on media + the lie of teenage power
This isn’t really about the Britney Spears documentary, though it is necessarily informed by at least the position it's had within the cultural conversation lately. In true Something Old Newsletter fashion, it was triggered by a piece of writing which was done in reference to that documentary.
Tavi Gevinson wrote for The Cut about how Britney Spears was never in control of the way she was sexualized. The crux of the piece is that sexuality is not liberation by virtue. It’s a great piece that you should read and it’s Gevinson’s (and her friend Laia’s) point there I want to talk about today.
Media depiction of teenage girls, the way I see it, has two rules for max sexualization:
- Real teenagers are to be portrayed as women
- Fictional teenagers are to be played by women
One of my most vivid memories of watching fashion shows as a teenager was in 2015 when Christian Dior had 14 year old Sofia Mechetner close their show. Articles from the time hail it as this Cinderella moment where Raf Simons discovers this poor Israeli girl from life with her mom who has 3 jobs and now she’s a big star.
She’s 14 years old. Fourteen. One four. 1-4. Fourteen. And she’s there with nipples out on the Dior runway.
There’s rules against child models, but models don’t really have any power and everyday more models come out about how they’ve been abused in the industry. It’s horrible.
But, even if they don’t start at fourteen, most models do start really young. Fifteen, sixteen, that’s very normal. And they’re considered veterans at 25. Our perception of desirable body dimensions come directly from fashion. Those dimensions are pubescent because the fashion industry is making clothing for pubescent bodies and pretending they’re the same as adults then marketing that to everyone.
On the flipside of that idea, most teenage girls on TV shows intended for teenagers are played by women well into their twenties, sometimes older. There’s a lot wrong with that as far as teenage self esteem goes (you’re not gonna look like Blair Waldorf at 16 because that 16 year old was 21 year old Leighton Meester) and it’s only gotten worse since that outdated example.
You can see the poisoning of the positioning of adults as teenagers everywhere. My favorite kind of tweet is when some teenager shows a photo of the most beautiful famous woman you can imagine with the caption like “she’s in her THIRTIES?!” as if people just like, I don’t know, wither into dust at age 35.
For the record, this is just as prevalent in men. I grew up watching a lot of Beverly Hills 90210 with my mom and, I don’t know if you know this, Luke Perry was portraying Dylan from ages 24 to 29 (and then again from 32 to 34). And boy does he look it! Incredibly handsome, not unreasonably jacked like his fictional son in his other show, but he never looked like a teenager.
I think it was almost better when, like, Hollywood would cast these men flagrantly in their 30s to be high schoolers like in Grease. At least then it’s like, “oh okay I’m suspending my disbelief got it.” No hate to Mr. Michael Tucci, but come on? Not a chance.
While being bad for a teenager’s self esteem to only see 20-somethings play teenagers, there’s a lot more wrong with it as a tool to be able to portray children having sex. Which is not to say 16 year olds don’t have sex, but it’s another thing to show it on the CW at 7PM. There’s discomfort in watching a minor be sexualized heavily. There should be discomfort in that. But when you replace a 15 year old with a 22 year old, that discomfort is mitigated by knowing that person is an adult so instead it’s just normal.
Pretty Little Liars was at its height when I was in high school and, in case you’re not aware, one of the main plot points is a student-teacher relationship. At the time there was some criticism of it, rightfully so, but it mostly got written off. Obviously, if she looked her age and if the guy wasn’t incredibly handsome it would be perceived as weirder.
It’s damaging to be a teenager with these two ideas of what women are. That you should be hot and fully developed as a teenager, but when you’re an adult you shouldn’t change any dimension of your pubescent body because that’s what’s beautiful and chic.
I don’t think that’s the end of the harm, though.
I was a pretty young teenager when the concept of sex positivity was really having its moment within mainstream feminism. This idea that sexuality when harnessed by a woman is an inherently radical thing. To take agency over your body is feminist. Then that messaging quickly turned into the idea that if you weren’t comfortable with your sexuality that meant you were suffering under the patriarchy. So, to liberate yourself you should let a man hit you in bed and engage in fetish acts you don’t fully understand.
You’ve been pushed the idea since you were a child that a schoolgirl outfit is hot. You’ve been pushed the idea that it’s hot and very normal to be into older men. You’ve been pushed the idea that real life teenagers are interchangeable with grown women in fashion. And you’re now being told that it’s actually feminist and empowering to play into these extremely degrading power dynamics. Moreover, it’s wrong to criticize this messaging of “sex positivity” because people get torn down for being concerned.
It’s all you see on TV. It’s all you see in porn. It’s all you see on Tumblr. It’s normal. Don’t be so uptight.
Then one day you’re in your twenties and you realize that, actually, I just wanted to be seen as cool and attractive because I was insecure. I was 16 the first time a guy asked if he could handcuff me in bed and I didn’t think it was a weird request. Now I realize that all of my first sexual experiences were informed by feeling like I had to be cool with everything because that’s just what everyone was doing. It’s because of this forced, kink-influenced perception of what sex is that I’ve struggled to recognize actual harm done to me.
Teenage girls want to feel like they have power and they should get to feel confident, but the concept of sexuality as empowerment was weaponized against me and it has caused irreversible harm. I’m extremely concerned about the way OnlyFans and online sex work generally are talked about with regard to young women. I see the same conversations about that as I did when people expressed concern about BDSM themes being pervasive within communities of young women online.
People are accused of not supporting sex workers and others fiercely defend it as empowering, but I just can’t shake my own experience as an overconfident 18/19 year old being certain that wielding agency in sex is inherently good for me.
But power just isn’t that easy and it’s hard to recognize until it’s too late.
I want teenagers to have access to safe sex and to be educated about sex. It’s ridiculous to pretend teenagers don’t have sex. I want sex workers to be protected. But protecting young people should still be paramount.
To bring this back to music (as that’s usually my wheelhouse), I read Laura Snapes wonderful piece on Olivia Rodrigo and, in light of the Britney documentary and Tavi Gevinson’s article, I continue to worry that we treat Gen Z as if they have an advanced ability to understand the world due to their exposure to socially and economically conscious discourse through technology.
I think as Gen Z gets older there’s generally a pervasive idea that because they understand the internet and certain kids have more developed lefty politics that means they’re not being impacted negatively as easily. That’s not true and it should be recognized that kids are still kids. Young people still have limited life experiences and are still vulnerable.
Pop culture looks a little different than the late 90s, but being able to use the language of social justice and empowerment isn’t a substitute for those young people actually having power. Olivia Rodrigo making music that is more intimate and emotionally specific doesn’t preclude her from being vulnerable. Being able to work outside the industry as far as making music in your bedroom and becoming famous off that doesn’t mean kids aren’t exposed to the same kinds of dangers as teenagers of yore.
Miranda Reinert is a music adjacent writer, zine maker, and law student based in Philadelphia. Follow me on Twitter for more on music and other things like when I get to be on the Endless Scroll Podcast: @mirandareinert. I also opened up a paid tier of this newsletter which for $5 a month (or $40 a year! what a deal!) you’ll get free zines as I make them and one upon sign up! Wow! But as always, thanks for reading!