When are girls too young to go wild?

A look at that infamous New York Times editorial on gyrating middle schoolers.

By Carol Lloyd
Published January 4, 2007 4:34PM (EST)

When any opinion piece begins with confessing that the author is worried about sounding like a prig, I steel myself for one of those onslaughts of enlightened hand-wringing that has become the meat and potatoes of opinion pages across the land. But last week, when Broadsheet was off for the holidays, several readers sent us a New York Times piece titled "Middle School Girls Gone Wild" that made me feel that I was being visited by the ghost of Andrea Dworkin. Reading Lawrence Downes' description of attending a talent show at his daughter's Long Island middle school, where groups of sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade girls gyrated their way through re-created music videos replete with writhing on the floor and simulated lap dancing in "tiny skirts or tight shorts, with bare bellies, rouged cheeks and glittery eyes," I felt myself cringing.

My first response: My daughters will only join this hit parade marching over my dead body.

When the crowd of parents and families broke out into loud applause, Downes discovered he was alone in his horror. "I'm sure that many parents see these routines as healthy fun," he writes, "an exercise in self-esteem harmlessly heightened by glitter makeup and teeny skirts. Our girls are bratz, not slutz, they would argue, comfortable in the existence of a distinction."

Of course, it's hard to know what any of these applauding parents would argue. Each family picks its battles differently -- and in ways that often surprise the parents. (I certainly was surprised when I gave up buying any clothes for my 4-year-old that weren't pink, frilly and the very epitome of vapid femininity. On the other hand, we don't watch television.)

For me, though, Downes' hand-wringing struck a nerve. In this culture of inexorably attentive parents, he wonders why even hyper-involved parents allow the culture of "boy-toy sexuality to bore unchecked into their little ones' ears and eyeballs, displacing their nimble and growing brains and impoverishing the sense of wider possibilities in life."

If I'd been in the audience with Downes, I really don't know what I would have thought. Far more than beauty, obscenity is in the eye of the beholder. But from his description, the scene sounds pretty disturbing -- not only for the oversexualized pantomiming from pubescent girls paraded before their community but for the sheer lack of creativity, a sort of vomiting up of trash media. Sure, kids' sexualized dancing has been shocking their parents for decades, from the Elvis pelvis to the Summer of Love group gropes to sweaty disco fevers to hip-hop simulated sex. Arguing that it's nothing new and certainly shouldn't be regulated off school grounds, Feministing's Jessica Valenti wrote a fertile post in response to Downes' lament, with many readers coming down on the side of the girls' sexual expression.

Yet, the distinction between high school kids gyrating at a social dance and middle schoolers dancing at a school function for their parents shouldn't be brushed aside. The Times piece reminded me of my ninth-grade prom, where I found myself participating in what I thought would be a schoolwide spontaneous dance contest. Instead, the live band selected me and one other uninhibited girl to shake it down to the tune of (gag reflex alert) "She's a Brick House." The principal swooped in and quashed the contest, and I was humiliated to realize the band members weren't about to invite a boy up onstage to bust a move. Although it was embarrassing, I was actually grateful that some adult had realized that the moment had crossed over from self-expression to exploitation. What happens when the whole culture crosses over? If 11-year-old girls want to simulate pole dancing in their bedrooms and they feel it's empowering, they have plenty of time to work out what it all means. But when it becomes a sanctioned school performance, I'm afraid I have to echo one of the irate home-schoolers who've blogged about the article: "What is our world coming to?"

Carol Lloyd

Carol Lloyd is currently at work on a book about the gentrification wars in San Francisco's Mission District.

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