American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teenagers
by Nancy Jo Sales
Length: 416 Pages
Release date: February 23, 2016
Instagram. Whisper. Yik Yak. Vine. YouTube. Kik. Ask.fm. Tinder. The dominant force in the lives of girls coming of age in America today is social media. What it is doing to an entire generation of young women? This the subject of award-winning Vanity Fair writer Nancy Jo Sales’s riveting and explosive American Girls.
With extraordinary intimacy and precision, Sales captures what it feels like to be a girl in America today. From Montclair to Manhattan and Los Angeles, from Florida and Arizona to Texas and Kentucky, Sales crisscrossed the country, speaking to more than two hundred girls, ages thirteen to nineteen, and documenting a massive change in the way girls are growing up, a phenomenon that transcends race, geography, and household income. American Girls provides a disturbing portrait of the end of childhood as we know it and of the inexorable and ubiquitous experience of a new kind of adolescence—one dominated by new social and sexual norms, where a girl’s first crushes and experiences of longing and romance occur in an accelerated electronic environment; where issues of identity and self-esteem are magnified and transformed by social platforms that provide instantaneous judgment.
What does it mean to be a girl in America in 2016?
It means coming of age online in a hyper-sexualized culture that has normalized extreme behavior, from pornography to the casual exchange of nude photographs; a culture rife with a virulent new strain of sexism and a sometimes self-undermining notion of feminist empowerment; a culture in which teenagers are spending so much time on technology and social media that they are not developing basic communication skills. From beauty gurus to slut-shaming to a disconcerting trend of exhibitionism, Nancy Jo Sales provides a shocking window into the troubling world of today’s teenage girls.
Provocative and urgent, American Girls is destined to ignite a much-needed conversation about how we can help our daughters and sons negotiate unprecedented new challenges.
American Girls was mentioned in an article I read recently, and I was curious enough to snag a copy from the library. It was not worth the time I invested in it. This is a 416 page book and I can sum it up with one sentence: young people no longer have relationships, and porn and smartphones are the root of all evil.
I’m 28, so I’m a little out of the age range that Sales is talking about in this book, but I know and talk to a lot of younger people, and the culture she is portraying in this book is not one that I recognize at all. While she touches on a lot of very real issues, such as sexual harassment online, an unhealthy amount of time devoted to social media, and lowered self esteem triggered by comparing our real lives to the filtered, unrealistic version that others put online… most of her concerns feel completely overblown.
It also feels like Sales lacks any self-awareness at times. At one point, she remarks that teenage sexual exploration has always made adults uncomfortable, despite it being a normal and natural part of adolescence. This remark is made amidst pages upon pages of hand-wringing over teenage sexuality and how it signals the end of romance as we know it. Hookup culture reigns supreme and relationships are dead to American youth, to hear Sales tell it. This is all purely anecdotal, of course, and it doesn’t remotely match up with the anecdotes from teen girls in my own life. These girls date. They have steady boyfriends.
Sales is also highly critical of sex positive feminism. While I don’t think that movement (or any movement, for that matter) is infallible, Sales’ criticisms simply read as more hysteria over teens being sexually active. All sexual activity and expression is purely for the benefit of the boys, apparently. Sales seems to think that sex positive feminism is simply a wolf in sheep’s clothing dedicated to tricking teen girls into seeking empowerment through fulfilling the needs of teen boys.
Basically, Sales seems to be so hyper-fixated on social media and online pornography that she’s determined to paint a picture that shows how they are responsible for nearly all of the ills in today’s society, even those she has to make up whole cloth (i.e., dating no longer exists). I went into this book expecting to agree with a lot of Sales’ points, so I think it’s telling just how flat it fell for me. Do teens spend too much time on social media? Yes, I’m sure, as do most of the rest of us. Is “hookup culture” a thing? I’m inclined to think not, and studies seem to suggest that hysteria around this issue is overblown. If you’re looking for a thoughtful exploration on teen use of social media and/or modern sexuality, I’m sorry to say that you won’t find it here.
Thank you for reading! Have you read American Girls? Please share your thoughts in the comments!