Category Archives: Laurie and Debbie’s blog

Teenage Girls and Selfies: It’s Not What You Think

Add to RSS feed
Follow by Email

Laurie and Debbie say:

Teenage girls taking self-portrait
Teenage girls taking self-portrait

We take it as given that any negative stereotyping of adolescents, especially adolescent girls, is likely to be oversimplistic if not plain wrong. Jay Livingston at Sociological Images, working from a This American Life episode by Ira Glass, not only agrees with us but has a lot to say about the complexities of teenage girls’ selfie culture:

Here’s some context. Mario Almonte, writing at the prominent feminist blog Huffington Post two years ago, said in part:

get ready for a generation raised to believe that they are the center of the universe, who believe that everything they do is of immense interest to the rest of the world. They grew up with parents telling them every day that they were the most precious and valuable thing in life. Don’t try to convince them they’re not. All of their friends agree with them.

Livingston and Glass are pushing against this callous characterization, sometimes described as vanity, sometimes even as narcissism (!). Here’s Livingston:

You can see why [people] might think that new technologies – Instagram, cell phones (self-phones?) – have made kids today the most narcissistic generation in history.  In an earlier post, I expressed my skepticism about that claim. And, if we can generalize from an episode of This American Life last November, the selfie-Instagram-comments syndrome is not about narcissism – seeing yourself as standing shiningly above everyone else. It’s about fitting in – reading the social map, finding where you stand, and maybe changing that place.

And here’s a young woman identified as Jane, from the This American Life episode (quoted in Livingston’s article):

we, like, just started high school, so we’re meeting a lot of new people. So you would comment on someone’s photo who you’re not really super close with or that you don’t know really well. And it’s sort of a statement, like, I want to be friends with you, or I want to get to know you, or like, I think you’re cool.

If someone that you don’t know very well commented on your photo, you – it’s sort of like an unspoken agreement that you have to comment back on their photo. Like when you’re making new friends, if they comment on your photo, you comment on their photo.

There’s a great deal more detail, especially in the radio transcript.

Narcissism is an extremely serious clinical diagnosis. If we are discouraged from applying it to one of the most influential and terrifying figures of our time, surely we should not be applying it to an entire generation, or the female half of an entire generation. But a quick Google search reveals that a disturbing number of journalists and professionals are willing to at least make some money or get some clicks entertaining the possibility.

The knee-jerk assumption that people like Almonte make about selfies is that they are simply about appearance. Since we raise our female children to believe that their appearance is the single most important thing about them; even if this is not what they hear at home, you can bet your last dollar that it’s what they see everywhere else they look. And once they go to school, they’re making friends who also hear it at home. So the assumption that teenage girls’ selfies are only about how they look is a plausible working hypothesis.

It just doesn’t hold up.

When we listen to teenagers about selfie culture (as Ira Glass makes easy), we find out that selfies are, in large part, about finding your place in your world. Being thrown into puberty, where your body changes and your reactions to your body change, is extremely confusing and disorienting. Most teens are inevitably (and appropriately!) going to look to their peers as at least one resource to find a path through the confusion.

Teenage girls, living in new bodies, changing schools, making (or afraid of not making) new friends, have to develop their own norms, signals, and ways of understanding each other. All social groups do this–we make complex, detailed systems which are private to ourselves and which no one else can completely understand. That’s part of how we know who is “us.” We do it with the tools and techniques of our time and place, because that’s the water we swim in.

Combine the need to build friendship networks and understand your place in your culture with a centuries-old pattern of women developing our own friendship and support circles as a buffer against misogynist culture,  and suddenly, we have a fine, clear, understandable explanation of selfie culture which has nothing to do with narcissism and little, if anything, to do with vanity.

Not all teenage girls are part of this pattern. If you happen not to care much about how you look, not to be interested in taking selfies, to be taking a different path through your own adolescence, the same people who call your classmates names like narcissist will undoubtedly call you names like “troublemaker” or “misfit.” It’s not like these name-callers want anyone (except themselves) to come out unscathed.

Both of us grew up in different times than these teenagers, but the stereotyping was horrifying then, and are  horrifying now. What doesn’t change is the adult world’s insistence on dismissing and trivializing teenagers–especially teenage girls.

Pink Ribbon Culture? Who Benefits? Not People with Breast Cancer

Add to RSS feed
Follow by Email

Debbie says:

soupKaruna Jaggar of Breast Cancer Action has harsh words for what she calls “pink-ribbon culture.” See #6 for her definition of the stronger term “pinkwashing.”

Jaggar lays out the numbers:

Each year, 250,000 women are diagnosed with breast cancer. Up to one-third of all breast cancers will metastasize (spread beyond the breast into the rest of the body); it is metastatic breast cancer that kills women. Black women are 40 percent more likely to die of breast cancer than their white counterparts. And each year, 40,000 women die of breast cancer, despite all the awareness and pink ribbons.

She gives a good history of the (admirable) roots of the pink ribbon, and goes on to list ” six ways that pink ribbon culture distracts from meaningful progress on breast cancer.” Here are two of them:

2. Corporations exploit concern about breast cancer for profit. Each October, marketers take advantage of people’s sincere concern about breast cancer to make money and generate good publicity. Anyone can put a pink ribbon on anything, and they do—from handguns to garbage trucks, from perfume to toilet paper. But there is no transparency or accountability about where the pink ribbon money goes. Sometimes no money at all from the purchase goes to a breast cancer organization. But even if the company does make a donation, most of these promotions ultimately benefit corporations far more than they help women living with and at risk of breast cancer.

6. Some pink ribbon products are linked to causing breast cancer. Years ago, Breast Cancer Action came up with a term for this, pinkwashing: the outrageous corporate practice of selling products linked to an increased risk of breast cancer while claiming to care about (and profiting from) breast cancer. This year, we are challenging two giant agricultural companies who are using leftover wastewater from oil corporations to irrigate their citrus—while also using pink ribbons to sell them.

(To be clear, I have no reason to believe that Campbell’s Chicken Noodle Soup causes cancer; I just love the Warhol-ish absurdity of the photo at the top of this blog.)


Dana Bolger at Feministing (who has previously profiled Jaggar), takes a moment to highlight just how far pink-ribbon October culture can go:

I wish I could say pinkwashing has reached new heights here (get it), but this is nothing new. Last year, Massachusetts cops introduced pink handcuffs (because where do women get better healthcare than… in prison?). And the year before that, Susan G. Komen teamed up with a fracking company to give us pink drill bits (and oh yeah also carcinogenic toxins).

Yep, that’s right, the U.S. military, known far and wide for its concern for human life (women’s or otherwise).  Jaggar shares an image at the link to her article of a pink handgun sold as part of a “breast cancer awareness kit.”

If you wear a ribbon as a memory of your own breast cancer experiences, or to honor someone you love, or to increase your own awareness of the scope and depth of the issue,  I support you, and I feel sure Jaggar and Bolger do so as well. Its the shameless co-optation of a loving symbol to shore up a deeply anti-human set of corporate goals and objectives we despise. It’s the eagerness to embrace a symbol while doing nothing for people with breast cancer (not all of whom are women), and doing nothing to clean up the toxins we deal with every day.  Perhaps worse, it’s the tacit permission for people to substitute shallow “awareness” for real, engaged concern.