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The Globe and Mail

Rihanna, M.T. trial

Feminism in the Web era: It ain't pretty

Globe and Mail, by JUDITH TIMSON, March 24, 2009

Recent events have made me wonder despairingly whether decades of modern feminism have made any significant dent at all in the quality of relationships between young women and men.

The Web chatter by teenage girls who have been casually forgiving of rapper Chris Brown's alleged battering of his girlfriend, singer Rihanna, has stymied me. If you judge by some of the posts, many girls seem to think she must have done something to provoke it, or that she is equally to blame. A New York Times story last week, headlined "Teenage girls stand by their man," quoted one Grade 9er: "She probably made him mad for him to react like that. You know, like, bring it on?"

Equally frustrating were the soulless text messages from the shocking M.T. murder trial in Toronto, in which a 17-year-old girl who can only be identified as M.T. was convicted of first-degree murder last week after spurring her boyfriend to stab another girl to death, partly in exchange for sexual favours.

These vile text messages, flatly discussing "bj's" and "bang bangs" and fuelled by the obsessive irrational hatred of one girl toward another, depicted an emotional landscape devoid of respect, conscience or heart. They also revealed a very retro scenario - a monster girl who thinks her power lies in bitchily, and then murderously, vanquishing another girl.

In these cases, girls see other girls as the enemy in the endless hand-to-hand combat to capture guys. Chris Brown is better off outta there, say those girls. Don't you know?

As for the convicted M.T., she joins a small cadre of supposedly empowered girl killers, so I can't exactly claim she is a feminist victim.

But her ferocious wish to have her perceived rival, 14-year-old Stefanie Rengel, "dead in coffin" stems from an ages-old pre-feminist scenario.

In it, girls believe they don't have a lot of real power, that it lies only in attracting or keeping a guy, and they'll go to desperate ends to do so.

Why on earth is this still in play? Many boy-girl relationships today have become a retro minefield because of the confluence of several things.

First, there has been the sexualization of young women very early in their teens, so that being "hot" and attracting boys becomes an early measurement of their worth, and remains that way well into adulthood.

Second, there's been a devaluing of feminism and its true principles in the media and popular culture. Feminism has been both trivialized - softened into what I call "you go girl-ism" - and demonized by exaggerating scary things such as man hatred.

Yet feminism at its best offered women - and men for that matter - the idea that anyone should be able to achieve what she wants regardless of gender, and that loving and successful domestic relationships could consist of two equal partners. It offered teenage girls - and boys - an alternate universe. They could reach out for this universe and try it on for size. They could discover its flaws but admire its aims.

What makes me tear my hair out is that teenage girls today have been given every single tool they need to gain their own equality: the words, the books, the laws; the examples everywhere of women, sometimes their own mothers, achieving at work and living in respectful and equal domestic relationships.

So is it our abject failure that some of them excuse male brutality or participate in vicious girl-to-girl cruelty? Not exactly.

Teens live in their own hermetically sealed culture, never more than today. We can mouth all the nice feminist principles we want of equality and self-respect, but many girls have been pulled in a far more dangerous direction by a toxic culture that apparently still doesn't know how to really value girls and women. The Internet has made girl-on-girl viciousness so much more virulent, with mass shunnings, false rumour-mongering and online slagging of each other.

We may not have a lot of sway over this culture, but we still need to keep on saying: shame on you. Shame on those girls for forgiving Chris Brown. Shame on girls, too, for being so savagely and even dangerously mean to each other in order to get the guy. This kind of behaviour shows a lack of self-respect and even a lack of ambition. It's the retro road to nowhere.

But there is reason to hope that road ends naturally, after high school: One young woman I know, about to graduate from university, pointed out to me that her fellow students don't feel forgiving of Chris Brown at all, and that much of this alarming behaviour may have "a lot to do with immaturity." In which case, all I can say about maturity is, "you know, like, bring it on?"