The Smokers was, I think, meant to be a black comedy, but is too accurate to be funny, because you know that hundreds of thousands of young women exactly like the three girls whose story it tells move through their teenage years just as unhappy and confused and desperate, and you cannot laugh at children who are lost in the dark.
In the movie, which came out some years ago but came to my attention again because a copy was sitting in a sale bin at the grocery store, three prep school girls from dysfunctional homes, two quite wealthy and one a poor scholarship girl, decide that they are tired of being weak and exploited by men, and decide to turn the tables by forcing the boys in the school to have sex with them by threatening them with a gun. They do not succeed, and things spin out of control, as they tend to do in these movies, and in real life.
The girls’ pursuit of sexual power just proved to them how weak they were. Their sexuality proved as dangerous to them as the gun. The two who have sex come to bad ends, the other recognizes the good man who cares for her and the voiceover at the end suggests that she later marries him and is now living happily ever after. The movie was, if anything, an advertisement for virginity.
Ironically, it appeared at the same time as articles praising—sometimes a little ambivalently—the sexually aggressive young woman. One in The New York Times noted that “Ever since Sadie Hawkins, teenage girls have chased and flirted with boys. But now they are initiating more intimate contact, sometimes even sex, in a more aggressive manner, according to the anecdotal accounts of many counselors, psychologists, magazine editors and teenagers.”
As with most such stories on alleged social trends, it is hard to know whether it is a trend at all, and if so how significant it is. The author offers quotes from teenagers around the country and examples from pop culture, particularly pop music, but the only hard data he cites shows a decrease in adolescent sexual activity. The thesis seems intuitively true, but does it seem intuitively true because it fits what we expect and at some level want to believe (liberals because it shows how liberation and equality have spread, conservatives because it shows how bad things are)?
And if it is true, who does it apply to? All teenagers? Affluent teenagers? Poor teenagers? Secular teenagers? Teenagers from what used to be called—and accurately—broken homes? Teenagers in the public schools and secular private academies? Teenagers who watch a lot of television? These are all significant distinctions, which the writer does not make.
Assuming it is generally true, it is really a sad story, despite the brave claims of some of the adults quoted, who see the creation of sexually expansive young women as an expression of equality, confidence, and the like, and one of the greatest fruits of feminism. They use the word “empower” a lot.
Atoosa Rubenstein, then the editor of CosmoGirl, a magazine that originated in Hell, explains that “Their mothers have told them, Go for student council, go for the team, go for that job, and that has turned from a message directed toward achievement to being something their whole lives are about. So they apply it to pursuing boys as well.”
But the matter does not stop with girls asking out boys because they feel confident enough to do so. (American newspapers and magazines never, by the way, even question the idea of dating, especially the idea that children of that age should be out alone in a romantic affair that will not lead to any permanent commitment, though it really is a very odd and imprudent practice.)
The matter inevitably involves the question of what these children do on their dates, and Ms. Rubenstein has a blithe answer: “Whether that pursuit is sexual or an expression of a crush, Ms. Rubenstein said, ‘is up to the girl’.”
Up to the girl. There you are. The choice of an act with profound and ineradicable moral, spiritual, emotional, social, and usually physical consequences is to be left up to a child who is not considered competent to vote, choose elective surgery, drink, or decide whether or not to go to school. If her choice results in a baby, however, she is considered competent to have him killed. In many states she cannot get her ears pierced without her parents’ permission, but in nearly all of them she can have her womb opened and evacuated without even telling them.
But it is up to the girl, and we are meant to think that this is a good thing. We get a different view from Dr. Ann Kearney-Cooke, then a co-director of the Helping Girls Become Strong Women Project at Columbia University.
”The culture—MTV videos and television shows—helps to reduce adolescent girls to being successful when they look sexy and date often” . . . Teenagers, Dr. Kearney-Cooke said, feast on media images while they starve for love and parental attention. “One of the ways we learn about relationships is by being in them and seeing them at work,” she said. “Today, kids come home from school and the parents or parent might not be home. They watch MTV and talk shows and cruise the Internet, and that is where they are learning about relationships.”
And from magazines like CosmoGirl.
It seems to me, reading between the lines, that these young women are so aggressive for the exact opposite reason to that the writer and nearly everyone quoted accepts as self-evident. I think these children are so aggressive not because they are confident but because they despair.
They are taught from an early age that sex is inevitable but also that it is finally unsatisfying and leads eventually, inevitably to pain. They learn the first from MTV, talk shows, the internet, and magazines like CosmoGirl. They learn the second from their parents’ divorces, their friends’ break-ups, their own and their friends’ venereal diseases and abortions.
They feel that it is not “up to the girl.” It is easier, and seems safer, to try to make the affair “meaningless.” If it does not have meaning it cannot hurt.
As I say, I think this in part from reading between the lines, but also from long observation of people I know, and the testimony of movies like The Smokers. The story quotes an eighteen-year-old girl who says that “I think with feminist thought being pushed upon girls from a young age, that some people put a premium on girls’ dominating different areas of life. So girls may now feel that it is also important to dominate in a sexual relationship. This allows the girl to have more control, e.g. ‘I wanted him to do that’ versus ‘He sort of made me do something’.”
I may be wrong, but I hear in her last sentence the voice of a young woman, speaking for her peers, who is trying to avoid despair by claiming that she is the agent of her own actions, the one who decides her own destiny. Notice how passive she is even while claiming to have “control”: “I wanted him to do that,” not “I wanted to do that.” And notice that even while claiming to have control, she can only say “more control,” which in context does not seem to mean that she really has all that much control over what the boy does. The sentence does not suggest confidence. It suggests what in adults we would call “damage control” or “spin.”
It is the wording of one who has done something she wishes she had not done but feels she had to do. It is the voice of despair, familiar to us through the comic figure of the man who yells “You can’t fire me, I quit!” and storms from his boss’s office, having salvaged his pride a little bit though he is still ruined. There it’s funny.
It is not in any way comical in the mouths of children, who ought to have been free from the dangers and the suffering of CosmoGirl sexuality, and the need to cope by being aggressive, who ought to have grown up free to choose what they would do without even thinking of what boys wanted, till someday they found men who would love them, lay down their lives for them, live with them till death did them part, to whom they could offer their sexuality freely and without fear, whose children they would bear.
The odd thing is, that such young women would have more control over their lives than the macho young women the story describes. One does not need to be a Christian to know that chastity empowers. The control of the appetites makes you free. The chaste young woman is the only one of whom it can truly be said, “It is up to the girl.” Freud knew this, after all, which is perhaps why the sexually liberationist form of feminist tends to hate him almost as much as they hate Christ. They fear such freedom. They prefer the “freedom” that any fool can see is really slavery.
David Mills is Executive Editor of First Things. His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here. Material in this column is taken from a blog he wrote some years ago.
Alex Kucynski’s She’s Got to Be a Macho Girl from The New York Times.