Girls who love boys

This fall's teen magazines maintain a weird ideal: the Eternal Feminine.

CRUSH MANAGEMENT, kissing lessons, post make-out maintenance, how-to tips on getting backstage to meet your favorite Backstreet Boy. This is the stuff of girls’ magazines—those glossy, cryptic bibles of teenagedom girls thumb through at the newsstand in U Village before they blow some of their parents’ money at Abercrombie and Fitch. The cover of the current “Fall Preview” issue of Seventeen plugs a quiz, “What’s He After?” while Cosmo Girl boasts a full page of stickers from Texas Rangers (yet another “Western” starring a bunch of boy idols loping around on horses with fake dirt smeared on their whiskerless faces).

I did a careful reading of the fall issues of the following publications: Cosmo Girl, Jump, Seventeen, and YM (Young and Modern.) The conclusion I came to was this: The boy-crazy American Girl is alive and well. She’s never felt better. Despite the past 30 years of gender interrogation, sexual revolutions, and various incarnations of riot grrrls, the boy is still the thing, and not to have one is to live in a terrifying loneliness. Girls need boys, boys are the be-all and end-all, and mind-numbing boy craziness is a natural state.

Call it the Eternal Feminine of Girls’ Magazines. Throughout these pages girls engage in the old game of he-loves-me, he-loves-me-not. They moon around about prom night. They crave Prince Charming so deeply it’s making them psycho. A headline in Cosmo Girl reads “No Guys Ever Like Me, So Now What?” Like a Jungian archetype, the love-starved female will not release her grip on the collective unconscious of pop culture. This Eternal Girl needs a date so badly she’ll do just about anything to transform herself: spread yogurt and cucumbers all over her face, dress in horrible Britney knockoffs, plaster glitter on her eyelids, wear so much fake tan she takes on the color of a rotting peach. All in the hopes that some Brave Cutie like the boys in Texas Rangers will want to get to know her, really know her.

BUT WHAT IF MAKEUP tricks don’t work, and the guys STILL don’t like you? Then how are you supposed to LIVE? The answer to this question isn’t forthcoming in the current issues of girls’ magazines, although they do include the obligatory articles about “girl power” and profiles of “hero girls” who volunteer in homeless shelters. A giddy snippet in Seventeen bears the headline “Girl Power Goes Global!” followed by a short list of accomplishments of women in Egypt, Mexico, and other far-off places. This is the trickle-down effect of feminism. Like disabled parking spots, these articles take up a certain space in girls’ magazines, but not much.

The essential and urgent lessons in these pages are not about girl power but rather about how you SHOULD NOT SCARE HIM OFF. By all means, keep him coming back. Because if he leaves, it’s you and your reflection, alone at home with nobody calling you during the long, interminable school nights while your family watches television. If he leaves, it’s just you and the spinsters, sitting at your half-empty table in the cafeteria. It’s hell on earth.

Fear of this boyfriendless hell drives the business of girls’ magazines and propels their combined circulation into the stratosphere. Fear of the phone not ringing. Fear of your own dark thoughts. Fear of becoming the kind of girl who doesn’t wash her hair and talks to herself. Tips to avoid this fate? Surveys of teenage boys in Seventeen and Cosmo Girl suggest: Don’t be afraid to make the first move but don’t make it all the time; act like you have confidence; don’t get too fat or too skinny; wear makeup but not the kind of lipstick that comes off everywhere. Lip gloss works best. Shiny and invisible.

SO THE SHINING, invisible girl persists. Big deal. She will live forever, right? Well, maybe not. Some trends in these pages point to her demise. One theme, which keeps coming up in the current crop of girls’ magazines, is the issue of “stress.” Girls are given advice about what to do when they can’t sleep at night because they’re so full of angst. They’re taught what steps to take if and when they find themselves eating an entire box of ice cream bars because they’re strangely restless and hungry, what to do when their hair starts to fall out in clumps from worry. The stressed-out, insomniac teenage girl has become a truism in the pages of girls’ magazines; she has become a regular in the table of contents.

I’d like to think that maybe this sleepless girl holds a clue to the next phase, that maybe she’s a sign something is rotting in the state of the Eternal Feminine. Maybe she’s the one who will lead us out of this hall of mirrors that is the girl-meets-boy, boy-loves-girl, love-saves-girl-from-loneliness story. Because the story does not hold; it has no center. And so perhaps the stress of the Seventeen reader is a by-product of the dissonance and suspicion that flood the mind when one continually encounters a culture of contradiction: It’s the thing you feel when you are confronted over and over by an empty language—by girl power slogans mouthed by powerless girls; love stories so worn out you can barely see the images anymore, only the outlines. Stress cracks the spine of the book of love. The advice offered to the Eternal Girl will eventually be rejected by real girls. “I KNOW I’ll get a boyfriend someday,” writes a 14-year-old in Cosmo Girl. Utopia’s the day when she says: Well even if I don’t, I belong in the world.