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Pop Goes The Cherry 

Teenage Girls, Sex, Self-Image, Pop Culture and Why Madonna Kicks Britney's Butt

When MTV first came out, it was sexy in a challenging, alternative way, and it inspired a lot of teenagers to explore all kinds of things, including queerness and sluttiness. It was the early 80s and androgyny was thrillingly bold...all the boys and girls had eyeliner, padded shoulders, trapezoidal hair, numerous belts, and it was good. You couldn't buy that stuff at the GAP. New Wave was a whimsically subversive lifestyle: the logically softened, ironic flipside of the Shoot-Speed-Until-You're-Dead punk ethos. It was still outside the mainstream -- if you had New Wave hair, you couldn't get a job at a restaurant. For a precocious teen girl, whether you admitted her influence or not, Madonna was a good role model, because she combined the amusingly snarly elements of punk with vampy, flirty starlet-ism; she taught moneyless girls to look stylish by ripping black tights and old t-shirts; she redefined the bra-strap; and she was almost African on the dance floor. In short, Madonna was a liberating package which said to the world, "Oh yeah? You think I'm a high-school slut? You wish you were a high-school slut." And since we were all normal, healthy high school sluts, we more-or-less liked Madonna's shtick and felt good about ourselves. Those were the days.

Now, the world of MTV is utterly mainstream, and you can get it all at the GAP, and the girls are influenced by Britney Spears, who I'm beginning to think is a plot by the dessicated Christian patriarchy to Keep The Bitches Down and/or screw up sex forever. Britney, Barely Legal strip artist and soi disant virgin, is mucking up normal femininity for any girl under the age of 16 and probably making the next generation of boys turn their masturbatory attentions towards the less confusing, robotically idealized T&A of animated Japanese softcore.

It's sex but it's not sex

It seems to be part of Britney's contract that she is supposed to trumpet out the fact that she still has a hymen (despite the fact that she's a legal adult and lives with her boy-band boyfriend). This implies that virginity is a magic wand that cancels out all her bad naughtiness when she wears those spangled, see-thru thong-tubes and jiggles her dirty pillows.

This is terrifying, creepy, bad, wrong, virgin/whore whiplash sales gimmickry that reeks of somebody's Baptist Republican grandpa wanking into a Hello Kitty crew sock.

Britney makes Madonna, in retrospect, look like a deep feminist and moral genius. Madonna, say what you will about her, never had that dead, obedient, corporate-shill look in her eye. Madonna never would have insulted us by insisting, after tossing her slacks into the audience, that she was an actual virgin. As slutty as we all knew Madonna was, we never knew exactly what kind of traffic she had between her legs. She never actually told us, unless you count that silly lesbian coffee-table book.

I think this tendency towards surreal "Ceci n'est pas une pipe," this-pornography-is-not-pornography, junior morality-teazers in pop imagery -- especially when such psycho-sexual, voodoo compellingness is being used to brainwash a captive consumer audience of teenagers -- is going to be responsible for a whole lot of incredibly square, fearful, sexually retarded Jesus freaks with bad early marriages and dark secret porn habits. It's not healthy. We cover the bodies of naked teenage girls with money, then condemn the use of their own bodies for their own pleasure, by suggesting that sex would be trashy. Such suggestions are very potent to teenage girls, who just want people to like them. This kind of confusion begets overly literal attachments to Christ, and thinking well inside the box, for a nice lifetime of obedient office slavery, both at work and in the bedroom. I smell plots.

Running from fun

I recently took part in a panel discussion on the all-female campus of Wellesley University, where the poor girls, ostensibly recoiling from Britney's thong, have dropped out of the female thing altogether. Wellesley is pervaded by a spooky, sexually amputated and moldering feeling, a stifled, hysterical vibration that makes one feel that if they opened the wrong heavy wooden door they might find a couple of obese, nude, mustachioed nuns ecstatically beating each other with splintered two-by-fours over a homemade Catherine Wheel. This feeling, I would hasten to say, isn't because of the university's pronounced lesbian presence -- lesbians know what they like and enjoy it. It was the aggressive non-femininity adopted by the straight girls that was really disturbing.

It isn't just that the straight girls don't care how they look because they are undistracted by the presence of boys...they seem to be trying to repel, like refugees fearful of rape. They wear what looks like weatherproof outdoor grill covers. They have large athletic shoulders, chapped lips and monobrows, proud thickets of dark body hair. They would look as enslaved and humiliated in a red wraparound dress as a Kodiak bear would.

These are some of the nation's smartest young women, and their formless tarp outfits and disdain for any sexual cues such as basic grooming are arguably way healthier than the uniforms adopted by their fashion-slave sisters, the bulimic Eurotrash, 70s coke-whore J-Lo's and Christina Aguileras in pubic-hairline hiphuggers, gold belly-chains, stiletto mules and tiny $400 handbags. To the thoughtful college girl, commercial glamour is self-hating and ignorant of feminist history, but the college girls have divorced themselves from any fun to be had by being a girl, not that there's much fun left to be had in a world where doctors that used to advertise "breast enhancements" now peddle "breast enlargements" for those who didn't get it the first time.

Boys are also having a tough time, image wise, I suppose, what with the defiantly gay, Hepburn-cheekboned, prep school woman-boys of Prada juxtaposed with the Donkey Kong muscle crotches of Calvin Klein. Male beauty is defined by homosexual fashionistas and the billboards they buy, but at least the boys don't have to pretend they are Traci Lords and Charlotte Church in the same swimsuit. Boys have always been allowed to have the fun that girls just wanna have.

Junk-sex commercial input

I briefly attended a school that was an adjunct of Redwood High School in Northern California, alma mater of American Taliban enthusiast John Walker Lindh. The kids on that campus, when I was there, were some of the most prematurely sophisticated, media savvy, jaded teens in the world. They were sexually open-minded and complicated.

I can almost see how somebody as egomaniacal, sophomoric, weak-minded and spoiled as John Walker could adopt a pretentious fake accent and defend a religious society that cuts women's fingers off if they wear nail polish, given the stimuli he's had.

It has become too challenging for youth, especially an idiot youth, to form a well-rounded, happy sexual identity in the US with so much unhealthy, junk-sex commercial input. Kids are polluted with boneheaded moral polarization, and are frightened away from finding intelligent gray areas. They need to go park in the dark in big cars, and steam up windows the old-fashioned way, without so many cretins suggesting how and how not to do it. Maybe they all need to go to France.

Cintra Wilson is the author of A Massive Swelling: Celebrity Reexamined As a Grotesque, Crippling Disease and Other Cultural Revelations and a columnist for Salon.com. Her last contribution to CL was "Buy, Humbug" in the December 1, 2001 issue.

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