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Opinion We don’t grant girls autonomy, but when we do, it’s because something is their fault

Author Catherine Prasifka reflects on what growing up has taught her about how society treats teenage girls.

THERE IS NOTHING our culture loves more than a teenage girl, except maybe that same girl making a mistake.

The moment a young woman acts out, says the wrong thing, or doesn’t meet expectations, it will start trending on social media sites. There will be think pieces about it, a backlash to the backlash, and more than a few insults and threats directed her way.

When I was a teenager, I didn’t realise how much revolved around us. Teen girls are everywhere: they’re on magazine covers, they’re singing hit songs, they’re starring in movies (sometimes opposite a male love interest nearly twice their age). And it’s all just normal; we don’t even really think about it.

But it does something, I think, to see girls everywhere. And not just see them as they are, but as their photoshopped ideals, wearing clothes the average girl would never wear, or sometimes no clothes at all.

When I was younger I’d expect to open a magazine and see ten tips on how to lose weight, or appear more mature. Everywhere I looked, I would see the ways in which society at large wanted me to change.

It’s normal to comment on a girl’s appearance; to compliment her, yes, but also criticise. From a young age, we teach girls it’s inappropriate to wear certain things, that it’ll cause catcalls or harassment.

But we don’t put the same emphasis on teaching young boys not to catcall or harass. We don’t grant girls autonomy, but when we do, it’s because something is their fault. It’s not just an obsession we have with teenage girls, but a fetishisation as well.

There is evidence of this everywhere: from the bodies women are supposed to have, to the age preferences men put on dating apps. Women are constantly infantilised, called ‘girl’ in professional settings, almost in an effort to transport us back to that more desirable, more childlike state of being.

At the same time, however, we see representations of teenagers in tv and film that are horrendously aged up. There are many reasons for this, but the most pernicious one, I feel, is that when your characters are basically ‘mini-adults’ you can get away with showing them doing things that child actors are protected from. After all, the audience knows they’re not really children. Don’t we?

I’ll never forget growing up in a time where websites kept countdown timers to when famous teenage celebrities at last became ‘legal’. There’s nothing magical about someone’s eighteenth birthday, other than the way it excuses our own feelings towards them. Suddenly, desire no longer has to be hidden, or tiptoed around. It’s out in the open, and no one bats an eye.

We have created this fictitious girl. She is a virtuous girl next door, and a sexy virgin. She is someone who is mature, so it’s not creepy. But she’s not mature enough to require respect. She’s chaste, unless the right person comes along (implied: it’ll be you). There is no correct way to be what society wants teenagers to be. The image we hold in our mind of a teenage girl is a fantasy. And it’s a billion dollar industry.

Crucially, this is not a problem created by teenage girls. It is created by people who want to capitalise off of their insecurities, and reinforced by those fascinated by them. Too often we lay blame at the feet of the people with the least amount of agency. If you think it’s silly, or vapid, that some girls don’t want to even go to the shops without a full face of makeup, spend a minute thinking about how exactly that makeup is marketed to them.

Do a quick search for the kinds of things tabloids print next to photos of celebrities at the shops. Take note of the age of the people who do this.

Teenagers, particularly teenage girls, have always been the drivers of culture. They identity trends before they’re popular. They, like, innovate language. Then, they grow up and their interests become the mainstream. Think of how many Disney and Nickelodeon stars have managed to stay relevant.

Once they enter mainstream culture, however, they’re expected to shed their roots and become ‘adult’. It’s almost shameful to have your start with young female fans; it’s treated like a kind of hysteria. No one credits teens girls for identifying the genius of The Beatles early on, for example.

We have this entire cultural machine geared towards teenage girls, and a spotlight on exactly what it is they’re doing. There is a kind of power in that, one that is used to control the behaviour of those girls. But what happens when they seize it for themselves?

The internet is a sphere that is dominated by teenagers, that older people do not have a hope of replicating. Think of the TikTokers who pranked Trump’s rally, or how Kpop fans flood hashtags on Twitter with gifs so they become unusable. The more the internet becomes intrinsic to our culture, the more power we give to them.

On apps like instagram and TikTok young people are sharing ideas and memes in a space that is just for them. Without the input of the larger culture, teenagers are free to just be teenagers. Of course, not everything you see online is good, but neither is all traditional media.

Ideas around feminism and social justice whip around the internet like a whisper in a school yard, as though your best friend is telling you something that will change your life forever. When I talk to teenagers, I’m constantly surprised by how much they know and understand about the world, and how little I knew at their age by comparison. There is a joy in seeing people openly discuss things online that I only knew about through rumours or hard earned experience. It has a positive normalising effect.

I feel hopeful when I see a video of someone articulating something I still only have a loose grasp on, or only discovered when I was already at university, and doing it with a phenomenal amount of empathy.

At last, I hope, there’s a power shift, and I welcome it.

Catherine Prasifka’s debut novel, None of This is Serious (Canongate) is out now. 

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Catherine Prasifka
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