Middle School Girls Gone Wild

It’s hard to write this without sounding like a prig. But it’s just as hard to erase the images that planted the idea for this essay, so here goes. The scene is a middle school auditorium, where girls in teams of three or four are bopping to pop songs at a student talent show. Not bopping, actually, but doing elaborately choreographed re-creations of music videos, in tiny skirts or tight shorts, with bare bellies, rouged cheeks and glittery eyes.

They writhe and strut, shake their bottoms, splay their legs, thrust their chests out and in and out again. Some straddle empty chairs, like lap dancers without laps. They don’t smile much. Their faces are locked from grim exertion, from all that leaping up and lying down without poles to hold onto. “Don’t stop don’t stop,” sings Janet Jackson, all whispery. “Jerk it like you’re making it choke. …Ohh. I’m so stimulated. Feel so X-rated.” The girls spend a lot of time lying on the floor. They are in the sixth, seventh and eighth grades.

Oh, the horror.

Now, I’m actually with Lawrence Downes on one thing: The sexualization of middle-school-aged girls is indeed disturbing. But in blaming the middle school girls for engaging in “simulated intercourse” on the dance floor is missing the point. Downes writes:

There is no reason adulthood should be a low plateau we all clamber onto around age 10. And it’s a cramped vision of girlhood that enshrines sexual allure as the best or only form of power and esteem. It’s as if there were now Three Ages of Woman: first Mary-Kate, then Britney, then Courtney. Boys don’t seem to have such constricted horizons. They wouldn’t stand for it — much less waggle their butts and roll around for applause on the floor of a school auditorium.

Agreed that it’s a cramped version of girlhood which tells girls that their only option is to be sexually alluring. But boys don’t have such constricted horizons because “they wouldn’t stand for it” — it’s because they don’t have to stand for it, and they never have.

Girls are not offered The Pussycat Dolls as their only models of female behavior. But they also aren’t offered the kinds of fluid, more complex identities that boys are. They’re offered a range of conflicting choices, and told to be everything to everyone — the straight-A student for their parents, but not so smart that they upstage anyone; sexy enough to snag a boy, but not so sexy that they’ll be “slutz” (to borrow from Downes) and then boys won’t really like them and parents will disapprove; athletic enough to have a “good” body, but not so athletic that you’re a jock or, worse, a dyke; successful enough to get a job, but not a ball-buster like Hillary Clinton or the boss in The Devil Wears Prada; beautiful and attractive, while all the models of beauty are sexy, in a heteronormative, male-constructed way; sweet and innocent, when even the idea of “innocence” is tied up in sexuality and some dude’s opinions about what the status of your hymen should be. Sexy, but not sexual. Mature, but innocent. Wearing a push-up bra while talking about saving your virginity for marriage.

And Downes is worried about the fact that they’re dancing to Janet Jackson?

Girls play with sexuality. At 11, 12, 13, 14 they’re figuring out what it even means to be sexy, to be sexual, to be a grown-up. Too much of what they’re fed is plastic, sexist, male-dominated crap. But shaming them for not sorting through all of that in the exact way that a 40-year-old man would like them to seems… unfair.

For every girl shaking her butt to Britney Spears, there’s another girl her age being handed a Promise Ring or taken to a purity ball or told that “good girls don’t” or “he won’t marry you if you will.” None of it empowers girls to be who they are, or grow into who they want to be. For all the hemming and hawing over girls having their budding sexualities manipulated by advertisers and MTV, there’s silence when it comes to those same girls having their sexualities manipulated and controlled by men and male establishments. They’re two sides of the same coin. And at least the 13-year-olds dancing to Janet Jackson are having some fun — I did a 5th grade dance routine to a Salt n Pepa song (and a Janet Jackson song too, now that I think about it), and I think I came out ok. It was tongue-in-cheek. We didn’t even really care what the lyrics said, let alone personally identify with their sentiments. We were experimenting, the same way we were experimenting when we put on our mom’s lipstick and high heels and pranced around the living room. Between sixth grade and 12th grade, I bought myself a promise ring, wore a push-up bra, tried out for the cheerleading squad, went to Christian horse camp, got drunk at a school dance and did my fair share of “grinding,” cheered on girls who made out with each other at parties, wore too much make-up, lectured my friends on the evils of premartial sex, pierced my bellybutton, and dipped my toes into feminist thought. It’s a process. The person you are at 12 is not the person you are at 18, or 24, or 40, or 60. Figuring out how to negotiate all the sexist, misogynist, sexy, and sexual stuff that’s thrown at you is a necessary part of growing up — and especially, unfortunately, of growing up female.

Yes, it’s problematic that plasticized female sexuality is packaged and sold for profit to middle school girls. But it’s not as simple as “middle school girls gone wild” or “parents need to be more vigilant.” Nothing we do is going to please everyone. Chances are, we’ll look back at a lot of what we did and we’ll cringe. Hopefully, more often, we’ll smile and we’ll laugh. But we’ll be learning. And shaming us with accusations of being slutty or one-dimensional doesn’t accomplish much.


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About Jill

Jill began blogging for Feministe in 2005. She has since written as a weekly columnist for the Guardian newspaper and in April 2014 she was appointed as senior political writer for Cosmopolitan magazine.
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29 Responses to Middle School Girls Gone Wild

  1. johanna says:

    Bravo, Jill. I read this in the NYT, too, and while I agree that sexualizing kids at ever younger ages is pretty scary, I got extremely ticked off at the last paragraph, which you quoted. It seemed to be very anti-girl and slut-shaming, even though the girls in question are most likely not even sexually active yet.

  2. zuzu says:

    When I was 11? 12? I went to summer camp, where I participated in a talent show. Our song? “Big Spender.”

    I don’t remember thinking too much about the meaning of it, just that we were having fun.

  3. Sunrunner says:

    I read this article too and was right with Downes, until I got to the part where the teacher mentioned that both boys and girls were doing the pelvic dancing thing, and found myself wondering–no, raging–at the fact that he wasn’t just as upset that boys were “doing it” to.

    And though I was an adult in the 80s already with my own daughter who bumped and ground with her girl-friends to Janet Jackson (& snuck off to Venice Beach to get their belly buttons pierced), I also played (key word here) with my girlfriends with outrageously fun sexy dancing to the Rolling Stones (Can’t Get No Satisfaction…) in our bedrooms. It was cute, it was sweet, and yes, it was a lot of fun. Kind of like the way middle eastern women belly dance at women’s parties.

    But not at the school talent shows. Or at school dances. There is a difference between playing around with this stuff and feeling compelled to perform it for a wider audience, to feel as though one must become expert at this kind of thing in order to be noticed. Full grown women belly dance on stage, not adolescent girls.

    And sex is so much more than performance…which to me, is why this sort of thing is so heartbreaking.

  4. shannon says:

    This somehow reminds me of how once my mom asked what the metaphors in the laffy taffy song were and her eighth grade students died of embarrassment.

  5. Cecily says:

    Great post, Jill. I don’t have much to add constructively, but I thought I’d abuse my place as an early commenter to fawn a bit.

    “[Boys] wouldn’t stand for it.” my ass! (Which I shall shake or not shake as it please me.)

  6. Amber says:

    Jill, you nailed it with this post. Right the fuck on, is all I can say!

  7. Lighten Up says:

    I’m not sure that this is decent, but I have some candy in my front pocket……….

  8. Bitter Scribe says:

    …they allow the culture of boy-toy sexuality to bore unchecked into their little ones’ ears and eyeballs, displacing their nimble and growing brains…

    And robbing them of precious bodily fluids!

    I can sort of see her point, though. I knew I’d become middle-aged when I looked at a really sexy teenage girl and my first thought was, “How the hell could her father have let her out of the house dressed like that?”

  9. Amber says:

    Full grown women belly dance on stage, not adolescent girls.

    So certain kinds of dancing (ballet, tap, clogging) are okay for adolescent girls – or younger, and who the hell knows whether they even want to be taking those classes at all – to perform in front of an audience, but not others? Seems a little, er…. arbitrary?

  10. Mnemosyne says:

    So certain kinds of dancing (ballet, tap, clogging) are okay for adolescent girls – or younger, and who the hell knows whether they even want to be taking those classes at all – to perform in front of an audience, but not others?

    Not necessarily. JonBenet Ramsey, anyone? And that’s not even getting into the extreme and damaging stresses that young dancers and gymnasts are forced put on their bodies. Balanchine has a lot to answer for.

    There’s an interesting (not great, but interesting) book by Marianne Sinclair called “Hollywood Lolitas” that explores some of the implications of how child stars were used in Hollywood movies and how they are frequently made sexual objects in their films. Graham Greene was sued for libel for implying that MGM had turned Shirley Temple into a sexual object in “Wee Willie Winkie.”

  11. antiprincess says:

    there are those who would object to the idea that baledi/middle eastern dance/”belly dance” is too adult/obscene/inappropriately sexual for teenagers.

  12. Jessica says:

    Great post Jill.

    A couple months ago I was at my friend’s house for iftar. After stuffing our faces (Tunisian hospitality is gut wrenching), we went up to her room and danced. My friend, her eleven year old sister, cousin and I did some belly dancing and American hip hop. Some of their moves would be considered sexual (and straight out of the music videos), but it was all in fun. When they left the house, they had to be the perfect, secular, devout Muslim girls that society demands. Not too traditional, but not too progressive either.
    For just an hour or two, it didn’t matter … and nobody could tell us what to do.
    Apparently it doesn’t matter where you are.

    On another note, I had the hardest time NOT laughing when asked to write down the lyrics and thier meaning for “Shake Your Moneymaker”

  13. Em says:

    Camp Wesley Woods?

  14. helenesch says:

    Yeah, great post! I read this and was disturbed by it, yet couldn’t quite pin down exactly what was bothering me so much about his argument (or attitude?). You nailed it!

  15. mythago says:

    Parents DO need to be more vigilant, just not in the way that he means. If your daughter’s imitation of adult women is limited to sexual display, that’s a problem with the messages she’s getting, not with her.

  16. Laurie says:

    Jill:
    You rock. That’s all; just wanted to say that. :) ‘Cause I have vivid memories of doing some pretty racy stuff to “Pour Some Sugar on Me” at school dances myself, and I managed to turn out OK. *grin*

  17. Laurie says:

    Re: belly dance
    Y’know, for as “sexy” as we perceive belly dance to be, it’s just the dance of the culture(s) when taken in context. In fact, a giant chunk of it is done totally covered up, in non-form fitting dresses (and it’s WAAAAY cool) — the beady, glitzy, showy form of it is only a small part of the dance itself. Rather, what we think of as “belly dance” is just the way Mid-eastern cultures dance, period. (For example: The little hip lift dealie is the Egyptian equivalent of the bopping around/bouncing in place that many of us do as social dance here in the ‘States. Especially when you’re more interested in chatting with your girlfriends than really cutting a rug. ;) The fun part is, men use the exact same dance moves that women do, with some exceptions — it just looks different on their bodies. And it is hands down the most macho, masculine thing I have ever seen.

    So, yeah — adolescent girls can and do and should “belly dance” in public. The moves they choose are going to be a little different from those a professional would pick, and we can at least hope that the costumes would be a little less drop dead sexy, but raqs sharqi *is*, in my opinion as a dancer and teacher thereof, totally appropriate for anyone.

    BTW: “Baladi” or “beledi” translates to “country”, and is generally considered a specific style subset to raqs sharqi in general. Just a mention because I’m a stickler about words…. :)

    /geeking

  18. Isabel says:

    Awesome, awesome post.

    My friends and I did a striptease for each other to the Spice Girls song “Naked” in the 4th grade. It had nothing to do with sexuality AT ALL and everything to do with being goofy and “daring” and having fun.

  19. Jane says:

    All the models of beauty are sexy, in a heteronormative, male-constructed way; sweet and innocent, when even the idea of ‘innocence’ is tied up in sexuality and some dude’s opinions about what the status of your hymen should be.

    Negotiating this is also tricky for young girls because a lot of adults in their lives, including women, imply or say outright that they (especially if they are prepubescent) should be entirely nonsexual, which teaches them that, if they do have sexual feelings or curiosities, there is some wrong with them. (This is especially true of girls growing up in conservative religious environments like I did.)

    However, a lot of young girls are rather sexual beings. I remember being four or five and showing my vadge to my older brother’s He-man flip flops, saying, “Is this what you want, huh, He-man?” I also remember that a friend of my brother’s shot a plastic laser gun at the place where my Ken doll’s penis would be (if he had one), and that really turned me on, too. (Maybe I will regret sharing that.)

    And then, of course, in middle school, there was a day when I, like so many young women before me, was ushered into the auditorium with the other girls in my grade. While we were there, we were given a speech about periods and B.O. and how to clean up after our messy bodies. We received embarrassing pink bags full of pads and deodorant and were sent back to class. I found out later that day that the boys, who were ushered into the gymnasium instead, were given a speech about, among other things, MASTURBATION! Um, hello?! Why no masturbation speech for the girls? Why no sample vibrator in the pink bag? Why did I have to wait until I was 21 to have an orgasm, but my boyfriend was having them at ten and eleven?

  20. mythago says:

    and I managed to turn out OK

    Pet peeve; “I managed to turn out OK” is not an affirmation of any cultural practices. I have friends who were punched like clocks as children, or who were sexually abused, yet have managed to ‘turn out okay’ (or even better than OK) as adults. Nobody would say that means it’s not anything to worry about if you hit your kids.

  21. Laurie says:

    mythago:
    Point taken. I think I was going the lazy route to saying: “And that really didn’t affect how my sexuality developed. If anything, getting to be somewhat racy in a (more or less) safe environment allowed me to explore that facet of my personality when it wasn’t allowed otherwise.” To fill in some background, sex was emphatically NOT discussed in my household. The fact that I started menstruating really early was embarrassing to my mom, and “The Talk” was a pretty strained thing. She and my sister were shocked (shocked!) that I had done some reading out of curiosity earlier than that. (Ran across some books aimed at kids about my age or younger in the book store, and did some power browsing. To the consternation of my much older sister. :P ;) So exploring “what’s sexy” through dance was an OK thing, and helped me get comfortable enough with my own sexuality that I wasn’t seriously inhibited by my family’s conservative views on sex. Granted, this was just me and my friends fooling around and not a choreographed routine….

    Shorter me:
    I was lazy. I apologize. However, I will point out that pushing the envelope oneself and getting hit (by someone else) are, well, not analogous. (sp?) But your point is taken.

  22. mythago says:

    However, I will point out that pushing the envelope oneself and getting hit (by someone else) are, well, not analogous.

    Absolutely. It’s just really annoying to hear “…but I turned out OK” as a justification, and you do hear it all the time from people who were abused but have grown up to become abusive themselves.

  23. Anne Freeman says:

    I absolutely agree. I work with military school age children, and it infuriates me to hear older staff members criticizing my girls for their “promiscuous” dancing or calling them “fast.” My kids are 12 years old– there’s nothing fast on them but their rollerskates.

    Exploring sexuality is a normal, healthy developmental process that every female SHOULD go through. Why are we so afraid of it? It seems to me that everybody is terrified of it in our center. Rather than shaming them (or their parents), IMHO, these young ladies are better served by talking with them. Discussing these issues together and sharing opinions usually causes them to think over the things they do and see in their lives and gain a better understanding.

    They are people, not property, and their sexuality is a part of that.

  24. Mnemosyne says:

    The behavior of kids at school dances has been a huge hot-button issue lately here in So Cal. At least one principal (in south Orange County, natch) canceled school dances entirely because they didn’t like the MTV-style dancing that the kids were doing.

    The LA Times was surprisingly sensible about the whole thing, pointing out that the waltz was once a hugely scandalous dance craze.

    And there was a story in the Times a couple of weeks ago that I can’t find where a principal had an actual sensible solution: they added dance lessons to the school day for the kids who wanted to attend the dances. That way, the kids learn a new style of dancing and don’t immediately fall back on what they see on TV.

  25. All this talk about actually paying attention to song lyrics reminds me of one of the funniest comedy routines I ever saw on television as a kid: a dignified elderly English gentleman read song lyrics in an even tone, with the occasional look of mock-puzzlement at the words he was reading.

    Oh, yes, and the songs in question were “Yankee Doodle”, “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” and “Disco Lady”.

  26. Halfmad says:

    Aw Jane, you rock for sharing that. I find the idea of coming on to He-Man slippers completely hilar!!!! (Myself I was very turned on by some 1950s-era stag-party-type towels that were at a vacation house we once stayed at when I was maybe 8 or 9, featuring ladies and gents in naughty, compromising positions.)

  27. Diane says:

    Why would you feel like a prig for writing that? The extreme sexualization of girls (there were no boys performing, naturally–that would be too “gay”) is, in a word, sickening. I was just posting a comment on another blog this morning about how the “new” feminism is supposed to be about women and girls using their sexuality to control men and to make money. Somebody shoot me–I spent years marching, writing articles, lobbying, and getting insulted in an effort to destroy that concept.

    What I don’t understand is how these girls’ parents allowed them to do this.

  28. AndyS says:

    Ann Freeman said, “They are people, not property, and their sexuality is a part of that.”

    Yes, thanks! Let’s do acknowledge that our kids are people — complete with all human desires — just like we are. What they want and need more than anything is to be taken seriously by adults and be engaged in serious discussion with adults. If we could do that a whole bunch of “problems” would go away.

  29. Moi says:

    I don’t remember this, but apparently the fairly religious preschool I went to sent me to a child counselour because they thought I was abused.

    Not because I had bruises, but because at two or three I had figured out that touching myself down there was felt nice. And so I tried to do that at naptime.

    On a related subject, I remember when my mother explained to me what oral sex was. Only,I didn’t realize that oral sex went both ways until I flicked through one of my mother’s romance novels, and found a passage about the hero tongue-fucking the heroine.

    Even now, as a high schooler, I find it impossible to very hard to ever discuss something as similiar as female sex drive with my friends. One of them and I even write soft-core erotica together (het, not that it should matter), and I wonder sometimes if it turns her on as much as it does me.

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