Outraged moms, trashy daughters

How did those steeped in the women’s lib movement produce girls who think being a sex object is powerful?
Bennett Raglin/ Getty Images/ Cole Garside

A few weeks ago, when she was chatting with her teenage daughter, Olivia, Leanne Foster mentioned the word “feminist.” “She just wrinkled her nose,” Foster recalls. “It was ‘Eww, yuck.’ ” Olivia, an articulate 15-year-old who’s about to enter Grade 10 at a Toronto private girls’ school, thinks feminists are about as relevant to her life as a rotary-dial phone. “When I hear the word I think of the hippie-ish generation where they’re all ‘girl-power,’ ” she says. And not in a sexy Spice Girls “girl power” way, more in a humourless, style-less way: “They refuse to wear perfume because they don’t want to be seen as sex objects,” she says dismissively.

Like many other teenage girls, Olivia regards the fight for female equality as over. “In the Western world, we’re pretty equal,” she says.

She has every reason to think so. Going to university is a given. So is having a career—perhaps in business or maybe medicine. She’s surrounded by smart, independent women, including her mother, who holds a Ph.D. in education and is the director of LINCWell, a student enrichment support centre at St. Clement’s girls’ school in Toronto.

Yet Leanne Foster, whose position puts her in the daily orbit of the age-old divide between teenage girls and their mothers, is not as sanguine as her daughter about female equality. She sees a unique generation gap emerging: on one side, mothers who came of age during the women’s movement of the 1970s fighting for equal opportunities, “empowerment” through financial independence and rejecting female “objectification”; on the other, their daughters, raised in a hyper-sexualized culture replete with Bratz dolls, porn-inspired American Apparel ads, and the message telegraphed by Kim Kardashian and her tabloid-cover cohorts that a leaked sex tape is the quickest route to female success.

For these girls, Snoop Dogg’s misogynist Bitches Ain’t S–t is not an affront but a ring tone, and “slut” and “bitch” are not put-downs but affectionate greetings between female friends. Snooki, the 22-year-old star of the reality show Jersey Shore, whose ambitions consist of getting drunk, vomiting on camera, and spending days in a tanning salon, is the star of the hour. “I love Snooki,” says one 20-year-old. Olivia agrees. “It’s so ridiculous, it’s funny,” she says of the show. “I don’t relate that to my life at all. I wonder, ‘Why would you do that?’ But it’s enjoyable to watch.”

Meanwhile, their mothers, who walked in Take Back the Night marches to raise awareness of violence against women, are horrified, particularly by the sight of Snooki getting punched in the face by a man—footage used by MTV to promote the show.

Some of them see a clock ticking backward. “It’s worse than the 1950s,” says the mother of a 24-year-old, referring to the ubiquity of Photoshop and cosmetic surgery creating beauty standards more unattainable than ever.

Kimberly McLeod, a Toronto social worker who counsels mothers and daughters and has two girls, one 11, the other 14, is dismayed by the constant bombardment of sexualized media images directed at girls. “I don’t meet many girls who feel good about themselves, even though they’re totally gorgeous,” she says.

But the generation that grew up reading Our Bodies, Ourselves is most apoplectic over what they see as the unrelenting pressure on girls to be sexual, and not on their own terms. “I’m so deeply pained to see where women are today and how girls—and I mean girls—are being groomed to believe their purpose in life is to be sexual beings that please men,” says Nancy Vonk, the co-chief creative officer of Ogilvy & Mather in Toronto and the mother of a 16-year-old daughter. Vonk recalls wearing satin hot pants when she was 15. “But it was a different time,” she says. “Back then there was at least equal premium put on intellect and what was in your head. It was the opposite of ‘Go out and please men.’ ”

Kate Lloyd, the director of program and service development for the Learning Disabilities Association of Ontario and an academic coach to teenage girls, says the heightened sexual activity concerns her. “A blow job is just like shaking hands. It’s ridiculous,” she says. “But their attitude is: ‘We’re emancipated; we’re liberated; we’re in control, don’t worry.’ They see being able to hold that type of sexual behaviour over the boys as power; I see it as giving their power away.” But one 19-year-old girl sees the double standard facing girls as more complex. “If men have a lot of sex it’s a good thing, but if women have a lot of sex it’s a bad thing,” she says. “Men have a biological imperative to spread their genes. But that should not be a reason to control women.”

Every generation thinks things are worse now than when they were growing up, Lloyd points out. And fretting over teenage girls is a perpetual cultural preoccupation, “so there is some of that sensationalizing for sure.” But she also sees the current generational divide as unique in new ways. “Access to technology and the sexualization of young girls is at a point it’s never been before,” she says. “Also, parents don’t have the same scope of reference because they didn’t grow up with these kinds of issues. We’re all kind of working with a divining rod.”

And the information is coming at warp speed. As one mother of a teenager puts it, “These girls go from American Girl dolls to Gossip Girl.” New technologies breed constant distraction, says Lloyd. “It’s all boom boom boom, no reflection. There’s no pausing, no depth; it’s all very, very surface.”

Communications professor Susan Douglas, the mother of a 22-year-old daughter, compares popular culture targeted at young women to junk food. “I feel like Julia Child forced to eat at Hooters,” she writes in her new book Enlightened Sexism: The Seductive Message that Feminism’s Work is Done. Douglas, the chair of communication studies at the University of Michigan, articulates the plight of the progressive mom back in the late 1990s observing her little girl watch the Spice Girls: “Should she be happy that they’re listening to bustier feminism instead of watching Barbie commercials on Saturday morning TV? Or should she run in, rip the CD out of the player, and insist that they listen to Mary Chapin Carpenter or Ani DiFranco instead?”

Enlightened Sexism charts how the wedge between mothers and daughters increased during the first decade of the 21st century as so-called “millennials”—girls born in the late 1980s and early 1990s—became the most sought-after advertising demographic in history. The desire for power and change that coursed through Douglas’s generation was recast for their daughters as “empowerment” through conspicuous consumption and sexual display, she writes. Activist outlets like Sassy magazine, published from 1988 to 1997, and “riot grrrl,” the feminist punk movement of the early 1990s, were eclipsed by Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Xena: Warrior Princess, along with a tribe of female action heroes. These “warriors in thongs,” as Douglas dubs them, paved the way for the retro “girliness” championed by Legally Blonde, Ally McBeal, and Bridget Jones’s Diary. And from there it was a heartbeat to reality shows like The Bachelor and Say Yes to the Dress, which depicted young women as obsessed with boys and getting married when they weren’t engaged in catfights with one another.

“If you did not know anything about American culture or American life other than what you saw on reality TV, it would be extremely easy to believe that the women’s rights movement never happened, that the civil rights movement never happened, that the gay rights movement never happened,” says Jennifer Pozner, the director of Women In Media & News in New York City, whose book Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth About Guilty Pleasure TV, is to be published in November. “Reality TV producers have achieved what the most ardent fundamentalists and anti-feminists haven’t been able to achieve,” she says.

“They’ve concocted a world in which women have no choices and they don’t even want choices.”

“Enlightened sexism” is Douglas’s term for this new climate, one based on the presumption that women and men are now “equal,” which allows women to embrace formerly retrograde concepts, such as “hypergirliness,” and seeing “being decorative [as] the highest form of power,” she writes. What really irks her is how a Girls Gone Wild sensibility has been sold to women as “empowerment,” that old feminist mantra. But in this version, men are the dupes, “nothing more than helpless, ogling, crotch-driven slaves” of “scantily clad or bare-breasted women [who] had chosen to be sex objects.”

Douglas says she was inspired to write the book after noticing what seemed to be a glaring disconnect between the prime-time shows aimed at her generation—Grey’s Anatomy, CSI, The Closer, all featuring tough-talking, assured women who don’t use their sexuality to get what they want—and the programming aimed at her daughter. Eventually she came to believe both kinds of shows were perpetuating the myth that feminism’s work was over: “both mask, even erase how much still remains to be done for girls and women. The notion that there might, indeed, still be an urgency to feminist politics? You have to be kidding.”

Yet, as Vonk points out, female progress at top levels has not moved markedly in 20 years, Hillary Clinton’s ill-fated run for president notwithstanding. Certainly the numbers reflect this: in 1980, women held approximately seven per cent of the legislative seats across Canada.

Ten years later that number had risen to 17 per cent. But between 1990 and 2010, that percentage rose only six per cent—to 23 per cent. (According to the Intra-Parliamentary Union, Canada ranks a pathetic 50th on the world scale of women’s participation in politics, behind Rwanda, Pakistan, and the United Arab Emirates.) Women’s presence in top-tier corporate jobs is even lower. According to Catalyst, an organization that tracks female advancement, women head only 3.8 per cent of FP 500 companies in Canada, and make up a scant 5.6 per cent of FP top earners, 14 per cent of board directors and 16.9 per cent of corporate officers.

The notion that the workplace is an equal playing field is a myth, says Susan Nierenberg, Catalyst’s vice-president of global marketing. The first study to look at the impact of the recession on high-potential women found those in senior leadership positions were three times more likely to lose their jobs than men. Another Catalyst study published last February tracking 4,500 M.B.A. graduates in their first jobs found that women begin at a lower level than men and earned $4,600 on average less. “And more importantly, they never catch up,” says Nierenberg. As the mother of a 25-year-old daughter entering the workforce, one who believes she’ll be treated equally to men, Nierenberg finds the research troubling: “I hate to tell her that’s not the way it is. I want her going into it thinking she can do anything. But I also want her to be smart about it.”

Foster says the conversation between mothers and daughters was far easier when sexism was as overt as it is on Mad Men—back when women had to quit their jobs after they got married or were banned outright from schools or careers. “The current messaging girls are getting is so explicit but the subtleties of it—which is the negative piece of it—is really hard to talk about,” she says. When mothers try to raise the subject, girls respond with “we just don’t get it,” she says: “What happens is that they shut down and say, ‘You don’t like me looking sexy. You just don’t like me looking older.’ Or, ‘Oh Mom, it isn’t like that any more.’ When the reality is, it’s still like that.” She tries to watch TV with her daughter to point out double standards on The Bachelor or Gossip Girl. “I’m just trying to tease apart for her that this isn’t reality. And that didn’t fly. She called me ‘a wet sock.’ ”

Social networking creates another barrier, Foster believes. Of course, parents have always been excluded from the schoolyard or after-school she-said, he-said telephone chats. But the notion that children are having global conversations from which parents are excluded amplifies the gulf: “There’s less public space to come together to discuss these things so it’s much easier for them to keep it to themselves. It’s one of the challenges we have with bullying—the whole notion of rumour-mongering, particularly sexualized rumours about girls.
And every time we try to have the critical dialogue it’s so decontextualized they think they’re being lectured.”

Lauren Kessler, author of the recently published My Teenage Werewolf: A Mother, A Daughter, a Journey Through the Thicket of Adolescence, has settled for text-messaging with her 16-year-old daughter Lizzie. “It’s lacking in nuance,” she admits. “But it’s better than nothing.”

Trying to maintain any sort of bridge with their daughters is paramount, given the paucity of female role models offered young girls, says Lloyd. Olivia Foster agrees, recalling being called upon to write essays in school about female role models. Coming up with someone who wasn’t famous primarily for her looks or style was next to impossible, she says: “It’s either Oprah or my mom. Not that my mom isn’t great. She is. But there really isn’t anyone else to choose from.”

Kessler still hopes she can fill that role for her daughter: “Call me Pollyanna, but I hope in 30 years my daughter will remember something I said, and she won’t remember the lyric of a violent, sexist rap song. Or even Snooki.”