When a sexist list ranking girls on their looks circulated at one American high school, the girls fought back.
It has always been standard procedure for adults to despair at the state of The Youth Today. When I was a teenager, newspapers were filled with columns in which grown-ups clutched their pearls about binge drinking, teen pregnancies and anti-social behaviour. Today, a more common complaint is that young people are either self-obsessed (because they’ve grown up with technology), tragically boring (because they’re not as into drinking themselves into oblivion as previous generations) or naïvely sanctimonious (because they care about things like climate change, those fools!).
But personally, I look at the majority of today’s teenagers and feel an immense sense of relief. Not all of them: there are many unhappy, angry adolescents cultivating racist and misogynistic beliefs in dark corners of the internet. But there are also thousands of teenagers in possession of strong moral compasses, who are looking at the state of the world right now and saying: no, thank you. We are absolutely, categorically not putting up with that.
This week, the teenagers making me feel a bit more hopeful about the future are a group of girls from Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School in Maryland, a few miles from Washington DC. Earlier this month, the girls became aware that some boys at their school had created a list in which they ranked 18 girls based on their looks, from 5.5 to 9.4. And – simply put – they refused to stand for it.
The Washington Post reports that the list was sent around male students at the school via text message, until eventually word got back to one of the girls who had been ranked. One of the girls, Nicky Schwartz, told the newspaper that hearing about the list seriously knocked her confidence – and not because of the number she’d been given. Rather, she was hurt that boys she had considered friends were secretly objectifying her.
“Knowing that my closest friends were talking to me and hanging out with me but under that, silently numbering me, it definitely felt like a betrayal,” she said. “I was their friend, but I guess also a number.”
Having witnessed the rise of the #MeToo movement and the fightback against sexual misconduct on college campuses, the girls refused to accept the list as simply a normal part of high school life. Dozens of girls reported the list to the school’s administration, demanding disciplinary action and a commitment to tackling the sexist culture in which the list was created.
Unfortunately – but perhaps not surprisingly – the school did not take the girls’ complaint as seriously as they should have. They were advised not to talk about the list around school, and subsequently learned that just one male student would be punished with a one-day detention – which would not appear on his record.
Around 40 girls then descended on the assistant principal’s office in protest, as Schmidt read a prepared statement.
“We want to know what the school is doing to ensure our safety and security,” Schmidt said. “We should be able to learn in an environment without the constant presence of objectification and misogyny.”
And what happened next was brilliant. The school, clearly sensing that the girls weren’t going to accept being brushed off, organised a meeting to discuss the objectification of women, as well as issues such as sexual abuse and harassment. In a scene straight out of a high school film, many of the girls delivered speeches they had written about their own experiences.
So powerful was the meeting that the boy who created the list not only admitted to it, but apologised, telling the Washington Post: “When you have a culture where it’s just normal to talk about that, I guess making a list about it doesn’t seem like such a terrible thing to do… [But] it’s just a different time and things really do need to change.”
Yasmin Behbehani, one of the female students, would not be putting up with anything like the list in future.
“It was the last straw, for us girls, of this ‘boys will be boys’ culture,” she said. “We’re the generation that is going to make a change.”
High school students tackling misogyny in a productive way, and thousands of teenagers striking for action on climate change? I think the kids are alright.
Images: Getty Images