We are all stupid girls

by Rob Horning

19 May 2006


It’s worth navigating through the site pass to read Rebecca Traister’s article in Salon regarding the alleged “return of the brainless hussies” and whether celebrity media and culture product manufactured for teens encourages girls to act stupid and/or cute (Is there a difference?) in order to earn approving attention. Traister finds redeeming qualities—intellectual content, encouragement to think—in teen lifestyle magazines like Elle Girl and Seventeen but indicts reality TV (and the parents of contestants therein) for prescribing class-ridden consumerist values and encouraging the notion that all attention is good attention: “On Super Sweet Sixteen and Tiara Girls, parents seem to be seeking the same cable-television spotlight that must motivate their children to self-exposure, without any concern that a nation (let alone their neighbors) will get to see them pushing their daughters to get collagen lip injections or enabling their offspring’s insatiable greed by never setting limits and getting them two cars.” This segues to her main point, that parents produce stupid girls, not culture:

Adults have made careless consumption the crowning American pursuit. We have invented and happily consume magalogs full of luxury items. Teenagers didn’t create Paris Hilton. In fact, they wouldn’t have any idea who she was if adults hadn’t elevated her from a dull table-dancing heiress by circulating a porn tape and giving her a reality show. Teenage girls don’t write the “Gossip Girl” books; 35-year-old Cecily von Ziegesar does. And consider the cabal of studio heads, publicists, club owners, photographers, designers and magazine publishers who have colluded to make Lindsay Lohan famous, drunk and ubiquitous so that she can sell their magazines, movies and handbags to teens who might rightly get the impression that they should live like her. Eliot Spitzer, of all people, recently accused the grown-ups over at Lohan’s record company of goosing her popularity by bribing radio stations and MTV to play her music. It’s all in the name of legitimate American enterprise, sure. But how can we be surprised when the kids we are hustling take our cues and mimic even our most corrupt behaviors?
And how about the fact that it’s not just teens photo-realistically aping the adults, but adults who are aping their own teens? The Alcotts and Austens and Brontës that Wolf recalls with deserved reverence would have blanched had they encountered the slice of the maternal population currently striving to look and dress like their daughters. Which is more alarming—reading about Lohan drinking too much and collapsing from “exhaustion,” or reading about her mother, Dina, sponging off her daughter’s success and cavorting with her beyond every velvet rope? It’s fair to ask, as Pink does, how many girls long to mimic Lohan. But it’s also reasonable to wonder whether any of their mothers long to live like Dina?

But Traister concludes by assigning blame to the fragile male ego: “Working on this story, I received an e-mail from a Harvard graduate student who told me that while he’d dated only smart girls, he ‘liked the idea of dating a dumb girl.’ The fantasy, the student explained, ‘is almost certainly formed for us by the media representations of ... celebrities [like Hilton, Lohan, and Simpson]. Blonde dumb girls are sexy. And won’t talk back. Add in various shades of male ego/guaranteed superiority notions, and you’ve pretty much got it.’ In a world in which male superiority is no longer guaranteed, it becomes a lascivious desire that can be gratified, performatively if need be, by willing women.”

Growing gender equality, then, creates a market for passé sexual stereotypes. So in other words, the media representation of female stars being dumb, manipulatable and compliant services the male ego, even though one wouldn’t think of men consuming such media—though every morning I see plenty of hombres on the subway studying Page Six the way fantasy-baseball nuts look at box scores. These depictions of Paris Hilton, et. al, then, are like “Under My Thumb,” mechanisms that allow men to fantasize about having the upper hand, having total control when really men’s lust and sexual cravings—stimulated by these same media renderings of copious sensuality—are out of control, and men are helpless to live up to what they are shown as the dream. Humilated by the tease of unfulfilled desire, men in turn seek to humiliate women, who they mistakenly blame for the frustration. So the corollary to such representations are the Neil Labute-type paranoid fantasias that assault women and depict them as cruel and controlling because they turn out not to be brainless, available and eager-to-please. The surveillance of young woman celebrities foments the myth of women generally always being available, always being flattered by the attention, that no attention is unwelcome (no matter how creepy or inappropriate)—in short, that they are simply waiting around with no purpose other than to be noticed.

But then the culture industry generally lionizes passivity, spectatorship, and so on; that is what its business model is built on. Typically feminism is blamed for male-ego fragility, as in the risible WaPo Style section trend story that Traister lampooned a few days ago, but probably it has as much to do with an entertainment industry that profits by emasculating them and then promising them the secret formulas to restore their lost manhood. If women can be blamed in the process, so much the better. And anti-intellectualism has practically become a patriotic badge of pride in America. The point is, as far as the entertainment industry goes, we are all stupid girls: passive, frivolous, attention-challenged, in thrall of shiny baubles, desperate for recognition and flattery and assurance that we are succeeding at being just what we’re expected to be.


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