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Wednesday, September 19, 2007

 

Catwalk queenlets

The always-interesting Naomi Wolf wrote - some time ago, but hey - an intriguing article on a curious phenomenon: the rise of books for teenage girls in which the heroines are mean, fashionable, manipulative and, generally speaking, the kind of kids who'd be the villains in most stories. But they're the heroines, not because they have inner turmoil, not because they're redeemed and learn the value of kindness over social status, but because they don't. A straight-out celebration of Queen Bee bullying.

What's the psychology here? Because these books are selling. Clearly they're appealing to something in many teen girls - or they were, they may have gone under to some other fad by the time I read the article. What makes teen girls genuinely enjoy stories in which it's right to degrade a girl for not having expensive enough accessories?

I've just been reading On Killing by Dave Grossman (recommended), so a concept in my head is the author's thesis that, in conflict, there isn't just fight or flight, there's also posture (flourish a weapon rather than use it, shove, shout, ask if someone's lookin' at you) and submit (drop your gun and put your hands on your head, say 'okay, just take what you want and go', back down before someone gets killed).

Now, in teen hierarchies, pack behaviour and conflict are a big thing. And what occurs to me, particularly with girls who are brand-oriented, is that clothing can be an assertive-to-aggressive stance.

Think about it this way. A teenage girl wants, say, a Prada handbag. She doesn't have to buy it for herself, or at least, not with her own money, because, short of hooking, the only way a teenager can get that much money is if somebody gives it to her. She doesn't know from experience the number of years training and ladder-climbing it takes to get a high-paid job that would let you even consider spending several hundred quid on something that could, as far as function goes, be adequately replaced by a free plastic bag from the supermarket, or at most a ten-pound knockoff - and then giving it to someone else. Neither does she know from experience how many billable man-hours of work a Prada handbag represents. She doesn't have to earn the bag, she has to ask for it, and if parents demur, she has to argue, beg, wheedle until they give in. Which is to say, basically she has to get her will to prevail over theirs. Very few parents are dying to spend thousands per month on kitting out their little princess; expensive clothes require pressuring your parents. In effect, this is similar to a kid who's dressing in a way that her parents disapprove of: she's dressing how she wants, not how they want. In both cases, the girl's outfit announces a victory: I got my way over people who have financial and legal control over me. I win!!!

Which is to say, it's an aggressive form of that traditional teenage desire, to be governed by your own wishes rather than by your parents'. But it's also, if the girl is a fashionista, an aggressive stance towards her peers: I've got a better bag than you. I'm cooler than you. I win!!!

And, if the girl is fashionable, she is by definition invested in impressing her peers rather than her teachers, family, rabbi, shift manager at her Saturday job or other authority figures. That's what being fashionable requires: impressing other fashionable people, and authorities aren't fashionable among teenagers; other teenagers are. Hence, she's likely to see an element of push-and-shove in who's got the best clothes. Impressing your peers is serious business, and that's what she's geared towards. If her clothes are good, then she is, in effect, posturing: don't challenge me, I'm bigger and better than you.

Another fashionable girl is posturing back, but an unfashionable girl, in this cosmology, is submitting. She doesn't have the right shoes? To a girl for whom fashion is a coded form of status indicator, that's not a sign that the girl doesn't particularly care about shoes, or does care about shoes but has parents who simply can't afford expensive ones: it's the fashion equivalent of 'I'll open the safe, just don't hurt anyone.' It's submitting. Submitting is basically saying, 'I know I can't win this fight so I'm going to acknowledge that before we actually have to have it.' Cheap shoes say 'I know I can't outdress you so I'm not going to try, hence I acknowledge your superior status over me' - or at least, they do to a teenage girl for whom shoes are the primary status measure.

Meanness comes in here, because by her nature, a girl who's interested in competing for status among her peers is more likely to jostle them. A girl who thinks it's all about who gets the best grades is going to feel she wins if she comes top of the class, but she's less likely to rub it in to her peers because it's about pleasing the teacher, an external figure, rather than about her peers per se. A girl who thinks it's about who's the coolest is tuned in to her peers in a more intensive way; she has to keep asserting herself the same way the grades girl has to keep doing high-grade work. Which means continually asserting herself.

A girl who isn't interested in fashion doesn't keep asserting herself socially because that's not where her status anxiety is going. But to a girl whose primary indicator is expensive or fashionable clothes, this looks like submissiveness. Rather than investing her energy in getting what she wants from adults by defying or manipulating them, the unfashionable girl invests it in getting what she wants by pleasing them. Classic submission behaviour: rather than chest-pounding 'I want that back you're so mean you have to get it for me or I'll cry', you have compliant 'Don't mark me down I'll do the homework the way you set it'. That cheap-shoes homework girl is a sap, according to Miss Fashion.

Now, actually that's inaccurate: not everyone is competing in the same game. And in fact, the girl most submissive to Fashionista is probably the girl who's trying to dress like her: 'I'll dress the way you think best, if you'll please like me'. But teenagers aren't always high on empathy, especially the ones who are after social dominance, and status is relative; if your primary concern is your standing among your peers, you're always going to be checking who ranks where to make sure you aren't slipping. To a girl wearing cheap shoes, Fashionista is starting a fight over nothing; Fashionista, on the other hand, is maintaining pack hierarchy according to the terms she understands.

There's no real conclusion here, except that it's probably better to be nice to people, but I'd be curious to hear opinions. I personally hate clothes and would prefer it if everyone spent their lives in pyjamas, and the school I went to didn't have that kind of competition over expensive clothes - at least, not in the classes I was ever in - so I'm writing speculative fiction when it comes to Miss Prada's motivations. Does anyone have a real experience to test the theory against?

Comments:
Sounds to me like they're the teen equivalent of those 'rich bitch' beach novels--pretty people living glamorous lives that the reader lives vicariously through the pages.
 
I think Sheila's probably right with the pretty people-glamourous lives theory.

I remember being picked on at school when I was about 12 because I wore a skirt and all the other girls wore trousers. Luckily for me, when I didn't react, I got left alone. I doubt it works that way for everyone. But in my opinion, school kidss are often quite viciously competitive when it comes to appearance. I've known girls get bullied for being flat-chested, for not being flat-chested, for being too fat, too thin, too clever, not clever enough, too sporty, not sporty enough... You can never get it right when you're a teenager.
 
This is why I support school uniforms. (Of course, then we all did one-upmanship with out hair.)

I think a lot of it is that the popularity of the New York fashion world has trickled down to teenagers -- not just the books but the blogs, the socialites and websites, the Perez and Paris HIltons. I've always thought this was an extension of "chick lit," The Devil Wears Prada and its ilk which always seems to be set in the fashion, publishing or PR industries, all to often in New York City (which is a combo where this sort of behavior is sadly not all that far-fetched). I don't think the genre started out that way (especially not if, as I'm led to understand, it got under way with Bridget Jones who was annoying but still a nice person, whom you wanted to win). It used to be your typical nice, wholesome protagonist triumphs against the Mean Girls, but now it seems to have become "protagonist out-means the mean ones."

(Of course Bridget Jones had nothing to do with New York, but we're totally inundated under a wave of forgettable, interchangeable New York stories now, on the shelves for six months and then gone.)

And, of course, there is the materialism, superficiality and mean-spiritedness that pervades "urban lit" right now; same old same old but starring ethnic minorities... I think there are more factors contributing to that one. (I just turned in an MS where a heroine rejected a man because he wore black shoes with a brown suit and we were meant to sympathize with her. I can't even begin to understand wanting to give a damn about that. It would never occur to me to make that some kind of criteria.)

It's safe to just blame Paris Hilton, right? Or the Bratz dolls?
 
er... "with our hair." Sorry. :-)
 
In defence of chick-lit, it's a big genre, and there are plenty of books where the bad person is also the mean fashionable one who loses to the comfort-eating heroine. There's a lot of variation within any genre. :-)

Hm. My school had no uniforms, and I don't remember competition over clothes being a big thing. My school was heavy on the academics and high-achieving alumnae, so possibly we competed more over either who was best at stuff or who was coolest - cool residing in partying and force of personality more than in clothes, I think.

Because of that, I have the sense that it's not inevitable that clothing is a means of conflict. In the novels Wolf talks about, it makes me think of Jane Russell in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes saying 'Come on, we'll get our war-paint on and go to work' - but given other things to think about, competition can come out in other ways. And less rigged ways, as well, as it's not within a girl's control how big a clothing allowance her parents can afford.

Was the mismatched-shoes thing any good? I remember finding Sex and the City a bit depressing because it seemed like a catalogue of disasters, one potential relationship failing after another - but this was obviously because they needed to keep the plot going. The result was that the heroines would reject perfectly nice men over tiny things like being afraid of mice, or peeing with the door open (and, bizarrely from a naturalistic point of view, would simply stop dating the guy rather than saying, 'Could you please close the door? You're grossing me out.')

In that show, I could see how the longing for the 'perfect man' was being dramatised in a way that wound up being insanely picky - but it was partly the demands of the format that drove it, as much as anything fashion-related. I wonder if there's something similar going on in other books? The chicklet lit, perhaps, is nothing more sinister than books intended for girls who want to be like the Queen Bees and so don't want books that make them feel all the fashion-obsession is something they're expected to relinquish to Become Better People. Hence, the intended audience makes it difficult not to be amoral and nasty; those are the urges they're going to feel protective about.

Of course, if you're bullying someone for having cheap shoes, then you should try to be a better person - but teenagers are, naturally enough, very defensive if they feel adults are judging them...

(I remember once being in Camden Town and this Goth girl was standing in line behind me; I looked at her for a few seconds, mostly thinking, 'What a pretty girl. I wish I had a waist that small.' She huffed triumphantly and turned to give her friend a big lecture on how people are So Judgemental About How You Dress. That was when I realised I definitely looked like an adult. Actually I liked her outfit, but I figured it would be mean to spoil her sense of righteousness by explaining that...)
 
I can see the "pretty people with expensive things dream fulfilment" idea -- everyone has mean, bitchy thoughts sometimes, and girls especially are told that being mean is very very wrong, so having someone else do it and not be punished by losing all her friends and having the nice girl end up with her boyfriend can be compelling.

But also, there's a large subgenre of mystery stories where you feel very, very sympathetic to the psychopath/serial killer, and you hope they don't get caught, etc. (I am under the impression that the television show Dexter is about that, more or less.) Most people don't really think that serial killers are at heart good people that you hope stay out of prison, but the books are popular, and not because they're complex stories about what evil and justice really mean. (Some are, but not most.)
 
I really, really think you should TOTALLY have said "I was just admiring how tiny your waist is." (Or even, "You have such a lovely small waist" as though you never heard her comment.) I think there's quite enough persecution-complex to go around; it would have at once deflated her AND made her feel good about herself. Plus, made her more savvy as to what a real insult might consist of. (Plus, this is something I'd be much too chicken to do, so I want to live vicariously. :-D)

Didn't mean to overgeneralize about the chick-lit. (Bear with me, I was up til 4:30 am flagging every instance of "possible racism" with shocking-pink Post-its. It's an intentionally unlikable first-person heroine and therefore... complicated. Author's voice versus narrator's voice ... *sigh* Sooo sleepy... and troubled...)

I went to a variety of elementary schools, where I caught it for being a nerd AND dressing like Laura Ingalls Wilder, so I have a bit of a skewed and nonspecific perspective. :-D And the high school I went to had a pretty strict dress code as well so it was much more a matter of the entire (tiny) student body banding together as one to flout the code (skirts year-round! In the snow!) and verbally tearing down anyone who did it too blatantly and provoked a crackdown -- much less effort put into critiquing each others' outfits. So yeah, I'd agree that coolness was a matter of personality and charisma, there (plus objective physical attractiveness and, in at least one guy's case, being bigger than everyone else at six-foot-one and 202 lbs, and thus extremely good at sports. REALLY tiny school! Come to think of it he was also on the academic honor roll.)

I remember a kerfluffle over carrying one's books in a backpack versus a messenger bag. And then a sub-kerfluffle over how stupid it looked to use BOTH straps of the backpack, or to lean over too far to one side while carrying the messenger bag, and how dorky it looked to use a (more expensive!) bag with wheels. At the end of the day maybe 75 percent of the student body, or both genders, had backpacks from the same little Korean storefront two blocks away from the school. Further back, on my first day of third grade three (at a school that had a uniform) an eight-year-old girl haughtily informed me that my mother had sewed my school patch on the wrong side of my jumper. It doesn't take much, just a bit of nonconformity.

So I think it's less the example given and far more the attitude behind it. The movie Thirteen, for example, opened with a scene that I found particularly affecting -- Girl A turns to Girl B, smirks, and says "nice socks." There is nothing wrong with Girl B's socks. There's nothing even really striking about Girl B's socks, except maybe the fact that she's wearing socks (we're talking those tiny booties that you wear primarily to keep your feet from sweating up your dainty white sneakers.) Girl B was certainly not the only person in the scene that had socks on -- it was all about the attitude. (The implication was that socks and sneakers were babyish; girl A had on no socks and chunky black heels, if I recall, but none of this was expensive stuff and these were not rich girls.)

Perhaps the girl who pleases the teacher is being babyish in submitting to adult authority rather than trying to behave as an adult in her own right, whereas Fashionista (who, ironically, isn't really buying any of her things herself) is acting like more of a woman, wearing the sexy clothing, being the one to decide what is sexy clothing, even if she's not obtaining it on her own and it's all still an imitation. Because, even to impress Fashionista, does it always have to be the shoes or bag that she approves of? Or just a really cool bag or shoes? I think I'm getting back to force of personality -- if you're cool enough your shoes become cool by virtue of being yours (and if your personality is as forceful or more forceful than Fashionista's). Chicken or egg?


As for the mini-chick-lit books -- does it seem to anyone else that real wealthy people are less about the Prada label and more about quality? Not so flashy, more about generally dressing well, dressing expensively conservatively? Prouder of heirloom items than collecting fad items...
 
I don't know ... I guess I was remembering how important it was to me to feel like I could defy conventional values by how I dressed when I was a teenager. If some old biddy had praised me back then, (I was about twenty-nine when I met that girl, but that was twice her age) I think I might have felt that maybe I wasn't quite so all-fired independent and unique as I liked to hope. I had faith that the Camden girl would get a broader perspective as she got older, but in the meantime, defining her identity as non-conformist was important to her, which is an honorable principle at base, so best to let her play it out. I think it's an early stage of the healthy desire to think for yourself and decide on your own identity; the first few years you're trying it out, you can overdo it a bit, but the basic impulse was one that would carry her safe through life, so I thought I'd give it room to stretch its limbs.

I see what you mean, Wolfa - the anti-hero? Who gets to do fun, evil stuff that normal people can't get away with? If that was the case, possibly chicklet lit is a fantasy in which you don't get punished for behaviour that gets stepped on in real life.

I think there can be an element of tension following the hero/villain - I remember, for instance, being on the edge of my seat during the scene in Psycho where Antony Hopkins is trying to get the car to sink in the swamp. Even though I knew he was the bad guy, the way the story was told made it hard not to get anxious about the fix he was in. I don't think it's quite the same as the story actually endorsing his values, but then, I haven't seen Dexter, so maybe it does it there...?

I'm not sure I know any 'real wealthy people'. How wealthy are we talking? :-)
 
Yes, I suppose it's a bit anti-hero. It's also a bit of the Harry Potter phenomenon -- it's useful to have all your friends reading the same books.

Wealthy people are generally split into old money and new money, and they flaunt this money in very different ways. New money is more current fashion conscious, old money is more subtle in their clues, but only when you do not know them. These books and television shows are always about new money, even when they pretend they're about old money.

I haven't seen Dexter. I know it's a show about a serial killer who kills murderers, child abusers, etc. I assume we're supposed to have sympathy for him, but I am not sure if this is true. In general, though, there are lots of books where you're supposed to feel sorry for the person forced into killing people, or hope he gets off, lots of movies along the same lines. And I don't think we necessarily imagine doing the murders ourselves.

Another explanation is just that there's a tension between knowing the end that feels right (mean girl gets what's coming to her!) and being surprised, but unhappy (mean girl gets the best guy and all the money). You need to have some books of both kinds, and as I recall, as a teenager, I far preferred the books where things did not turn out well, because those seemed Deeper.

Plus, those books seem to lend themselves more to sequels without Mary Sues.

I am going through about 27 reasons here, and I think in large part it's a confluence of reasons. Teenage lit wasn't half as popular when I was a teenager as it is now, so the newness of the phenomenon is partially the newness of the genre, as well as those other explanations.

Incidentally, asking my 14 year old sister, she said she didn't care whether the mean girls got theirs or not, she just liked reading about these unreal lives, and since the popular ones have the mean girls doing well, those are the ones she is currently reading, but not through any great preference.
 
Kit -- for some reason I thought the anecdote was about a grown woman!

How wealthy -- no idea really, just doing some wild conjecture. The issue I'm thinking of, I guess, is that people who really, securly "have it" don't feel the need to show "it" off so much. (What Wolfa says about old/new money far better sums up what I wanted to say.)

The concept of antihero, though, seems to be more about creating character and psychology, just because that IS your whole story. For this reason it seems to be that much more difficult, and anyone with the skill to pull it off earns points. With this recent crop of "mean girls" dramas, it seems to be all about the trappings: the hair appointments and designer duds. Of course I am speaking from a place of gross prejudice rather than any great familiarity, so all this "seeming" is from a distance.

Some blog I was just reading this morning, though, seems to suggest that these things come in cycles, pointing out that late 80s movies, for example, had far more sympathy for the "rich, cool kids" and the nerds and geeks who aspired to coolness than for the nerds and geeks who were perfectly content with remaining so.
 
Yes, we do seem to be going through an 80s revival, don't we? I keep seeing fashions on the streets that I'd thought were consigned to merciful oblivion. Though, to be fair, I'm not complaining about the return of ankle boots, because those are very comfortable if you can manage not to accessorise them with legwarmers...

But if the fashion for enormous, hideous glasses frames returns, I'm taking to the barricades.

I've been mulling over the fact that people keep using the word 'fratboy' when talking about the latest crop of horror flicks. It rather reminds me of the 80s fashion for movies like Porky's. Personally I'd rather see a return of glam-rock camp and Spielberg movies if we have to have 80s culture back, but I fear that I may not get my wish.
 
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