Friday, October 14, 2011

23 is young

Tavi Gevinson's new online mag for teen girls - or for nostalgic adult women? - has a piece by a 23-year-old "kiss virgin" named Rachael. The essay is ostensibly about how it's OK to be single, and that people shouldn't judge, which is to say, it has the same valid if uncontroversial point as the Atlantic cover story. Only here, the author's 23, and can't reflect on a series of failed relationships, because she hasn't had any. Rachael's speaking to an audience primed to see 23 as ancient, but that's still young enough that she might lead a very conventional romantic life, meeting a first partner at 24, settling down at 30, etc. I've spent enough time at geeky schools to know that it in no way dooms a person to lifelong celibacy if they made it allll the way through high school and even college without anything much going on in that area. Like Dan Savage recently advised a 23-year-old gay man in much the same boat as Rachael, 23 is not that old. Not for gay men who only came out at 22, and not for geeky sorts, regardless of gender/sexual orientation.

(Rachael, who is theoretically open to men and women - twice the fun! - is perhaps something more like interested in neither, far closer, on the calls-to-Savage spectrum, to the callers who identify asexual to those who say they're bi. For the time being, at least. Savage would probably say she's just not prepared to admit she's a lesbian. Me, I have no idea where she'll end up. 23 is young.)

That said, what struck me was the author's assessment of why young women and teen girls want boyfriends, namely, that it's about peer pressure, fitting in: "If you took your cues from pop culture, you’d think the sole purpose of high school was hooking up. If you’re not dating the coolest, hottest boy in school, you’re a loser, and if you’re not dating (or trying to date) anyone, you’re not just a loser. You don’t exist."

Perhaps this is how it looks to someone who "do[es]n’t really get crushes." But to those - again, gender is irrelevant, as is sexual orientation - who get through high school by having crushes, for whom this is a big part of being that age, it seems very off. (Not unrelated, but not directly relevant here.) One need only consider the number of crushes that form on inappropriate, uncool targets - the math teacher, the weird goth kid - crushes that, even if they may affirm heterosexuality, would in no way raise anyone's social status, and if anything quite the contrary. Even assuming we're talking straight girls only, it's not all quarterbacks and brooding James Franco look-alikes behind the bleachers. It's hardly the same thing to have embarrassing crushes on members of the opposite sex as to be gay, 15, and closeted. But it's not as though hetero crushing is one great big public celebration of normalcy, either. Some crushes, even ones on same-age, opposite-sex classmates, can't be openly admitted.

Which brings us to something I've mentioned here before: that oh-so-grating phenomenon of young straight women claiming to be gay men trapped in women's bodies actually comes from a place of reasonable. Young women are popularly assumed to be desperate for boyfriends, boyfriends who can soon enough become fiancés, husbands, fathers. (This is why window-of-opportunity-enforcers are forever warning young women not to settle down. It's assumed they want to do so, more than anything, and need to reminded of such things as "graduate school.") While this may be true of many women at 25, 30, it's not so often the case at 15, 20.

All attraction anyone female has for anyone male is assumed to be the desire for a conventional life, when sometimes - often, very often if we're talking 18-year-olds, but often enough with 30-year-olds, etc. - it's really about the desire for a dude. Lust, curiosity, etc. Not the search for a prom date, for husband material. In our society, this unfettered attraction-to-men is associated with gay men, not straight women, ergo, straight women who experience it don't think the obvious - that this is how it goes for women with their entirely typical wiring - but that they must be aberrations, "queer," etc.

Rachael probably does feel genuine frustration with a world that assumes young people want romance, but ends up misrepresenting the majority, reinforcing the idea that female attraction is about wanting to fit in with peers. "I’m not saying that it’s wrong to make dating a high priority in your life—if you’re having fun, great!," she writes, as though the goal is dinner and a movie in the company of someone who will raise one's status in the eyes of one's own girlfriends. Often enough, that's so incredibly far from what's going on when a teen girl has a crush.

1 comment:

Chris Petersen said...

Great post...insightful as always.