Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Journalism Gone Mild--Girls and Sex for the Statistically Inclined


I think a lot about the line between research, me-and-my-friends-search, and journalism. I read with interest the review of Wendy Shalit's GGM in Sunday's Washington Post. Reviewer Jennifer Howard seems to feel, as I did, dubious of Shalit's method, yet somewhat sympathetic to the portrait she details. Writes Howard,
[Shalit] asks, "Why, in the year 2007, should women's focus be completely on pleasing young men?" (Is it?) And she wants us to take heart (and I do, I do) from the growing number of young women whom she describes as "rebellious good girls." These new avatars of girl power give abstinence talks to high-schoolers; they stage "Pure Fashion" shows in which fashion doesn't just mean flesh; they become "girlcotters" who lobby retailers such as Abercrombie & Fitch to pull tee-shirts emblazoned with sexist slogans. They don't sleep with the first, or second, or third boy who comes along. They don't become "people-pleasing bad girls" who will do anything, anything, to get a boy's attention.

More power to them. Behind Shalit's celebration of such girls, however, is some very dubious sociology.

Dubious indeed. And passing off anecdotal journalism as researched reality is particularly frustrating to the academically inclined in light of the fact that Shalit is onto something important. As the American Psychological Association noted in a May 2007 report, there’s a paucity of research on the sexualization of girls.

Jim Naughton over at Episcopal Cafe
has an interesting take on it all:
Wendy Shalit has made a career as the sort of journalist whose trend stories fall apart on closer examination. But no matter, because by the time closer examination occurs, the stories have frequently started quite useful conversations. Her latest book, Girls Gone Mild: Young Women Reclaim Self-Respect and Find It's Not Bad to Be Good, is a case in point. Unless one believes that the plural of anecdote is data, there is simply no evidence for a resurgence in modesty. But by the time a reader figures that out, he or she has skipped past the need for data, and leapt to the discussion of whether such a resurgence would be desireable. It is possible to regard Ms. Shalit simultaneously as a mediocre journalist and a useful contributor to contemporary conversation about morals.

And so I ask you, when does mediocre journalism constitute a useful contribution, and how do we draw that line?

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