Youth Issue: Teenage Girls, Language, Social media, Activism and Survival

I am like other girls

Ali Burns is a creative living in Wellington, placing herself with feminist values and a strong social conscience. Her creative profile includes completing her Masters in scriptwriting, directing music videos, web series, as well as creating and performing as part of the band prizegiving. 


Teenage girls in groups are rarely taken very seriously. They are often seen as silly and frivolous, and most likely gossiping about something vapid and uncultured. However teenage girls have more power over culture than they are given credit for.

The idea that teenage girls are vapid and useless saturates our culture. Films, books, music and TV often paint the picture of the teenage girl being  an airhead, a “mean girl”, or “not like other girls” (which basically means the dream girl of the writer). Recent examples include Paper Towns (which I’ll admit tries to address this but also in many ways fails at it), The Duff, Supergirl, The Princess and the Frog and Drake. This is not to discredit these works of their worth, I merely wish to point out examples of media creating the trope of “not like other girls”. When I was in high school I bought into this idea and looked at other teenage girls like they were silly and frivolous, and these were my friends. I had been so soaked in the culture that ridiculed teenage girls that I discredited my friends because of it. I would try to avoid being like them because it meant that I was the girl who was not like other girls and that meant my emotions and thoughts were valid. It was a way to survive being a teenage girl.


This idea of being “not like other girls” discredits and silences young women, as they are never given the opportunity to take themselves seriously. They can’t raise their voices together in protest if they do not trust each other’s voices. However teenage girls have been silently and unconsciously protesting this culture for centuries, by creating their own culture and language in defiance, and by doing this they create a safer space for to exist in.

Teenage girls are the biggest creators of language, and have been throughout history. William Labov who is the founder of modern sociolinguistics wrote a paper which showed that women lead 90% of linguistic change, a finding that has been confirmed many times. The women who create the most language are young, something easily observed by examining where a lot of new slang and speech comes from. Young women’s voices and their language should be celebrated. It is a way from them to survive, and it is a way for them to rebel against the society that persuades them that their voice is worthless.


An article on the Quartz by Gretchen McCulloch suggests that if we value Shakespeare so much then we should be applauding the innovativeness of the language that young women invent.  Young women are condemned for the very thing that Shakespeare himself was applauded for. Katherine Martin, head of US dictionaries at Oxford University Press, explains that if Shakespeare really was inventing so many words during each play then no one in the audience would have understood what was happening in the play, and that Shakespeare was in fact just recording the vernacular of the time. This vernacular comes mostly from young women. As letters that were evaluated by Nevainen and Raumolin-Brunberg at the University of Helsinki showed, between 1417 and 1681, female letter writers were making far more changes in their speech than male letter writers.


Why are young women so good at creating new language and why do they do it if they are continually criticized for it? Beels and Wood explain that “some acts of youth agency can be seen as irrational, and some acts of resistance may not be conscious choices made by the individual”. To be a young women within a society that is constantly discrediting you is not easy, so creating language which can’t be understood by those who shame young women has got to be satisfying. Producing this new language and using it within a safe environment can be a form of invisible activism that is an act to create social change, even though it is not conscious.

There is a public perception that youth of today are “apathetic compared to previous generations”, however if we consider disrupting language as a form of activism then we can see youth as constantly performing a form of invisible activism, as “activities of agency occur in spaces where a subject can stand, speak and be oneself; they are performances of identity just as much as they are moments of cultural creation” (Beels and Wood).  Teenage girls do not have access to many spaces where they can stand and speak without ridicule. So creating speech and having it assimilate into everyday language is a way of performing their identity as well as creating social and cultural change.


This creation of language is evolving faster than ever due to the use of the Internet, where language among youth is shared quicker than ever before. Using the Internet as a platform for activism and survival is also a way to include youth and acknowledge them as more active in social change than they are recognized for. It is important to acknowledge when speaking of youth “apathy” in social activism that “some youth do not have access to the resources needed to do transformative agency, and others are permanently excluded from this position because of who they are and where they live” (Beels and Wood).  The online community therefore is a safe space for young women who are not able to feel confident or physically be within a public space to speak out about causes they feel strongly about. Using social media and online communities to educate them and perform agency instead of doing so in a physical sense “may be in part a reaction to the limited spaces young people can occupy in physical spaces owing to the increased privatization and regulation of public spaces” (Wyn and White 2008). So it is misleading to criticize young women for being apathetic by not being physically present in activist communities.


A youth activism group in Auckland called Radical Youth used social media as a way to communicate with their members and followers, noting “young women from Radical Youth preferred to use social networking sites such as MySpace and Facebook in their creation of a community of youth activists”, and when examined it was observed that “these social networking sites have generated few adult responses. In effect, these sites have appeared to be “no-go”” zone for adults, effectively providing young women with a new space to connect with their peers away from the eyes of adults” (Beels and Wood). Which shows that older generations do not see these communities grow and the education and activism that is happening within them, which is why it is dismissed so much as a form of activism. Recently within New Zealand many young women are calling out sexual abusers through social media to warn other women, the ability to share this information is vital for many people’s survival, and having the ability to use a non-physical platform to do this also can protect the victims.


It is easier to access the knowledge we need to move forward and disrupt the patriarchy than it ever has been. Young women are sooner aware of the limitations that are put on them and therefore can sooner combat them. Using language and social media to create communities and culture is helpful for the survival and safety of young women, and even though this alone cannot combat the injustices that young women face we need to acknowledge that young women are more powerful in creating social change through these platforms than they are given credit for.

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