Drawing on numerous studies and interviews, the brilliant Wendy Shalit makes the case that today’s virulent “bad girl” mindset truly oppresses young women. She reveals how the media, one’s peers, and even parents can undermine girls’ quests for their authentic selves, and explains what it means to break from the herd mentality and choose integrity over popularity. Written with sincerity and upbeat humor, The Good Girl Revolution rescues the good girl from the realm of mythology and old manners guides to show that today’ s version is the real rebel. Society may perceive the good girl as “mild,” but Shalit demonstrates that she is in fact the opposite. The new female role models are not “people pleasing” or repressed; they are outspoken and reclaiming their individuality. These empowering stories are sure to be an inspiration to teenagers and parents alike. Join the conversation at www.thegoodgirlrevolution.com
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Read an Excerpt
My Bratz Problem—and Ours
You’ve gotta look hotter than hot! Show what you’ve got! … Ready or not!
—lead song from Bratz Babyz: The Movie, September 2006
On television, cartoon baby girls shimmy in their underpants as our wide-eyed toddler multitasks, sucking on her pink floral pacifier and learning to flirt at the same time. She may not be potty-trained, but soon she will know just how to flutter her eyelashes and sway her hips suggestively. She has studied, over and over, her favorite part of the Bratz DVD, where strobe lights flash and the “Babyz” coo about looking “hotter than hot!” and showing “what you’ve got.”
“Ready or not”? One ventures to guess—not.
These days when you walk into a toy store, it’s not clear whether you actually made it to the store or accidentally landed in a red-light district. A friend recently had a baby, so I went to buy a doll for the baby’s older sister, since everyone knows that it’s crucial to pacify the older sibling. At the precise moment, no doubt, that the girl was feeling appalled by the arrival of her baby brother, I was reeling from shock at the store’s section for girls. For one thing, I was greeted by the melodious strains of “When I get that feeling, that sexual feeling …” piped through the speakers. In the doll section, only dolls in tight-fitting, provocative outfits stared out at me, all wearing heavy makeup and self-satisfied, flirty expressions. The young sprite browsing next to me, who looked about seven years old, wore a purple cropped top and peep-toe wedges with heels two inches high—an outfit that seemed to mock the very idea of finding a suitable doll for a little girl.
Bratz Babyz makes a “Babyz Nite Out” doll garbed in fishnet stockings, a hot-pink micromini, and a black leather belt. To look “funkalish” (whatever that means), the baby also sports a tummy-flaunting black tank paired with a hot-pink cap. Dare one ask what is planned for “Babyz Nite Out” and what, exactly, she is carrying in her metal-studded purse? Is it pacifiers, or condoms? It might be both: “These Babyz demand to be lookin’ good on the street, at the beach, or chillin’ in the crib!” The dolls are officially for ages “four-plus,” but they are very popular among two- and three-year-old girls as well.
I’ve always found the most disturbing thing about Bratz to be their oversize baby faces. Many of the “Babyz” on MGA’s website are posed very seductively, showing off their slick lips and teeny-weeny underpants. The Bratz Babyz doll “Phoebe” is garbed in a fluffy pink fur with matching lingerie, and her twin, “Roxxi,” is stuffed into red-hot lingerie and a black leather jacket. In days of yore, you actually had to undress dolls to see their little white bloomers. But these days, right out of the box, the Bratz Babyz “Nita” shows off heavy red lipstick and bright toenail polish to match red panties, while “Cloe” has pink lipstick to go with pink panties. Since these dolls bare the chunky legs of babies who are still crawling, to me they are not “fashion forward”—just plain creepy.
Younger girls are already under the frightening influence of the Bratz doll companion books. “Ages three and up” can use fifteen “stylin’ glitter body stickers!” that come inside BRATZ Yasmin: The Princess Rules! and do some coloring of Yasmin’s makeup and outfits for “daytime and night.” Presumably, the littlest preschoolers will not be able to fill in “When I want to look hot for an extra special occasion I’ll put on ________” or take the quiz about what to do when “the boy of your dreams has just asked you out.… Do your pals … help you put together a look he’ll just die for?” But perhaps a parent or an older sibling can fill in the blanks for them. (For instance, “When I want to look hot for an extra special occasion I’ll put on my big girl pants—no more diapers!”)
The book BRATZ Xpress Yourself! teaches girls to express themselves, for example, by writing “about the boys you know.… These are cool boys I know: ______ … This is the most surprising thing (name of boy) once did: ________ … The Hottest Boy Award goes to _________.” You get the idea. The BRATZ Holiday Shoppin’ Spree: A Guide to Totally Hot Shoppin’ is a cool, sparkly paperback shaped like a purse, which enables a little girl to keep track of what she wants to buy her friends and her “crush.” If she shops for herself, she might want to keep “Jade” in mind (according to Bratz literature, Jade wears only “the hottest fashions”). And—this is crucial—she should never to forget to take a quarter, to call a parent “when you’re all shopped out!” It would indeed be poignant for a little girl to be stranded, with a present for her crush in one hand and her new hot clothes in the other.
The illustrations in these books are much more disturbing than the Bratz dolls themselves (which is saying a lot): the girls have extreme come-hither looks; their hips are thrust out to show off their exposed midriffs; and some even touch their rear ends suggestively. When I called MGA Entertainment, the maker of Bratz, its representative was very coy about what age group these books are targeting. Still, peddling so many “hot” products to young girls seems inherently problematic—even if you dub it “funkalish” instead of sexy. This suggests what we might call the funked-up principle: If a little girl is young enough to be coloring and wearing glitter stickers, then she’s probably still too young to be worrying about boys and looking “hot.”
Bratz already puts out a magazine that’s like Cosmo for eight-year-olds, spotlighting a “flirty denim skirt,” a “divine golden halter top,” and Paris Hilton’s “alluring outfit that can’t fail to impress!”—all in the August-September 2006 issue. After the editors field a heartrending question about divorce from a nine-year-old, who fears that her father prefers his girlfriend to her, since he spends so much time with the girlfriend—“What should I do?”—they then go on to their main business, asking their readers questions like, “Are you always the first in your group to wear the hottest new looks?” and “Do you love it when people look at you in the street?” Though surely the editors do not mean to imply this, if I were the nine-year-old, I might come away with the impression that I had to dress sexy to win back my father’s attention.
In the same issue, two girls from Washington who built a “Bratz town” have mailed in their photographs, which are jarring. One blond pixie named Maggie, who looks about seven or eight, is wearing a cropped pink top and low-rider jeans that show both her tummy and her blue bikini underwear. She has a wide, innocent smile and adorable bangs, and she stands next to a backdrop of Bratz dolls in slinky lingerie. All this is unsettling—especially since it makes you worry that she may be showing her underwear on purpose. “My birthday was da bomb!” Maggie writes. “If you remember, my fave Bratz girl is Jade and my fave color is green—just like Jade!”
Two women I interviewed for this book had friends who photographed their baby daughters in bikinis, spread out on the hood of their cars. They imagined that the adult pose was “cute,” and they had brought the photos to work. I hadn’t heard of this, but around eight years ago, when a friend’s daughter turned one, a fellow partygoer pronounced the birthday girl’s fuzzy pink coat “sexy.” When everyone giggled, I realized that I must be old-fashioned, but “sexy” and “baby” are two words I don’t like to hear in the same sentence. This attitude—“You’re never too young to be sexy!”—predated Bratz by several years. Something in our underlying idea of female empowerment became corrupted long before it became commercialized.
Walking into that toy store made me feel ancient at age thirty, for when I was little we played with Cabbage Patch Kids. With their soft fabric bodies and one-of-a-kind visages they were all the craze, and I named mine “Patsy.” I fretted for several months until Patsy’s official “birth certificate” arrived at our door, thus confirming that she did in fact exist. She smelled of vanilla, had beautiful brown yarn hair, and was very lovable.
In fact, I loved my doll so much that a tiny part of me began to wonder if she was real. At seven, I was old enough to guess that she probably wasn’t. But on the other hand, there was that birth certificate, which looked so official. (It even came with a “seal of authenticity,” which clearly meant something.) In the end I devised an experiment to resolve once and for all whether Patsy was real. I would toss her, and if I felt a twinge of guilt, then clearly she had to be real—well, at least a little. The moment is still vivid in my mind: I took a deep breath, steadied my nerves, and quickly bashed her against my yellow floral-print wall. Patsy still smiled (she was always such a good sport), but nonetheless, she no longer looked her best. For my part, I felt truly awful seeing her crumpled on the floor: “Oh, Patsy, I’m so sorry! Are you OK?” And then it hit me: Oh my gosh, this means she is really real.
These days, the way dolls are dressed, the question is not so much “Is my dolly real?” as “How much does she charge per hour?” In April 2006, Hasbro, the second-largest toymaker, announced plans to launch a line of dolls modeled after the Pussycat Dolls, for girls as young as age six. Since the Pussycat Dolls perform highly sexualized song and dance routines, you can certainly understand Hasbro’s thinking: Wouldn’t it be terrific if six-year-old girls could model themselves after these pioneers?
Reading Group Guide
1. How do you feel about a coloring book for ages “three and up” that asks young readers what they’d wear to look “hot”, or cartoon characters that sing about the importance of girls looking “hot”? Who benefits from this sexualization of very young girls, and who loses out? Explain.
2. Wendy Shalit says in her Introduction: “For girls to have meaningful choices and genuine hope, the ‘wild girl’ or ‘bad girl’ cannot seem like the only empowered option” (p. xxv). What do you think she means by this statement? The author quotes a teenager who was upset when her fiveyear- old neighbor put on makeup, platform shoes, and a miniskirt to show off in front of some boys playing basketball. But how is the neighbor different from a girl who plays “princess” at home? Why does the author find it problematic that girls at such a young age preen to please boys? Do you agree or disagree?
3. Why might the fifteen-year-old boy involved with a much older woman feel that his mother doesn’t love him because she doesn’t ask where he is going at night (p. 8)? What do you feel is a parent’s role in setting boundaries regarding sexual activity?
4. Are you surprised by the findings, published in The Journal of Sex Research, that many college students are hooking up because of peer pressure and not because these casual encounters are particularly satisfying? How does the author use the concept of “pluralistic ignorance” (p. 11) and apply it to college life? What are college students ignorant of when it comes to hooking up? And why do you think alcohol plays such a large role in these encounters?
5. What evidence does the author present to support her claim that being “publicly sexual” has become the new female ideal (p. 25)? Do you think the popularity of “stripper fitness” and teen magazines glorifying “hot chicks” constitutes a trend, or reflects isolated examples? Do you share the belief that women who wear less clothing are more confident? Why or why not?
6. If a child does not want to take a particular sex education course offered in school, do you think her parent should force her to? Why or why not?
7. How do some teen-advice websites send the message that sexual abstinence is not a valid option? Do you agree with Scarleteen that postponing sex until marriage is not a “manageable” choice (p. 34)? What does the author mean by writing that we have made “a swear word of ‘innocence’” (p. 38)?
8. Why might boys be “scared” of Lauren because she ’s not a “booty call” (p. 42)? Does one have to be sexually active in order to be liberated?
9. Who do you consider to be your role models, and why are they important to you? Do you agree with the fifteen-year-old boy who told Rashida, “Far too often, it’s the adults who are saying we can’t accomplish our dreams, and they expect us to fail instead of encouraging us to aim high” (p. 69)? Are there people in your life who demonstrate that they believe in you?
10. Wendy Shalit claims that nowadays, the desire to connect emotionally to a sexual partner is seen by many to be problematic. “Emotional repression,” as Shalit dubs it, serves to dull feelings of disappointment which often follow “no-strings attached” sex. Do you think that this is a good thing? What do you see as the role of emotion in a healthy sexual relationship? And how do Molly Jong-Fast’s views about sexuality differ from those of her famous mother (p. 105)? Whose views best reflect your own on this subject?
11. The author looks to the past—to the custom of “friendly visiting” (p. 123) in the 1850s, for example—to contrast with those of today’s teenagers, who report that it can be difficult to form lasting friendships. Do you agree or disagree with seventeen-year-old Audrey, who says, “You can’t just go up and talk to somebody because they’re texting on their cell or talking on their cell”? What social changes come to mind when you think of the evolution of technology?
12. Wendy Shalit proposes that our “sexual free-for-all” has made it more difficult to form female friendships and she argues against those who consider adultery to be just another lifestyle choice. Do you agree with the author that if you can’t trust other women, it is more difficult to befriend them? What other factors beyond sexual competitiveness can contribute to the breakdown of friendships?
13. Have you ever considered writing a letter to a business or advertising company, only to think that it wouldn’t make a difference? Why do you think eleven-year-old Ella Gunderson’s letter to Nordstorm was so effective? Given the rash of teen protests against companies that sell racy clothing, do you think sex will always sell with the younger generation, or will there be increasing demand for a bit of mystery and glamour?
14. The danger of overpleasing (p. 180) is an important issue in this book, and the author is troubled by girls who risk their lives with drunk drivers because they don’t want the boys to be “upset.” How does the author distinguish between giving out of love, and pleasing out of insecurity? Brittany Hunsicker (p. 190) is an example of a very traditional yet outspoken teen, having complained to her school board about a “dirty book” read aloud in English class. Do you think the author is right to call her a rebel, or would you consider her more of a pleaser since her parents are traditional? Think of ways in which your own values conflict with what society considers normal, and how you might change things for the better.
15. Shalit cites Helen Grieco, executive director of the California National Organization for Women, who defended the Girls Gone Wild videos because “flashing your breasts on Daytona Beach says, 'I’m not a good girl. I think it’s sexy to be a bad girl’” (p. 18). Do you think such feminists—who value being “bad”—are typical, or the exception? The author draws a parallel between the new fourth wave of feminists, such as the Girlcotters who boycotted Abercrombie and Fitch’s attitude tees, and the original feminists who believed in women’s power to uplift society. Do you identify with this new fourth-wave feminist, or more with the third wave, which places more emphasis on sexual experimentation? Explain.
16. How do you think adult expectations can worsen the problem of relational aggression (or bullying) or alternatively, help to prevent it?
17. Why would a young woman launch a pornography site as a way of “documenting my life and having people care” (p. 262)? What does this example say about what our society values? And how can parents or friends demonstrate caring so that young people do not have to go to such extremes to feel cared about?
18. Why are people “afraid of the good girl,” according to the author? Do you think that, as a society, we are overcorrecting for the past oppression of women and we have now become too exhibitionistic, or have we struck the right balance? Why does the author find the “sex-negative” versus the “sex-positive” dichotomy to be unhelpful (p. 275)?
19. How do your personal experiences relate to Wendy Shalit’s argument? How do you feel about students who are “sexiled” from their dorm rooms? Coed sleepovers for tweens? The role of pornography in our society and the decline of romance? Parents who pressure their college-age sons to “score,” or their daughters to lose their virginity?