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Wendy Shalit's new book, Girls Gone Mild, is sure to meet with criticism from some ranks of feminist thinkers as well as those who hail the sexual revolution of the 1960s as liberating. This criticism, though, is not new for Shalit and her counter-cultural message. Her 1999 book, A Return to Modesty, provoked similar critiques from certain quarters. So just what is this provocative message Shalit suggests? Surprisingly, her ideas, while against the cultural grain, are quite conservative and, some might say, old-fashioned. She argues that the sexual revolution, and its ripple effect still felt today, has brought with it its own sets of oppressive tendencies for young women and that it has made modesty, once considered a virtue, out to be a near pathology of human sexuality.
In Shalit's first book she argued, among other things, that modesty may in fact be a prerequisite for the erotic. In this new installment, she offers an impressive array of arguments and empirical data that suggest that not only is modesty a viable alternative to the purported liberation propounded by the sexual revolution crowd, but it is a trend sweeping culture to the benefit of young women. The new counter-cultural stance is not an attitude of detached sexual promiscuity, as was the counter-cultural position of the 1960s, but of modesty and a view of sexuality that affirms the profoundly holistic nature of a human being. In other words, sex, at its best is tied, and not divorced, from emotional experiences such as caring and love. The pressure to repress feelings for the sake of male acceptance and to treat sex as a casual undertaking are pressures felt by the heirs of the sexual revolution and the desire to deliver equality to women via a certain stance on what it means to be sexually liberated. Shalit's message in the book carves out space for young women to reject these pressures.
Shalit decries the marketing of overt sexuality to young women, teens, and even younger girls. Among the jarring examples Shalit provides of this trend are the popular Bratz dolls. One wonders whether laugher or tears are more appropriate as she describes the scene on the shelves of the toy section:
Bratz Babyz makes a 'Babyz Nite Out' doll garbed in fishnet stockings, a hot-pink micromini, and a black leather belt. To look 'funkalish' (whatever that means), the baby also sports a tummy-flashing black tank paired with a hot-pink cap. Dare one ask what is planned for 'Babyz Nite Out' and what, exactly, is she carrying in her metal-studded purse? Is it pacifiers or condoms? It might be both…The dolls are officially for ages 'four plus,' but they are very popular among two-and-three-year-old girls as well (xv-xvi).
This reinforces the expected behavior from women in society at an alarmingly young age, thinks Shalit. Young women are expected to be sexually liberated, i.e. to be detached from the emotional dimension of human sexuality, to match the male drive for promiscuity, and to flaunt their bodies.
However, Shalit sees a new wave of role models leading a new movement of girls and young women who assert that it is okay to be the "good girl," that it is okay to desire a sexual relationship that is not based on a one-night hook-up (but on the predication of love and mutual respect) and that it is okay to keep some things about one's body and sexuality secret until an appropriate time. The book is, at heart, about these women who stand in the wake of the tide and even mean to turn it. Shalit says, "What is liberation to one generation can be oppression to the next" (106). This seems to be the effect of the expectations placed on young women by their sexual revolution predecessors. Girls Gone Mild presents an impressive collection of stories and anecdotes from women who have found the sex-as-a-casual-affair view foisted upon them by societal expectations to be wanting. These women no longer feel as if portraying the "bad girl" is supposed to be empowering. The book is full of Shalit's footwork in gathering many such examples around the country. These new role models give hope to the many girls today, gilrs who Shalit discovered feel that they have to be "bad" just to fit in. While the pressure is for girls to go wild, Shalit offers a portrait of a world in which girls go mild, and benefit from the results. This is true liberation, thinks Shalit. It is the liberation for young women and girls to pursue their natural hopes and dreams--for love, family, caring relationships--and not to succumb to a prepackaged story about how women ought to behave if they are to be liberated and escape the throes of oppressive men.
Some will, of course reject Shalit's argument. If the liberation of women means being on a level with men in every sense of that phrase, then that seems to imply matching men's ability to have detached casual sex and to treat one's body as a sexual instrument. In other words, Shalit's work is fraught with a view of essentialism concerning the sexes. I find this view unobjectionable, but many will not agree. An upshot of Shalit's endorsement of essentialism is that women truly find liberation when they allow themselves those tendencies and emotional attachments that come natural to them. In fact, empowerment for women, Shalit says, is exacted when men are forced to show women respect and a good measure of nobility.
Some will also object to Shalit's ethical objectivism, the view that there are at least some ethical principles that apply to all people, in all places, and at all times. Her arguments are predicated upon the idea that the reigning cultural mores do not determine the morality of a given action, but that the moral assessment is independent of cultural agreement or disagreement. Again, I find objectivism unobjectionable, but some will object.
In all, it is a provocative and informative read and to be highly recommended if one desires a glimpse into cultural criticism, feminist theory, philosophy, and pop culture.
© 2008 Ryan Pflum
Ryan Pflum is a graduate student in philosophy at Western Michigan University
Editor's note: this book will be published in paperback by Ballantine Books under the title "The Good Girl Revolution: Young Rebels with Self-Esteem and High Standards"
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