In her new book Girls Gone Mild: Young Women Reclaim Self-Respect and Find It’s Not Bad to Be Good, Wendy Shalit takes up the important question of the cultural prevalence of the image of the “bad girl” and its consequences for young women. Shalit has amassed a great number of examples of ways in which the image of the “good girl” is maligned, and tells the stories of a few young women who are reclaiming the word “good.” Indeed, one of the best parts of her book is the chapter on a group of “Girlcotters” who challenged Abercrombie & Fitch for selling T-shirts emblazoned with such obnoxious slogans as “WHO NEEDS BRAINS WHEN YOU HAVE THESE?” — and succeeded in getting them removed from stores.
The book has other impressive parts — e.g., Shalit’s discussion of meanness between girls and the way it is condoned and even encouraged. Unfortunately, however, the author steadily undermines her own purpose — beginning with the book’s very title. Shalit is, of course, referring to the now old-news phenomenon that is Girls Gone Wild, in which a camera crew offers young women prizes (like a T-shirt or a hat) in exchange for allowing the crew to film them doing some kind of embarrassing, inebriated stunt, usually involving flashing or stripping. Shalit replaces the “Wild” with “Mild” in order to champion a new kind of girl, one who isn’t afraid to flaunt what the author damagingly calls “modesty.”
The problem with “modesty” is that its definition is rather nebulous, so Shalit ends up sounding simply buttoned-up — instead of better, tougher, and more conscious than the hyper-sexualized, man-pleasing Everygirl she describes. So wary is Shalit of borrowing terms from women’s liberation advocates of the 1960s that she misses the opportunity to emphasize building self-esteem apart from — rather than in simple opposition to — such detrimental influences as Girls Gone Wild. Though Shalit seeks to expand and clarify her definition of “modesty,” chastising those baby boomers and Second Wave feminists who call it a code word for “repression,” she largely fails in the attempt.
In order to make the book appealing to younger female audiences, Shalit misguidedly ends each chapter with an “exercise.” In one of these, she offers a recipe for apple pie as an alternative to compromising one’s values and as a way of “pleasing with integrity.” In response to Pia Catton’s review of Girls Gone Mild in the Wall Street Journal, in which Catton also criticized Shalit’s apple-pie exercise, Shalit wrote on her website: “My suggestion to please via apple pie instead of doling out unwanted sexual favors was not ‘cheerleading’–it was a joke! I realize that not everyone will share my sense of humor, and that’s fine.” I’m not sure at whom Shalit’s joke is aimed, feminists or good girls; in any case, the exercise is not only unfunny, but also disappointing, and will serve as Exhibit A for those who want to dismiss Shalit’s point of view.
Shalit does describe very skillfully the “self-actualization through badness” that she sees as subtly encoded by popular culture. When she discusses an article in Jane that features a 29-year-old virgin whose own father votes on a man to take her virginity, Shalit is in her element: Here, she points out, is a mainstream women’s magazine’s disturbing and detrimental obsession with sexuality as the key to being a “liberated” individual. Unfortunately, though, Shalit’s choice of examples is uneven. She recounts, for instance, the story of a mother who rented a hotel room for her 13-year-old daughter and a 14-year-old friend to have sex with older men (the mother eventually pled guilty to second-degree rape charges). Shalit clumsily lumps this egregious case of criminality together with much more useful examples, ones that involve common and easily missed offenses on the part of typical parents (such as a cavalier or unthinking attitude to their children’s sexual lives). The result of the juxtaposition is to make the more effective parts of Shalit’s argument difficult to swallow.
Shalit writes: “If you want to fight the sexualization of girls’ bodies and you want to do it effectively, then you have to allow for a concept of wholesomeness and a certain internal focus.” And she’s absolutely right. When some feminists — Shalit, laudably, distinguishes the good from the bad among feminists — denigrate the notion of “judging other women’s choices,” they can end up leaving perhaps too much room for the role of sex object to be promoted to young women as the most glamorous choice. Shalit would have been better served by devoting more of Girls Gone Mild to a discussion of how we got to this point. The women in the Girls Gone Wild videos signed their fateful release forms; what needs to be examined is the impulse that made them sign, the very impulse that is now so widely encouraged. Shalit fails to focus on these second-order desires of women — what makes them want to take part in such a hypersexualized culture? As a result, while Shalit describes the cultural problem discerningly, she ends up treating it flimsily: In attempting a direct substitution of mildness for wildness, she loses focus and persuasiveness.
–Sarah Hetherington is a rising junior at the University of Chicago and an intern for National Review.