Girls gone wild, again!

Britney Spears isn't wearing underwear and Lindsay Lohan's taking pole-dancing lessons. Will our children survive?

Topics: Broadsheet, Lindsay Lohan, Paris Hilton, Britney Spears, Love and Sex,

Newsweek editors have demonstrated some serious self-restraint, waiting an entire month — that’s four issues — before publishing another feature story with a “Girls Gone Wild” reference. Last time it was a story about Texas cheerleaders who posted risqué photos of themselves on MySpace. This time around it’s a meandering, confused cover story on how the publicized exploits of Britney Spears, Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan affect tweens and teens, and it addresses the burning question of whether we’re “raising a generation of ‘prosti-tots.’”

Reading the article proves just as painful as handing over a fistful of dollars in exchange for the issue, with its cover image of high-as-a-kite Britney and Paris paired with the headline “The Girls Gone Wild Effect.” Luckily, you become kind of numb after seeing Nancy Pelosi’s ascendancy in the House mentioned paragraphs away from a reference to Lindsay’s “fire crotch.” There’s a hasty rundown of the history of “bad girls” — complemented by a photo gallery, of course — which starts with Mae West and ends with the Brit Pack (or whatever they’re calling them these days). Ultimately — about 3,000 some odd words in — it concludes that our girls will be just fine because we adults “hold the purse strings” and, unless Paris releases a series of educational videos for toddlers, parents have a significant head start on imparting morals to our children.

Which is to say that the piece says a whole lot without really saying much of anything. For every torrent of hand-wringing queries (“Are there really harmful long-term effects of overexposure to Paris Hilton? Are we raising a generation of what one L.A. mom calls ‘prosti-tots,’ young girls who dress like tarts, live for Dolce & Gabbana purses and can neither spell nor define such words as ‘adequate’? Or does the rise of the bad girl signal something more profound, a coarsening of the culture and a devaluation of sex, love and lasting commitment? … The answers are likely to lie in yet another question: where do our children learn values?”), there’s a significant caveat (“Here’s a radical idea — at home, where they always have”).

Experts and various studies are trotted out. We learn that “for white teens, repeated exposure to sexual content in television, movies and music increases the likelihood of becoming sexually active at an earlier age”; then, offered as a parenthetical, we learn that black teenagers’ sexual behavior is more strongly dictated by their parents and friends than the media. (Now there’s a story!) We also learn that the average age at which girls become sexually active hasn’t changed much at all for the past two decades and that teen pregnancy rates are down 35 percent. In a beautiful, cosmic twist, just as Newsweek hit the stands today came news of a significant finding: Teen pregnancy is at an all-time low. Yet, our girls are going wild!

The Newsweek cover story is indefensible because, clearly, its authors know better — the piece is three-part hysterical what-ifs, one-part counterevidence. The piece could have explored the more subtle ways that the highly publicized Brit Pack scandals affect the way girls feel about themselves (as opposed to whether it will turn them into little harlots or “prosti-tots”). The story also could have led with experts skeptical of the hysteria over the supposed proliferation of bad, mean or wild girls. Dan Kindlon, a professor of child psychology at Harvard, told the magazine plainly, “Sure, there are plenty of girls with big problems out there. Like the ‘Girls Gone Wild’ videos. But what percentage of the college population is that?”

Instead, the piece latches on with a vampiric thirst to parents’ worst fears and, as was probably the genesis of the piece, finds an excuse to talk about Britney’s vagina once more.

Tracy Clark-Flory

Tracy Clark-Flory is a staff writer at Salon. Follow @tracyclarkflory on Twitter and Facebook.

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