On the cover of every magazine, young women are reminded of what will happen if we lose control. We will become fat and powerless and unloved, grotesque, overconsuming, binging on all the drink and drugs and digestives we can get our sweaty, unladylike paws on. We’ll stumble out of taxis way past our bedtimes, flashing our knickerless crotches at unsuspecting paparazzi and returning home to grind what’s left of modern morals into a fine powder and stuff it up our disintegrating post-feminist nostrils.
If your media world consists of The Hate, News of the World, Grazia and Closer magazine, you could be forgiven for thinking the country was being overrun by baying packs of young women ‘gone wild,’ ‘rebel mums,’ on the lash and the combined pill, vomiting helplessly into the gutters of taste and decency.
And leading the pack, grown monstrous on fame and fags and pap-dashes, Amy Jade Winehouse, the nightmare reanimated corpse of a fifties housewife, all beehive and bad behavior, cackling drug-smoke and beat poetry, brandishing a bottle of vodka and several confused baby mice in her terrible crack-stained fingers.
The spectre of young women’s imagined loss of control as cipher for social degeneration is a long established and tediously familiar one. As early as 1712, the Spectator of April 29 made explicit links between a number of ‘addictive’ substances and their dangerous effects on the adolescent female mind, warning its ‘fair Readers to be in a particular manner careful how they meddle with Romances, Chocolate, Novels and the like Inflamers; which I look upon as very dangerous to be made use of during this Carnival of Nature’.* TheFWord has run a great series of posts this week about the Hate and others’ effusely graphic concern for the mental, physical and moral health of young women stumbling through the streets of London, Glasgow and Birmingham at 4am with the lads. From a recent article:
‘The shocking increase in drunken loutishness by ‘ladettes’ – up more than 50 per cent across the country overall – is being blamed by police leaders on the Government’s controversial 24-hour licensing reforms.
They said the figures were no surprise given the increasingly commonplace scenes of young women staggering helplessly around town centres, or collapsed amid pools of vomit.’
And this is posited as a ball-quivering social ill despite the fact that, as stated in the very same report, drink-related violence has fallen by a third in the UK since 1995. ‘Ladettes’ cause panic with their thoughtless appropriation of the cultural norms of the patriarchy, so all the more reason to frame girlish bad behaviour as a terrifying and preventable ‘loss of control’, drunken or otherwise.
And that loss of control comes back to the body, time and time again. Where the archetypal representation of male juvenile delinquency is the stalking hoodie, the active and malignant bourgeois nightmare, the image of female degeneracy is just that – an image. It’s not how we behave, it’s how we present – the ‘scenes’ we present, the flesh on show, the ‘helpless staggering’.
‘Men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves…’ John Berger, Ways of Seeing
Self-control is presented as a physical property in just the same manner. The woman with perfect hair and make-up is in control. The dieting woman is in control. The woman with the gruelling exercise regime is in control, and maintaining that control is a constant struggle, since one violent, consuming fear in 21st century western culture seems to be the notion of western women really kicking loose, dumping that economy-serving physical self-martyrdom which represents successful womanhood for so many young women today. Not buying in. Spoiling the game.
Suddenly we’re not playing nicely anymore. The girls are staggering out of control, the boys seething with murderous intent. This is not, believe it or not, a permissive society, and to think otherwise is to entertain the notion that our parents’ generation remained true to its ideals of tolerance and freedom. Britain and America are consumed by notions of shame, decorousness and a warped sexual economy desperate to bring young women, its key future consumer-base, to heel.
But we’re spoiling the game. Spewing our non-conformity into the gutters of modern standards, the young women of this country, rich and poor but particularly poor, are rebelling in the traditional manner of any British underclass: we get ratarsed and we get rowdy. And what does that acheive, I hear you ask?
Well, it certainly scares the hell out of you. It’s not much, but it’s a start. In fact, tonight I might get the girls round for a night of loitering: we’ll dye our hair pink like Lily and Amy, drink and get twisted and plan to end up with our skirts hitched under our armpits on a pavement in Shoreditch by midnight. If it frightens you, if it makes you sit up and think about what the hell happened to your dreams of a better world, then make mine a triple and down with standards.
*cited in Ballaster, Ros, ‘Addicted to Love? Women and/as Mass Culture,’ in Beyond the Pleasure Dome, Armstrong, Campbell & Armstrong (Sheffield, 1994).