want to befriend a person who is a sulky “loner.” The only legitimate reason teens accept for being alone at lunch is because of school obligations….
I should have known that being fat would turn up as an example of the. Worst. POSSIBLE. THING! that could happen to a teenage girl. I would also love to know precisely how ethnicity and gender determine what colloquialisms I should use to greet my peers. (No, seriously, that’s the context of that quote.) I was also under the impression that it was acceptable to just, you know, eat during lunchtime. If only I had known what a faux pas it was to spend a few minutes alone!
The fourth and final section deals with “Bullying and mean girls.” Bullying has exploded as a cultural fixation, and I don’t even know what to say on the matter. Iland certainly isn’t up to the task of addressing the issue. She quotes Wiseman some more, and offers feeble advice on comebacks and ignoring harrassment. Fat hatred rears its head again in an anecdote from one of Iland’s “typical friends and acquaintances”:
I was definitely picked on for being fat. Although I was bullied a lot, I never let it get to me because I was a stronger person than that. I think that people who get made fun of tend to keep the mean comments with them and start to believe them because of the repetitive nature of bullying. I also knew in my mind that letting what they say stick in my mind will not make things any better; if I was going to be happy with who I was I needed to let it go and have my family and friends at my side. The true way I overcame bullying was I changed myself, and got healthier, not for everyone else, but to make myself happier.” [Emphasis mine.]
Right. Because if you’re harassed for being fat that’s a bummer and all, but you know, you really should get healthier—that is, lose weight, because weight and health are the same thing of course. So really those bullies have a point: It is your body that’s the real problem, after all. As harsh as it seems when I put it that way, that’s the message the story sends: If you’re being bullied because you’re fat, the real solution is to stop being fat.
In the end, one just has to laugh at “Girl to Girl.” It’s so spectacularly shallow and stereotypical—and, for a piece ostensibly written by a teen girl for teen girls, so astoundingly out of touch—that it reads like a parody.
Of course, realizing the praise and wide readership that Asperger’s and Girls has garnered in the autism community, if we didn’t laugh we’d probably cry.