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Macho Girls: Assertive Young Women in America - 2002-12-01

By most accounts, today's American teenage girls and young women are more confident than women of earlier generations. But has assertiveness become outright aggression, with girls bullying rivals and taking charge of social and sexual situations? That's the impression left by a slew of U.S. magazine and newspaper articles about so-called "macho girls." The stories describe strong-willed girls who know what they want, and get it.

So much for the old stereotype.

"Sugar and spice and everything nice.
"That's what girls are made of."

According to many observers, including young people themselves, there's very little sugar but lots of spice in today's "macho girls" or "alpha girls." And as for "everything nice," there's not a lot of that, either. To read the pulp magazines, there's a huge role reversal going on, with girls, not boys, initiating dates and even sex. There's even a term for girls who snarlingly push for what they want, no matter who gets hurt. They're called "R.M.G.'s", really mean girls.

The mainstream press is picking up on the story. Earlier this month, the Washington Post covered a symposium attended by more than 600 mothers and daughters. The subject: "Queen Bees and Wannabes", or what one observer called girls who are "relationally aggressive" and others who wish they were.

There are plenty of books coming out, too, about these brash young women, including one, to be published next year by the respected Simon and Schuster company in New York, written by a 19-year-old boy. He's Marty Beckerman, of Anchorage, Alaska, who's currently a freshman student at American University in Washington, DC.

The title is as provocative as the book's subject. It's Generation SLUT, the letters standing for "sexually liberated urban teenager." "A lot of girls today almost have this male-conquest attitude, this new machismo, where they're basing their own self-esteem on how many boys they conquer," he says. "I think something's really, really missing - love, you know. I don't think that's what kids are looking for any more. People these days prefer one-night stands and not knowing the other person and just into the physical, carnal aspect of it. I think we're going in a pretty scary direction where people just don't care about each other, and they don't want to care about each other, and they don't really want to be cared about."

Another American University student, 21-year-old Carrie McGovern of North Kingstown, Rhode Island, agrees that young American girls are more assertive than ever. Good for us, she says. "I think it's very presumptuous [takes a lot of nerve] that this boy has written a book about women simply from his observations and not actually being a woman and understanding what this new society demands of us," she says. "That women are being judged for this assertiveness is an absolutely anti-feminist, ridiculous concept. We don't live in the 1950s any more. We're not going to sit at home and wait for someone to come knock on our door and ask us to marry him any more. That's absurd. We are going to go out there. We are going to have fun, and I think it's a double standard to expect us to behave in a different way from any man."

A friend, 19-year-old Teresa Gallup, of York, Pennsylvania, says Ms. McGovern has been her social mentor, coaxing her to be more demanding in relationships.

Gallup: "I'm very passive, and I kind of just let people control me. And she just likes for me to stand up more for myself."
Landphair: "So if you ran into a young man, just met him casually or even saw him across a room, would you walk up and ask him out?"
Gallup: "It depends on what kind of mood I'm in. I probably wouldn't."
Landphair: "Your friend would, though, wouldn't she?"
Gallup: "Yes, she would. And she would probably drag me along with her."

Like many of the stories about macho girls, 24-year-old Vassar College graduate Jordana Hochman, of Orchard Lake, Michigan, points to today's super-confident, sexually suggestive rock stars that young women see in music videos. "Britney Spears and Christina Aguilara definitely epitomize the certain image of a 'Lolita', a young woman who is provocative, pushes men's buttons [gets men emotionally excited], and is aggressive," she says. "But I think there is also an element of violence, too. 'I'll get what I want; I'll take what I want.' When young women push for sex, though, I think that they're usually asking for something else, that they can feel loved and valued."

Mental-health professionals have been watching these developments with some alarm. Psychotherapist Ann Kearney-Cook, for one, says trying to pattern their behavior, and sexy clothes, after that of brazen young stars puts tremendous pressure on girls to be "super women, good at everything."

Dr. Kearney-Cook, who co-directs a project called Helping Girls Become Strong Women at Columbia University in New York, says today's generation of girls is being raised by so-called "baby boomer" parents who questioned everything, including romantic stereotypes. She says many of those parents are absent, "doing their own thing," much of the time, while their girls cope with decisions about sex, alcohol, and drugs in middle school, when they are as young as ten.

"Many kids go home, and they just immediately go upstairs and turn on the talk shows or get on the computer, and that's where they're learning about the world of relationships, and I think they're seeing a very distorted view," she says. "Dressing more sexual and trying to connect with guys on a more sexual level is really an attempt to overcome some loneliness, isolation, and literally not knowing about the steps of a relationship. She's just kind of bought into the images of TV and music videos and the Internet. And it is sad, because those girls end up being used, and it then even makes them feel worse about themselves."

"Tell me what you think about me.
"I'm my own woman, and I buy my own rings.
"Only ring your celly [cell phone] when I'm feeling lonely.
"When it's all over, please get up and leave...

"Destiny's Child has that song out, 'Independent Woman', which basically sends the message of, 'I want to be with you when I'm lonely, but then when it's over, I want you to get up and leave."

"I depend on me..."

"And so it's very much kind of this superficial, not very deep connection," says Dr. Kearney-Cook.

Ann Kearney-Cook, Jordana Hochman, and others are careful to point out that there are many positive aspects to the trend toward greater assertiveness by young American women. They say increased participation in sports, for instance, builds self-confidence, body image, and healthy relationships. And Dr. Kearney-Cook points out that, so far, macho-girl reports are anecdotal. She says scientific study, something deeper than books like Generation SLUT, is needed.