I'm no Rihanna fan, but it's time to stop agonising about oversexualised girls
On the one hand, we’re panicking about whether Rihanna is a good role model. On the other, we’re in a tizzy about Taylor Swift and her Stepfordesque, buttoned-up look.
I’m no cheerleader for Rihanna’s raunchy, hand-on-crotch brand of pop, and I don’t much love Taylor Swift’s prim angst either. But shouldn’t we stop banging on about how they look, and focus on the fact that they’ve both made it into the top three of the Forbes list of the highest-earning women in music, doing what they love?
When I was a teenager, the media was in a near-constant state of apoplexy over Madonna, and yet I managed to grow up watching her cavort around in next-to-no clothes without feeling the need to do it myself. At school, I’d never heard the expression “size zero”, but I knew girls who starved themselves. There were no newspaper articles warning about “self-mutilation” or “slut shaming”, but I knew people who did both. I had friends who drank too much, and friends who slept with boys too young.
I’m not being glib about any of these things – they were all traumatic, and maybe even life-altering experiences for the people involved. The point is that if girls are in crisis now, then it’s a crisis that’s been happening for well over two decades.
What has changed is that women’s lives, choices and bodies have become a source of anxiety like never before. They are no longer private terrain. Instead, they have become a battleground, open to being debated over, discussed, dictated to – and ripped apart in Heat magazine or the Daily Mail’s “sidebar of shame”.
This is the real difference; if there is a pressure on girls, then it is a pressure we’re putting on them with this constant monitoring for signs that they might be too thin, too fat, too sexualised. The US actress and reality TV star Jessica Simpson recently found herself in controversy after she tweeted a photo of her four-month-old daughter wearing a primrose yellow crochet bikini over her nappy. Who could seriously get exercised about the so-called “sexualisation” of a tiny baby in a nappy? (The British charity Kidscape, that’s who.)
Maybe it’s time we laid off all this public agonising about girls, and turned our attention to how we’re raising boys.
Too often, we encourage them to shut off their nurturing and caring sides, we bombard them with messages that suggest women are principally there to give pleasure, and yet we expect them to mature into empathetic, emotionally-aware men who are capable of being hands-on fathers, supportive partners and financially-independent members of society.
Not that Biddulph is upbeat about boys either. Overall, he told an Australian journalist recently, we are raising “one of the most depressed, anxious and lonely generations of young people ever to inhabit the Earth”.
If girls are getting mixed signals about the kind of women we want them to be, then the signals we are sending out to boys about their masculinity are positively bewildering.