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Grow Up

Why adult women—and women’s media—should reconsider their cultural infatuation with teenage girls.

Harry How/Getty Images

Last week, Carly Rae Jepsen released a new single called “Cut to the Feeling.” As in her breakout classic “Call Me Maybe,” the tune combines emotionally urgent synths with a bouncy prom feel. The signature Carly Rae Jepsen flavor is uncertain, shy desire: wanting to make contact with the crush, wanting to confess that you really like him, wanting to run away. It’s art for the teenage heart and she’s very good at it.

Adult women love Carly Rae Jepsen in part because of the teenageriness of her product, which persists despite the fact that she is 31 years old. New York magazine called her album E*MO*TION “perfect teen pop,” and her performer presence embodies that. She’s pixie-ish, sweet, playful. As my colleague Clio Chang wrote last year, those who love her do so defiantly. Her music is “for girls” and it is good, the Carly Rae fan says to the snobs. And what could be more relatable, more perennial, than uncertain, shy desire?

But despite (or because of) the joy in her art, Carly Rae Jepsen is part of a new wave in culture that reduces the experience of teenage girls to fantasy instead of taking them on their own terms as actors in this world. And teen girls are key players: They have defined important changes in social media and marketing in recent years, while reinventing standards for women’s media.

Fetishization of “teen girl” cultural value has led to an unnerving and ever-increasing sense that a teen girl is somebody an adult woman might want to be. Mirroring this insult to teen girls’ experience is the implication that adult women cannot ever become full adults. This insults all of us, suggesting that personhood for women lies in some fantasy infantile state: never a child, never an adult.

On Tumblr historically and Instagram more recently, teenage girls have done the unpaid labor of creating the markets that our world relies upon now. Last year Doreen St. Felix wrote about Kayla Newman, the young Vine user whose coinage “on fleek” changed language but not her life. “The phrase Newman gave the world was used to sell breakfast foods and party cups,” St. Felix wrote, “but it only belongs to her in an intangible sense.” Laur M. Jackson has also written about how online citation culture erases the work of black women specifically. Now, it wouldn’t be surprising to hear a phrase like “on fleek” in a Carly Rae Jepsen lyric.

Every Instagram ad for anything—from sponcon to simple paid placement—functions off the back of young girls’ attention (and to the detriment of those teen girls’ health, in the case of the classic IG waist trainers and laxative teas). Influencer marketing is entirely defined by young women and their looks, their bodies. Black teen words and images on Twitter and Instagram are especially consistently targeted for fetishization and its sister, corporate appropriation.

When a space is monetized, its value spreads into the less tangible medium of prestige. In other words, something that is worth money has a way of becoming what is “cool.” And teen-girl value has spread in a way that seeps into what the media wants out of celebrities. When an outlet profiles a smart young person like Millie Bobby Brown or Tavi Gevinson or Amandla Stenberg and the main hook of the story is their age, that’s fetishization. We call it fetishization because it reduces these individuals to one exaggerated aspect of their identitytheir youthat the expense of the rest of the person.

Publications which trade in aspiration use their subjects’ youth as a currency, converting it into some airy feel of “cool” which they in turn use to make money. It is part of the economy that makes a profile of two random good-looking Instagram teens a reasonable piece of content for Cosmo, and the part that makes it good business for an entertainer like Jepsen to jump about in bright costumes and sing about schoolgirl crushes well into her thirties. To clarify: It is not a worthy celebration to obsesses over your age, old or young. The stakes of ageism are personhood.

That mainstream women’s magazines are selling the stars of social media culture back to the young women who built that culture is ironic. But traditional media aimed towards teenage girls has evolved significantly in the past decade, too. Gevinson’s Rookie deserves credit not only for its own outstanding content and political sophistication but for setting industry standards which have led much-lauded outlets like Teen Vogue to new ground.

Rookie is a straightforwardly excellent media outlet. Its art direction feels current and its homepage is filled with the faces of the teens it serves. Rookie publishes good fiction as well as “sex and love” content. It has a section on friendship. When I was younger the magazines for teens came with pullout posters of tiny rabbits; their content was patronizing and betrayed a low opinion of the readership. I’m very glad Rookie is in the world.

But in the maddening, recursive way that the media deals with young women, Rookie’s success gets looped back into the original narrative of Gevinson’s exceptional youth at the time she first became well-known. The publication is spoken of as special in the sense of not being a real part of the rest of the media landscape: it is an outlier, defined by some aspirational teenness that grown ups could never replicate, the way that an adult actress could never turn into a 15-year-old IG starlet.

Rookie is compared to Sassy, a magazine that shares some of Rookie’s compass but comes from the 1990s. Sassy proves that this kind of respectful media for teens has precedent, and that there has been demand. But its founder Jane Pratt went on to create the exploitative and prurient xoJane, where women were encouraged to share their most intimate and painful memories in a never-ending essay contest which seemed to simply be a cheap way to fill the site with content. Just as marketing professionals exploit teen girls by using their exuberance to sell products, xoJane exploited adult women to extract their trauma. Sassy is not a stepping stone from which any new magazine for teens can spring—it’s something that happened a pretty long time ago, and is not characteristic of how we treat young women in the media now.

As Sarah Nicole Prickett wrote in Artforum, teens have been “idolized and sacrificed by turns” since the category was invented. Now that teens speak for themselves—on Tumblr, Twitter, Kik, and also on more traditional online publications, some bossed by teens themselves,” Prickett writes, “they are fetishized perhaps oftener than they’re respected.”

There is a connection between the prominence of teen girlhood in culture and the trend-verb “adulting,” which has already received its well-earned backlash for turning infantile incompetence into charm. That connection comes down to something like a thought trend, a hard-to-pin-down sense of how people are talking about themselves and the world around them. It’s in jokes and conversations, but most prominently it’s in the simple lauding of very young women who are present online.

It’s in Carly Rae Jepsen’s bangs and her pre-sexual chirpiness. It’s in seeing pre-adulthood as a utopian realm of freedom and a purer type of being. That purity is sexual and political and economic: Women and women’s media who obsess over teen girl culture are in a sense obsessing over a version of themselves that does not have to live as a cog in capitalism and does not (in this fantasy) have to contend with reproductive choices. The teen girl is ever exhorted to “just be herself.” The adult woman has no equivalent option: She must find herself, find love, find money, manufacture healthy babies, find the lost nubile beauty that she left behind at cheerleading tryouts.

The reality remains that real teen girls and adult women simply do not belong to the same cultural space. We have plenty in common with them: Misogyny affects us all, and as teachers or mothers or mentors or friends there are a lot of ways we can play a part in the lives of younger women. But otherwise we live in opposition to each other. When I was a teen, I would have died before picking up a magazine with the word “teen” in the title. I hated it when any adult tried to “relate” to me, tried to hand down the sage advice they’d learned over the years. If they were so smart, why did they end up with such boring lives, married to such shitty men? I barely saw adult women as real people.

The utopian purity that we see in the hearts and minds of teenagers—and in the prom tunes of Carly Rae Jepsen—is never the experience of teenagers themselves. My experience was one of urgent lack. That lack felt spiritual: it certainly wasn’t material, since I was a white teen who lived in a house where I was fed. I needed to get older, pass exams, propel myself out of this situation in which I had no autonomy. Get smarter, get taller.

Not having control over your own life is maybe relaxing for some teen girls, the ones for whom “Call Me Maybe” actually became personally anthemic. But for most, I think, teenhood is a time when real power is way out of reach. Teens long for the autonomy of adulthood, while grown women long for the bodies they used to have and the dreams that never came true. Infatuation is not the same thing as supportive love. Fixating on teens is vacuous, and so are the lyrical crushes of the singer who invites us to slip into a fantasy version of our own past selves: “I really really really really really really like you / And I want you, do you want me, do you want me too?”