The Good Girl Revolution: Young Rebels with Self-Esteem and High Standards Paperback – 8 Jul 2008
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About the Author
Wendy Shalit was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and received her Bachelor of Arts in Philosophy from Williams College in 1997. Her essays have appeared in "Commentary, Slate," the "Wall Street Journal "and other publications. Her first book, "A Return to Modesty: Discovering the Lost Virtue," was published by the Free Press in 1999. "The Good Girl Revolution" is her second book.
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In her second book, Girls Gone Mild, she writes about a new trend she has discovered in speaking to thousands of girls and young women in the aftermath of the publication of A Return to Modesty. She draws upon over 100 in-depth interviews and thousands of email exchanges with women from ages twelve to twenty eight, representing diverse racial, religious and economic backgrounds. Some identify as Christians or Jewish, liberals or conservatives, feminists or not. The one thread tying all of these together is a desperation to find new and better role models. Shalit says the book is "about my search for an alternative to our Girls Gone Wild culture. It's about finding a way to acknowledge sexuality without having to share it with strangers. It's about rediscovering our capacity for innocence, for wonder, and for being touched profoundly by others."
Shalit opens by discussing Bratz, those Barbie-like dolls that look "hotter than hot," appearing overtly sexual in slinky clothes. Marketed to pre-teen girls, these dolls encourage even the youngest girls to see themselves as sexual creatures who can use their sexuality to attract others. In a Bratz book even the youngest girls are asked to fill in the blanks: "When I want to look hot for an extra special occasion I'll put on _________." "These days, the way dolls are dressed," Shalit says, comparing Bratz to a beloved Cabbage Patch Doll from her youth, "the question is not so much 'Is my dolly real?' as 'How much does she charge per hour?'" From Bratz and the countless similar products, whether sexy dolls or t-shirts sold to infants emblazoned with sexy slogans or thong underwear for six year olds, we see that being a child is no longer a valid excuse not to be sexualized. And further to this, being publicly sexual has become the most, and possibly the only, acceptable way for girls to express maturity. Thankfully a rebellion is underway, and one that may even represent the dawning of a fourth wave of the feminist movement. This rebellion, girls and young women rising against the sultry status quo, is a reaction to the over-sexualization of nearly everything. The rebellion is the theme of the book. It shares equally the despair of the status quo and the hope for a better future.
Our culture has some things backward. Where it was once the "bad girl" who stood out from the crowd and who was known for her reputation, today the bad girl is the new normal, the new expectation. The "good girls," on the other hand, the ones who refuse to engage in sexual behavior and the ones who refuse to flaunt their bodies, are the ones who face rejection from their peers and, tragically, even from adults. Young people need to be and to act bad just to fit in. And this is exactly what they do. "Consider how girls today need to be thin, available, and always sexy. At the same time they are supposed to have no hopes, no messy feelings, no vulnerability. They must be aggressive, yet somehow inviting. It's complicated, and to rebel against the new bad-girl script takes enormous confidence." But it can be done. Unfortunately it needs to be done with few role models to serve as guides or mentors. Where a group of girls is rising and extolling the benefits of chastity and more traditionally feminine behavior, it is adults who are criticizing this movement and attempting to keep it from gaining ground. Many young people are tiring of the game and are tired of experiencing the consequences of bad girl behavior, but adults continue to push them into it.
Shalit thinks this movement towards chastity, towards feminine virtue, would be far greater and far more powerful were it not for the repression girls experience because of the new normal. Many women stifle their desires for more chaste lifestyles simply because society teaches that casual sex is good and wonderful and healthy. Further, society teaches that it is the weak who delay sex while the strong, those who are uncomfortable with their sexuality, are the ones who hold out. Similarly, the ones who are comfortable with their bodies are glad to exhibit their nakedness in public while only those who are ashamed of their bodies keep them covered.
The book has many stories of hope. The author writes, for example, about "Pure Fashion Divas," girls who hold fashion shows exhibiting clothing that is trendy but not exhibitionist. The way people dress, after all, makes a powerful statement. "Dress can turn a young woman, unwittingly, into walking entertainment for men, or it can do the opposite, and cause people to focus on her internal qualities." A statement that seems shocking only for how old-fashioned it sounds today. Shalit is correct when she shows that today's bad girl is really just a girl who is prone to please others. An overwhelming desire to conform to other people's expectations leads them to surrender their dignity and their sexuality. The costs are high. I was intrigued by a chapter called "Excuse Me, Ma'am, Have You Seen My Friends?" Here Shalit argues that women are fast losing their ability to maintain strong, meaningful friendships. Women today enjoy fewer same-sex friendships because adultery and competition for men is now normal. Women no longer trust other women; they no longer understand what it is to be happy for someone else and to rejoice with those who rejoice. Their relationships are strangled by a sexualized, competitive spirit. Ironically, the liberated woman is increasingly a woman who is alone. The consequences of the new bad girl behavior eventually isolate women from even each other.
I think I can be excused for often thinking, while reading this book, "Isn't this what the Bible has been saying all along?" Shalit is Jewish and conservative in her belief and practice of her faith. And, in fact, faith is a theme throughout the book as Shalit often turns to the Old Testament or to Jewish tradition to show how Scripture provides wisdom that is applicable to this topic. Many of the examples of young women who fight the status quo are Christian girls, fed up with the sexually-charged atmosphere around them. The Bible has been telling us all along that God has created men to be men and women to be women. Men and women are equal in value and worth but separate in function. The feminist movement has been pushing women, exhorting them to become more like men. But this book shows, as have many Christian authors in recent years, that true liberation comes not from pushing aside feminine distinctives but by rediscovering, embracing and celebrating them. What makes this book distinctive, at least among the similar titles I've read, is that it comes from outside the Christian publishing industry. It ties in nicely with titles like Unhooked, Female Chauvinist Pigs and others. It has already been widely reviewed and is sure to generate a great deal of discussion. If Shalit's first book is any indication, it will generate anger, bitterness and outrage. Yet hopefully it will also give young women at least a few role models--pure fashion divas, girls who refuse to give it all away, and perhaps the author herself--who can be role models to a new generation of girls gone mild.
Somewhat ironically, I wrote this review while spending time with my family at the beach. If we are in the midst of a trend towards modesty, I don't think there is much evidence of it here. My wife and I conferred and agreed that swimwear does not seem to be showing much in the way of modesty. Yet I do believe that Shalit's thesis is right. Girls are increasingly fed up with the way they've been told to act. They are the ones who bear the consequences for their behavior and they are the ones who are beginning to agree that enough is enough. As the father of two girls I hope and pray that this movement lives through its infancy and makes an appreciable impact. Few things would be healthier for society than to rediscover some semblance of femininity as defined by the One who created women to be women.
I found Girls Gone Mild a fascinating read and am glad to recommend it to others.
Shalit describes all the pressure modern girls face to objectify themselves, to put themselves on display, to smother their deeper instincts in order to fit in. It's a terrible picture, and I feel lucky to have escaped so much of it myself, and very worried about how my own young daughters will fare. But Shalit also offers us hope, by introducing us to amazing young girls who are speaking up for themselves, their dignity, and their own desires to achieve. I admire these young women so much, and I hope that more of them will appear and start changing the world. This "fourth-wave feminism," as Shalit terms the rising generation of outspoken girls, seems to me to be a much better, truer, and healthier feminism than what we have seen in the past few years. I have always laid claim to the title "feminist," because I have sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat, but now I've discovered that I can define myself more clearly as a fourth-waver.
Detractors apparently accuse Shalit and her young colleagues of 'wanting to turn back the clock,' 'bring back corsets and petticoats,' or even of being the Taliban in disguise. None of this is true. These young women want progress. They are true rebels, and the older generation doesn't seem to like it very much. But the older generation didn't have to grow up in a morass of pornography; perhaps they wouldn't have cared for it either.
A few years back, when this same author released A Return To Modesty, her ode to all things chaste, I read it in a sociology class and found it so preachy and unrealistic that had I been an Amazon reviewer then I probably would have trashed it here. But now it's 2007 and after hearing Wendy Shalit on NPR this week, I got the cheerfully titled Girls Gone Mild and was startled at how much sense some (not all) of what she wrote made to me. Of course I also fell into a brief depression when I was compelled to realize that I, barely a decade out of high school and so recently part of the demographic Shalit is writing about, was hopelessly past it all and now every bit as disapproving of the culture of sex that has somehow come to be forced on girls so young that by all rights they should still be playing with Barbie's.
In Girls Gone Mild Shalit still retains a little of her sing-song preachiness that gagged me in A Return To Modesty, and I think her "hundred girls surveyed" must've been hand-picked to embody certain pre-programmed extremes (come on, how many parents truly pressure their teens to have sex because they're ashamed to be raising an eighth-grade virgin?) but just as often I respected the assertions behind her chapters on the marketing of revealing attire to an ever-younger demographic; the raunchiness of music that targets pre-teens; and her statements made about the emotional neediness in a lonely culture of minors inundated by pressure to see the mandatory normality of serial hookups that leave a desire for emotional closeness anything but fulfilled. And Shalit and others from both the right and left who point out the scarcity of positive role models for girls in this decade are exactly right. For every teen queen whose party lifestyle makes for tabloid fodder there are probably a hundred-thousand girls who have the idea reinforced in them that this is what they have to imitate in order to be cool. No, I wasn't a saint when I was a teenager but I think the world I grew up in was positively PG-rated compared to today's, and where will it end?
I don't pretend to be convinced that the extremism Shalit is making a living writing about actually represents the norm for American society, but it would be equally naïve to try to say the fringe isn't out there, or that it doesn't infiltrate the mainstream year by year. Wendy Shalit made some sense this time around, and I'll be fair enough to admit it.
The story that Shalit tells deeply echoes my own experience with sex and dating. I was twenty years old for the first time that I kissed a boy. I thought that something was wrong with me, and felt prude and repressed. When I went to college I felt an even greater pressure to hook up as all my friends would randomly do so with boys after getting wasted on the weekends. I wanted to go on dates, like the stories my parents would tell. But dating as we know it has disappeared, "Much to the disappointment of many students, male and female, there's no real dating scene at Duke--true at a lot of colleges"(3).
It would be weeks after my first kiss that I would lose my virginity to a very attractive stranger, a visitor to our school, following the encouragements of my friends who couldn't believe that I was still a virgin. I thought to myself, "What is wrong with me? Why haven't I had sex yet?" So I did it. And just as Shalit maintains, the pressure to have casual sex is prevalent, and is proven to be very unfulfilling. After I did it my friends all congratulated me and I felt a sense of relief. But I also felt like I had done something terribly wrong, purging myself of feeling.
I'm not alone. Shalit claims that college students are having sex when they really don't want to, as looking wild and acting wild are supposed to be empowering. But they often lead to "misery, especially for young women who quickly learn to put their emotions in deep freeze in order to do what is expected." When I went on Spring Break in Acapulco I went wild. I thought it was the cool thing to do. I had sex with three people, including the club owner. He actually gave me a Girls Gone Wild Hat after we did it. I still have it. I thought I was doing the right thing for a woman my age. But after that trip I felt disgusted with myself. I was ashamed and empty. I thought I had become really good at keeping my emotions in check. I could hook up with a guy and not fall for him. But it still felt wrong. I regret it. "Everyone swims toward the norm and imagines others are having a great time, when in fact many are drowning"(12).
"Is sex more than just intercourse?"(4). This modern drive for sex has taken precedence over these courtship practices, along with love and intimacy and even marriage. I have never been on a date. Except with my boyfriend, but that doesn't count. Other than that I have never been on a date with a guy. I always wanted to go on dates, but none of my friends ever did it, none of them. I think this has proven to be disadvantageous to society as whole, detaching our emotions and very own self-value.
I feel as though there are conflicting social messages. My inherent values and core beliefs adhere to those of commitment and love. My primary goals in life consist of marriage and children. But I have diverged from my true worth as I have succumbed to the new standard. I have had sex with five people, and I was only in a relationship with one of them. That doesn't make me proud. But we live in an age where as Shalit writes, "sex tapes are star-making vehicles," and the term slut is casually coined to refer to women across America. I don't want to be part of the norm. I want to raise my standards. I don't want to have sex until I am married. And at the very least, I won't have sex with somebody until I truly get to know him.
For women, the truth which emerges from her book is the moral (i.e., human) absolute to value in thought, word and deed the inherent dignity of all women, as stated by one of the girls "gone mild" Shalit spoke with: [For Robin] "....pushing sexualized clothing on younger and younger girls is part of a society that does not value women" to the extent it values the efficiency and productivity of men; "So for Robin, refusing to wear sexy clothing means refusing to be defined in external terms" (p. 150). We can learn much from the young ladies interviewed in the book, such as the following: "With the trashy stuff, you're wanting to show everybody how good your body is, instead of how you are on the inside. I think it's much better to dress modest so you don't distract other people." Distraction here refers to distraction "from their personalities" (pp. 153, 158). One gent from Britain, quoted in the epigraph to chapter 6, was not so distracted:
"[As I] walk[ed] around a crowded city shopping area on a hot day last week, it often felt as though glancing anywhere below head-level in any direction was fraught--yet not doing so could clearly result in a twisted ankle. However, amid the plunging necklines and beltlines, piercings and tattoos, one woman stood out. She was wearing a long white summer dress with a red pattern on it, and she stood out because it made her look . . . pretty! Remember pretty? Ah, yes--I'd almost forgotten it, lost among all the hot, hip, raunchy grrrl-wear that has become the unofficial uniform de nos jours."
My experience as an educator exclusively of young women for over three decades has taught me that femininity includes the subtlety, the wisdom, the sensitivity, the gentle healing power of women. It is their strength, so much stronger than sad attempts to imitate men, which often degenerates into absorbing the worst male weaknesses and imperfections, as evidenced in Shalit's account. The good news is that young women are beginning to catch on, as shown in the author's discussion of the Edith Stein Project at Notre Dame. The Project's mission is to "explore a `new feminism' that would stress the dignity of women and `the unique role of women in society,' and to "raise awareness and combat the pressures in society that can negatively impact women as they search for acceptance and fulfillment" (p. 74). As a teacher in an all-girl high school in a major metropolitan area and an eyewitness to the various harmful fruits of the culturally-imposed "sexual revolution" on students down the years, I can attest to the oppression resulting from understanding the body ("the flesh") as what constitutes a person. And Shalit is right too in pointing out that these excesses have devalued both sexes. For girls, these are, for starters, low self-confidence, eating disorders, self-mutilation (from the "pain in being born female," (pp. 163, 270), promiscuous sex in hopes of feeling "loved" and the resulting hurt accompanying rejection by selfish males who use them, the abortions they are often forced to have as "backup contraception", which often leads to depression and in some cases, suicidal thoughts. For boys, Shalit posits ample enough evidence of what is all too dangerous: the objectification of the female, auto-eroticism which, when coupled with fantasaical addiction to pornography greatly imperils mature, healthy young men capable of offering what women really want in a man. Girls Gone Mild is full of expressions of the female sentiment that it is really difficult to get a guy to "fall in love with you." I suggest that we start with the aforementioned male behaviors when looking to discover why this is so. Young men are confused as to the purpose of sex, which is frequently recognized by "mild girls" in the book, as an expression of real (vs. "free") love, as being "about service to others," (p. 70) and "a desire to give; to create a bond and a unit that is more than the sum of its parts" (p. 179). Shalit recounts the experience of a former "player" who has stumbled upon this truth:
"Now I only look for a modest woman, but they are nowhere to be found and it only seems to be getting worse. I have gone out on three dates since moving here. Two were good and we really hit it off, but on the second date one girl asked me if we were going to have sex or not. 1 took her to her home, as I lost all attraction for her, and never called her again. The other date was the same thing. So for the past two years I have been bored with all the women whom I have met. It's all the same; they seem more sex-crazed than the men I know and it's rather boorish. . . . I hate that sex is somehow used as a form of validation these days. . . . Don't get me wrong, I like sex. (I am a man, after all!) But knowing that there is a challenge present does two things for me: It makes me feel like the person I am pursuing is worthwhile and has self-respect, and it makes me feel like a man should feel, like he has enough skill and compassion and gentleness to actually attract her." (p. 216).
Upon reflection, after reading Girls Gone Mild it seems we are living in a culture which can be described as a collection of independent humans running around, at times colliding, running in and out of "relationships", getting and consuming whatever they want, when they want it. The guiding principle appears to be protection of the individual's right to his or her total freedom at all costs. Everything is tolerated, so long as it does not interfere with the rights of the individual and dominating concepts such as "privacy", "choice" and "self-realization". But vice, personal tragedies, intense human suffering and much loneliness and unhappiness are the consequences of this attempt to build society on a false understanding of the human person. The social disaster which is developing is largely the fruit of this secularist ideology, examples of which abound in Girls Gone Mild. In the face of this reality, 15-year old Taylor Moore's advice is sagacious: "So all you can do is make sure you stay true to who you are [as a female human being], and then everything will work out in the divine order." (p. 55) Attempts to subvert or deny the distinct nature and role of women leads to both personal disintegration and ultimately to the disintegration of society. Over the years women have taught me that the differences between men and women are natural, not the result of oppressive, sexist, patriarchal, gender socialization. A truly good society is one which safeguards the right of women to be women, against the lie that women can be human only when they imitate men in all things, and against the lie that women must exercise influence in the same way as men do, or they will have no influence at all. There is much, much more wisdom in this wonderful, thoroughly-researched and entertainingly written work which taught me much and opened my eyes even wider; I have linked it and Shalit's blog to my webpage and am recommending Girls Gone Mild to all my students and theirs parents. I close with what deeply touched me, and goes to the heart of the book's basic meaning for me: the author's dedication of the book: "For my husband, who makes being good seem so easy." I'm betting he feels the same about his wife.