“So who are these people, these thirteen- to nineteen- year-olds? Is that all we know about them? What is their function in society, what do they look like, how do they dress, how do they smell, etc? But, most of all we need to know, is it true that their only interest in life is a dog-like interest in sex?
Well, I can start to make these points clear to you by introducing myself on the scene. Here is a real life teenager.”
Hilary Edwards, in Bitter-sweet Dreams
In 1987, Virago published a collection of writing by the readers of teenage girls’ magazine Just Seventeen. The essays, poems, and short stories aimed to counter stereotypes and misconceptions about teenage girls, as the introduction by Janice Long made clear.
“It wasn’t that long ago that ‘teenage’ books were written by doctors, educationalists and the like – establishment figures with textbook ideas. The danger with these books was that if you didn’t fit with their theories, you were made to feel odd. To me, the only valid words, thoughts and opinions of girls and young women are their own.”
Just Seventeen had replaced Jackie as the most popular teen magazine in the UK, substituting the chaste romance of Jackie with an edgier, more assertive, ‘street-wise’ femininity for the 1980s adolescent girl. This collection then provided a space for girls who identified with the new femininity of Just Seventeen to question normative assumptions of their age and gender, drawing on their lived experiences to challenge the expertise of professionals and adults.
Ideas of teenagers as self-centred and impulsive were evident in developmental psychology and in educational circles throughout the postwar period, and were also informed by stereotypes about class, race, and gender. In the 1970s and 1980s, as language and policy around equal opportunities entered education discourses, ideas of ‘natural difference’ between boys and girls were used to explain gendered disparities in academic and professional achievement. In a 1981 opinion piece in The Guardian, former headteacher of Oxford High School and philosopher Mary Warnock attributed what she saw as girls’ lack of ambition to sexuality.
“Little girls are bright, bossy, competitive and ambitious. Big girls are passive, conservative, intellectually vapid and without ambition. This is the story every school teacher tells… Why are adolescent girls so awful? What happens to them? Why do they make such depressingly predictable choices at school? Why do they not want to compete? Alas, it seems that the cliché answer is right. It is sex.”
Girls were, according to Warnock, rejecting work and study because of social pressures, and instead were focusing on boys, sex, marriage, and children, making poor choices, and ‘wasting’ their futures. In her attempts to account for girls’ apparent lack of drive, Warnock drew on ideas of girlhood as sex- or boy-obsessed, with girls unable to overcome the short-term enjoyment of romantic relationships and consider their futures.
This idea of girls as sex- or boy-obsessed was not entirely refuted by the girls of Bitter-sweet Dreams. Some acknowledged that their peers were often discussing boys, but that they did not fit this mould. ‘Niamh’ expressed her understanding that adolescence was a time ‘when you find your sexual identity’, but that she was as an ‘outcast’ for not having a boyfriend. Other girls also described their difficulties in living up to unrealistic expectations and the pressures to date and be sexually active. But, this was not, as Warnock described, a distraction to their other roles. ‘Niamh’ also asserted that girls were highly ambitious.
“They want to get to the top of the profession they choose, or exam they take…I still feel, though, that this country will see an upheaval in the traditional role of the woman, and a new generation will emerge whereby women and men are equal. Possibly another fantasy of the teenage mind?”
‘Niamh’s’ use of ‘fantasy’ can perhaps be read as a jibe aimed at adults who did not take teenage girls’ viewpoints seriously, another common contention in Bitter-sweet Dreams. ‘Maisy’ asserted that adults did not appreciate that ‘…us young teenagers have lots of bright ideas…To them we don’t know anything’. Hilary connected this to ideas of biological development.
“As an adult, your views can be heard…You may be classed as a ‘teenager’ by society, but by your family, your school and your teachers you’re thought of more as a kid who has just embarked on puberty.”
For Hilary, being a ‘teenager’ should have been different to being a ‘kid’, but assumptions of adolescence based on biological development – puberty – shaped her interactions and relationships with her parents, who dismissed her as she was ‘at that age’. The language of biological development could therefore be used to undermine and demean, reinforcing teenage daughters’ place within the power dynamics of the family.
Many girls also expressed their anxiety at an unjust and violent world to emphasise that they were not as passive or clueless as adults imagined them. The National Front, apartheid, nuclear war, unemployment, crime, drugs, sexual assault, and divorce were all topics covered by the young writers, many of whom recounted their own personal experiences. ‘Karina’ stated that learning about the darkness in the world was part of growing up.
“Being a teenager? I’m not sure what it means…I want to change things. I want to help the poor, I want to ban the bomb, I want us all to live in harmony, black, white, yellow, blue, whatever. I want to make my impression on the world, on this cold and bitter and confused place I live in.”
Another author, Vickie, highlighted the hypocrisy of her parents’ generation who came of age in the 1960s, ‘making love not war’, but who now wanted ‘to ban abortion and confidential contraception for the under-sixteens’, a reference to the attempts of campaigner Victoria Gillick to restrict teenage girls’ access to the Pill without parental consent. At a time when girls’ capacity to make choices about their lives and bodies was being dissected in the press and in the courts, the Bitter-sweet Dreams writers aimed to prove their capability to make informed choices and affect change.
Within this collection, teenage girls contested adult assumptions of teenage girlhood which they felt adults used to restrict their lives. By demonstrating their individuality as ‘real-life’ teenagers, these girls tackled stereotypes of teenage girls as boy-mad, vapid, or shallow, and asserted their expertise over adults’.
All extracts from: Bitter-sweet Dreams: Girls’ and Young Women’s Own Stories, by the readers of Just Seventeen, Virago Upstarts, 1987.
Mary Warnock, ‘Why are adolescent girls so awful?’, The Guardian, 17th August 1981.
Amy Gower is currently writing up her PhD on girlhood, feminism, and schooling in late twentieth century England, and can be found on Twitter @AmyG_Historrry