Ask an 8 year old girl what she wants on her pizza and she’ll tell you, “Pepperoni and cheese.” Ask that same girl at 14, and she says, “I don’t care, what do you want?”
Ask her at 35 and she doesn’t answer because who fucking cares as long as she doesn’t have to decide what’s for dinner or cook it.
I’m a firm believer that once you can check the 35-41 box, you can and should say ‘fuck’ more regularly.
A director friend of mine always tells his actors to, “play the positive.” Even in dark scenes, find the humor, find the moments of light. It’s hard to do, because as humans, we naturally focus on the negative, we ruminate. If you didn’t know the word for replaying the last argument you had with your mother every day for a week, now you do. Women imbibe in this particular past time more than men, and often get hooked on the negative during puberty. Which I totally get. The moment in art class when the love of my sixth grade life announced that I had “way more” of a mustache than he did comes immediately to mind, but among the zits, hips, and curly hair that had yet to find its diffuser, I’m sure there are others.
Middle school also marks the start of rewarding “good girl behavior.”
Sit quietly. Follow the rules. Get good grades. Earn gold stars. In middle school, the kids who don’t cause problems are rewarded. Which, as someone who has had the absolute pleasure of teaching many an after school drama program to middle schoolers, I also totally get. Two hours standing powerless on a cafetorium stage while a pack of feral twelve year olds runs in circles around the room, screaming at the top of their lungs, and you would give the leading role to Sara Sims sitting quietly in the first row too, integrity of Toy Story Jr be damned.
The problem with rewarding “good girl” behavior is that it ingrains in young women the idea that to be quiet is to be good, which can only mean that to be loud, is then bad. To listen is to be good, to follow is to be good, to accept is to be good. To speak up, to lead, to question, to challenge is to be in trouble. This behavior might earn middle school gold stars, but when the classroom turns into the boardroom, the rules change. As adults, we look for leaders who are challengers; risk takers who have novel ideas and out-of-the-box ways of thinking.
Girls who were rewarded for not speaking up become women who don’t know how to.
So what can we do? We can start with the young women in our lives. For me, that has recently meant the horde of teenage theatre nerds that follow me on Tiktok. What started out as a fun, creative release for me, has quickly evolved into a platform to listen to young women's issues with body confidence, insecurity, and the feeling of not being good enough. A quick 1-minute video on the "Do's & Don'ts of Casting" quickly reached over 10,000 views and a slew of comments from young women around the world sharing how someone told them they were "too fat".."too tall".. "too short".."too curvy"..not "in" with the right crowd.. and those comments are shaping who these young women are becoming.
That's some dangerous voodoo right there, Mama.
Teaching Tolerance www.tolerance.org is on a mission is to help teachers and schools educate children and youth to be active participants in a diverse democracy. Here are their 4 Basic Strategies to combat bigotry, negative (self) talk, and silence:
Interrupt: You must speak up against every biased remark as soon as it happens. Letting one go tells anyone in earshot that it's ok to say bigoted things. So interrupt it. Every. Single. Time.
Question: Quiet your immediate reaction to a hateful or negative remark, and instead ask, "What do you mean?" "Why do you say that?" "Tell me more." This allows the speaker to acknowledge their own blind spot and get to the reason behind their thinking.
Educate: Hate isn't always behind hateful speech. Sometimes its ignorance or lack of exposure to people or situations out of their bubble. Explain why something is hateful; where it comes from. Be kind. Just because she carries it well, doesn't mean it isn't heavy.
Echo: if it's impactful to be the first voice to speak up, it's equally impactful to be the second, or third, or fourth. As an echo-ing voice, you can support the first speaker, and thank them for speaking up.