Girls are certainly tougher than they used to be, and it wasn't all that long ago that I was one myself. A whole culture of young feminism exists now—books of advice for teenage girls on how to become the women they want to be, "Girls Rule" T-shirts. Yet it still isn't easy. Two new books by Vendela Vida and Leora Tanenbaum, both young women themselves, offer perspectives. Vida's book, Girls on the Verge: Debutante Dips, Drive-bys and Other Initiations, is an investigation of what girls will do to usher themselves over the threshold of adolescence, the rites they undertake to become grown-up participants in society. Such rites are as old-fashioned as a debutante ball in Houston, Texas, and as violent and explosive as the initiation into a Los Angeles girl gang. They are rites of inclusion (as in sorority rush week), separation (as in hastening to the altar in Las Vegas), and of confirming one's status as an outsider (as in immersion in the New-Age spirituality of Wicca). Girls on the Verge
by Vendela Vida (St. Martin's Press, $19.95)
by Leora Tanenbaum (Seven Stories Press, $23.95) Vida places herself squarely among the girls she's interviewing and in one case, when she looks into the phenomenon of a sorority rush week, poses as a would-be pledge at UCLA. The result of her undercover work—her simultaneous watching of and participating in the selection process, the hopefulness, the bizarre social gerrymandering that sororities create—is the striking centerpiece of the book. "Rushing" under an assumed name with a fictionalized background to match, Vida experiences another layer of self-consciousness as she watches her constructed self gain acceptance among a group of young women she wouldn't have expected to like. In Houston, she crashes a debutante ball and muses tartly on its outdated premise: "To come out as a debutante is the ultimate anti-Cinderella story. When a young woman is presented as a debutante, society (in this case, high society) is being told she is of a good family and eligible for marriage." Vida is a good writer, and clearly feels an affinity—an emotional one, if not an actual one—with her subjects. Still, the book stumbles. In an effort, I think, to be taken seriously, Vida packs each chapter with a mini-analysis of demographics, sociological studies, statistics, and numbers, and she crams this great wedge of information in virtually the same place in each essay. I couldn't wait for her to get over being a Serious and Responsible Journalist and get on with the details of each story. In addition, Vida seems to model herself too much, and not quite successfully, after Joan Didion in Slouching Toward Bethlehem and The White Album (both written when Didion, too, was fairly young). Didion's signature style then was that of a thorough investigation of a social fact of life—hippies on Haight-Ashbury, the inner workings of the LA Department of Transportation—into which she coyly blended details of her own life. Vida, too, brings herself into her essays, but it is not as much a subtle inclusion as a loud bell tolling. Through her writing leaves no doubt that she feels compassion for all the girls she encounters and that she is indeed searching for some form of inclusion in something, anything, one feels her subject is condescended to. For instance, she often calls on her New York writing life as a contrast to the kinds of lives she is encountering, a comparison that may be vivid but is not necessarily fruitful. This may be, however, more the misstep of an inexperienced writer than actual snobbery. Tanenbaum, on the other hand, was branded a slut in high school and uses this personal experience as a springboard into her study Slut! Growing Up Female with a Bad Reputation. She weathered years of verbal abuse and depression, and tried to remodel herself back into a "good" girl by wearing baggy clothes and burying herself in her schoolwork. The heart of her book consists of interviews with and writings by women who experienced a similar form of social castigation, earned either because they developed sexually before their friends or because they were weird and nonconformist or even because they were raped. In addition, Tanenbaum holds, some girls are made into pariahs simply because of an attitude toward sex that we (as adults) perceive as "healthy," an unwillingness to be pinned down into roles of "good girl" and "bad girl." "Every girl is hurt by the widespread silence about female desire," she writes. Slut! gives a detailed parsing out of the societal factors that contribute to what she calls "slut bashing." Among them are the obvious culprits, which are more or less old news: the sexual double standard, the fracturing of girls' self-esteem (I'm surprised she made it all the way through the book without invoking Carol Gilligan), the ways that girls compete with each other instead of helping each other, and a lack of real sexual education. There are also ways in which women participate in the culture of slut bashing by buying into good girl/bad girl archetypes rather than declaring such roles beside the point, and Tanenbaum herself realizes the inequity of trying to refashion her reputation: "When your sexuality is used against you, the temptation is to distance yourself from it." Although Tanenbaum's support for sexual equality, that is, the right for both genders to enjoy sexual activity without being stigmatized for it, is a distant cousin to Camille Paglia's theories about how we are all driven by nature's darker urges, Slut! ends on a note that no doubt Paglia would have disapproved of: Tanenbaum encourages girls to report incidents of slut bashing because they are a kind of sexual harassment, and here is where her book gets murky. She is much more effective as a social chronicler than as an evangelist.