The Myth of the Woman-Child

20 Sep

My good friend Audra Williams challenged me to blog about this piece on Tavi Gevinson. Then she posted this ridiculous article from Jezebel on Facebook, and I thought I would address both of them at once. I am killing two birds with one stone! Two ugly, judgmental, anti-feminist birds!

Both articles are concerned with the girlification of today’s women. Katrina Onstad, author of the Tavi Gevinson piece, bemoans the rise of “girl culture”, complaining that the word “girl” is “wispy and feminine, destined for head-patting and glass ceilings“. Jezebel’s Deborah Schoeneman, on the other hand, uses the term “woman-child” to describe those of us she feels aren’t acting our age. The hallmarks of a woman-child are, according to Schoeneman, many and varied. She writes that, “from sporting sparkly nail polish to religiously reading every bestselling young adult novel, these women seem to be reliving their teenage years with real gusto.” 

First of all, I didn’t realize that there were rules on how to be an adult female. Maybe there’s a handbook I’m missing? The handbook that, according to Schoeneman, would tell me to watch What To Expect When You’re Expecting instead of The Hunger Games, and advise me against using nail art. Because as a lady I should want to watch movies about other lady-types having babies instead of movies about smart, strong teenage girls kicking ass and taking names, I guess. Also I should have really boring nails.

The funny thing is that Schoeneman is totally selling me on the idea of becoming a woman-child. The way that she describes the beliefs and behaviours she dislikes actually make them sound more appealing than appalling. For instance:

“[The woman-child] truly believes that women are in it together and is all about helping her friends start businesses, meet guys and pick out a cute outfit for a big event. Competiveness among females in the workplace is perceived as totally 80s.” 

I am really confused about what world Schoeneman is living in where the above would be considered a bad thing. I guess she’s maybe concerned that so-called “women-children” are naive about the way things really work? Do I need to point out that we can end competitiveness in the workplace among women if all of us would just flat-out refuse to compete?

Schoeneman is also pretty concerned about the lack of rings on ladies’ fingers and buns in their ovens. She writes that:

“The woman-child will likely get married later than the increasing national average. Advances in fertility treatments like egg freezing have also added to their confidence that they can reproduce older and potentially prolong their own girlhood.”

And this is where she (hopefully) totally lost everyone who identifies as a feminist. Because what she’s advocating here is the same old song the patriarchy keeps singing: marry young, have babies, fulfill your biological destiny, etc. It doesn’t seem to occur to her that women might want to delay (or totally avoid) marriage and children for reasons that have nothing to do with an extended adolescence. It seems like for Schoeneman, as with so many other people, a husband and child are still the ultimate goal.

Schoeneman’s article, while outwardly angrier and more condescending, is ultimately easier to dismiss. It reads like the frustrated rant of someone who has not found adulthood to be the land of fancy dinner parties and Cartier bracelets, the way she always thought it would be. It reads like she’s someone who doesn’t see herself or her style reflected in some of the current trends, and has therefore decided that the trends themselves are at fault. It reads as if she’s upset that her female friends and acquaintances have continued to be themselves, rather than morphing into SERIOUS GROWNUPS at the stroke of midnight on their 21st birthdays.

At the end of the day, Schoeneman is the one with the problem, not the so-called women-children. If the way that her friends behave is an issue for her, then she needs to find new ones. Maybe some married friends with kids?

Onstad’s article is trickier for me to dissect, in part because it talks a lot about the dangers of nostalgia, and I am a total nostalgia machine.

First off, Onstad begins by complaining about the use of the word girl to describe grown women, writing that “…a roaring, shag-cut “woman” is a powerful agent“, whereas “girl” is “the word before the drunken grope“, as if those four little letters are somehow responsible for what she perceives to be the diminishment of feminism. As if the very word girl is somehow responsible for the “drunken gropes” and everything else we’re subject to.

Onstad uses this opening to segue into a sort of review of Tavi Gevinson’s Rookie Yearbook One, a collection of pieces (and “girlie ephemera” like stickers and a 45) that mostly come from Rookie, Gevinson’s online magazine. 16 year old Gevinson is, Onstad assures us, an actual girl (and thus, I guess, allowed to call herself that), and her magazine is aimed at teenagers.

Onstad begins by praising the honesty and authenticity of Rookie Yearbook One, and then starts veering towards the but that you’ve been sensing since the beginning of the article. Rooke Yearbook One is great and all, Onstad tells us, BUT it is totally, totally nostalgic for the 90s. Ah, the wonderful 90s, described by Onstad as, “the time when “slut” was lipsticked across bellies and Donita Sparks of the band L7 threw her tampon into the audience“. Those were good times, right?

Onstad then draws the following conclusion:

Perhaps this, then, is why a surprising chunk of Rookie’s girl culture is about the former passions of 30- and 40-somethings. The promise of that tough, smart, sexually confident ’90s “girl” never died, but it’s never quite been realized either. For women of a certain age, it’s intoxicating – and possibly narcissistic – to revisit the pop trappings of girlhood, and attempt to make sense of what happened.

And, you know, this is where it gets tough for me, because revisiting the trappings of my girlhood in an attempt to make sense of what happened is, like, my favourite thing to do. So there’s a part of me that wants to call Onstad up and be like, okay, you got me, guilty as charged.

But then I think, hang on. Let’s hold the metaphorical phone, Joan. First of all, Tavi Gevinson was only a tiny kid in the 90s, which makes it pretty damn hard for her to feel nostalgic about them. Like many (most?) teenagers, she probably feels dissatisfied with the current state of teenager affairs, and perhaps thinks that things were better (or at least more riot grrrrrl-y) 20 years ago. I went through a phase like that, too, except it involved me wearing tie-dye and listening to bands from the 60s (much to my mother’s amusement/dismay). It wasn’t that I was nostalgic for that time – how could I have been? – it was that I was struggling to figure out where I fit in the particular pop culture landscape that I inhabited.

As for those of us who lived through the 90s, it’s hard not to look back and think that yeah, badass ladies were having a moment back then. I don’t think that this is so much nostalgia, though, as it is a desire to figure out how to bring about a similar moment for the badass ladies of this decade. It’s not wallowing in narcissism and the pop trappings of girlhood, it’s a need to sift through the past, to sort the bad from the good so that we can figure out what needs to be discarded and what we can keep.

And yeah, I’ll admit, the idea that there’s a smart, savvy generation of girls eager to take up the mantle of badassery and fight the good fight is pretty damn intoxicating.

Finally, let’s take a look at the term “man-child”, the male cultural counterpart to the “woman-child”. A “man-child” is typically described as someone who is emotionally immature, often refusing to own up to his responsibilities. A “man-child” often lacks any sort of motivation, and prefers to avoid many of the milestones of adulthood. Now, contrast that to the descriptions above of the “woman-child” as someone who reads YA books and wears sparkly nail polish. A man is a “man-child” because of his total lack of maturity; a woman is called a “woman-child” based on her likes and interests alone.

So, basically what I’m saying here is, fuck the patriarchy, and fuck this anti-woman bullshit. A woman can like whatever she wants, can wear whatever she wants, etc. By believing that they should avoid certain cultural phenomena just because it’s perceived as being young or girlish, Schoeneman and Onstad are missing out on a lot of good stuff. By telling us that we should avoid these things as well, they are attempting to create an even narrower definition of how we, as women, should behave. And believing that the way forward is to put limits on what a woman can like, say, or do is, like, the least feminist thing ever.

So there.

“Hi, it’s me, Tavi. I am way cooler than you. I mean, in case you were wondering.”

11 Responses to “The Myth of the Woman-Child”

  1. Cathy Baran September 20, 2012 at 2:12 pm #

    Is Tavi the little girl with the middle age face sitting front and centre at fashion shows? Every time I look at her, I feel like someone’s setting her up. Too bad the kid’s such a slave to the fashion machine. Instead of looking like herself, she just looks ridiculous.

    • bellejarblog September 20, 2012 at 2:51 pm #

      Tavi is the smart, adorable teenager who started a fashion blog when she was 11 years old. She is a brilliant and articulate writer (with an amazing eye for fashion), and I would give her a thousand high fives if I ever met her.

  2. greenstockings September 20, 2012 at 8:48 pm #

    While it is actually irrelevant to how dumb either of these articles is, I really do have a problem as a feminist with people referring to adult women as girls – I feel it’s infantalizing in most cases, especially in situations where men are comparably not referred to as boys (this was most obvious to me watching the London Olympic coverage – women were constantly referred to as girls, despite the actual raison d’etre of speaking about them is that they are competing in *Women’s* sporting events).

    I feel like it’s symptomatic of the same things that drive comparison terms like “sex cat” for men and “sex kitten” for women (is a kitten a female cat? no), and calling the women’s line of Phat clothing “baby phat.” I really do think it encourages us to see women’s sexuality as naive, innocent, and very much sets up a power dynamic between men and women where men are grown-ups and women aren’t, and that the appropriate sexual/romantic relationship is one with a younger woman and an older man – and very much conforms to the “marry young, have children young” paradigm that you so rightly criticized.

    Have you ever heard of a man being uncomfortable referring to his adult female partner to whom he is not married as his “girlfriend”? Because I can definitely recall lots of conversations with adult women about how weird it felt to refer to their adult male partners to whom they were unmarried as their “boyfriend”s. Is this a corollary of the social discomfort that many straight men feel in using the term “partner”, lest others think that they’re gay? Maybe. But I think it’s also part of our general comfort with validating/fetishizing youth in women in a way that we don’t as readily for men.

    • bellejarblog September 23, 2012 at 8:57 pm #

      This is totally a good point. In many of the professional environments I’ve worked in, the women have been referred to as “girls”, which drove me bananas. And, of course, the men were never called “boys”, unless they were all out drinking together or something.

      That being said, I (kind of weirdly) don’t have a problem with it if women want to refer to themselves as girls. I mean, I know that it’s a reflection of the indoctrination and conditioning we’ve been subject to about women, but for some reason it doesn’t bother me. Maybe I need to think on this a little more!

      • Laura September 25, 2012 at 6:44 pm #

        Well, often it seems less bad when groups refer to themselves with language that is or once was problematic, e.g. gay guys calling themselves “fags.” Even if women who call themselves “girls” aren’t conscious of doing so intentionally, it could be a form of reclamation.

        I also think that the extended adolescence thing is happening across the board and that both “girl” and “boy” are being applied to and by older and older individuals. I’m in my late 20s, and my friends and I still refer to males our own age as “boys” (especially if they are romantic interests). MAYBE “guys.” Never “men.” I was reading a novel from the 80s which referred to “college men,” and I was like, “What? There are no MEN in COLLEGE.”

      • bellejarblog September 27, 2012 at 1:39 am #

        There are no MEN in COLLEGE

        Oh God, how true. How sadly, perfectly true.

      • Phoenix Soul January 4, 2016 at 10:50 pm #

        I couldn’t find a comment button, but I just wanted to say I have a pretty concrete reason for identifing with Non-binary that has to do with this argument. When I lived in RI I would tell people that I was a girl, because most women and portrayals of women were disgusting to me. These same women insisted I had to be one of them and that I should act my age. So, after much thought and research into the non-binary area of the LGBTQ movment, I realized I fit non-binary nicely. But my secret real reason that galvanized my commitment to it? There is no history of Non-binary children vs. adults to compare to so no one can ever tell me to act my age EVER AGAIN! Let my LARPing and cosplaying life FOREVER ENDURE! (PS: I can now love comics and Channel Awesome without guilt, too!)

  3. Katharine September 27, 2012 at 9:16 pm #

    I’ve met men in college… mostly they’re on staff, but…

    None the less, I heard Jian Gomeshi just today (yesterday?) refer to a 14 year old and 16 year old as “young men” – of course, they are people accused of a crime. A 14 or 16 year old female-bodied person would (almost?) never be referred to in the media as a “young woman”, unless someone was trying to point out that she’d done something truly extraordinary that’s not expected of young people (especially young women). And she is even more likely to be referred to as a girl if she is the victim of crime. Ugh.

  4. habibilamour July 5, 2014 at 12:55 am #

    I just found this….the Jezebel article is ridiculous in so many ways! There is NOTHING wrong with having different interests, and putting friends before marriage and kids is empowering (not immature) because those relationships don’t involve compromise whereas you have to always compromise with husbands and kids. There is nothing wrong with rejecting pronatalism and living on your own terms, women have been fighting for equal opportunities and financial independence, so what about social independence? It’s just as important and if women aren’t using it to become Sex and the City clones then the author should just suck it up and deal with it.


  1. Shameless | The Belle Jar - September 23, 2012

    […] Thursday my piece about girl culture was featured as a guest post on Shameless Magazine’s […]

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