Pretty, Useful

I’m sure you’ve seen that terrible Girls’ Life cover that did the rounds a little while ago. It was hard to miss – as many people commented, the boys who were targeted for its brother publication Boys’ Life were encouraged to explore their futures, while girls were encouraged to…be pretty and have nice hair.

There was a lot wrong with that cover. But a few days ago, a response to it began to circulate. I saw the post in a feminist group I’m part of, and it made many of us feel distinctly uncomfortable.

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On the surface, the ‘alternative cover’ looks great. A science fair winner as the cover girl, tips on healthy eating, volunteering and careers – what’s not to like? I’m sure it was completely well-meaning and came from a place of good intent. Unfortunately, it’s still problematic.

Firstly, there’s the fact that the cover on the right is suggesting that this form of girlhood is “better” than the other – that girls who volunteer and do AP classes are somehow worthier than girls who like fashion. There’s no mention of the fact that all girls are worthy because they’re, y’know, human – and there’s also no mention of the fact that girls can like makeup and hairstyles and get high grades and do good works. The implication seems to be that you can be like the (bad, made-up, inferior) girl on the left, or the (good, fresh-faced, superior) girl on the right – and that you’d better choose correctly. Which puts the blame on girls, not patriarchy, for the fact that teen girls aren’t taken seriously.

Secondly – the suggestions on the right really do seem like a hell of a lot of work, especially for an older child/young teen. Boys get to ‘explore their future’ in whatever way they want, but girls have to hyperfocus on AP classes and voluntary work that’s going to look good on their CVs? All work and no play makes Jill a tired and extremely pressured girl. (And why is there such a strong emphasis on volunteering for girls, when there’s no equivalent to this in the original Boys’ Life cover? ‘Cos girls have to learn early that they’re going to be doing a ton of emotional labour throughout their lives, I guess…)

And finally – I’m absolutely not arguing that volunteering, or getting good grades, or focusing on your future career, is a bad thing. Hell, I was that kid in school – still am, to some extent. But don’t all the things mentioned on the edited cover look “improving”, as a Jane Austen novel might put it? The fake article headers seem to scream “Hey girls, don’t be a decorative object – be a useful object!”, without realising that this still treats girls as objects. 

It is a wonderful thing to be kind, and generous, and help people. But there’s a big difference between that and simply being handy for others to have around. To paraphrase the famous quote, ‘pretty’ isn’t a tax that girls or women should have to pay in order to occupy the space marked ‘female’ – but ‘useful’ shouldn’t be, either. Girls deserve to occupy space, and be treated as worthy, because they’re humans – whether they like eyeliner, science, neither, or both.

If I were to improve the Girls’ Life cover, I would want to show girls that yes, it’s good to be focused and motivated – and that it’s also okay, and healthy, to do stuff that is just for you, and isn’t necessarily ‘improving’ or ‘good’. You need a certain amount of frivolity and goofing around in your life, or you just burn out (and miss out on a lot of self-discovery and moments of inspiration along the way. Some of the best ideas I’ve had have started off with me noodling around doing things that don’t seem important. I got an academic journal paper out of binge-watching Avengers films in my PJs). I’d want to show girls that you can like academic things and volunteering and make-up and celebrities and extreme sports and Netflix and anything else you want and that all of these ands are actually and/ors and that none of it has to define you unless you want it to. And I’d want to make it Teens’ Life so boys and NB kids can feel that way too.

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About Alice Nuttall

Alice Nuttall is a caffeine-guzzling knitter who divides her time between Oxford and the various worlds in her head. She is the author of a YA fantasy novel, Spider Circus, and three webcomics, Footloose, Cherry, and Black Market Magic, as well as several short stories.
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