Thursday, October 11th, 2007...

non-definition as a defined identity

The goal of all human activity can’t be reduced to the leaving of descendants. Once human culture was firmly in place it acquired new goals.
- Jared Diamond, The Third Chimpanzee

right as i was in the process of rereading the third chimpanzee (i had to read it in college for sociobiology, and recently realized i’d forgotten half of it), a friend of mine forwarded me this NYmagazine article, The Cuddle Puddle of Stuyvesant High School. “it’s very interesting in terms of trend ideas and stuff,” he told me. “i thought of you.”

the article follows a particular clique of kids (primarily girls) up at NYC’s stuyvesant high school, a magnet public school for some of the city’s créme de la créme teens (similar to my high school alma mater, boston latin). i read this piece in the same week as the NYTimes feature on the girls of newton north high (a suburb right outside of boston). the article was called For Girls, It’s Be Yourself, and Be Perfect, Too. it’s funny that i read these two articles in such proximity, because they actually came out within two months of each other and couldn’t be more divergent in what they present as the focus of the elite-educated, east coast, teenage girl experience.

the NYTimes says:

To spend several months in a pressure cooker like Newton North is to see what a girl can be — what any young person can be — when encouraged by committed teachers and by engaged parents who can give them wide-ranging opportunities.

It is also to see these girls struggle to navigate the conflicting messages they have been absorbing, if not from their parents then from the culture, since elementary school. The first message: Bring home A’s. Do everything. Get into a top college.

The second message: Be yourself. Have fun. Don’t work too hard.

….If you are free to be everything, you are also expected to be everything. What it comes down to, in this place and time, is that the eternal adolescent search for self is going on at the same time as the quest for the perfect résumé.

two months earlier the NYMagazine article presented the findings of its own investigation into the workings of the contemporary teen female search for self:

Alair is headed for the section of the second-floor hallway where her friends gather every day during their free tenth period for the “cuddle puddle,” as she calls it. There are girls petting girls and girls petting guys and guys petting guys. She dives into the undulating heap of backpacks and blue jeans and emerges between her two best friends, Jane and Elle, whose names have been changed at their request. They are all 16, juniors at Stuyvesant. Alair slips into Jane’s lap, and Elle reclines next to them, watching, cat-eyed. All three have hooked up with each other. All three have hooked up with boys—sometimes the same boys. But it’s not that they’re gay or bisexual, not exactly. Not always.

while the “amazing girls” of newton north (it’s what their teachers and classmates call them) talk about lives overwhelmed sometimes to the point of nervous breakdown by the amount of work all their accelerated classes and extra curriculars demand, education is put into a completely different context by the girls of stuy’s cuddle puddle: because of their school’s superior education, one of the girls says, the students are more open-minded.

just as the intense academic pressure that is the focus of the NYTimes article is barely assigned an impact in the after-school lives documented by the NYMagazine article (“Sure, they drink and smoke and party, but in a couple of years, they’ll be drinking and smoking and partying at Princeton or MIT. They had to be pretty serious students to even get into Stuyvesant, which accepts only about 3 percent of its applicants.”) sexual identity exploration is completely brushed aside in the lives of the newton north girls.

This year Esther has been trying life without a boyfriend. It was her mother’s idea. “She’d say, ‘I think it’s time for you to take a break and discover who you are,’” Esther said over lunch with Colby. “She was right. I feel better….. I never thought, ‘If I don’t have a boyfriend I’ll feel totally forlorn and lost.’ My girlfriends have consistently been more important than my boyfriends. I mean, girlfriends last longer.”

just to be clear, that’s “girlfriends” in a completely platonic sense, but the sentiment is at least the one bit of common ground between these two seemingly wholly divergent worlds. “Relationships are a bitch, dude,” says Alair, the 16-year old “punk-rock queen bee” of the NYMagazine piece. relationships also play a huge role in the process of defining one’s sexual identity, and they seem to be going out of style.

while the gauntlet of college acceptance is now more competitive than ever, i think the process of navigating sexual identity has now likewise become infinitely more complicated. and for the latter there is no standardized test prep-course.

from NYMagazine:

These teenagers don’t feel as though their sexuality has to define them, or that they have to define it, which has led some psychologists and child-development specialists to label them the “post-gay” generation. But kids like Alair and her friends are in the process of working up their own language to describe their behavior. Along with gay, straight, and bisexual, they’ll drop in new words, some of which they’ve coined themselves: polysexual, ambisexual, pansexual, pansensual, polyfide, bi-curious, bi-queer, fluid, metroflexible, heteroflexible, heterosexual with lesbian tendencies—or, as Alair puts it, “just sexual.” The terms are designed less to achieve specificity than to leave all options open.

the irony in this, of course, being that the very IDEA that “sexuality doesn’t have to define me” itself comes to define a particular identity. a particularly modern kind of identity that previous generations are ill-equipped to understand what the hell to do with.

“My mom’s like, ‘Alair, I don’t understand you. I want to be a parent to you but I have no control at all . . . As a person you’re awesome. You’re hilarious, you entertain me, you’re so cool. I would totally be your friend. But as your mother, I’m worried.’ ”

“To some it may sound like a sexual Utopia,” says the NYMagazine article. “Where labels have been banned and traditional gender roles surpassed, but it’s a complicated place to be.” it’s one thing to grow up in the suburbs, discover your personal non-status quo sexual identity, and move to some open-minded metropolitan place where you can create a community around this shared lifestyle-identity. it’s quite another to grow up in an environment where the very definition of sexual identity itself is the status quo you’re rebelling against. and though manhattan may be an island it is by no means isolated in this respect.

The Stuyvesant cuddle puddle is emblematic of the changing landscape of high-school sexuality across the country. This past September, when the National Center for Health Statistics released its first survey in which teens were questioned about their sexual behavior, 11 percent of American girls polled in the 15-to-19 demographic claimed to have had same-sex encounters—the same percentage of all women ages 15 to 44 who reported same-sex experiences, even though the teenagers have much shorter sexual histories.

….It practically takes a diagram to plot all the various hookups and connections within the cuddle puddle. Elle’s kissed Jane and Jane’s kissed Alair and Alair’s kissed Elle. And then from time to time Elle hooks up with Nathan, but really only at parties, and only when Bethany isn’t around, because Nathan really likes Bethany, who doesn’t have a thing for girls but doesn’t have a problem with girls who do, either. Alair’s hooking up with Jason (who “kind of” went out with Jane once), even though she sort of also has a thing for Hector, who Jane likes, too—though Jane thinks it’s totally boring when people date people of the same gender. Ilia has a serious girlfriend, but girls were hooking up at his last party, which was awesome. Molly has kissed Alair, and Jane’s ex-girlfriend first decided she was bi while staying at Molly’s beach house on Fire Island. Sarah sometimes kisses Elle, although she has a boyfriend—he doesn’t care if she hooks up with other girls, since she’s straight anyway. And so on.

the article asks the question, how will this teenage experimentation eventually affect the way they choose to live their adult lives?

and i’m wondering how will it affect the way marketers talk to them?

a couple of months ago there was a bit of talk going on about Levi’s “Innovative Gay Marketing Move,” where levis produced two different versions of the same ad, one for a straight male audience, and one for a gay one. while the gay version premiered exclusively on MTV’s Logo network, whose programming is aimed at the gay community, the actual “innovation” in this dual-ad strategy that everyone latched on to seems to be simply the fact that the gay community was acknowledged at all on their own terms side by side with an approach to the straight demo. (so that only took about 40 years). levis, essentially, letting everyone know that they’re hip to the differing desires of these two identities as defined by sexual orientation. congratulations.

the question now is: how do you approach an identity that is defined not by gay or straight or even bisexual, but by its shared distaste for defining its new hybridity in those binary terms at all?

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