Taylor Swift as Counterculture Icon for Teen Girls: by Amity Shlaes
I don’t have daughters – not planning on having any either. My three sons, however, have asked at different times for a sister. Having three sisters, I don’t blame them for asking; sisters are awesome – at least mine are.
But while I wouldn’t mind adding a daughter to our mix – that’s probably not in the cards for us anyway – I am very much aware of the challenges of raising daughters today. I’m not saying that any one generation has had an easier time parenting than another. However, I do believe how the moral lives, imaginations and characters of young men and women are formed this age has its own unique challenges. Part of the uniqueness comes from the prolific and powerful force of celebrity, media, and popular culture in general. We do not like to admit it but these things carry weight – they do bear an influence on children, families, and communities.
Celebrity, media, and popular culture impact the way that Sherry and I parent our sons and we, like most parents, are very intentional about what we allow our sons to be exposed to. The simple fact that we have to be vigilant when it comes to music, sports, magazines, books, billboards, not to mention the web, TV, Netflix, radio, iPods, video games and movies, speaks to the reality that parents face. Most parents that I know are concerned, wanting to make sure that their kids don’t hear or see things that they shouldn’t. But it is not easy. Foul language, overt sexuality and nudity, and adult themes are so prevalent it is better to prepare kids than try to hide them from it.
It is difficult not to stand back with a certain degree of trepidation as I think what it must be like for moms and dads to lovingly try to shape a young women’s moral life, imagination and character for the good. That seems all the more daunting when she is being bombarded by so many other messages of what is good and normal for a young woman. It becomes an even greater challenge if parents are the least concerned about her spiritually.
As a pastor to families I think about the challenge of parenting a great deal. It becomes all the more challenging given the constant messages that bombard young women (men too) about what is beautiful – but even more than that – what is the norm when it comes to intimacy. Recently I’ve been surprised at what is considered “normal” or simply “common practice,” or “what’s expected.”
Last night I was watching TV with Sherry and a commercial came on. I’m not sure what was being advertised. It showed a couple out rock climbing together in some remote place – giving the full impression they were off on a romantic excursion. The voice over said something like, “My boyfriend and I were going on vacation and…” I’m not sure what she said after that because I was stuck on that one line. It just struck me how that lined just flowed. It wasn’t all that long ago (I’m not that old) when that was not the norm. Guys and their girlfriends may have snuck off on vacation together but they did just that, snuck off. I know this has been the norm on sit-coms for a long time but this was the first commercial I’ve ever seen that acknowledges boyfriend/girlfriends going on vacation together. Suddenly – this is the norm. This is what is expected. This is an option now. But then there is more.
Research from The National Marriage Project at UVA points out “that over half of all first marriages in the U.S. are preceded by the couple living together.” The research also points out that 75-80% of high school seniors said having a good marriage and family life is ‘extremely important’ to them. However, close to half of the same group did not think they would stay married to the same person for life.” At some point this became the “norm” for relationships. In other words, parents raising girls should not just be talking about the fairy tale wedding, the grand proposal but now their girls can dream about the day she gets to ask her boyfriend to move in with her.
I’m not sure when this became the norm but it is. Our culture doesn’t seem to have a moral center – perhaps it never really did (although I think it did); it is seemingly lost in some weirdness that is difficult to name. That weirdness finds its way into the hearts and minds of students impacting the way they think of things as the “norm.” That impacts everything from what they eat, wear, go to school, when and how much they drink, what sort of drugs they will do, and with whom they will have sex. In other words, it is less of a question and more of an expectation that they will take part in these things. It is part of their social life. This makes parenting – shaping the moral lives, imaginations, and characters of our kids that much more of a challenge.
Tonight, I was listening to NPR on my way home from work. The interview was about getting tested for HIV. A startling stat they mentioned was that “one of every four new cases of HIV involves a teenager.” The blame for this, according to those being interviewed was, that “sex education programs” because they put “an emphasis on chastity rather than condoms.” In fact one man said to, “expect young people to wait until they’re 25 or 30 is really unrealistic, and nobody is waiting. I mean you maybe have 5-10% who are waiting, but the vast majority are not.” He went on to claim that he is, “running into kids 11 and 12 that are admitting they’re having sex. In my surveys, that’s about 10-15% of the teen population, so it’s low, but the fact that it’s amazing they’re starting this young, and over a period of the teen years, let’s say from 12, 13-19, they are falling in and out of love with different boyfriends and girlfriends in high school, so they might have as many as four different partners by the time they reach 18 or 19. When they go to college and then in college and are hooking up, you know, one night stands, and alcohol and drugs fuel a lot of these bad decisions, and what you’re finding is that a lot of these young people are now having multiple partners.”
Notice the norm – the expectation. Kids are going to do drugs and drink and have sex. We should expect it. That is just part of our social fabric. So lets give them condoms so at least they will not get HIV.
I have to say I was a little shocked by what I heard – not the stats, not that kids are having sex. I was surprised by the resignation of all moral values. Rather than asking larger questions like how to shape the moral lives, imaginations and characters of young men and women the answer, which seems to be nation-wide is, “well, this is normal. It’s what kids do. Give ’em a condom and teach them how to have the conversation about putting it on with their partner.” And in the same sentence we discover we are talking about middle school kids.
This is a tricky time for parents. Lots of people say things without thinking about the norms of our culture – and those things are impacting the lives of kids and their families. It is difficult for kids and parents to push back against what is considered “normal.” But an article came through my email today that I found refreshing and hopeful.
Up until today I didn’t know a lot about Taylor Swift; I’ve heard some of her music and I think she has a great voice but I wouldn’t have said I was a fan. But now – I’m a huge fan.
First because she seems to get it – what she says matters – and that includes lyrics. She is impacting a generation of young girls. She seems to know that. She seems to understand the seriousness of the role she is playing. Her voice and words are being carried into the hearts and minds of young girls perhaps in ways that the voice of parents are not being heard.
The good thing, according to the article (Taylor Swift as Counterculture Icon for Teen Girls by Amity Shlaes), Taylor is not dissing on mom and dad and she is not anti-family. That is deliberate on her part. That is going to shape the moral life, imagination, and character of these young women – and potentially for the good.
Second, I’m a fan because she seems to be saying the right things about moms and dads – about family. That doesn’t happen very often and she is saying it to girls directly – but we all know where the girls go – the guys go (if they are smart). It is truly countercultural because another part of the norm is that teenagers – perhaps especially girls – are not supposed to have a good relationship with their parents.
Years ago, back in the dark ages of the early 90’s, I began working with high school students – first as a coach and then as a minister. One thing became clear right away – parents were not involved directly. They cared for their student. They loved them and wanted them to be involved but they parents knew their place – and knew to keep a distance.
Somehow it was the standard stance, parents had been formed by some unwritten law that they were not be all that involved with their teenager. It seemed like parents were helpless and fearful – not knowing how to approach their own child. It was like watching an odd sort of dance or ballet where parents tried to learn the steps from the hormone rattled, adolescent kids.
What is more, kids felt the same way. It was part of some rite of passage that a student was to tell their parents off and to get a little wild, or resentful toward overly strict parents. That was the cultural script – the norm. Kids needed their space. I thought it was sort of odd. My own teenage years were really messed up after my dads death (I was a freshman) so I was having trouble relating. At the same time I thought it was strange that parents suddenly disappeared from their kids lives to some extent. It wasn’t that parents were not around – they were everywhere but sort of nowhere at the same time. They had been told to stay away – sometimes by their kids and sometimes by a cultural cue.
I remember asking about this one day. I was sort of wondering out loud to an “expert.” I suggested that parents should not be less involved but involved in different ways – especially in places like church and school. Teen years are not easy – so why would we pull the most mature people back from them at that time. His answer was kids need to “individuate from their parents, to become independent and form the important peer-to-peer relationships.”
But I don’t think we actually ever individuate as human beings. I mean our personalities form – but even still there is some part of our parents and family tied into the way we live and see the world. And – most parents want their children to have a sense of independence in that they are able to act as human beings, be productive, use their gifts and abilities. But even then I don’t think independence is the right word. Because, no one is really independent of another and I’m confident it is a bad idea for parents and kids to become independent of one another relationally. That never turns out well.
And yet, part of the culture script is that parents are not supposed to be engaged and involved in the lives of their teenage son or daughter. But that can’t be the way things are supposed to be – in fact I’m sure of it. We are supposed to be in one another lives. That should be the cultural norm – and we ought to want the good of others.
In Genesis 1-3 we read that God created all things – including Adam and Eve. He first made Adam but it did not take God long to make Eve. The Bible says it was “because it was not good for man to live alone.” From that I take it that God intended for human beings to live in community – in a right relationship with each other, with ourselves, with creation and, most importantly, with God.
That’s why things get weird when we try to pull apart – dissecting instead of integrating. Peter Block wrote, “The need to create a structure of belonging grows out of the isolated nature of our lives, our institutions, and our communities. The absence of belonging is so widespread that we might say we are living in an age of isolation, imitating the lament from early in the last century, when life was referred to as the age of anxiety…Our isolation occurs because western culture, our individualistic narrative, the inward attention of our institutions and our professions, and the messages from our media fragment us. We are broken into pieces.”
What I observed over the last twenty plus years is that kids don’t seem to actually individuate nor become independent. It may not be for lack of trying – and having met some of their parents I don’t blame them. But they usually end up looking for community – a place or group to belong. And they listen to what others are endorsing as what is normal for them to think, feel, wear, eat, drink, etc. So – just as the cultural norm is saying that parents ought to take a back seat and kids should want them to – there are other voices that are piping in through their ear buds and iPods – doing the job that their parents are actually supposed to be doing.
The good thing is that one of those voices, at least right now, is Taylor Swift. She is certainly pointed young women in the right direction – toward their parents and family – and that is good. The hope is that parents are plugged up to something that is giving them the same message and they are moving toward their kids. It is indeed a two way street and it is important that rather than individuating and becoming independent kids and parents learn more about building family – for a lifetime. It is equally important for parents to help give shape to the moral lives, imaginations and characters of their children – they can’t do that if the cultural norm is saying to disengage.
More to come…