Editor’s note: This review appears in the October 8, 2007, issue of National Review.
Baby, baby, it’s a wild world — from your earliest days. Recalling a 2002 controversy over Abercrombie and Fitch’s marketing of thongs to ten-year-old girls, Wendy Shalit now observes: “Parents no longer debate the merits of thongs for tweens but instead whether I’M TOO SEXY FOR MY DIAPER is a ‘healthy’ message for an infant girl’s onesie.”
The mother of a toddler, Shalit begins her new book, Girls Gone Mild: Young Women Reclaim Self-Respect and Find It’s Not Bad to Be Good, with an account of a trip to her local toy store — which had disturbing echoes of a red-light district. Never mind that Marvin Gaye was singing “When I get that feeling, I want sexual healing” on the store’s speakers. “In the doll section,” Shalit recalls, “only dolls in tight-fitting, provocative outfits stared out at me, all wearing heavy makeup and self-satisfied, flirty expressions. The young sprite browsing next to me, who looked about seven years old, wore a purple cropped top and peep-toe wedges with heels two inches high — an outfit that seemed to mock the very idea of finding a suitable doll for a little girl.”
The “Bratz Babyz” dolls Shalit was looking at included a “Babyz Nite Out” doll wearing “fishnet stockings, a hot-pink micromini, and a black leather belt.” The box tells you the Babyz are for the “four-plus” set, but kids of two and three can be seen with them at your local playground. Shalit visited the manufacturer’s website, and observed: “Many of the ‘Babyz’ . . . are posed very seductively, showing off their slick lips and teeny-weeny underpants. The Baby Bratz doll ‘Phoebe’ is garbed in a fluffy pink fur with matching lingerie, and her twin, ‘Roxxi,’ is stuffed into red-hot lingerie and a black leather jacket.” Companion Bratz books that are advertised to girls three and up ask girls what they wear when they “want to look hot for an extra special occasion.” Shalit is right to call this “creepy.”
So much for the bad news, the “Wild”; now let’s look at the “Mild.”
Shalit says that in a culture where “being publicly sexual has become the only acceptable way for girls to demonstrate maturity,” it’s heartening that it’s not so much the older folks — like Tipper Gore and other politically connected angry moms — who are fighting back, as it is the young girls themselves. The smut is still out there, and it’s often in your face — even when you’re with your kids. But it’s not going unchallenged.
Girls, writes Shalit, are bringing modesty back — and not in some absurdly unrealistic way that can be caricatured as “repression.” These girls know — because they’ve seen it in their families, on their campuses, in their neighborhoods, or through direct, unfortunate personal experience — that acting “wild,” being promiscuous, is the truly repressive and dehumanizing option. Says Shalit: “Looking ‘wild’ and acting ‘wild’ are supposed to be empowering, but more often they lead to misery, especially for young women who quickly learn to put their emotions in a deep freeze in order to do what is expected.”
Her book is full of impressive young women, and none more so than Rashida Jolley. This 26-year-old Washington, D.C., native challenges urban kids to have a little R-E-S-P-E-C-T. Jolley points out that “people like to stereotype African Americans as animalistic or whatever,” and registers a strong dissent. It’s “very offensive and very racist,” she says, to imply “that we don’t have control over ourselves.” And she blasts the patronizing ideology of such organizations as Planned Parenthood: “Those same individuals want to target urban schools and set up clinics and they make an assumption that we are just going to have sex anyway, and we aren’t capable of anything else, and to me that is extremely demeaning.”
Her lesson — and Shalit’s — is clear: Expect more and you might get more — a milder child, and a milder young adult. If you hand them Bratz in bras and celebrate celebrities best known for their Internet sex videos, you’ll get something different.
“Intimacy flourishes where there is also restraint,” Shalit writes. “Yet all the voices around young people tend to promote a cavalier attitude toward sex from the get-go, often under the guise of ‘health.’”
But today, more and more sensible young women are bridling when they hear “bitches” and “hos” on the radio. And it’s not a political issue in the least. A 25-year-old former model tells Shalit that it won’t be the conservative media that will help the culture go mild. The revolution, the model says, will continue to happen from within: It will start in a girl’s childhood home, “with a mother who values herself, and a father who respects her.” It will continue in college and in the workplace.
Shalit’s book is anecdotal — based on over 100 interviews with young women, ages 12 to 28 — and it’s not a policy prescription. It’s advice and inspiration for girls who want to be good and to know they’re not alone. But — perhaps more important — it’s a knock in the head to jaded adults who think that “kids are just going to have sex anyway.” Well, if you tell kids that, again and again, it will end up being true. But if you stay away from such easy, self-fulfilling prophecies — if, instead, you insist on self-respect; if you honor and support marriage and motherhood and fatherhood; if, in short, you expect the best — we won’t be saddled with a nation of Britneys lost in their sequined bras.
Talk or write about modesty or abstinence and you’re almost immediately dismissed as a prudish virgin who should have had to live under the Taliban (I’ve gotten the e-mails). Adults in authority — school administrators, commentators, and government officials — often seem to want teens to get only one side of the sexuality story. But girls need — and want — an alternative. In letting more and more young Americans know the alternative is out there and catching on, Wendy Shalit’s book (along with its accompanying website, modestyzone.net) is no modest cultural contribution.