Don’t You Know That It’s Different for Girls?
I’ve read with great interest all of the responses to Mrs. Hall’s blog post, FYI (If You’re a Teenage Girl). There has been a lot of criticism of her “slut-shaming” (not my favorite way of naming the issue, I admit) as well as her incredibly unforgiving position of blocking these young women from Facebook on behalf of her teen sons. Girls, she’d have us believe, should be afraid of nothing more than a judgmental mom who pays close attention to the social media universe her sons inhabit, lest they be cast out of the kingdom as the obvious jezebels that they are. But here’s the thing: Girls, you have far more to be scared of than the judgmental shrieks of the oh-so-Christian mom whose response to you is banishment as opposed to understanding or, god forbid (pun intended), any self-reflexivity whatsoever. You need to understand that Mrs. Hall’s comments are reflective of a sexist culture that you’ll have to navigate with caution and that sends you contradicting messages (academics call it the Virgin-Whore dichotomy) that you can’t possibly juggle with any success and that I hope you’ll try to challenge rather than live by.
What struck me most as soon as I read the piece and what my initial comments with the mom of two of my nieces regarding the controversy on Facebook dealt with was the hypocrisy of Mrs. Hall’s comments about girls sexualizing themselves interspersed with images of her boys only wearing their swimsuits and striking hypermasculine poses. Seriously? While I appreciate that Mrs. Hall offered up critics of her post such incredibly low-hanging fruit, I’m also grateful that she made these choices because her own blog then becomes a pretty perfect example of pretty typical sexism (which is linked to the larger ideology of patriarchy, but you’ll have to learn about that one on your own, Mrs. Hall) that she and her blog post are so a part of.
If we’re to believe Mrs. Hall, while it is shameful for girls to exhibit any kind of sexuality (you’re posing in a towel!?!?!), it is perfectly acceptable for her sons to engage in sexual and hypermasculine poses for the camera and for good ol’ mom to post those images on her blog. Wow. Okay. Where to begin? I’m not going to rehash much of what critics have already rightly pointed out regarding the messed up message of Mrs. Hall’s presumable well-intended post, but I do want to ask a few questions to Mrs. Hall:
Why is a girl wearing a towel not okay to post when your sons wearing only swimsuits and thus showing as little (if not less) than girls in towels perfectly acceptable? Where do you draw the line between acceptable levels of nudity? It’s okay for your boys to show us their chests and legs but it’s not okay for girls in towels to show their shoulders and legs? Is the difference for you that your boys are half-naked within the context of the beach whereas girls in towels are showing less skin than your boys but are doing so in the privacy of their own homes? Does that completely random distinction really make sense to you? If so, I’d love to hear that explanation.
Second, why is a girl not allowed to express her sexuality as her culture has taught her (of course, those lessons are problematic in and of themselves, but I digress) while it’s okay for your sons to express their sexuality as their culture has taught them? What does your shaming of girls and your heralding of boys who are doing the same thing in a picture that you posted teach your kids and the kids who read your blog? What message are your boys sending when they flex their muscles while half-naked in public that is so much more positive than girls exhibiting what you deem a, “red carpet pose”, with an “extra-arched back” and “sultry pout”? And then you have the audacity to point out that their poses aren’t “natural” before “one goes to sleep”? When are those poses “natural”? Should we assume that you’re willing to argue that your boys posing with muscles flexed is “natural”?
Of course, neither types of poses are natural. These are poses that boys and girls learn from cultural institutions who are teaching them what it “means” or “looks like” to be a boy or a girl. Don’t get me wrong, I think both sets of messages are whacked out and dangerous messages our culture regularly sends to boys and girls at younger and younger ages every year. But to condone the right of your boys to “act like males” while castigating girls trying to “act like females” is hyprocritical. The thing about gender role expectations Mrs. Hall, is that they are defined, to some extent, by each other. Thus, through your support of the hypermasculine poses of your boys you’re also approving of the gender role definition of females constructed to “match” that hypermasculinity–the sexualized girl posing for the pleasure of the hypermasculine boy. Thus, you’re valorizing your sons’ attempts at hypermasculinity while castigating the attempts of girls to model the corresponding gender role. I’m afraid you don’t get to have it both ways. Well actually, you can argue (as you implicitly did) that you should be able to have it both boys, but that makes you a hypocrite.
Finally, what messages are you sending boys about the sexuality of girls? You’re explicitly telling your audience that it’s okay for boys to express their sexuality but that it’s not okay for girls to express theirs. Moreover, if girls do express theirs in a form similar to that expressed by your sons, they are to be shut out, mocked, and assumed to be “bad”. As I imagine others have asked you, can you see the danger that puts girls in? You’ve given people permission to bully and make fun of girls who look like those you deem “unacceptable” for your boys in your posts. You may have even given some messed-up boy more “evidence” that “she deserved it” when he raped her. “After all, did you see the pictures of her on Facebook?”, he asks his friends. “She asked for it with those pictures!” he’ll claim in court. These unstated and sexist assumptions about girls, boys, and sexuality that are plentiful in your post can have real world consequences. I encourage you to think about those unintended consequences and the impact that they have on the lives of girls and yes, the lives of boys, too.
Before I end, I must point out a fascinating turn in this debate. I went to grab the image of your sons I’ve posted above from your original blog and I found this instead:
“*Readers, two days ago I wrote this post for my normal audience, which is usually very small. That said, I included recent pictures of my kids at the beach, and many new readers found that to be a grave lack of discernment, considering the topic. I agree, and have replaced them with different photos than the original post. Thank you for your counsel.”
And underneath this statement was this image and the post was retitled, “FYI #2: The One Where Everyone is Covered Up”:
So, your many “new readers” found the photo of your boys half-naked on the beach with their “tough guy” poses lacking in discernment? Why do you think that is? Tell us! This was your chance, Mrs. Hall. This was your chance to show us that you were truly interested in learning from your mistakes and that maybe, just maybe, you were too quick to judge these young girls using the sexist double standard that it’s okay for boys to express their sexuality but not okay for girls to do the same. I’m terribly curious as to whether you now understand this mistake but were just too embarrassed to admit it (unfortunate), whether the cognitive dissonance was just too much and you’re still processing (fair, but hurry up already), or whether you just don’t get it at all (yikes!). Wherever you are on this one, Mrs. Hall, I hope that you think long and hard about your assumptions about people based on their Facebook pictures, the sexist double standards you’re teaching your boys, and your role in promoting and maintaining the very messages you proclaim girls shouldn’t send by virtue of allowing your boys to send those very same messages in photos that you post yourself.
Mrs. Hall, there are plenty of really good reasons why boys and girls shouldn’t be posting these kinds of images on Facebook or any other social media. For example, they should think of themselves as more than just sexual beings whose value depends on how attracted to them others are and thus steer clear of defining themselves on or off-line in sexual terms only. And they should understand that colleges and employers look at their social media posts and that their posts can impact their chances of college admittance or employment. The list goes on and on and oh, how I wished you’d sent those messages in your blog instead.