Chapter One: Where the Boys Are
The Myth of the Fragile Girl
In 1990, Carol Gilligan announced to the world that America's adolescent girls were in crisis. In her words, "As the river of a girl's life flows into the sea of Western culture, she is in danger of drowning or disappearing." Gilligan offered little in the way of conventional evidence to support this alarming finding. Indeed, it is hard to imagine what sort of empirical research could establish so large a claim. But Gilligan quickly attracted powerful allies. Within a very short time the allegedly fragile and demoralized state of American adolescent girls achieved the status of a national emergency.
I will be subjecting Gilligan's research on girls and boys to extensive analysis in later chapters. She is the matron saint of the girl crisis movement. Gilligan, more than anyone else, is cited as the academic and scientific authority conferring respectability on the claims that American girls are being psychologically depleted, socially "silenced," and academically "shortchanged."
Popular writers, electrified by Gilligan's discovery, began to see evidence of a girl crisis everywhere. Former New York Times columnist Anna Quindlen recounted how Gilligan's research cast an ominous shadow on the celebration of her daughter's second birthday: "My daughter is ready to leap into the world, as though life were chicken soup and she a delighted noodle. The work of Professor Carol Gilligan of Harvard suggests that some time after the age of 11 this will change, that even this lively little girl will pull back [and] shrink."
Soon there materialized a spate of popular books with titles such as Failing at Fairness: How America's Schools Cheat Girls; Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls; Schoolgirls: Self-Esteem and the Confidence Gap. Time writer Elizabeth Gleick remarked on the new trend in literary victimology: "Dozens of troubled teenage girls troop across [the] pages: composite sketches of Charlottes, Whitneys and Danielles who were raped, who have bulimia, who have pierced bodies or shaved heads, who are coping with strict religious families or are felled by their parents' bitter divorce."
The country's adolescent girls were both exalted and pitied. Novelist Carolyn See wrote in The Washington Post, "The most heroic, fearless, graceful, tortured human beings in this land must be girls from the ages of 12 to 15." In the same vein, Myra and David Sadker, in Failing at Fairness, predicted the fate of a lively six-year-old girl on top of a playground slide: "There she stood on her sturdy legs, with her head thrown back, and her arms flung wide. As ruler of the playground she was at the very zenith of her world." But all would soon change: "If the camera had photographed the girl...at twelve instead of six...she would have been looking at the ground instead of the sky; her sense of self-worth would have been an accelerating downward spiral."
The picture of confused and forlorn girls struggling to survive would be drawn again and again with added details and increasing urgency. In Mary Pipher's Reviving Ophelia, by far the most successful of the girl-crisis books, girls undergo a fiery demise: "Something dramatic happens to girls in early adolescence. Just as planes and ships disappear mysteriously into the Bermuda Triangle, so do the selves of girls go down in droves. They crash and burn."
The description of America's teenage girls as silenced, tortured, voiceless, and otherwise personally diminished is indeed dismaying. But there is surprisingly little evidence to support it. If the nation's girls are in the kind of crisis that Gilligan and her acolytes are describing, it has escaped the notice of conventional psychiatry. There is, for example, no mention of this epidemic in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV), the official desk reference of the American Psychiatric Association. The malaise that comes closest to matching the symptoms mentioned by the crisis writers is a mood disorder called dysthymia. Dysthymia is characterized by low self-esteem, feelings of inadequacy, depression, difficulty in making decisions, and social withdrawal. According to DSM-IV, it occurs equally in both sexes among children, and while it is more common in adult women than men, it is still relatively rare. No more than 3 or 4 percent of the population suffers from it.
Copyright © 2000 by Christina Hoff Sommers
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