Editor’s Note: Jill Filipovic is a journalist based in New York and Nairobi, Kenya, and the author of the new book “The H-Spot: The Feminist Pursuit of Happiness.” Follow her on Twitter. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
Jill Filipovic: After the Manchester bombing, we shouldn't cloister or dismiss teenage girls
We should empower them by recognizing their strength, Filipovic writes
After a terrorist bombing killed 22 people and injured scores more at an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, UK, the singer suspended her “Dangerous Woman” tour and tweeted that she’s heartbroken and sorry. Many of the killed and injured are reportedly children, teenagers and their parents – the demographic who attends Ariana Grande concerts.
Teen girl culture is routinely dismissed and such dismissiveness – in some cases, outright mockery – continued from some corners even as emergency workers were still piecing together teen girls’ bloody bodies.
What happened Monday was horrific, yet another disgusting act intended to make us fearful and reactionary. That it targeted girls is no coincidence. We may mock them, but we also view girls as a special kind of vulnerable, and already tend to give them fewer freedoms and liberties than their brothers.
This attack, like so many other terrorist attacks in Europe, struck at the heart of what the barbaric pre-Enlightenment religious fanatics of ISIS – which has now claimed credit for the bombing – hate: Revelry, music, rich cultural and creative expression, fun, freedom. And here, specifically, the freedom of teenage girls to go out, to dance, to listen to a young performer who sings somewhat surreptitiously about sex on a tour named to embrace her Disney-star-grown-up dynamic: “Dangerous Woman.”
For many girls in the audience, this was probably their first concert, a rite of passage that should be memorable for feeling heady and free, not for being caught up in a heinous mass murder by men who want to take the world back several centuries and keep teenage girls (and all women) cloistered and silent.
For young men, engagement with the arts, music and creativity is taken for granted, their tastes largely respected – no one mocked the Eagles of Death Metal when a terrorist shot and killed 89 people at their concert in Paris. There’s no equivalent category to “teenybopper” for boys, no specific language of derision for what are perceived as more masculine music obsessions.
Teenage girls, in the popular rendering, are silly and dumb; they are also threatening. We make fun of their boy craziness and the way their voices rise at the ends of sentences. School administrators police their clothing for an errant and apparently overly sexual shoulder, collarbone or knee.
Activists and advocates love to talk about “empowering” girls, but only insofar as those girls are quiet and compliant, and the championing of girls wanes when they enter the messy adolescent years – when they walk on the precipice between girlish adorableness and womanly sexuality, when they demand more ownership over their bodies and ideas, when they take risks and suggest they have their own wants and desires (including sexual ones).
In reality, teenage girls are awesome. Research shows they are more empathetic than their male peers. Yeah, they spend a lot of time on social media on their smartphones – something that also happens to correlate strongly with greater political engagement.
When teenage girls get a little older and go to college, they become overwhelmingly likely to describe themselves as feminists. Many also spend their time online writing about social justice and politics, sharing their art and creative works, and using social media to connect with other girls who share their interests and passions.
Magazines long popular with teenagers, including Teen Vogue and Cosmopolitan (the latter of which I write for), are often explicitly political – not just because the adults in charge think that’s important, but because that’s what teenage girls want.
While teenage girls are roundly mocked for their tastes, history shows they’re pretty good taste-makers – it was teenage girls, after all, who packed concert halls to see Elvis, the Beatles, Madonna, George Michael, Prince, even Nirvana and Bikini Kill. It was easy to mock beloved-by-teens boy bands like NSync; it was harder to deny that solo artist Justin Timberlake had remarkable talent many of us overlooked (for a more contemporary example, see Harry Styles). And it’s hard to deny that what they’re listening to now isn’t also the future of popular music.
It’s hard to overstate how awesome this is: In a world that treats teen girls like vaguely irritating sex objects, teen girls themselves have carved out spaces for their own self-expression, where what they like isn’t derided or mocked, but celebrated and embraced.
For younger teens especially, one of those places is an Ariana Grande concert.
And so instead of cracking stupid, heartless jokes at their expense or the expense of their idols, we should be celebrating them, and the incredible subcultures they create and sustain. When we’re scared, as many of us are today, it’s easy to shut down – to hold our girls especially closer, to try to protect them by keeping their lives a little more confined, by making them a little less free.
Don’t. Take them to their favorite concert instead.