How Media Influence Girls' "Coming of Age" in the US
      by Ashley Grisso  



My concern about adolescent girls in contemporary US culture led me to read several popular texts that influenced my thinking in regards to how to appropriately situate today's girls and understand the challenges that many face. These texts inform my thinking so profoundly that I must present them here to properly credit the basis of my viewpoint and research on this subject (See Brumberg, 1997, Wolf, 1987, Pipher, 1995 and Ornstein, 1994). 

As it is believed by some experts today (Brumberg, 1997), girls are sexualized in the media and in their day-to-day lives at a much earlier age than in the past. The real risk to personal safety is far greater and the self-hatred of their own bodies is manifested in more extreme ways at this time than ever before in history. Well-intended parents in the United States must work against culture in their efforts to rear strong, well-adjusted girls. Many parents cannot make enough time to help their daughters forge the difficult terrain of becoming women. Many parents are harried and focused on earning a living; they are subject to the same cultural pressures faced by their daughters. Our consumer culture is bombarding us with many messages, some messages demand that we work harder and faster, spend and acquire more things, buy leisure time and happiness. America's "junk culture" might be an annoyance or merely a diversion for us as adults, but for girls trying to find their way, looking for people and ideas with which to identify, it can be a disaster.

The American Association of University's Women's report, Shortchanging Girls, Shortchanging America (1991), asserts that for many girls the passage into adolescence is not just marked by menarche or a few new curves. It is marked by a loss of confidence in herself and her abilities. It is marked by a scathingly critical attitude toward her body and a blossoming sense of personal inadequacy. According to the survey, middle school is the beginning of the transition from girlhood to womanhood and this is the time of the greatest self-esteem loss.

Girls with healthy self-esteem have an appropriate sense of their potential, their competence, and their innate value as individuals. They feel a sense of entitlement: license to take up space in the world, a right to be heard and to express the full spectrum of human emotions. We live in a culture that is ambivalent toward female achievement, proficiency, independence, and right to a full and equal life. Our culture devalues both women and the qualities that culture itself projects onto us, such as nurturance, cooperation, and intuition. Our culture has taught us to undervalue our contributions and ourselves (Orenstein, 1994).

According to Brumberg (1997) for the most part the media depict life for girls as perilous and females as powerless. Much of the time, women are presented as sex objects and every year the women get younger and look more like pre-adolescent girls. Advertisers are hawking merchandise to women and girls that give them the message that they are not "all right" the way that they are. If girls and women buy the advertised product, they will smell better, be less hairy, be sexier, that they will be closer to the "airbrushed ideal" we are to believe men desire.

It is not wise for us to ignore corporate America's exploitation of women and girls, corporations that use female bodies to advertise all types of goods and services. This objectification of female sensuality is a strong message that girls receive that can render them powerless. Girls and women are manipulated into believing that their primary worth is to "be beautiful." It is implied that to achieve this narrow definition of beauty a girl must consume many beauty products. Then she can use her beauty to manipulate men and get what she wants. The media feed this myth to corroborate the messages sent by advertisers who drive our consumer culture and to maintain the power structure as it is. There is no emphasis placed on the beauty of women as powerful, intelligent, spiritual, sexual creatures whose beauty and "light" comes from within. That message does not sell products and challenges the dominant hegemony perpetrated throughout the media.

One of the primary messages communicated to girls from television, movies, advertising, video games, popular music and many of their elders is to work hard to be a man's desire; this is presented as a fundamental objective for a girl. Contemporary girls are in trouble because there is a disconnection between how girls mature and how they are treated in our culture. Young women are developing earlier, but are not nurtured in a healthy, respectful way. Instead of supporting and honoring our girls, or offering them a stable, affirming reflection by which they could view themselves, the media and the capitalist marketplace exacerbates self-consciousness and precocious sexuality (Brumberg, 1997).

Perhaps surprisingly, it is argued that in some ways feminism has actually made things more difficult for girls (Pipher, 1995 ). Girls might be more oppressed in some ways than they used to be. They are coming of age in a more dangerous, sexualized and media-saturated culture. They face incredible pressures to be beautiful and sophisticated, which in middle school means experimenting with alcohol and drugs and being pressured to exhibit overt sexuality. The world contemporary girls navigate is less protected. Pipher feels that America is a girl-poisoning culture. Television, popular music, films and sexist advertising all send a similar unhealthy message to girls in our society and abroad. Our culture limits some girls' development, diminishes their wholeness and leaves some of them traumatized.

Some assert that girls' development, beginning in middle school, provides them with many challenges that move them into womanhood (Wolf, 1987). These challenges are primarily focused on demonstrating their willingness to participate in sex acts and obtaining many material possessions. Our girls move toward womanhood through the demarcations of what they can buy and own or who wants to sleep with them. The danger to girls is that the culture often makes them turn into women in ways they do not choose before they are psychologically ready, and determines their maturity as a passive biological readiness. It gives them little opportunity to work toward becoming women. Becoming a woman is not seen as healthy goal toward which to struggle and to claim at last with pride.

Our culture on the whole does not support the important process of girls individuating into adult females. Nor does it support women choosing to be sexual when and how it is appropriate for them. In our world, "Prove that you are woman," means simply "Take off your clothes" (Wolf, 1987). Adolescent girls need to be encouraged to be independent and autonomous while they are still being provided with a safe place to live and grow. Clearly, girls need a safe and sacred respite while they are tested and challenged to explore themselves. They need to be given adequate trials to encourage them to develop their physical, spiritual and emotional selves for the realities of adult responsibility. Providing a safe haven and appropriate benchmarks for girls to prove themselves has become increasingly more difficult to do for even the most diligent and loving parents or guardians.

The media and music videos, specifically, are pop culture vehicles that often objectify and undermine the uniqueness, inner beauty and strength of girls and women. As a culture, we should be telling girls what they already know, but rarely see affirmed: that the lives they lead inside their own bodies, the skills they attain through their own hard work and the unique phase in their lives during which they may explore boys and their own erotic nature, are magical. This period of their lives, as young adolescents, begins a life cycle of sexuality that should be held sacred (Wolf, 1987)