Stereotypes: Girls in Training for Debt

DD3 = Dear Third Daughter
                 A couple of months ago, driving DD3 to the library, I was on a rant.  Feeling burned out, I was going on about the oppressive number of items on my to-do list.  “I’m not going to do it,” I declared emphatically about one such item.  “It’s not urgent, and I am not going to do it.”
               “You go, Mom.  Good for you!” said DD3 supportively.  “You’re a strong, independent, black woman.”
               Where did that come from?  I’m of English and Irish descent – about as white as possible.  “Why did you say that?”  I asked, laughing.  DD3 didn’t give me a straight answer.  She was just pleased at having successfully jolted me out of rant mode.
               A few days later, a colleague at work was venting some frustration about her students. “Sometimes I just have to put on my ABW,” she said.   I asked her what that stood for.  “Angry black woman,” she answered.
               My colleague is black, so that part made sense to me.  But I was struck by the similarity of her comment to DD3’s, and so I shared my “strong, independent, black woman” story with her.  She laughed too, and then gave me an explanation.  “You think about the way black women are represented on TV,” she said.  “They’re either angry, powerful spit-fires or they’re helpless victims.”  I thought about it, and I had to agree with her.  I wondered to what extent those stereotypes impacted our female students of African descent.  Were they going to be moulded into one or the other?  Angry and powerful or else victimized and despairing?  Would there be obstacles to their becoming gentle and competent?  Happily energetic and productive?  Nerdy and fulfilled?  Stereotypes shape us profoundly, so I hope that this one gets flushed away.

The credit card princess and the struggling diamond-in-the-rough

               I see similar stereotypes for teenage girls and money.  There is the credit card princess who spends her life at the mall (like Alicia Silverstone’s Cher in Clueless), and the struggling diamond-in-the-rough who tries to balance work and school and helping out at home, always putting others ahead of herself (like Molly Ringwald’s Andie in Pretty in Pink).  Each seems doomed either to perpetual superficiality or to perpetual drudgery, but if all goes well, after overcoming a series of obstacles, each can luck out with a rescue by Prince Charming.
               There is ample evidence of the credit card princess among the friends of my daughters.  Thirteen-year-olds with a taste for Lululemon and an urgent need for every conceivable electronic device; sixteen-year-olds with a sense of entitlement to organized school trips, whether to ski slopes, European destinations, or the sunny south; twenty-somethings with the right to stylish clothes andnicely furnished abodes and a car right now . . .  Where Mom and Dad can’t or won’t keep shoveling in, the credit card takes over, and these young women get launched into lengthy relationships with debt.
                I have come across more than one struggling diamond-in-the-rough at my school.  Bright, hard-working girls who spend a full day in classes and then go to part-time jobs and responsibilities at home, taking care of everything but themselves.  The girl whose parents were beside themselves, not knowing what to do about their son, and she, wanting to placate her brother, giving him money on the sly to the tune of $1,000 – which she knew she would never get back.  The girl with an overwhelming sense of financial obligation to extended family back home, in a war-ravaged, impoverished country.  The girl who gave her mother money, earned from her after-school job, every time her mother’s social assistance funds ran out.  Last week, deeply concerned about one student who was clearly exhausted, I arranged for her to see the nurse practitioner who visits our school.  “You are working yourself to death,” was the diagnosis.  A doctor’s note for limited hours at work and a firm command to get some sleep were among the treatments.
               The stereotypes of the credit card princess and the struggling diamond-in-the-rough need to be confronted.  Girls can be taught the power of planning their finances – of patiently measuring their expenditures and their savings.  Girls can be guided in the difference between helping loved ones and enabling them.  Girls can be encouraged to recognize and look after their own needs – and not to feel selfish for being unable to look after everyone else’s.  Such a girl won’t need to be rescued by Prince Charming.  Unencumbered by neediness, she will less likely be swayed by phony “princes”.  Wise with her own money, she stands a good chance of recognizing a man who, among other stellar qualities, is wise with his, and of avoiding today’s number one killer of happily-ever-after:  financial stress.
               When DD3 called me a “strong, independent, black woman”, she was tapping into a stereotype that she couldn’t articulate, but that had seeped its way into her mind.  Stereotypes are powerful, and a first step in overcoming their influence is to recognize them and to recognize the ways in which they shape us.  Girls are in a sorry state if the stereotypes of the credit card princess and the struggling diamond-in-the-rough are unchallenged in pushing them into their respective moulds.  We can do better for the girls in our lives.

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