Saturday, February 12, 2011

The Silence of the Lambs

How do we help young women find their voice? Last week I gave a lecture on Greek Mythology to my daughter's fifth grade class. I started off by asking them what they knew about the topic as this subject isn't included within the curriculum of the Israeli school system, including far too many Gods and Goddesses for our one almighty troupe. In any case, hands went up all over the room. That is, male hands.

Despite the fact that half of the class is girls, this group remained almost entirely silent. While the boys were jumping out of their chairs, eager to offer their comments, the reaction amongst the girls was something I can only describe as a stupor. When an occasional one did actually work up the nerve to raise her hand, her comment was either monosyllabic, virtually swallowed or offered up almost as an apology. In most cases I had to ask the girls to repeat their remarks as I couldn't quite catch their whispered answers and in more than one instance this resulted in a nervous, "Never mind." The brave girl who stood up and invoked the name of that most important Goddess of Wisdom, Athena, quickly plopped back down on her chair and squeezed her lips shut.

By contrast, I was assaulted by an avalanche of comments by the boys—some quite detailed and precise. This population felt comfortable contributing whatever information they had, whether right or wrong.  There wasn't a bit of hesitation amongst them, in fact I had quite a bit of trouble directing my attention back to the girls. For the record, I wasn't looking for anything too complicated. But even my question regarding the name of the Goddess of Love (understandably evoking a primarily female response) was answered in a hushed voice. I'm not sure Aphrodite, decisively responsible for so many major wars, fights to the death and competitions in Ancient times, would have been happy with being described in such a demure fashion.

Just as interesting was the fact that while the boys encouraged one another, constantly interrupting to add to, agree with or dissent from, their friends' comments, the girls showed no such solidarity. Where was the support rampant in Facebook? Distinct from the punctuated command words and other "unprintables" I find on my sons' Walls, my daughter's is full of "You look great," "You're so pretty," "Congratulations"  and that formidable LIKE. There was nary a sign of this within that heated boys' locker room atmosphere. These girls 
were left out on a limb; each of them isolated, both from the boys and one another.

What happened to that outpouring of confidence I saw at our local community center every afternoon? The girls hang out there after dance class for hours and there's no dearth of chatting, bossing and quite frankly, a lot of flirting. Whereas in the informal, and nonjudgmental, atmosphere of the local park their behavior with the boys borders on brash and downright bold, they assume a cloak of invisibility (such as that useful one sported by Harry Potter) in the classroom. Within those four walls these same girls didn't have enough confidence to contribute to the extremely informal discussion led by the mother of a fellow student who most of them knew well. They were completely unwilling to put themselves out, afraid of being devoured by their fellow classmates. Even my own daughter's feeble attempts to be part of the action were whispered to me in English. She was obviously checking to see if she'd gotten the right answer before officially putting in her two cents.

In Sex and the City 2 (2010), the flamboyantly dressed, self-assured character of Carrie Bradshaw receives an official shushing. A New Yorker review of her new book on marriage harshly criticizes her for pontificating on a subject she obviously knows very little about. They suggest that she'd be better off keeping her mouth shut and accentuate the point with a caricature in which Carrie's mouth has been taped shut by a large masking tape "X". All of her bluster disappears and this model of self-confidence makes a major retreat. The message is clear: This commanding woman has obviously ventured too far, inappropriately imposing her opinions on the public, and must withdraw in silence.

I don’t remember ever feeling inferior to my male classmates or considering how I might appear to them-- in elementary school. These were feelings I didn't develop until my early teens. How is it possible that, at a time when women increasingly hold top positions in the professional world, this is the case for my daughter's generation?  Looking around for answers I found a 1992 study, prepared for the American Association of University Women (AAUW) by Susan Bailey, which suggests that teachers actually "socialize girls towards a feminine ideal." Bailey writes that "Girls are praised for being neat, quiet, and calm, whereas boys are encouraged to think independently, be active and speak up. Girls are socialized in schools to recognize popularity as being important, and learn that educational performance and ability are not as important. Girls in grades six and seven rate being popular and well-liked as more important than being perceived as competent or independent. Boys, on the other hand, are more likely to rank independence and competence as more important."

This information goes far in explaining the steep decline in confidence amongst adolescent girls and directly inspired Peggy Orenstein's 1994 bestseller, Schoolgirls: Young Women, Self Esteem and the Confidence Gap. Here she explored the obstacles girls face (in school, in the home and in our culture) as well as the causes of their self-censorship and self-doubt. Prominent within her discoveries was the oversensitivity of our daughters to how they appear before their male peers. Orenstein's recent publication, Cinderella Ate My Daughter, which has received almost as much attention as that by the Tiger Mother, pinpoints the particular effect of marketing on the already fragile self-image of young girls. She posits that, overwhelmed with the "Princess" model, adolescent girls are virtually incapable of looking beyond their own physical appearance to find self-worth.

Describing the experience of her own daughter, Orenstein writes: "What was the first thing that culture told her about being a girl? Not that she was competent, strong, creative, or smart but that every little girl wants — or should want — to be the Fairest of Them All." The ramifications of this message are clear:: "Even as new educational and professional opportunities unfurl before my daughter and her peers, so does the path that encourages them to equate identity with image, self-expression with appearance" and "femininity with performance." 
The message of this second bestseller has provoked horrified reactions amongst female critics; mostly for the reality she presents—always the hardest bullet to bite. Kate Tuttle's review for the Boston Globe, for example, warned that "princess culture nudges girls toward a dangerously limited set of aspirations and a self-image built on beauty and pleasantness, not strength, intelligence, or competence." Jessica Bennett, reviewing for Newsweek, agrees that "young girls today face more pressure than ever to be “perfect” (like a princess?)--not only to get straight A’s and excel academically, but to be beautiful, fashionable, and kind." She confers with Orenstein's assessment that the more mainstream media girls consume, the more they worry about being pretty and sexy, and specifically cites the University of Minnesota study that found that even a limited exposure to advertisements can negatively affect girls’ self-esteem.

 Major decisions within government bodies also play a role in depressing our daughters' voices. Just last week the House of Representatives declared that it was cutting off public financing to Parent Parenthood. This one safe-ground for so many women of all ages, recently accused of promoting prostitution and sexual abuse, was no longer deemed worthy of the government's official support. This ludicrous situation was pinpointed by Gail Collins in her comment that by attacking an organization that provides millions of women with essential services, including family planning and basic health care, the government was basically suggesting, "Let them use leaches." What's next? How many more ways can we convince our daughters that they have fewer rights than their male counterparts and accordingly, are better off staying quiet?

The choices of female role models are becoming narrower every day. Stuck between Hannah Montana and Selena Gomez our daughters are left to design the image they present to the world within the safe, seemingly protected, world of social networks like Facebook. There pictures can be altered to suit their needs; sometimes dolled up with colorful stickers, sometimes made jazzier with negative contrast. As they're in control, they cannot be challenged. The image they project is entirely of their design. How can we expect these girls to affect any stance in the classroom, LIVE—on stage, which might detract from the deliberate one they control within that hermetically-sealed virtual world?

Luckily the silent persona assumed by many of this generation's girls reflects very little of their academic achievement. In fact most statistics suggest that they outperform their male counterparts within the school arena. Yet this success is executed like a stealth mission—quietly, and with intense subtlety, so that none of the boys will notice their achievement. Myla Goldberg summarized the situation in her review of Orenstein's book for Slate, writing that "a 21st-century girl is supposed to be a high-stakes combo of high-achieving and pretty that's arguably more unrealistic than anything foisted on her predecessors". I'm back to my original question: How can we help young women find their voice?


  1. Boy--well I really mean, girl--keep saying it!

  2. you got it all wrong. these young girls are just a lot smarter then the boys. they know that the way to top is a stealth mission.