|They rock. They shop. They win championships. They're smart, fit and urbane. And anything boys can do, they can do better. The girls of Generation Y are brimming with post-sexual revolution empowerment. They're being told that self-actualization is their greatest need—a message reinforced monthly by the Girl Power bible: the "teen magazine."|
"If women realized how brilliant, gorgeous, independent and valuable we were, then we'd already rule the world," 19-year-old Jessica sounds off in the pages of Seventeen.
Besides offering Jessica and her peers requisite doses of cute boys and cosmetics, titles such as YM and CosmoGirl! speak with one voice regarding the kind of superwomen they ought to be. Articles foster a can-do attitude and encourage readers to develop their talents. That's great. But gleaning self-confidence from teen mags is like bingeing on Häagen Dazs for the calcium. The crucial question is, what other ingredients have been thrown into the mix? Are they healthy? Here's a closer look at how today's teen glossies are indulging young appetites.
Girl Power Rule #1: The double standard is dead. Therefore, we will play all the sexual games boys play. And play to win. Rather than holding to an "outdated" code of virtue, teen magazines paint sexual expression and activity as normal parts of growing up. And rather than putting hormonal guys in check, they simply lower the bar for women. Today's girl flirts with a mysterious mix of tough and sexy. Like the pastel cartoons that grace magazine pages, she's about action and attitude, feminine curves and take-no-prisoners confidence. Recent headlines include "How to Flirt" and "Guy Turn-Ons." They say a girl should flaunt what she has, yet keep the upper hand.
Sex appeal isn't the end of the road. Page after page is filled with instructions and advice about sex itself. The bottom line is that girls should have the power to make their own choices, even when it comes to setting moral standards. CosmoGirl!'s Susan Schultz sermonizes, "Sex isn't just about what the guy wants. It's about the two of you—and you both have to make a conscious decision about when (and if!) it'll happen between you."
As illustrated by Schultz's statement, the door always remains open for abstinence, but that option is presented amid numerous erotic choices. The realm is vast, and most mags encourage teens to explore it thoroughly. For example, Dr. Drew Pinsky (this generation's answer to Dr. Ruth) advised a reader, "Physical experimentation is necessary to figure out what you want." Seventeen presents masturbation as "the safest form of sex there is," and cites one expert who says it's "the best way for a girl to achieve her first orgasm."
Meanwhile, YM's 2002 prom issue featured an article about a gay prom. Also exploiting a cultural shift toward lesbian chic, CosmoGirl! used its "Listen Up" section to let a bisexual teen promote her lifestyle to fellow readers ("My goal is to one day make people as accepting of different kinds of sexual orientation as they are about race"). Beneath that piece, three more readers shared their opinions, giving the general impression that homosexuality is—and should be—accepted at school.
Seemingly, the only limit to sexual freedom is the need to avoid negative side effects. Health columns universally turn that caution into another form of empowerment by touting safer sex practices and "reproductive rights" as the answer to any possible crisis. "Just insist on condom use and you'll be fine," they preach, "or if worse comes to worst, have an abortion." In fact, one CosmoGirl! Q&A pointed readers to Planned Parenthood resources four times in the space of two pages.
Romantic relationships aren't the only ones affected by moral relativism. Taking advantage of the culture's cafeteria-style approach to spirituality, magazines bow to Girl Power Rule #2: In order to live balanced lives, we will not neglect the spiritual aspect of ourselves. A worthy and necessary goal. However, God and religion are treated as human inventions to make ourselves feel better. Truth gives way to pragmatism and the whatever-works-for-you mentality.
Teen, Teen People, Seventeen, CosmoGirl! and YM offer monthly horoscope columns. CosmoGirl! has featured psychic John Edwards (of TV's Crossing Over) telling readers how to meditate and use their intuition. In its short lifetime, Mary-KateandAshley magazine (aimed at preteens) dove into Eastern philosophy, advocating Taoist ideas. Wicca and "goddess spirituality" get occasional nods, too. It's hard to tell whether girls will walk away totally underestimating the importance of eternal questions or convinced that they themselves are divine, able to shape their own spiritual destiny.
The Power to Be Bad
New York Times columnist Alex Kuczynski has called Seventeen "the most prim and mother-approved" teen glossy, noting that, from 1975 to 1993, it was edited by a former nun. But recently, Seventeen and its peers have tried to scuttle any hint of prudishness. They're opting instead for Girl Power Rule #3: To prove our equality with the boys, we will be bad like the boys. Language has gotten increasingly unladylike. Crude expressions and profanity dust the pages like body glitter. Girls who get into trouble at school are sometimes spotlighted as victims who've had their First Amendment rights infringed upon. One Seventeen student writer was suspended for trying to start an anarchy club on campus. She may not have received the due process she deserved, but the mag was more intent on the justice of her cause than the injustice of her punishment.
Even the entertainment promoted in these magazines is getting naughtier. Articles have hyped raunchy movies and musicians known for their explicit lyrics, such as Eminem and Blink-182. Rebellion is a critical component of the Girl Power checklist because it highlights independence and brazenness—so much so that some magazines prescribe bad behavior as part of becoming confident and mature. Among Seventeen's dares for shy readers are "buy a sheer shirt … tell off the school b‑‑ch … wear a thong bikini."
Spending Power and Self-Reliance
"The shoes on my feet? I bought 'em. The house I live in? I bought it." R&B trio and Girl Power poster girls Destiny's Child have graced many a teen-mag cover. Those lines from their song "Independent Women Part 1" illustrate Rule #4: If we need something, we will buy it. We depend on no one else to meet our needs. For most young women, this translates into having cash and the ability to spend it as they choose. Of course, it also plays into the hand of advertisers and fashion editors, and lets glossies sell a lifestyle of their own making. CosmoGirl! singles out what's cool by stamping hot picks with "So CG!", its seal of approval. Even more enterprising, Seventeen operates its own boutique in Los Angeles for readers eager to get the look.
Talk about mixed messages! On one hand, consumerism is promoted as a means of independence and self-expression. On the other, young women know publishers are being hypocritical when they advocate individuality and inner beauty, yet run fashion spreads featuring $130 designer jeans or $500 prom dresses. This may be the most ambiguous of all the girl magazine philosophies, and letters to the editor show that readers are genuinely conflicted over it.
Reclaiming the Feminine Ideal
Unlike its 1970s counterpart, this new feminism is too busy ogling and objectifying guys to bash them. Still, it does plenty to derail both a girl's identity and her relationships with men. She must fight to prove herself. She must never relinquish control or show vulnerability. With a steady diet of these messages during the teen years, it's easy to see why feminist ideals are rarely questioned by women in early adulthood.
Furthermore, while entertainment may deliver subtle amoral and narcissistic philosophies, these magazines are overtly instructive. They behave like a cool older sister putting an arm around a shoulder, offering a listening ear and dishing out advice. In essence, they're doing what the church was called to do centuries ago. In Titus 2, Paul instructs older ladies to teach younger ones so that girls grow up to be godly women with a commitment to virtue and a handle on healthy relationships. It's called mentoring. And as scary as it is to admit it, secular magazines are doing it more effectively than the church, judging from whose values teens seem to be adopting.
There is hope, however. Far from being anti-woman as some have suggested, the Bible offers a superior foundation on which women can build their identities. Parents and youth leaders concerned with turning the tide can use God's Word to address issues such as sexuality, attitude, power and money as bluntly as the world does (Prov. 31:30, 1 Cor. 6:18-20, Phil 2:5-14, Eph. 1:18-21, Heb. 13:4-6).
A great place to start is 1 Peter 3:3-4. Instead of learning to prove their worth, girls will discover that they are "of great worth in God's sight." Instead of sampling formulas for temporary glamour, they can develop "unfading beauty." And rather than seeking power by demanding the upper hand, they can cultivate a gentle spirit, which literally means "power under control." It may not be sassy, flashy or trashy enough for most teen mags, but that's real Girl Power.
Published April 2002