Friday, September 12, 2008

Sex and Sensibility: Removing the Kid Gloves

Sex and Sensibility
Sex and Sensibility is a weekly column from Kristen Loveland that seeks to put the reasoned voice of a young woman in her 20's into the "sex wars" fray. Sometime member of the "hook-up generation" and frequent skeptic of the social, cultural, and sexual messages young women receive from the religious right and national media, Kristen provides a voice for a much-discussed generation that has had little chance to speak up for itself.

Removing the Kid Gloves
by Kristen Loveland

In an article appearing in Wednesday's New York Times titled “Girl Talk Has Its Limits,” the lives of young girls are once again put under the microscope for inspection by a pack of inquisitive adults. Not content to explore the sexual landscape of Miley Cyrus, cultural scrutiny now delves into female friendships and asks whether girls really should be talking, or “co-ruminating”, with each other so much, because “[s]ome studies have found that excessive talking about problems can contribute to emotional difficulties, including anxiety and depression.”

First of all, this is old news. My roommate’s abnormal psychology textbook from 2004 notes, “It is known that rumination is likely to maintain or exacerbate depression, in part by interfering with instrumental behavior.” Notice the terms “maintain” and “exacerbate”—the depression derives not from the rumination itself but from another source.

Unsurprisingly, one of the not-so-hidden assumptions of this article is that girls have an unhealthy obsession with boys:
“I could see it starting already,” she said, adding that she has made a concerted effort recently not to dwell on her own problems with friends and to try to stop negative thoughts. “From sixth grade, it’s boys are stupid, boys have cooties,” she said. “And then it progresses to boys have cooties but 20-year-old cooties. So you might as well change it when you can."
Ah yes, the fragile female psyche. I might ask why the author wasted over 1,000 words devoted to a question bound to lead to a dead end. After all, will you ask your daughter to bottle up her worries instead? I might also ask why the author used fictional models from Heathers, Mean Girls, Sex and the City, and Gossip Girl for female friendship. Sure, I’ll admit that I talk to my girl friends—a lot. I get a feeling of distinct pleasure when I look at my cell’s phonebook, considering which of my good friends I should call next to ruminate about “so-and-so who failed to call” or “you’ll never guess who showed up last night” or “is it just me, or does she seem a bit self-centered lately?” But these exchanges have never quite reached the dramatics of a Lindsey Lohan-led cast, though they might be a lot more interesting if they did.

While I’d like to say that the article’s author clearly hasn’t seen enough Woody Allen movies, it’s true that females are more prone to clinical depression than males. Nonetheless, it seems rather facile to place 1,000 words of emphasis on co-rumination as explanation—even irresponsible as I watch the article trek up the New York Times “Most Emailed” list. Because in the end the article (note its placement in the Fashion & Style section) is simply another of those proprietary “What’s wrong with our young women?” pieces that will make the rounds of forwarded email and provide all too simplistic answers for questions that really deserve more complex consideration. What’s wrong with our young women? They talk to each other too much. What’s wrong with our young women? They’re too superficial. What’s wrong with our young women? They give away the milk for free.

While newspapers and magazines are understandably aching to draw readers in, we can’t ignore the implications of such incessant prying into young women’s lives. It’s noteworthy that so many articles focus, or place the blame, on the actions of young women themselves (friendships, sexual relations, drinking habits, college experiences, etc.), instead of on the society in which they are raised. But perhaps we aren’t so much interested in solving “the young women problem” as in lifting back the curtain to sneak a covert glance at that object of intense public fascination: the Miley Cyruses, the Britol Palins, and all the other bright young female things that seem so troubled. As one writer notes, “The modern American female is one of the most discussed, most written-about, sore subjects to come along in ages.”

The funny thing is, that was actually written back in 1957, which means the new ain’t so new. A young Nora Johnson was talking about "Sex and the College Girl" in the 50s, the era of the domesticated and constrained female, who kowtowed to the reasonable, responsible expectations of society. Yet Johnson’s description of her generation struck me as so relevant to today:
We are deadly serious in our pursuits and, I am afraid, non-adventurous in our actions. We have a compulsion to plan our lives, to take into account all possible adversities and to guard against them. We prefer not to consider the fact that human destinies are subject to amazingly ephemeral influences and that often our most rewarding experiences come about by pure chance.
Those are my italics. I emphasize that last line, because I think it is something we often forget as a society, perhaps in an effort fill the news feed, perhaps in an effort to re-corset our daughters. Depression and anxiety are, of course, conditions to be treated seriously. But efforts to analyze each and every aspect of young American women’s lives, (always premised, of course, on a concern for those young American women’s well-being), is a form of the strictest regulation, and ignores the intense wonder of unknowing and chance.

Whenever I read stories implying that we should worry about such-and-such an aspect of young women’s behavior, I picture an invalid who lives to be a hundred by lying on her sofa all day. But does she live? And is she any more psychologically sound for having been removed from experience all these years—or has her mind warped in on itself, obsessively concerned with the minutiae in life because she has never known the larger things? Shouldn’t we... wait, sorry, I had to catch myself there for a second. I’m afraid I was getting rather alarmist.

Anyway people, remove the kid gloves.

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