December 2008

Elizabeth Bachner

nonfiction

Red: Teenage Girls in America Write On What Fires Up Their Life Today edited by Amy Goldwasser

“It’s high time people stopped writing, talking and worrying about teenage girls and just let those girls speak for themselves,” writes bestselling author Elizabeth Gilbert in her blurb on the back of Red: Teenage Girls in America Write on What Fires Up Their Lives Today. As an erstwhile Sassy reader who came of age during the riot grrl zine revolution and studied Carol Gillagan’s rich-girl ethnographies in college, it feels like I’ve read literally hundreds of books where we hear the “real voices” of teenage girls in the past two decades. There’s Listen Up: Voices from the Next Feminist Generation (with a beautifully written, profound short piece by the teenage Curtis Sittenfeld that made me think, "This writer is going to be very famous someday," but then she disappeared and reemerged after years of teaching in Washington D.C. or somewhere like that, and got very famous, but with a less eviscerating voice) Ophelia Speaks: Adolescent Girls Write About Their Search for Self, zillions of online journals and blogs, and a spate of twentysomething hipster writers who hang out with Judd Apatow or Chloe Sevigny and have decided to publish excerpts from their still-quivering teen journals (Lesley Arfin’s Dear Diary, Sarah Brown’s anthology Cringe, and the Mortified books by David Nadelberg.) And of course there are the autobiographical novels and memoirs by well-connected teenage girls who’ve managed to publish at sixteen. I read one in the library the other day while I was waiting to see an off, off Broadway play starring Meryl Streep’s daughter, but I can’t for the life of me remember what the book was called.

It’s not a revelation to learn that these highly-scrutinized creatures struggle with their changing bodies, have complicated relationships with their parents, experience social angst and want to change the world. Yet it’s still customary within the Teen Girls Finally, Finally Find Their Voices and Become Empowered and Thank God We Can Finally Read About It genre to declare each bloggy essay a revolution of girl power. Red, according to Amy Goldwasser’s introduction, is different from “a series of quotes from teenagers run through an adult filter and called an oral history… Often the original work called for little or no editing. When it did, I only edited as much as I asked the girls questions… What you’re reading are their answers, 100% their writing.”

Goldwasser (age 36) overlooks the importance of her own filtering system. Out of around 800 essay submissions on any subject that girls 13 to 19 wanted to write about, she chose 58. Inescapably, this book is carefully sculpted by an adult, just like most of the others. Interestingly, there’s a section in the beginning that features “Real Reviews from Real Girls,” all of whom think that the book is “empowering,” “a revolution,” “truthful,” “darkly poignant” and “real.” If there’s one thing teenage girls (and later, grown women) learn in this society, it’s how to follow instructions about whom and what we’re supposed to be, and the trick is to follow the unspoken instructions especially. This generation has cut their teen teeth on the prerogatives of confessional writing, on finding their “true voices” and “speaking out” and being real. That’s why the letters and confessional sections of teen magazines are filled with exact replicas of the copywriting within, submitted profitlessly by real teen writers.

Red is a place for the freshest, most fearless young voices out there to explode the puffy pink stereotype of the American teenage girl,” writes Goldwasser. In my world, a world where Veruca Salt’s Seether came out eighteen years ago now (yikes) and Debbie Harry was snorting horse before I was born, the real stereotype is that American teenage girls are canny and expert confessional essayists -- and that in spite of all their savvy and sassiness and love of empowerment, they have eating disorders and secretly cut themselves, and they finally grow up into women who buy face cream with flecks of platinum in it and fantasize that strip-club-loving businessman will surprise them with diamonds mined by twelve-year-olds, and that, if they are painfully gifted fifteen-year-old writers, they will eventually write bestsellers titled (unironically) The Man of My Dreams. For some, there may be a phase a drunken collegiate boob-flashing along the way.

What would really be a stereotype-popping surprise, revolution and revelation would be a book where teenage boys talked candidly about this stuff, and by teenage boys I don’t mean the kinds of geeks who go on to publish memoirs like Paul Feig’s Superstud or offer their formerly-acned contributions to the cringy diary genre. I mean those impossibly cool, relatively silent boys who rule adolescence, who get laid all the time and grow up to rule the adult world, too, not by being rich or intellectual but just by the sheer power of their implacability, their continued refusal over many generations to buy guides to their own inner lives or magazines filled with pictures of themselves, their unshakeable confidence -- a confidence likely born of inertia, but awe-inspiring nonetheless.

The girls in Red are often gifted writers. They come, Goldwasser tells us, from the first generation of writers, what with their incessant texting and blogging and e-mailing. She reports that most of them wrote in about weight and body image issues (wow, how stereotype-exploding! A revelation! A red-volution!), but she judiciously broadens the scope of the book, including sections on the body and beauty, family, school, friendships, sex and crushes, extracurriculars, pop culture and the wider world. The essays are sure to make teenage girls feel less alone and make adults glad to have escaped with their lives. By page 21, two of the girls have reported that schoolmates suggested that they commit suicide. There’s a pair of essays by identical twins, one thin and conventionally pretty, the other fat. The teen girl world is still full of mean girls, “short-tempered, robotic, rude” dads, drugs, eating disorders and dispiriting mother-daughter battles. There are still different kinds of “popular” in the seventh grade (“Everything was perfect in my short-sighted seventh grade view,” reports Caro Fink, “I had friends and was popular. Not the popular of blond hair and lip gloss, but the popular I’d always wanted -- a comfortable circle of close friends who understand me and accept me no matter what.”) Even in this post-J-Lo, Baby Phat, America Ferrara era, blond hair and lip gloss still wield the same devastating power that they always have.

It’s not that confessionals or soupy college application essays about how great it is to be handicapped or almost lose your sister in a tsunami or have lived through Hurricane Katrina are the only things that “fire up” teen girls. It’s that everyone in the corporate-sponsored girl power era keeps generating new material of this flavor and pretending that the act of it alone is somehow magnificently ground-breaking. The true story, whether puffy and pink or bloody and red, is the default genre of the teenage girl. It’s high time a bunch of them banded together and wrote an anthology of opinion pieces on Abu Ghraib or a book of really interesting literary fiction.

Red: Teenage Girls in America Write On What Fires Up Their Life Today edited by Amy Goldwasser
Plume
ISBN: 0452289831
288 Pages