Is it too late to be an eleven-year-old fashion blogger?
That’s what my friend asked me yesterday when we were discussing my outrage at the tone of an article by “Girls” writer Deborah Schoeneman. The article is called “Woman-Child” and it is available as a Kindle Single, part of a digital essay series run through Amazon. I’ve got to admit, I didn’t buy it. I read a lengthy excerpt available on Jezebel.com. The basic gist of the article is that women who embrace aspects of popular culture that are childish, colorful, and nostalgic are experiencing a problematic, self-conscious “extended adolescence.” A representative quote from the article:
Girlie nail art is suddenly huge, even with my seriously career-focused friends, like an actress pal who requested anonymity to protect her privacy. She recently hosted a girls’ dinner party at her home near Hollywood. At one point during the evening, she gave her guests a tour and showed off the extensive collection of bright, patterned nail stickers she keeps in her bathroom. The audience — a group of accomplished showbiz types — was rapt. I felt a little left out, having no interest in ever using those nail stickers.
Do you see? Not only are these woman refusing to grow up and have children, they are also stealing aspects of pop culture consumerism from the children and foisting them off on their non-nail-art-loving friends. Won’t someone please think of the (real) children? And also of the responsible, boring adult women who ruin nail art parties?
To be fair, the article does not outright condemn these women, but its central conceit is the author’s omniscient narrator perspective on the choices these “girl-women” are making. In addition to worry over nail art, she laments the loss of the “firm handshake,” the “Park Avenue Princesses”(?), and the fact that more women are not choosing “the safe distance of imminent motherhood” like she is.
After hearing my summary of the article, my friend brought up the fact that Rookie magainze and its author, Tavi Gevinson (actually a sixteen-year-old fashion blogger who is openly nostalgic for the nineties) appeals to the demographic that is being chastised in the “Woman-Child” article — twenty and thirty somethings. Do we all just want to be Tavi? That would be particularly funny since you could argue that Tavi wants to be us, in a nineties time machine kind of way. Considering I was recently lamenting the fact that it is also too late to be a sixteen-year-old artistic gymnast, I can see the reasoning behind thinking that women like us are nostalgic for a childhood that doesn’t belong to us.
I see the reasoning, but I don’t respect it.
Most of all because of how utterly unimaginative it is. The criteria that Shoeneman subtly interjects into her anthropology of the woman-child uses another loosely construed stereotype as its base. The twenty or thirty something woman with kids (or impending kids) who uses cultural markers like marriage, kids, and, apparently, power suits, to police the criteria for allowing someone to call themselves a grown up. I’m not saying that this is what all women who are not “women-children” are like. I am saying that the way the essay is constructed, it can only be understood if the reader goes down the rabbit hole with stereotypes, all along desperately asking themselves what “type” of woman they want to be. It’s like being trapped in the Barbie aisle (a metaphor I feel quite comfortable using as a potential woman-child.”) Choose doctor, veterinarian, Fairy Princess, mother with twins, or sister raising orphaned teenage Skipper (is that the story?)
Couldn’t there be something way more interesting going on behind the trend of women liking things that appear to be culturally reserved for girls? A reclaiming or recasting of adolescence? A questioning of the way that the things little girls tend to love are considered “childish” and small while footballs, trucks, and other common boy-toys only get bigger as boys get older? Maybe some of the things that Schoeneman calls “girlish” seem that way to her because the cultural miniaturization and trivialization of things that women like and employ to express themselves happens so fast that she didn’t even see it. She thinks this stuff belonged to the girls all along.
Maybe a lot of things, but aren’t all those things more interesting than the original article? What I think struck a chord with me the most is that the article’s reflective stance and nostalgia for “real women” reminded me of the way that some people talk about the Mad Men-esque 1950s. Yes, it’s fine for women to want to inhabit the kind of roles presented to them in Mad Men. But that also involves accepting all the more negative things that women experienced in the 1950s, because the roles we take on in society are linked to other experiences that we may not have access to, may perpetuate, uncritically or otherwise, may find ourselves confronted with due to choices we didn’t mean to make or weren’t allowed to make.
Maybe for some women who embrace cultural objects associated with girlhood, this is the first opportunity they have had to access these things from a position of authority and relative safety. I know personally for me, I would argue that the joy I take in things that are shiny, bright, and sparkly is in part probably linked to the bullying I experienced as a kid and the way in which it was often tied, just like now, to the choices I made surrounding consumption. Like in first grade when a girl in my class pushed me down in the hallway and spread yellow paint all over the top of my coveted light-up sneakers. Or the beginning of second grade, when I chose to wear a hat with a flower on it and was shamed into tears after the other girls in my class told me I had broken the “hat rule,” forced me to take it off, and later trashed it at recess.
Bullying wasn’t an issue of public interest then as much as now. And now that I am a twenty-something, I feel comfortable telling someone off if they question my sparkly nail polish. Or ignoring them. Schoeneman seems to be taking the stance that she is politely suggesting that women should maybe be barred from consuming things that belong, rightfully, to girls. You had your chance to be a girl, now grow up! But this assumes that everyone has always had access to their own childhoods, and forgets that we are always reclaiming them and experiencing conflicts and desires connected to childhood in ways we could not before (Thanks, Freud!) If I couldn’t wear sparkly nail polish then because such a bold choice once led to the girls threatening to cut my hair off at a sleepover while I hid in the bottom of my (Care Bears) sleeping bag, and I can’t wear it now because I’m supposed to be a grown-up, when the heck do I get to wear sparkly nail polish? Never? Choices, even the ones that have been made small and colored pink and handed over to the kids are not mine to make? I’m always making the wrong ones?
(Thanks to Flickr user Theory for the CC licensed photo)