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why teenage girls need feminism

Teenage girls aren’t dealt a great hand in life. They’re mocked for their insecurities, despised on every social media platform, and their taste is seen as the benchmark for awful. More seriously, they are part of a demographic with a high incidence rate of sexual abuse and rape and are particularly susceptible to abusive relationships. Just this month a young girl has been accused of being a sexual predator by a judge for the way she looks and acts, despite being a victim of child abuse at the hands of a grown man. If there was ever a group that needed equality, liberation and support, it was teenage girls.

For the better part of my childhood and early teens, “feminist” was more or less a pejorative slang term for “butch” or “lesbian” – the kind of word that fourteen-year-old boys threw at you for not wanting to touch them in their special place. Several years of personal growth and exposure to the feminist world later, I know that the true meaning, amongst other things, is the belief that I don’t have to touch ANYONE in their special place if I don’t want to. But in a sense, this newfound knowledge came too little too late; it would have been helpful, at the age of thirteen and suddenly faced with the beginnings of casual sexism, to already have a grasp of feminist principles.

Teenagers need feminism. If I could travel back the heady days of 2007 and impart some choice pieces of wisdom unto my younger self – aside from advising against ra-ra skirts and pink trainers – I’d have taught myself one or two things about how to tackle sexism just as it began to rear its ugly head. While street harassment is a problem for everybody who dares to exist in a public place, it can be particularly difficult to deal with while you walk down the street in full uniform with your little sister tagging along behind. Sexism is rife in schools, from the kids and the staff. An incident that always sticks out for me is an old physics teacher repeatedly making the patently unfunny joke that chemistry and biology are ‘women’s sciences, because it’s all cooking and colouring in’. Slutwalks have become a welcome addition to popular consciousness across the world and modern feminists write article after article about how a woman’s appearance is not public business, but such forward thinking has yet to permeate the majority of British schools.

Living through this and coming out the other side is half the reason many women become feminists in the first place. The ability to withstand sexism on a personal level is one that many girls develop from an early age whether they want to or not, and it’s the reason that I think of every young teen with a bone to pick as a kind of raw feminist-in-training. Luckily, whether it be the rise of the internet and consequent exposure to the pop-culture feminism that has developed with the likes of Tumblr or the gradual but definite rise of women in the public eye, more young people have found a place within feminism than ever. People like Tavi Gevinson and Julie Zeilinger have made feminism a little more accessible for those who aren’t old enough to attend protests or vote for their rights to be protected. Feminist societies are becoming a frequent addition to extracurricular school clubs, and Pussy Riot’s front-page protest have made an indelible impact on modern history. Feminism is leaving the alternative and entering the mainstream, and collecting new, younger converts along the way.

And yet, teenage feminists are frequently dismissed and put down for their enthusiasm whilst still being so young. All over the feminist blogosphere are scathing remarks with regards to teenage feminists, in particular their penchant for things such as glitter text as a means of expressing their credentials as opposed to a more serious medium.  In a way, these criticisms are valid – there is no substance to a cutesy picture with feminist slogans stamped across it, and posting them on a blog does nothing in the scheme of things. There is more to the movement than just listening to your mum’s old Hole CDs and declaring yourself a riot grrrl, and understanding just who Frida Kahlo was before buying a t-shirt with her face all over it would be advisable. Commodification of any fight for liberation isn’t helpful, and young girls are particularly vulnerable to the retail world’s attempts to capitalise on the resurgence of pop culture feminism – they are, after all, the target audience in a culture that appreciates physical things more than ideas.

Despite this, it isn’t fair to assume that teenage feminism begins and ends with soft grunge graphics. Faddy as it may seem, it’s a stepping stone towards understanding and enacting the principles of feminism. Adolescence itself is an ordeal made up primarily of trial and error, and the blooming of feminist beliefs is no different. Mistakes will be made, yes, but to dismiss such leanings as ‘just a phase’ or inherently useless is to cause unnecessary harm and push well-meaning girls away from a movement that needs them as much as they need it. Rather than berate young feminists for perhaps identifying with the aesthetics and simple messages of the movement before the more complex concepts, the interest should be nurtured and encouraged. To have your opinions disregarded on the basis of your age can be crushing, and taking into consideration the problems that young girls face, outright irresponsible. If feminism is a sisterhood, then teenage feminists are the younger siblings; annoying at times, but ultimately well-meaning and in need of support and guidance. One day they just might change the world.

2 thoughts on “why teenage girls need feminism

  1. This is a great article. I think you’re right, but that it’s also important to recognise that feminism is a complex multi-faceted thing and that there will be some contexts where glittery gifs would be less appropriate, and some contexts where dry intellectual debate shouldn’t have to be so heavy and dis-engaging.

  2. I totally agree with you, Lucy. I might have turned 60 this year but I well remember the feelings you describe from my early teens……substituting nylon roll-neck jumpers and greasy, green eyeshadow for ra-ra skirts and pink trainers…….
    Watching (not voluntarily I assure you) a programme of music videos on someone’s TV I was both horrified and amazed at the portrayal of female teens. If these girls….and they ARE only girls, are one if the bench marks for teens to set their sights by, what chance do they have ofof freeing themselves from the burden of conforming to a norm which pressures them into a tight mould of perceived appearances and behaviour which spells V.I.C.T.I.M. (I have to add that the male ‘performers’ on these videos are probably justs pressured and manufactured as their female counterparts. This makes it all even worse; so much of their movement and dance presenting an aggressive, macho attitude towards the watching world.)
    An article in The Guardian yesterday rattled on about the Breaking Bad TV prog and how it had no real female characters unlike The Sopranos and Top of the Lake. I am not sure if I agree with tnat but TV and the media are best placed to encourage feminism and it would be nice if they did so. Feminism frees women of all ages. It will not stop the cat-calls from workmen or the senseless comments from teachers who should have been ‘retired’ years ago, but it will teach women how to react in a way suited to themselves. Distain and contempt will do for me.

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