Beginnings, Girlhood, and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt

Originally posted May 1, 2015

When Kimmy Schmidt first arrives in New York, she has thousands of dollars in Mole Women pity earnings packed into a purple monogrammed JanSport. She drops a few bucks on light-up high tops straight out of her youth and gleefully makes her way through the city in floral print, bright jeans, and a butterfly-appliqué cardigan. Kimmy’s young bliss and sunniness was an intentional move on Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt creators and writers Tina Fay’s and Robert Carlock’s part. After all, it’s a show about starting over, but it’s also about learning to get from adolescence to adulthood and being able to enjoy the ride, despite setbacks.

Unsurprisingly for Fey, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is packed with images of strong womanhood. It’s a unique perspective from 30 Rock though because of the show’s keen focus on girlhood—Kimmy is, after all, only 14 when she is kidnapped and trapped in an apocalypse cult leader’s underground bunker. After a raid on the bunker frees her at 29, she has to start from scratch to not only get her girlhood life back but also make her way into the larger world beyond her native Indiana, the trauma of the bunker, and the slew of challenges that come with being female, victimized, uneducated, and ill-prepared.

Her first day in the big city starts off reasonable but takes a rocky turn when all her money is stolen and she loses her new nanny job as quickly as she found it. Her new roommate, failing actor Titus Andromedon, tells her to pack up and go home—New York isn’t for her. Crestfallen and bound for the bus to Indiana, Kimmy sees a reminder of her time in the bunker, a moment when she’d promised her kidnapper, the Reverend Richard Wayne Gary Wayne, that he’d never break her. She gets her second wind. She won’t go back home and be the Mole Woman victim because she’s more than that. She convinces Titus to agree with her: “We have to say, We’re different, we’re the strong ones, and you can’t break us.” Together, they stare the world in the face and make the most of where their detoured situations have dropped them.

The show is an entertaining and comedic watch, but there’s also a lot there in terms of critiquing girlhood and womanhood in general. For starters, Kimmy is mirrored by her employer, socialite Jacqueline Voorhees (Jane Krakowski of 30 Rock fame), who is revealed to be fairly trapped by marriage, materialism, and helplessness and runs from her Native American heritage in favor of the blonde bombshell ideal. To boot, Jacqueline’s step-daughter Xanthippe comes off as the spoiled, bad-egg teenager who stands as another foil to Kimmy. Early on, Xanthippe promises to eat Kimmy alive while throwing her into the deep end of girlhood tropes: “Disney lies to little girls,” she snarls. “Stepmothers aren’t scary. Nannies aren’t magical, and dwarfs do not let you sleep in their house without expecting something.” In other words, life totally isn’t going to be what idealistic Kimmy Schmidt from Indiana expects. And it will swallow her up.

But Kimmy is unbreakable. It’s interesting to notice how Jacqueline and Xanthippe grow with Kimmy—who struggles through typical girlhood hurdles of going back to school, having crushes, battling mean girls, and wearing lots of bright colors. It’s revealed slowly that even cynical Xanthippe isn’t as clear cut as she looks: for all her boasting about partying and sex, she’s actually straight edge and sexually inexperienced. She turns out to be just like Kimmy, wading in a current of girlhood pressures that call for beauty performance, partying, cliquiness, and relational aggression. The show takes all the tropes of performing femininity and turns them, revealing something fresh and instructive on what it means to get from girl to woman.

It’s telling that the overarching theme of the show is how to get from victimized to empowered, with a lot of sunny comedy to guide the way. The plot plays on the cult concept of religious fundamentalism—with Colorado City–style rhetoric and prairie dresses to match—and the idea of patriarchy silencing and belittling girls and women. The Mole Women haven’t known much else, so they believe (for the most part) in their inferiority. When they’re released, they’re defined as Mole Women by outsiders, and after a TV interview they’re shooed out of the studio and onto the street by a production assistant who repeats, “Thank you, victims! Good luck!” There’s something fresh about a show that sets up how society sees the protagonist and then defying that stereotype in all ways, without coming off as just another re-birth story. Kimmy Schmidt has added to the canon of girlhood and feminism, giving us just one more reason to put away all the harmful tropes and setbacks working against us, to stand up and be unbreakable.

#TBT on Sexuality, the Rumor Mill, and Degrassi Junior High

Originally posted on May 1, 2015

It always catches me off guard when I learn that a close friend has managed to reach adulthood without Degrassi Junior High. I first saw this 1980s Canadian after-school series on a rollaway TV cart in sixth grade health class, and ever since I have to resist busting out into the opening theme whenever I see lockers, spiral-bound notebooks, or acid-wash jeans. If you ignore the obtrusive B-minus acting, it really isn’t a bad watch if you crave good messages about growing up and find the larger part of TV-dom wanting. On the surface, the show feels antiquated—a laughable relic of daytime TV set to the beat of the ’80s—but hang on past the awkwardness and you’ll find that this little show has covered some big ground for teenage girls.

Back in my late-’90s health class we all laughed at the punk-pandering title song, not to mention the Canadianisms that pepper the dialogue. (Grade sevens?) Being of Canadian stock myself, I gave the show a pass and settled in to watch for whatever brainy message our teacher was using TV to trick us into absorbing. What I came away with was not a bad primer on the old bildungsroman of girlhood.

One of the first episodes we watched was “Rumor Has It,” from Season 1. It stuck in my mind, in part because it dealt with a mum topic while grappling with the universal teen law of the grapevine. It explored a rumor about a teacher and a full circle of what to watch for when teenage chatter leaves the rails. I remember this one pretty clearly because it dealt with a central conflict that, in our small-town public school, was somehow more taboo and mysterious than drugs, teen pregnancy, and bullying combined. The episode opens on a dream sequence (I know—stay with me) wherein middle schooler Caitlin is having an awkward moment with a teacher, Ms. Avery, whom a few students think is a lesbian. Ms. Avery is giving a lecture about how a lot of exceptional women are often silent in the history books because it’s a male-dominated field, and a student, Kathleen, pegs the teacher down—out loud and in front of everyone—as a lesbian. Caitlin wakes from the dream in a terrified sweat and begins to question what these seemingly innocent dreams really mean.

So, Caitlin talks it over with her friends. Kathleen is every bit as brazen in real life as she is in the dreamscape, saying without a doubt that Ms. Avery is definitely a lesbian, that she saw her holding hands with a woman, and that she has never been seen with a man. The balanced voice of reason Melanie ask why it matters if a person is gay. Kathleen and a friend giggle, asking Melanie, “Why? Are you a lezzie too?”

Caitlin has enjoyed Ms. Avery’s lectures and defends her heterosexuality to Kathleen, only to garner suspicion that she’s gay herself. Her dreams later morph into depictions of Kathleen leading the class in chanting that Caitlin is a lesbian too, and even Caitlin’s best friend Susie takes a step back for fear of being seen as “that” kind of woman. Caitlin deals with relational aggression (the name calling), cliquiness, sexuality, the “good girl/bad girl” trope, silencing, and anxiety of authorship—all too common threads of girlhood—all in one episode.

When I pick this episode apart today, I see a lot more than I did back then. On first watch, it felt embarrassing that everyone was talking about Caitlin that way just because she enjoyed her teacher’s lectures, and I was sort of happy that Ms. Avery didn’t turn out to be “a lezzie” because this meant that it was the kids who were in the wrong for spreading rumors. After all, a hunky male teacher rolls up in his ’80s ride at the very end to take Ms. Avery away, calling her familiarly by her first name. The message back then seemed less like a pro-LGBTQ sentiment than a tract on tact—don’t believe everything you hear, plain and simple. When I revisit today, after fifteen years spent navigating the Real World and scrupulously underlining things in women’s studies texts, I see some things I missed back in my teenage days, when all I knew for sure was that boyfriends are the first step on the way to getting married, having babies, and achieving a lasting seal of social approval. I can see now all the criticism and positivity that, for me, used to hide under a moral about undue name calling.

For starters, I’d totally missed a lot of what Ms. Avery and Melanie had to say, and I think it’s because their point of view wouldn’t have held much water in heartland America, where our fathers would laugh quietly about lisping men and our mothers stopped watching Ellen after her little announcement. Here, in Ms. Avery and Melanie, was a great, big voice of reason that’s hard to miss now—being gay is not bad, and it’s totally no reason to judge someone. I see now that in Caitlin’s dream, she is happy and carefree at her teacher’s attention until everyone starts pointing at her and calling her “lezzie.” After the dream, she confides to her teddy bear that she might or she might not be—all she knows is that she doesn’t want her best friend, Susie, and everyone else to treat her like she’s different because of it.

When Ms. Avery confronts Caitlin about her sudden skittishness in class, the two talk, and it comes out that Ms. Avery is not gay, although she describes how common it is for a teenage mind to try to make sense of sexuality in adolescence. What’s more, she shares with the girl that being single or defying scripts on what it means to be a woman (Ms. Avery is not married, and she often kisses her close girl friends on the cheek) does not have to label a person as something outside of the norm. In short, Ms. Avery is teaching Caitlin that she doesn’t have to be marginalized.

The final note comes with a heavy hand and reinforces the message clearly. “I’m sorry I thought you were gay,” Caitlin says with true 1980s TV supplication.

“There’s nothing to be sorry about,” Ms. Avery replies. “Besides, would it make any difference if I were? Would you think any less of me?” Caitlin shakes her head, smiling. Even though I missed it when I was in middle school, the point was not that you shouldn’t go around saying defamatory things about perfectly straight people, but that it shouldn’t be cause for alarm in the first place. Caitlin can be gay or straight. It doesn’t matter at all.

After Prop 8 and the recent ping-pong of marriage equality cases in higher courts (and even in the Supreme Court this week), it’s interesting to me both how far LGBTQ dialogue has come since this episode’s airing in 1987 and how much still needs to change. While the ’90s and 2000s ushered in a stronger push for gay rights, I still run into people almost on a daily basis who consider themselves open minded but titter when they find out that a star or a casual friend might be gay. After all we’ve been through, the world still feels like a junior-high classroom when it comes to sexuality.

For all it’s worth and for any messages I still may have missed, I have to say that Degrassi Junior High is bringing it Sassy-style when it comes to informing girlhood and smashing unhelpful tropes. This particular episode even goes so far as to tacitly question the maleness of gay discourse by putting women and girls at the center, and it’s telling (to me, anyway) that the whole debate came about because of female characters who don’t have a love interest, are intellectual, and enjoy kicking around bookish ideas with other females instead of talking about boys (Caitlin is Ms. Avery’s star student, and open-minded Melanie is fashioned after my own band-nerd roots). The rest of the series is pretty great too—they tackle teen pregnancy with a lengthy, multi-part discussion on abortion, adoption, paternal involvement, and safe sex practices—and it won’t be long before I strap down my friends, one by one, and make them watch. Call it a fun throwback, or an education. Either way, it’s worth a try.

A Dive into Seventeenery

It's the magazine my mom urged me to get back when I was twelve and having mean girl issues with some of my friends. "I know it's for older girls, but it seems like it's about the stuff you're facing now." She was right. And I think that was intentional. For my girls's studies exploration this week, I'm taking a peek at what makes Seventeen magazine tick. In truth I haven't cracked a teen magazine since my baby sister was in middle school. (I got fed up after two sentences, scoffing that there's no way a thirteen-year-old really wrote the Who Wore It Better blurbs.) Before that, I think my last teen mag went out with dial-up. That really dates me, but you get the idea.

As I buzz through the relationship and life advice on the Seventeen site, I find what amounts to a mixed bag and total jumble of stuff contributing to our society's ideal of girlhood. Most telling—to me, anyway—is the navigation menu. First comes Celebs, then Fashion, Beauty, THEN Life, then Prom. Organized, no doubt, for the topics' popularity and clickability, the section is a revealing look at what teen girls are accessing when they come to Seventeen. The hierarchy is pretty clear, and it's odd that the great articles about applying for college or decompressing after stress are hidden four deep under Life, while a parade of pretty stuff drowns out the first three spots. Not that there's anything wrong with Pretty. It just could stand to switch places with Life.

One article that I'm a little on the fence about is titled "Hero Boy Carries Around Tampons and Pads to Support the Girls at His School." On one hand, the guy is a high school kid who seems to have been making an earnest attempt to support girls. The article tells a decent story of a guy who believes in gender equality and squashing the idea that periods are icky and verboten as far as conversation goes. He's really trying to make a difference here, but the article talks about detractor bullies who have attacked him for his menstrual solidarity.

But hang on. Why is this thing calling him a hero? For starters, there's the hero/damsel trope, which hyper-girlie culture seems to love. When girls stand to face the horrors of menstruation, here comes a prince to save them. At the heart of this "hero" business is the idea that girls need a gentleman to swoop in and save them when they're unprepared for their own flow. I'd like to think the "hero" bit was added tongue-in-cheek by the editors in a reflection of the relief that shoots through any girl who's ever gone to school and realized too late that she needs a pad. But I think that's just where the problem lies: Should we just be saying things, like "This guy is a hero!" if we don't really mean that? Doesn't that kind of thing just perpetuate the idea that girls who read Seventeen are helpless without their male allies? Most of the teen mag readers I knew as an adolescent were among the smart girls at school. After all, they were the readers. So this hero/damsel dichotomy didn't really apply to them. This, to me, is a weird headline that promotes an unrealistic and culturally backward ideal of what Seventeen readers are and how they should relate across gender lines.

But at least, it is neat that we have guys finally talking about periods without freaking. So that's a win.

Move over, Lisa Simpson, 'cause I've got a new hero

For my girls' studies class this week, we were assigned to watch the 2012 documentary The Interruptors, featuring nonviolent activist and my new hero Ameena Matthews. I won't lie—the film's a tough watch. The story centers on interpersonal violence and homicide in the incendiary Chicago neighborhood of Englewood, which is the site of daily shootings and—interesting tidbit—the homeland of the creepy 1890s serial murderer from The Devil in the White City. It's a tough neck of the urban woods, and the documentary shows some unique community organizing efforts at quelling violence when the traditional tools aren't enough. It's an understatement to say that people in this neighborhood deal with elevated levels of violence. On a good day, you can hear shots ring out down the street, and shit gets stolen from cars with a regularity that gives certain sections of town a George Miller feel. I'm an Illinois native with a father and brother who regularly work union carpentry and plumbing jobs (respectively) in Englewood and other rough Chicago climes. Their experience confirms what I saw on The Interruptors. People shoot at each other. People threaten. People are also shot at and get threatened. It can be a scary and tense place, and it's a lot of people's home.

Enter the Interruptors and Ameena Matthews, concerned mediators whose goal is to re-educate and stop violent situations before someone gets killed. This group felt a little different from what I've typically thought of as a neighborhood watch group—many in the group are current or former gangsters. Their message isn't to get rid of their alliances or their gangs' crime. It's to save lives, pure and simple.

Ameena Matthews is a youngish mother who patrols Englewood in a hijab as a proselyte for her group's philosophy of interpersonal understanding and nonviolence. Coming as she does from a devout faith system, she could easily harangue her audiences from a soap box, but she knows that won't work. What she, and her group, does smacks of vigilante justice with a little bit of Gandhi and Biggie Smalls thrown in. She starts off by agreeing with young people who threaten to kill each other over a five-dollar bag of weed. She's been where they've been. She knows what it's like to get caught in the typical crime pattern of "just one more big score," she knows that you have to command respect, and she knows what that thinking does to people. She knows where the violence comes from, and she's simply had enough. Tan Tan

The film shows Ameena and other activists hitting the streets to spread the word that it's not worth the risks to kill over turf or money or women or anything, really. The group locates the violence problem as learned behavior, what an epidemiologist in the film calls a problem of "bad behavior, not bad people." Ameena stands amid a group of squabbling Chicagoans and places her hand on a young boy, asking what favors we're all doing this kid by resolving conflicts with blood. She asks, if he makes a bad choice and ends up in prison for life, is that on him, or on all of us? To her and to the group, common ground, education, tolerance, and a simple attitude of "it ain't worth it" are the right tools to combat violence in a part of town where even the cops are scared to go.

As my screen dipped to black at the end of the film, I saw my reflection in my shiny iMac monitor (which felt an awful lot like one of those childhood books that ends with a mirror and says, "How about you?"). I come from a safe, small-town neighborhood, even though my family often works in unsafe urban neighborhoods, and I live in one of the lowest per-capita municipalities for crime in the known universe. The most jarring sign of neighborhood crime for me was that one embankment that got tagged and then immediately re-painted by the city. It's just not in my backyard on a daily basis, so it's always been easy for me to think of interpersonal violence as a distinctly urban problem, something that police officers and legislation can fix. As I grow though—and dig deeper in graduate work and a Malcom X-ian desire to make a library my alma mater—I'm starting to read and absorb more personal stories from the front lines of urban violence that show me how and why these things happen, and how it's not something we should just throw cops at. In her book The Warmth of Other Suns, Isabel Wilkerson interviews southern migrant and former sharecropper Ida Mae Brandon Gladney, who at one point in the book discusses her participation in her neighborhood watch group in Chicago. Ida Mae talks about buying her first home in Chicago after working like crazy for Campbell's, recounting the white flight panic that devalued homes in her neck of town. What was once a happy and safe neighborhood turned quickly into an area that social bigotry and racism devalued and morphed into a site for under-policing, little urban maintenance, and plummeting home and business values. As Ida Mae grew into retirement, she watched from her window as kids she knew bought and sold drugs, committed theft, and fought in the streets. She had the unique perspective of watching all of this happen over a period of decades. So when she stood at her community watch meetings, she located the fault on how we raise our kids and on what generations of disenfranchisement can do to people. She regularly starts a dialog with the violent types and other criminals prowling her neighborhood, knowing that it's the system that's broken, rather than the people trapped within it. For Ida Mae and for Ameena—both certifiable bad asses by my estimate—the tools of change don't come from incarceration or preachiness but from mutual understanding and mediation. These activists teach us to think of violence in a different, and actually effective, way. It's bold. It's inspiring. And, as their progress shows, it just might work.

He Hit Me (And It Felt Like Culturally Reinforced Violence against Women)

Maybe it's just the bed head and the yelling, but Courtney Love sort of changed the way I thought about the 1962 cage-rattler "He Hit Me (And It Felt Like a Kiss)." I'm a typical millennial rat in that my mind immediately goes to a "savage times" conclusion that this song was just written in a time when smacking up your old lady out of jealousy was just fine. But it really didn't happen like that. The song was written with an irony that my era-elitism totally missed at first glance. Rather than endorsing violence, the song is actually a poignant—and quite intentional—reflection of domestic violence and the way we all just kind of accept it when it happens to us.

While the original rendition by R&B girl group The Crystals is as much an indictment of domestic, gender-based violence as the ratty, third-wave sensibility roared forth by Courtney Love and Hole decades later, the idea came home a lot more clearly to me when framed in tones marked by '90s anger rather than trilling with all the girly charm of '60s divahood.

After being asked to think of this song critically and to engage with it as a feminist text, I learned from the Interwebs that the song was originally released with a genuine, Courtney Loveian nod to feminism, decrying female deference to male brutality as a dangerous confusion with real love. The original song slightly predated Audre Lorde's pro-anger branch of feminism and Malcolm X's "by any means necessary" brand of angry self-defense, so the song's anti-violence message is couched in the script of lulling, feminine R&B. The 1960s original employs a handful of deliberately foreboding elements—heavy drum beats and a sluggish tempo reminiscent of a brainwashing chant—but the effect is largely a major-key, typical girl-group progression. In that way, the song is a dizzyingly modern art piece on how we intentionally camouflage relationship violence as romantic jealousy and conflate a desire to physically harm a straying other, with genuine love. Knowing the song's background and authorship, it's clear that the relatively chipper and upbeat tone is intentional. It's meant to stand as a counterpoint between violence and the almost narcotic indifference of the abused, the way that women back then had a knack for allowing this kind of thing in a socially reinforced feminine deference. But the song's veiled happy attitude didn't stop people from noticing that the song sounds a lot like an anthem to abuse, released at a time when Friedan's The Feminine Mystique was just about to make mass-digestible the work of Simone de Beauvoir, and when the womanist movement had enough trouble squashing Jim Crow, let alone achieving gender parity. In that context, and without knowing that the song was written specifically to show how ludicrous it is to accept violence as love, it's easy to see why people wanted this thing pulled from the air waves for sending a brutal message.

Jump forward a few decades and put the same words in the mouth of a punk rocker, and the message seems a little more clear. Hole's version feels like it's been rendered in a more depressing key (though after years of neglecting my music theory books in favor of Kate Millett, I can't be certain) and Love's vocal style lends the feminist reading that Lorde and X and others fought for when they said it was okay to be angry to get your point across and affect real change. In Love's mouth, "He Hit Me" feels less like The Crystals' numb act of putting on a good face and more like the cry of a woman who has accepted this very real violence against her. The newer version feels like a throwback to the 1960s sentiment that guys will do that when they get jealous, that it was just as "not okay" back then as it is today, yet it's still happening. Love's version feels tired, beaten, defeated. As such, it marks a very exhausted feminist question of why this kind of thing still needs to be said. Her portrayal of the same poetry, decades later and in the aesthetic of anger and defeat, reminds us that this isn't a "women back then" thing, but a "women all the time" thing.

To break it down further, the 1960s version feels to me, with its happier overall tone, like a snarky nod to everything that was expected of women before the second wave really got going. It's fairly pretty and adheres to a standard of mainstream art that requires aesthetic, beauty, and delicacy from women. When we move the same lyrics and progressions a few decades later to Hole, when it's more acceptable for a bona fide artist to let down her beehive and be a little bit messier and angrier, the nuances of the first version snap into clear focus. Listen to the two back to back, and it's easy to hear a mother and a daughter singing the same sad song, only with yet another generation of oppression folded into the end product. It's an interesting study in oppression versus time. Americans talk all the time about our post-feminist utopia, where thongs grow on trees and women can get any job they want and be June Clever, Samantha Jones, and Wonder Woman all rolled into one. But is that really where we are? Have we really gotten anywhere since 1962, when we sang about taking a backhand with womanly grace and understanding? Or will this song always hit too many women, way too hard?

Abbreviated Playlist #1

"Wannabe" by Spice Girls—That's right: Spice Girls. Strap in. This was the second recording I bought with my own money, the first being a now-worn-out tape single of "Macarena" and with some other B-side on it (who cares—Macarena!). It was the first CD I'd bought myself, and I'll always see its iridescent shimmer when I think of the monetary freedom that comes from one's first and poorly managed babysitting gig. As I recall, "Wannabe" was the opening track, and like it or not, it's infectious. (So is lice, though, so...there's that.) In all honestly, we all bought into the Girl Power messages that Spice Girls were selling. We were just happy to see another '90s manifestation of empowerment, we little third wavers who didn't yet know what feminism was. The producers were actually genius in branding each Spice with an adjective—as a middle school track star who happened to be a redhead, I fell somewhere between Sporty and Ginger on the Spice continuum. More than flat descriptions, the adjectives provided not just little boxes we could check to match our own interests but also performances to which we could mold ourselves. I liked to think that on a good day I was as alluring as Sexy Spice or as forthright as Scary Spice. Retrospectively, the world of Spice is a deliberate market answer to rising Title IX girlhood and at best a parody of feminist rhetoric. But for an eleven year old in small-town Illinois, that felt just right.

"Paradise by the Dashboard Light" by Meat Loaf—In 1988 my mom inherited a decent sound system from her late brother. My parents went out right away to furnish their new "entertainment center" CD slots and came back with a handful of their favorites from high school. After playing The Little Mermaid soundtrack and Classical Music for Fine Dining on a loop, my mom asked me to put on something else. I found my dad's Meat Loaf CD, Bat out of Hell. Paradise by the Dashboard Light stood as unequivocally the best composed of the entire album. I loved the crisp voices along with the countryesque female vocalist's timbre, and I stood in awe at its complex progression between themes (although I wouldn't be able to put words to that until I became a hopeless band nerd in middle school). Apart from the finer points of music nuance, what "Paradise" taught me was that people have sex at the wizened age of seventeen, get pregnant, and get married. Seventeen is the time for growing up, for babies, for family, for graduating from a high schooler to a grown-up. Oh, and boys don't really want any of that. Just the sex part. Which, of course, leads to a scenario where you have to get married and be miserable forever. I had mixed feelings about my own "end of time" and who I'd be praying to be rid of at that point.

"1979" by Smashing Pumpkins—The opening riff and base line take me right back to 1995 and the trip to Louis Joliet Mall with my big brother, Shaun, to buy an album that had just come out. Our cousin Doug loved Pumpkins, practically lived in the music. My brother idolized him. I idolized my brother. He was my benchmark for "cool" and in the way of big brothers, he always will be. He's the reason I played the tomboy, discovered the glory of toy tractors and dirt hills, and explored a pirated tape labeled "Return of Jedi" in pink magic marker. When he heard Doug talking about the new Pumpkins album—two discs!—he made a mental note to pick it up the second it dropped. We went. Together, we listened. He showed me the songs he'd heard from the pre-release, and long after I thought I'd have been bored, we sat rapt as "1979" and "Galapagos" washed us to the state park and then to another world. We witnessed metal and poetry through the vessel of Billy Corgan's forgivable nasal. It was unlike anything I'd ever heard. I'd always thought then of the Pumpkins as his band. But really, Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness is the one album I switch to when I'm scared that the plane I'm on will crash into a dark gorge. It's my constant. I don't think Shaun knows that, but maybe he should.

"Total Eclipse of the Heart" cover by Nicki French—The smell of pizza wafting from the snack bar. The deodorizer they used on the roller skates—I always got the black speed skates with orange wheels and stoppers. The disinfectant they used in the bathrooms, where you had to somehow rise from peeing with wheels strapped to your feet. And that sick and glorious feeling of your best friend edging up to a boy you like, to ask him to couple skate with you. The smell of his sweat, that curls his naturally wavy hair, and the beat of your heart after he says yes. After Shania fades, Nicki French comes on and drives home that ecstasy with a cover of "Total Eclipse of the Heart." Engineered for dancing, that cover had it going on in every sense of the seventh-grade experience. It was a heartfelt song about the relationships that mired us all, but it was upbeat and catchy. The quick pulse lent that old-timey "sad song" an optimistic bent that said, "Hey! Things might suck now, but they can change. Jazz Hands!" It's interesting to think about how the girly crowd pleasers like this affected us. All the girls would get together, and even if they were tired they would skate for this song, singing along so loudly that our voices would blow past the ever-rotating disco ball and up to the dark. In song, we were a community. We were sisters. We were alive.

"Thinking of You (I Drive Myself Crazy)" by N Sync—The first time I saw this video I teared up for having witnessed the most sensitive and tragic beauty of my young and theretofore philistine life. I remember writing in my journal how profound it was—these men were singing about how wrong they had been to dump the perfect girl, and had found themselves in the ultimate of teen tragedies: the mental ward. I think we all, as adolescents, went through an irritatingly dramatic period in which we liked to think that being an adult meant nothing but dire situations like relationship-induced madness. That's where I was when this thing popped up on MTV. Back then Justin Timberlake wasn't the bona fide silly billy he is now—cahooting, as he does, on hilarities with the likes of the genuinely wonderful Andy Samberg—and we (young girls anyway) all thought N Sync was just a group of sensitive guy friends who decided over cheese fries and cry sessions one day to form a band. If my first destruction of innocence was learning that Santa is just an off-season party clown and temporary mall employee, learning about the boy band veneer was a narrowly close second. Apart from how cartoonishly (yet unintentionally) silly this song is now, it's interesting that I located profundity within the bounds of a boy learning how great I was, after I'd walked away. In a way, it threw shadows of empowerment at my ability to walk away from what I saw as hot boys and poetry, but at the same time, it's interesting that the music did exactly what it was engineered to: Affect a tween girl and make her think that boys were sensitive, that middle school relationships are totally like that, and that once again, Love is the greatest story ever told. Becker Becker

"American Patrol" by Glenn Miller and His Orchestra—A chilly day at Diamond Park. It was war, and some of our friends were shipping out to the Middle East. Kids we'd grown up with, kids my brother had played in little league and earned Webelo bages with, were going overseas to shoot people. We held a pop war rally to send them off. We didn't have a lot of patriotic literature, so Glenn Miller's classic World War II charts made up a reasonably fitting repertoire. I'd practiced and performed the song many times as lead alto in the high school jazz band—the highest aspiration of a sax player in Main Street, USA—but as I blew out the pick-up lick into bar one under a flurry of American flags, I teared up. Take away party lines, and it's easy to see that something got into all of us after 9/11 that drew us close. If not blood lust, it was a sense of community that we all shared. We were American. I was sixteen. I would go on to play for ten more years and counting. But I'll never forget that rally—the friends who left, the totally different ones who came back, our lost innocence, the reality that people will crash planes into skyscrapers on purpose, and the awakening that it's time to start caring about things both greater and smaller than our little town in the middle of the world.

A Look at MTV's Sixteen and Pregnant

This week I encountered another MTV gem for the first time: Sixteen and Pregnant. The episode I watched dealt with Iowa teen Farrah, a high school cheerleader. The show chronicles her trip from teen with a boyfriend, to single mom. At the opening of the episode, Farrah announces in voice-over that she will be tackling the pregnancy solo. As she thinks through her options—keeping her baby or putting her up for adoption—Farrah goes against her ever-logical mother's recommendation of adoption. From this point forward, it's all on Farrah, with a little support from her family.

"I don't want to sound needy, but how much...would you help a little bit?" Farrah asks her mother one night after staying up with the fussy baby. Wanting to teach her daughter independence, Farrah's mother steps back and leaves the ball in her daughter's court. As a single, first-time mom, Farrah realizes she's bitten of a hefty amount of physical and emotional stress that is much harder to tackle than she'd hoped.

As the episode progresses, we see Farrah arguing with her mother, the accused "control freak" who believes she is doing her best for her daughter and granddaughter. The whole thing sets Farrah into tears more than once, and her sign-off reveals a less-than-happy ending to the show along with a hopeful ideal of the future. Through it all, the young mother is happy that she is now raising her child. She knows that it'll be a long road, but she's committed to teaching her daughter everything she needs to know.

"I want her to know what's a good relationship and what's a bad relationship," says Farrah, of her new daughter, Sophia. The baby's father had been the jealous type, and Farrah broke it off when she learned of her pregnancy because she herself understood the difference between having a jealous boyfriend and being alone. This feminist inclusion surprised me, based on my expectations formed by the other MTV reality shows I've seen. It struck me as progressive to show a teenager who not only grapples with being a single mother but does so at her own choosing, with the understanding that tackling parenthood alone is better than forcing a two-parent situation with an abusive or jealous partner.

On the other hand, Sixteen and Pregnant as a whole seems to follow the typical scripts about teenage pregnancy: that teenagers underestimate the work and responsibility involved in caring for a child (as with Farrah's episode), or that having a baby even within a happy, committed relationship isn't as easy as it looks (as with another episode, featuring teenage Tennessee mother Maci). The episodes seem to touch on good and bad, focusing on parenting hardships like scraping together enough money for the baby, and making decisions about personal schedules as well as the very choice of how the baby will be raised. When comparing the show to a documentary-style piece, The Gloucester Eighteen, it's interesting to note the holes that MTV leaves in the pregnant teen narrative. The most striking difference to me was that in the Gloucester profile of eighteen girls who became pregnant during the same school year, most seemed to be of middle or working class, while the MTV girls are—unsurprisingly—from affluent families. The MTV perspective shows well-made-up girls of means (is that—yes! A smokey eye and updo in the delivery room!) making choices about whether to keep their babies, working desk jobs while still in high school, going to college as a matter of course, receiving free daycare from family, and driving around in nice cars that they didn't necessarily have to pay for. One girl featured on MTV gets a two-level apartment with her boyfriend—noting that she had to save up for the microfiber furniture—and another girl lives in her poshly decorated bedroom on the upper floor of her parents' slickly restored Council Bluffs bungalow. The teens featured in the Gloucester documentary, however, have jobs at places like bait shops and Dunkin' Donuts. They have to quit high school, while the MTV girls I saw both went on the accelerated track to graduate and head off to college. Finally, coming from more affluent means, I presume the MTV girls had more access to information about safe sex than one Boston-area girl featured in Gloucester, who lacked any information about sex and became pregnant at twelve.

All of this is not to say that MTV didn't try to convey how hard teenage pregnancy is. There are moments in the show that seem to glorify pregnancy just a little bit—having a fun baby shower with lifelong girlfriends, or announcing that the teenage boyfriend has proposed with a rock bigger than most adult women receive. But for the most part, the intent seems to be to get teen viewers to walk away during the credits, going, "Soooo glad that's not me." It's just that maybe there's more to illustrate than the plight of cheerleaders who have well-off parents and the prospect of working at the lucrative family business, sans professional skills or college education. They hit on the basics of teen pregnancy prevention—letting girls know that babies are money sponges, watching a girl tearily smear her eye makeup after realizing she can't take her baby to the gym—but they fail to mention the important stuff that can keep girls from being thrust unwittingly into that situation in the first place: the politics of sex ed in US school systems, or the availability and affordability of child care. The tone of Sixteen and Pregnant feels less ridiculous and ever so slightly less scripted than other reality fiascos, so it seems to me that MTV has undertaken an earnest push to nip teen pregnancy in the bud. The MTV website does offer information about safe sex and links to a video describing available birth control methods, but none of that is mentioned at any helpful length in the show itself. I think to make this show stick with teenagers—I mean, as something beyond a fun soap opera experience—MTV would do well to mention more prevention than dwelling on the financial and energy-driven side of going to bed a teen and waking up, a mom.

Sex and Stuff

In 2013 I was designing the cover for the book Beyond Belief: The Secret Lives of Women in Extreme Religions, an interfaith collection of memoir-style essays, and threw out a hail Mary to my art director: Was the anthology still looking for submissions? When I heard that the editors were still hungry to find work by emerging authors, I forced myself to write something and send it in. It was an opportunity to at least be seen, to have my personal writing read by editors who matter. Gearing up for a polite rejection note, I scribbled out thousands of words, refined them into a story, and hit Send. What I got from the editor a few days later surprised me. Congratulations. Encouragement. Acceptance. I would be in a book.

Over the next few months I worked closely with the anthology's editors, Susan Tive and Cami Ostman, to polish my work into something that would flow effortlessly to our readers. The author–editor experience was nothing I hadn't seen before. This time, though, my nerves tensed a bit with the realization that I was working with a personal story—not to mention the complex idea of sex.

I open the essay with an account of playing author in my mom's library, using one of her many romance novels as my pretend life's work:

"One day I held a reading before a corps of taffeta-clad Barbie dolls and cracked open a volume at its midpoint to a randomly selected paragraph. I was new to reading but the best in my class, so I wavered only a little as my tentative, little-girl voice visited the subjects of thrusting manhood, supple breasts, and coming together as one. My face grew flush, and I gently closed the book, blushing in to my appliquéd teddy bear sweatshirt."

My mother's library had been my first primer on sex, with a few romance novels like that one, plus a litany of scientific books she'd consulted heavily in college, while I was still little. I looked up to her and knew that those books meant business, so whenever I got the chance I crept into the library and took down a book. And that's how I came to understand the mechanics of childbearing, breast feeding, and impressing hunky gents named Darius or Raul. With the word itself unspoken in the house, I had turned to print to fill in the blanks. Only slightly later, I turned to TV, noticing the word cropping up from The Simpsons to Seinfeld—two shows that my brother and I were allowed to watch, as non-religious Midwestern kids.

What I learned, I didn't really absorb. I knew that sex was a thing, and if forced to think about it, I pictured something similar to what Sloane Crosley recounts in I Was Told There'd Be Cake: a sort of nebulous private act, between a mom and a dad, where the woman wears sexy lingerie and heels. I didn't even need sex until I began to see it being sold to me from everywhere. As a Victoria's Secret subscriber, my mom brought in a new catalog from our mailbox every few weeks, and I often flipped though with what began as sheer curiosity and became increasingly inquisitive as I grew older.

In high school, when sex began to matter, I was taught at school a comprehensive program that covered everything from the How/Why to the And Then: consequences that ran the gamut from pregnancy to a positive HIV test. In the company of my second-period peers I sat through taped after-school specials that showed the consequences of having sex, or the ills of getting "too serious" in high school. My mom briefly mentioned sex, but only after I'd been dating my boyfriend for a while, and only then to tell me which specific brand of condoms to stay away from.

"Don't use that kind. They break!" she'd said in a stage whisper, with a similar tone used for such phrases as "Doing...that" (having your period) or "Going potty" (explosive diarrhea). She'd always communicated the information but done so under the pretense that she was being spied on, that speaking normally would trigger the hidden microphones and catch her on tape saying something embarrassing about the human body. I knew I could talk to her, but like any other news outlet available to kids, she unwittingly communicated that certain topics weren't spoken of too freely.

So started my primer to sex. The rest, I learned from religion, which I made a fixture in my life at age fifteen. The messages seemed to come from everywhere, but never in a useful way. Sex was scary, weighty, and irrevocable. It spoke volumes about who you were as a person. Coming from that background, an ultra-conservative person had to switch gears, upon marriage, to thinking of sex as a beautiful act. I too had to forget everything I'd been taught and learn to think of something dirty as something that was not only clean but ordained as almost a sacrament.

I grew to see things differently from what my religion had proposed, and I even branched out to learn on my own, beyond the conservatism of religious discourse and the damage of my ex-husband's unrealistic porn-bred expectations. I learned to think of sex as something in between those two extremes. And now, on days when I entertain the possibility of someday rearing a child of my own, I like to think I'll speak above a whisper, and do everything my mother tried to do and more. Just to set the record straight.

My Super Sweet 16

Mysupersweet16"It's Shika, bitch." A burst of glitter dances off the screen to reveal this week's featured sixteen-year-old on MTV's series My Super Sweet 16. It's the network's teenage answer to inexplicable hits like Toddlers in Tiaras and Jersey Shore, a visual escape into the real lives of entitled teenage girls. Reality TV remains popular with teens and particularly girls. It's a way to see outside of their own social circles into the glam of someone else's. But for all the show's ritz and drama, it's worth a shot for teenage girls to question why this thing is on the air. On the face of it, there isn't much wrong with following around a teenager in party-planning mode, chronicling her journey from little girl to the momentous and sexy destination of womanhood. The coming-of-age for girls event is widely celebrated in American culture, reaching everywhere from the sweet sixteen itself, to the religiously grounded bat mitzvah, to the culturally significant quinceañera. There's a lot to be said for gathering friends and family in a show of mutual support for girls as individuals, a celebration that's totally separate from the only other big celebration in life: marriage. That said, this isn't really what's going on in My Super Sweet 16. And the effect is profoundly damaging.

Today was my first experience with the show, and aside from the major feminist red flags of excess, vanity, entitlement, and overall bitchiness running rampant through the docudrama, the most glaring pitfall about the show is its mode of delivery. The show is billed as reality TV—a term I use very loosely. It's fairly common knowledge these days that all reality TV is just a big, scripted mess that only exists because some TV producers stumbled upon a gem with shows like The Real World that underpaid aspiring actors to fumble through some day-to-day drama while purporting to be "just living" in front of the camera. Most adults are familiar with the drill: Executives churn out these shows faster than most of us can watch them, and when you compare today's reality TV with that of the nineties, it seems that the production value is steadily decreasing. The drama is all staged, and the people in the show are just acting, a dimension that seems particularly transparent when you have to find high-school-age contestants. Everything feels fake, and the scripted drama fails to land, giving the educated adult viewer little reason to believe that what she is seeing is real or even worth taking in.

For kids, though, it isn't quite as clear cut, and that's where the damage comes in. While it's valid for girls to want to see other girls their age starring in their own TV shows—as a nod to the fact that their voices are being heard on an international scale—it's manipulative for adult executives to market a disingenuous product like My Super Sweet 16 to them. Many teenagers are smart enough to see through the facade (that the diva who demands a $150k diamond necklace isn't really as diva-ish or unreasonable as she performs on screen). But, the show is insulting to those girls in its assumption that it will be viewed as "reality." In addition to selling girls short, shows like this one do a disservice to the girls who don't fully understand the show's fabrication by showing them that it's okay to be not only entitled and demanding but also cruel and shallow in the pursuit of getting what you want (the party). It takes the positive ideas of something like a quinceañera, a celebration of coming of age and a loving tribute, and uglies it up into a falsely progressive world where the girl is taught to get what she wants using extremely negative means. In the Yashika episode specifically, the party's theme is Diamonds Are Forever, a campaign that could just as easily be a corporate-driven ad placement (I'm looking at you, De Beers) as the misguided infatuation of teenage girls who are not only tied up in the idea of matrimonial diamonds but also have zero regard for the cost—not to mention the politics—of owning something that exists only to bestow value on its wearer.

More than the obvious damaging content (the diva, the fake drama), the peril ultimately lies in the fact that this is what MTV thinks of their teenage girl market. With all of MTV's experience breaking out as a new and subversive media outlet for teenagers, this is how they see half of their market?

Erin Learns a Lesson

Kirsten arrived on Christmas. She was a pretty blonde from out of town, sporting a blue prairie dress and an amber necklace. She was smart but a little hard to understand through her thick Swedish accent. Plus, she’d been grieving. Her best friend had been claimed by cholera on her way over and was buried at sea, so even though Kirsten tried her best to have a good time in her new home, anyone could tell that she had a lot on her mind. The moment I laid eyes on the American Girl books, I was hooked. I remember milling around my grade school library, an eight-year-old looking for something smart to read. It was a tough age when it came to picking out books. I was too big for picture books but not quite ambitious enough for the Brontës or even Louisa May Alcott. But I liked history. And I did not like reading about boys all the time. When I saw a cover featuring this blonde Swedish girl smiling up at me from her life in the 1840s, I knew these books were for me.

KDMC_main_1The Kirsten books were my first experience with the enormously successful American Girl franchise. The doll came later. Having burned through stories about Kirsten, Molly, and Felicity, I found myself sleeping over at a friend’s place—who, looking back, was one of two children and came from a family that was used to spoiling itself. My friend walked around her family’s Midwestern farmhouse with Samantha, the Victorian doll, tucked proudly under her arm. “She comes with the checkered dress, but I also got the party outfit,” Erica said, beaming. “I’m asking for the sailor outfit for Christmas.” A few weeks later, my first American Girl catalog arrived in the mail, and I made a weekend of circling what I wanted and placing my notes indiscreetly before my mom’s dinner plate.

When I look back on my first eighty-dollar doll and her pricey wardrobe, I’ve bounced back and forth about whether I should see American Girl as a positive or negative force for girls. Like anything marketed to children, the company seems to offer good ideas mixed with bad habits.

It’s no small accomplishment that American Girl has been responsible for lighting a flare for reading in little girls. The chapter books are an easy read and have enough illustrations to keep even beginning readers interested. The books dwell in history, revealing social and political dimensions to girls who may not otherwise receive those messages in context. My first time reading Molly I was introduced to the concept of gender stereotypes (Molly’s World War II–era class donated to the war effort by having the boys collect scrap metal and the girls knit socks), and my first read through Samantha showed me the disparate conditions of the wealthy heroine and her best friend, who had to work at a factory so her family could eat. Today, an American Girl reader can learn about girls from the 1760s onward, with a variety of races and traditions represented. The dolls offer diversity that is both historical and contemporary, and the catalog even takes a whack at ableism by offering a doll-sized wheel chair. When a girl connects strongly with her book, she buys the doll, a tool for helping her to actualize the positive stories she’s read and become actors in the drama of play that helps girls develop into who they’ll eventually become.

In addition to the books and dolls, American Girl released a magazine in the early nineties, featuring articles on how to be better friends and community members—just like the figures in our American Girl books. Growing up, I owned an American Girl play kit, complete with script and prop suggestions, so I could gather my friends on the playground and act out a scene that was both historical and good for our collective self-esteem as growing girls. That day I played with girls who I didn’t normally play with but who loved American Girl, so the play helped me build the confidence I needed to expand my social circle.

All of this says a lot for a contemporary toy company, but it makes sense to a feminist critique to dig a little deeper. While I still position the books as extremely positive and fairly diverse tools for girls’ intellectual development, I struggle to look beyond the idea that the books are really just ads for toys. While most every middle-America kid can name the author of Harry Potter, most would be hard pressed to name just one of the American Girl writers, whose names are de-emphasized for the sake of promoting the brand as a monolith. The cynic in me catches on this minimizing of who actually wrote the literature as well as the dolls’ push for materialism among the youngest of female consumers. American Girl has a handful of megastores in the United States, each one catering to what seems to be mostly affluent, mostly white families who can afford not only the pricey doll and endless permutations of accessories, but also the cross-country trip involved in the visit.

“The place was packed, and everyone had their dolls. They brought one out for me to have tea with,” my dad said, after taking my younger sisters to the Chicago store. “It was unreal.” The underlying message issuing from the stores is that American Girl is a special rite of passage, that middle-class American families can be expected to provide this enormous expense for the sake of their daughters’ happiness. My dad saw the store as a fun experience that you sort of owe to your daughters to provide (at least in his case, where the store is only an hour away). And he may be right—it’s all just a good time. But the materialism behind it all tells me that I should at least be careful, if not outright damning, about the message.

The doll itself also comes with gender and social expectations that can be confusing for girls. For starters, the original three dolls were all white and all came from the middle (or upper) class, an idea that clearly illustrates who American Girl thought of as the “American Girl.” The dolls also present girls with the ever-present programming of learning to be mothers over their toys instead of interacting with them as peers—the dolls emulate tween-age girls but look more like toddlers with their adorable tooth gap and self-closing baby-doll eyes. Finally, the whole point of the dolls is to make money, and it’s staggering to realize how much parents are willing to spend to give their daughters a slice of the American Girl experience. This idea instills, at an early age, that not only is shopping fun but it is also necessary in order to fit in with a desired peer group. American Girl seems to have taken an age group that was relatively unmarked by fashion must-haves and expensive fads and introduced an expensive product that these girls must own in order to fit in.

At the end of the day, I see the franchise as, for the most part, another benign addition to aisles of girls’ toys that teach them to perform femininity, and teach boys not to (unless you're in your fifties, taking your daughters and their dolls to tea). For all the good the books brought me, and for the little bit of socializing that came from owning the doll, I’ve always seen American Girl as more of a positive force in my life than a negative one. But I still wonder why all our parents’ eagerly bought these tokens of affluence and social belonging for us, when just a few years earlier, they would have waved away our requests for some other piece of eighty-dollar junk. Is the doll and the superstore something I’d do for my daughter? Are the dolls really a special rite, or just eighty-dollar excuses to take people's money? I’ll probably always have questions. Either way, today I’m a feminist, with fond memories of my pint-size Swedish immigrant, lazing in the closet with her anachronistic saddle shoes and a doll-sized iMac.

Sixteen Going on Married

"Lo, and behold, you're someone's wife, and you belong to him." The phrase coos through Julie Andrews's lips with a buttery smoothness that almost makes me forget what I'm hearing. After all, it's a comfort to sink into a classic. Musicals were never required viewing at our house, but after seeing my first real Broadway show in middle school (well, "touring-cast Broadway") I was hooked for life. Ragtime, Little Shop of Horrors, even Disney's recycled and inflated stage venture Beauty and the Beast—I was dying to see them all. Yet somehow, even while scribbling "Brett and Erin 4-eva" on my planner's margins during free period one afternoon, I failed to engage with The Sound of Music as it blared from a roll-away TV at the head of the classroom. And yes, "Sixteen Going on Seventeen" is the song that did it. Forget for a second that I was thirteen and nowhere near my current feminist desire to claw apart anything that told me to get married for a living. The song just felt a little ahead and to the side of itself. Why was this sixteen-year-old girl listening to some "older and wiser" boy croon on about his superiority? Why was Maria assuring Liesl tenderly that soon she too would be chosen for marriage? I lacked the vocabulary to spell out why this song rubbed me the wrong way, but it still felt obvious that something crucial was out of place.

To be fair, The Sound of Music is a historical piece that's widely divorced from the politics of the twenty-first century. Then too, the iconic movie adaptation hit the scene in 1965, when the average American feminist was still dressing like a dowager and shunning the Lavender Menace. Given the franchise's time, it's unsurprising that "Sixteen Going on Seventeen" would strike an essentialist note for girls. But instead of dismissing the song's message as a relic of a crappier era for women, it's worth analyzing what's going on in the scene and questioning whether girls should watch it today without being asked what it means.

The reprise between Maria and Liesl is particularly annoying to a feminist critic. It's an assurance, from the older to the younger, that soon all of Liesl's boy woes will end. Right now, Liesl is obviously "waiting for life to start," poised to "jump up and go" when this boy is ready to take her time and company seriously. Inevitably, even if he doesn't ask her to marry him, someone will. If not next year, then the one after that. And then, she'll be his.

It's not the marriage or romance itself that upsets me but the idea that it's all been laid out for her. The implication, spelled out clearly, is that marriage will be Liesl's vocation. Because she has to wait for a boy to ask for her hand, her lot rests in staying put—and trying no to be too fidgety—while she waits for someone else to give her the okay to start the next phase of her life.  A lot of movies aimed toward children and families work hard to sell the idea of compulsory marriage, and girls internalize the message most when they're being told, directly, that marriage is the thing they'll grow up to be best at. A boy today might view this same sequence and gather that he'll need to get married, but he learns from the exchange that he decides when and whom to ask. A girl assumes the passive role, learning from this oldish movie that it's probably a good idea to sit still and wait. Further, the sequence, at its face value, puts the idea of marriage at seventeen or eighteen on a girl's radar in the first place, leaving boys at least an extra year or two to go and be bachelors (like the earlier part of the song suggests) while girls stand idly by and wait.

So why is all this a big deal? I like to think that most girls today are educated enough to spot the dated concepts without flinching, but I think the most damaging part is how a message like this flies right under the radar for most people. More than a few women I know saw this movie before they were old enough to talk, and reached adolescence with the songs already memorized. When a message is internalized and repeated in a sing-song mantra before an age when reason and critique come into play, it's a little late to go back and re-program.

A girl might not grow to adulthood thinking she is required to get married by eighteen, but I feel like these messages seem to find a back door in women's brains. Some years back, I was single and bought my first house, inviting my then-roommate to come and rent a room from me. She excitedly obliged, but when we went furniture shopping to get the things we each needed, she balked a little. "I'll just get, like, a plastic set of drawers from Walmart," she said, taking her hand off a polished wood dresser. "I mean, what if I get married?" She didn't even have a boyfriend but was waiting for the Big Day before buying anything nice or permanent for herself. It was like she was afraid to set up shop and live her life as the established, successful adult she was because, as an un-married person, she wasn't supposed to. Not yet.

Of course, it's totally up to her where she keeps her underwear, and it's entirely possible that I'm reading too far into my friend's frugality (although she did ultimately walk away with a nice mattress and a pine dresser). It just gave me pause to think about how this woman in her late twenties felt like she had to live a sort of temporary, disposable life until someone emerged from the shadows and gave her permission to start living, like Liesl two years or so from her duet with Maria. My roommate's hangup probably didn't come from The Sound of Music, but the movie does present an idea for girls to come along and absorb like scented lotion. The Message comes from all over, but when placed in a popular movie, inflected by Rodger and Hammerstein, and trilled to girls by the would-be nun herself, it's as catchy as it is ensnaring.