Beyoncé’s Spinning Sexuality
Photograph by Manuel W.
Fifteen-year-olds may go online to learn how to perform fellatio, but they also post fearsome rebukes to boorish boys on Facebook and have lengthy debates on Twitter about whether or not Kim Kardashian is really a good “role model.” Girls use editing apps to whiten their teeth in their selfies and fret about the size of their “booties,” but they also celebrate the sororal power of “girl squads” and attend Nicki Minaj concerts to hear the rapper sermonize on why a woman should never be financially dependent on a man.
Sales portrays social media as an irresistible and ubiquitous force in the lives of young women. All of the girls in her book, regardless of their socioeconomic background or individual circumstances, are presented as being equally in thrall to their phones and computers. Some are queen bees, most are drones, but all are trapped in the social media hive. None of them appears to have a single cultural resource or pursuit outside of its ambit. (The one exception is a young woman who doesn’t own a smartphone—but that’s because she’s homeless and itinerant.) Is this an accurate representation of social media’s utter dominion, one wonders, or a reflection of Sales’s rather narrow line of questioning? (If you gathered up two hundred young women and asked them exclusively about their pets, you could probably write a shocking exposé of the outsized role that domestic animals play in the lives of American girls.)
Orenstein offers a rather more nuanced and measured account of the way girls live now, but she too has a tendency to underestimate the heterogeneity of teenage culture and the multiplicity of ways in which girls engage with it. At the start of her book she notes that the meanings of cultural phenomena are complex. Selfies are neither simply “empowering” nor simply “oppressive,” and wearing a short skirt is neither just “an assertion of sexuality” nor just “an exploitation of it.” Better, she suggests, to think of these issues in terms of “both/and.” Yet more often than not, she ignores this advice and opts for the reductive language of “might seem, but is actually.” Thus, Beyoncé may appear to be an inspiring, powerful figure, but she is actually “spinning commodified sexuality as a choice.” Girls may think they’re powerful when they look hot, but in fact, “‘hot’ refracts sexuality through a dehumanized prism regardless of who is ‘in control.’”