Janet Clausen

Once upon a time.... With these words, the power of story comes alive for children whose imaginations are the doorway to identity and meaning in life. Whether read aloud or viewed on the wide screen of Disney’s media kingdom, the myths of childhood can be a healthy aspect of development. On the other hand, these myths can be problematicespecially if you’re a girl.

Of all the fairy tales popular with today’s generation of girls and young women, few are as beloved as The Little Mermaid. Based on the Hans Christian Andersen tale but liberally revised by the Disney studios for an animated version, it is a classic example of an age-old formula: maidens without mothers who find meaning in life only through a man. But the plot of this particular myth is a metaphor for the reality that today’s girls face in a culture that devalues their experience, silences their voices and promotes loss of self in pursuit of beauty, boys and being nice.

Ariel is a strong-willed, 15-year-old mermaid with an inquisitive mind, a well-developed body and a beguiling voice. She falls in love with a human prince. Despite the admonitions of her father and her bodyguards, she finds her way to the cave of the ugly, evil sea witch named Ursula. There Ursula tempts Ariel by suggesting that all she needs to win the kiss of true love is her body language. Declaring that men don’t listen to women anyway, and it’s she who holds her tongue that gets her man, Ursula persuades Ariel to strike a Faustian bargain to relinquish her voice, give up her family and change her body to get her man.

The Mermaid Lives

By examining The Little Mermaid under the microscope of media literacy, we can open the eyes of girls to the power and negative influence of cultural myths. They come to understand that as they are bombarded with messages promoting beauty over brains and feminine wile over authentic self-esteem, they are actually being encouraged to give up their voices. Multiple studies, from Carol Gilligan’s In A Different Voice to the Girl Scouts of America’s report, Girls Speak Out, have confirmed that the myth of the mermaid is a reality today. The Girl Scout study revealed that girls as young as eight have taken its messages to heart. Consider these statements from girls in third and fourth grades:

The perfect girl is stylish, very pretty and acts nice. Everybody likes her.

Sometimes I feel ugly. I wonder if I should use makeup.

Well, it’s like if you’re cute and everything, people just like you better.

Being liked is high on the priority list of girls, who evaluate their lives in terms of relationships. But a quick review of pop culture reveals that the price paid for popularity is great. Advertisers present images of young women with bodies that are nearly impossible to achieve. In recovery for an eating disorder, a high school junior from the South wrote, I remember always thinking that other people, especially guys, would look at me in a different way if I gained a single pound. And a thousand miles away in the Midwest, an insightful 15-year-old remarked: We are made to feel unimportant because of materialistic things. There is such a high demand for the perfect look and face that an inner self can beand usually islost.

Magazine covers display headlines about ways to get and keep boys, while pop music lyrics often screech sexualized messages that abstinence is a liability and sexual activity a requirement in the game of love. Television, movies and other media reinforce the sexploitation of girls and women, promoting values that often conflict with the wisdom of caring adults in their lives. Eating disorders, depression and lower self-expectations and self-esteem are symptomatic proof that girls today buy into the myths of the culture as they sleepwalk through puberty into adulthood, much like Sleeping Beauty, who lies comatose waiting for her prince to awaken her.

The First Step: Awakening

A kiss from a prince is not the kind of awakening that empowers girls in the world today. But deconstructing these fairy tale dreams can be. It is a starting point for listening to and affirming girls’ voices. Convincing girls that their favorite mermaid and other feminine archetypes still exist in the culture is one antidote to the toxic messages that endanger rather than empower girls. Critiquing the scene where the voice and soul of Ariel are sucked out, girls articulate what they observe and how this scene makes them feel. Then they consider what choices they would make, if they were in the same situation. A high school sophomore from the East Coast remarked, After watching Mermaid’ when I was a little girl, I would try to blow my voice into a bottle. Little did I realize that as I got older, I was doing the same thing.

Adult women express their concerns about the next generation and desire to pass on a faith that is vibrant, active and respectful of the feminine experience. At Saint Mary’s College at Notre Dame last year, 16 renowned women of faith wrote in their message of hope and courage, The Madeleva Manifesto: To young women looking for models of prophetic leadership, we say: Walk with us as we seek to follow the way of Jesus Christ.... We ask you to join us in a commitment to far-reaching transformation of church and society in non-violent ways.

The next generation will walk this path only if we meet them where they are. Paying attention to the world of girls allows us to recognize how pervasive are the negative messages. Yet most girls are not even conscious of their impact. A recent graduate of a Catholic women’s college reflected on her experience: For me, it wasn’t until college that I even began to recognize, let alone understand, how much my behavior and attitudes as a teenager reflected cultural messages about how I should look, interact with boys and feel about myself. Until girls become aware of these things, it is unlikely that they will do anything but drift along in a sea of expectations and images that are not their own.

The Second Step: Taking Action

When given the chance and the tools, girls are able to see through the culture. For the most part, they are willing to examine the situations and eager to work for change. They are ready to hear about the struggles and stories of biblical women. They delight in discovering unknown saints and mystics who challenged the status quo. And they revel in learning about expanded images of God. A high school junior expressed well the impact such exploration had on her own spirituality: I prayed to a feminine image of God. I envisioned Mother God, as well as my own mother, holding me. It was so powerful.

Parents, educators and church leaders can make a positive difference by addressing the unique needs and gifts of girls. Here are five proven methods:

Create girls’ groups. Whether in schools, parishes, communities or as scouts, girls need to come togetherin the longstanding tradition of women’s circlesto explore, learn, dream and pray.

Educate girls in media literacy. When girls are awakened to the messages and methods of the media, they are more likely to resist the pressures and expectations they face hundreds of times each day.

Introduce girls to women’s spirituality and theology. Girls will find reasons to stay active in their faith communities if they see themselves as part of the rich tradition of women who have heeded Jesus’ call to be prophetic witnesses to the good news.

Empower girls to use their voice. Encourage girls to challenge systems that demean them or prevent them from becoming the persons God created them to be. Give them the necessary tools, and support them in their efforts.

Give expression to girls’ hopes, dreams and prayers. Create age-appropriate opportunities for personal sharing, shared prayer and evocative ritual that are based in a uniquely feminine experience.

Nurturing the spirituality of adolescents is about nurturing their whole being and inviting them to fullness of life. Nadia, a 16-year-old girl from the Midwest, expressed that fullness in this way:

God is with her.
God works for her.
God fills her.
God chooses her.
God accepts her.
God praises her.
God listens to her.
God cries with her.
God knows her.
God loves her.
We are her.

Janet Clausen and Marilyn Kielbasa are the co-directors of the Voices Project, which focuses on the spirituality of adolescent girls. They edited Listen for a Whisper: Prayers, Poems and Reflections by Girls (Saint Marys Press, 2001)