“Are we there yet? Are we there yet?”
Nope, it’s not a chorus of the universal kids-in-cars whine. It’s me wondering if the girl empowerment journey green-lighted in the late 1960s, and driven forward through subsequent decades, has taken the females of the species to where we want to be.
The good news is the #MeToo movement will be celebrating its first birthday next month. The bad news is the #MeToo movement will be celebrating its first birthday next month. Seriously? What’s taking so long? Fifty years — almost 100 when you count back to when women got the vote — is definitely the longest road trip on record.
At a time when women are marching by the millions for “self-determination, dignity and respect,” when girls have greater access to and encouragement for academic and employment opportunities in every field, and when predators are finally being called out and held accountable by their prey, we also have politicians actively opposing each and every real-life manifestation of those marchers’ simple ideals, girls being inundated with social messaging that screams sex, sexism and superficiality, and a self-admitted predator sitting in the White House, unashamed and unpunished. These are indeed “the best of times” and “the worst of times.”
Maybe it’s time for a pit stop. Time to check the map, grab some coffee and figure out where to go from here.
Parents of today’s girls are just beginning to understand the forces arrayed against them. It’s not only the stuff boomer parents dealt with — smarmy teenaged boys angling for compromising photos, mean girls bullying over guys, clothes and make-up, or even sexist TV shows and vulgar music and movies.
The fledgling internet and media companies of the nineties and oughts grew, consolidated, and developed their pernicious business models of commodification and monetization. Now, parents’ opponents are multi-billion-dollar tech corporations whose sole purpose is to enrich their shareholders by creating an addiction to their brands so strong that users will continue to click and stare at their screens to the exclusion of everything around them, and a political system that does the bidding of those business interests, interests antithetical to healthy, engaged individuals.
Over time, we, and our children, went from being citizens, to being consumers, to being consumed. Now, we, our lives and our data, are the products, and we let it happen. Few stood up and protested the appropriation of personal data, violations of privacy, massive contributions for favorable tax policies or the lack of regulatory guardrails. The Wild West of the internet doesn’t give a fig for truth, empathy, comity or fairness. It doesn’t care about girls.
The early-days version of social media produced an alarming number of previously happy, well-adjusted young girls presenting with serious mental health problems in adolescence — suicide, depression, poor self-esteem, bad grades, cutting, drug use and risky sexual behavior. Now, things are both better and worse. More girls have gotten the message that girls are as capable and valuable as boys, but they also live in a retro-techno culture which anesthetizes, criticizes, exploits and sexualizes them.
It’s almost impossible to imagine an adorable 5-year-old dressed in net and tulle gazing at Elsa, Anna or Jasmine on her tablet transformed into a distraught teen cutting herself live on Instagram. The intermediate steps are seemingly innocent, a little YouTube here, a little Spotify there. It’s when girls are on the cusp of adolescence and begin what is, appallingly, often the most important relationship in their young lives — with their phones — that the trouble starts. In an environment where anything goes, it often does.
So maybe we need to consider changing our route. Parents must step up to understand social media’s potential for harm, then limit and monitor kids’ involvement. Girls still need empowering stories and inspiring role models, and we need to start early and double-down on them to counter society’s new normal.
But besides strong self-esteem, motivation and direction, girls also need access and opportunity. The personal is political, now more than ever. Girls need to understand that all the individual girl-power in the world won’t take them anywhere without a place to go and people to welcome them when they get there. Freedom is never free, and it isn’t forever, unless it’s protected. Girls need to learn the power of the ballot box, and we need to show them.
So, ladies and supportive gentlemen, it’s time to get back in the car and, (with apologies to Bette Davis), fasten your seatbelts. It’s going to be a bumpy ride.
Absolutely fabulous female fiction: Picture books for ages 4-8
- “Ada Twist, Scientist,” by Andrea Beaty. Illustrated by David Roberts. Second-grader Ada is full of questions and uses the scientific method in some hair-raising ways to answer them.
- “Amazing Grace,” by Mary Hoffman. Illustrated by Caroline Binch. Grace is encouraged by her Nana to pursue her dreams, beginning with playing Peter Pan in her class play.
- “Beautiful,” by Stacy McAnulty. Illustrated by Joanne Lew-Vriethoff. Girls show the world who they are by what they do, in all their beautiful diversity. A must-read for kindergarten girls and boys.
- “Bloom,” by Doreen Cronin. Illustrated by David Small. After Bloom the Mud Fairy is banished for messiness, the glass kingdom starts to fall apart. Ordinary Genevieve finds her, learns her special magic, and together they rebuild.
- “Miss Rumphius,” written and illustrated by Barbara Cooney. The classic story of a young girl who followed her grandfather’s advice to “do something to make the world more beautiful.”
- “Olivia and the Fairy Princesses,” written and illustrated by Ian Falconer. Olivia Pig is so done with princesses. She is desperate to stand out in an overcrowded field, so she tries out some other options.
- “The Paper Bag Princess,” story by Robert Munsch. Art by Michael Martchenko. Another classic. Princess Elizabeth fights dragons and rescues her prince, only to find he’s a self-absorbed jerk.
- “Rosie Revere, Engineer,” by Andrea Beaty. Illustrated by David Roberts. Rosie loves inventing things, like a flyer for her great-great-aunt, the original Rosie the Riveter. When it doesn’t work properly, she learns that only quitters fail.
Absolutely fabulous female non-fiction: Short stories and picture books for ages 4-8
- “Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls,” by Elena Favilli and Francesca Cavallo. One hundred short, true fairy tales about some extraordinary women, past and present. Beautifully illustrated.
- “Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls 2,” by Elena Favilli and Francesca Cavallo. One hundred more, guaranteed to inspire.
- “I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Makes Her Mark,” by Debbie Levy. Illustrated by Elizabeth Baddeley. A picture book biography of the Notorious RBG, emphasizing her lifelong rebellion against unfair treatment.
- “Keep the Lights Burning, Abbie,” by Peter and Connie Roop. Pictures by Peter E. Hanson. The true story of a girl who must keep her family’s lighthouse working during a terrible storm.
- “Malala’s Magic Pencil,” by Malala Yousafzai. Illustrated by Kerascoët. Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala dreams of having a magic pencil to correct the world’s ills when she is young, but learns that writing and speaking out can do wonders.
- “Seven Brave Women,” by Betsy Hearne. Illustrated by Bethanne Andersen. The author profiles the quiet bravery of seven of her relatives, beginning in Revolutionary War times.
- “She Persisted: 13 American Women Who Changed the World,” by Chelsea Clinton. Illustrated by Alexandra Boiger. Inspiring stories about women who refused to sit down and be quiet.
- “She Persisted Around the World: 13 Women Who Changed History,” by Chelsea Clinton. Illustrated by Alexandra Boiger. The companion volume to “She Persisted” spotlights the efforts of women in the international community to speak up for the good of all.
Parent resources: Books that chronicle the dangers and damaging effects of modern popular culture
- “Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls,” Mary Pipher, 1994. The influential work that described how social pressures were upending the lives of teenaged girls in the 1990s.
- “Schoolgirls: Young Women, Self-Esteem, and the Confidence Gap,” Peggy Orenstein, 1995. Another classic, describes the lives of two economically disparate groups of eighth-grade girls struggling with adolescent social challenges.
- “Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches From the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture,” Peggy Orenstein, 2012. An examination of the darker corners of the pretty pink princess phenomenon.
- “The Princess Problem: Guiding Our Girls through the Princess-Obsessed Years,” Rebecca C. Hains, Ph.D., 2014. Timely advice on navigating the conundrums of princess culture.
- “American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teenagers,” Nancy Jo Sales, 2016. A must-read for parents. A survey of the barren, materialistic, hyper-sexual online lives of some 200 girls, age 13 to 19.
- “Girls & Sex: Navigating the Complicated New Landscape,” by Peggy Orenstein, 2016. Another must-read. This is a deeper examination of the sexual topics touched on in “American Girls.”