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“Think of the children” is an argument consistently used to justify adult insecurities. Hate gay marriage? Just argue that it erodes a “child’s sense of innocence.” Disgusted by sex workers walking the streets in “broad daylight”? Argue that a child could see them. Uncomfortable with people openly discussing alternate sexualities? A child could hear them. Explicit rock music? Think of the children.

The concern for kids here is disingenuous—-“think of the children” is a convenient way for adults to protest stuff they just don’t like. But let’s step away from those earmuffs we’ve got permanently attached to our kids’ ears for a moment and think about “thinking of the children.” When can thinking of the children help to reveal aspects of adult society that are problematic for people of all ages?

Take, for example, the public reaction to the above video, which shows a group of young girls dancing to Beyonce‘s song “Single Ladies”—-while imitating a very adult version of female sexuality.

Tiger Beatdown contributor Silvana has this to say of the display:

The performance has been roundly criticized, including some commenters saying that it is so bad that the adults in question shouldn’t have even allowed their daughters to participate. The way these little girls move their bodies is a surprisingly good imitation of how adult women who are performing “sexy” dance, and people DO. NOT. LIKE. THIS. Even worse, their outfits are supposedly more scandalous than the dance moves themselves. This is despite the plain that that they’re not particularly revealing and don’t show much more skin than a ballet leotard would. The discomfort isn’t because what the outfits reveal, but what they allude to. The lace, the stockings, the corset lacing on the “bodice” are, it seems, too much like what adult women wear when they are trying to evoke maximum sexiness. Doing this dance and wearing these clothes is, in our cultural estimation, firmly in the territory of not appropriate.

She concludes: “I think it’s pretty telling that when femininity is performed by non-standard actors, we either get really uncomfortable or laugh our asses off.”

The general reaction to the above video is that these girls are growing up far too fast. But as Silvana points out—-if we can stop thinking exclusively of the children for a moment—-they’re also growing up into a version of female adulthood that’s marked by an absurdly hyperfeminine sexual performance. We know that little girls performing femininity is disturbing. About a decade down the road, though, this type of performance will be absolutely expected of these women, as Beyonce’s latest video helps to reveal:

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Kids are our second chances. They give us an opportunity to reassess what is means to be a man or a woman, and to try to change the bad parts before it’s too late. It’s not fair to focus our cultural insecurities on our kids, but it is easier. Let’s take another example: Makeup. Last month, Douglas Quenqua delivered a New York Times trend piece on pre-teen makeup use:

It began for Alyssa Pometta, as these habits so often do, with the soft stuff. We are talking, of course, about lip gloss.

She began wearing it in fourth grade—Bonne Bell’s Lip Smackers, a girl’s rite of passage—after years of wearing ChapStick and pretending it was Revlon. But the thrill of flavored lip gloss was fleeting, and in January, 11-year-old Alyssa asked her mother, Phyllis Pometta, if she could graduate to the hard stuff: lipstick, eyeliner and mascara.

When the piece dropped, Salon‘s Margaret Eby accused the Gray Lady of “hand-wringing” and alarmism, writing:

The idea that painting your face leads to wanton acts of harlotry is downright Victorian. . . . The most popular birthday party activity for my fifth-grade class was visiting Priscilla’s Beauty School, where I would inevitably come out with crimped hair and electric blue eyeshadow, looking like some sort of miniature ’80s-inspired clown. Did I then fall down the slippery slope to TV-anchor levels of makeup? Not exactly.”

Eby has accused Quenqua of Thinking of the Children in the most disingenuous way.  But if you read Quenqua’s piece, he never intimates that experimenting with eyeliner will send girls down the road to olde-tyme prostitution. He doesn’t say that Bonne Bell is a gateway drug to whorishness, or even to clownishness. When Eby sarcastically accuses Quenqua of a “slippery slope” argument, she misses the point, which is: When girls start wearing makeup, they will keep wearing makeup-—probably for the rest of their lives.

Of course, young girls don’t deserve any extra scrutiny for applying concealers and colors to their faces—-most women do this, and tweens don’t need more eyes focusing on the way they look. Nevertheless, focusing on the cosmetic industry’s point of entry—-for American girls, around the tweens—-is still a convenient way for us to reassess the expectation that women of all ages paint their faces. When girls stumble into the awkward tween years, they’re introduced to a world of extreme body consciousness, vanity, and yes, beauty industry allegiance.

The point of entry is also the point when women’s makeup use is at its most visible. When girls go from plain-faced to painted, we notice the change. Just as some sexy lingerie on a 7-year-old girl will show you immediately how ridiculous sexy lingerie is, a young girl with a full face of makeup can really make you think about lipstick, and why we put it on. One parent Quenqua interviewed said that makeup makes her daughter “look too old. It immediately ages her.” But it’s not just that tweens are entering the adult world of makeup application; it’s also that they’re not terribly good at it yet. They may be inexperienced in matching colors, blending blushes, or applying eyeliner without poking their eyes out. They may, like Eby did, emerge from a slumber party “looking like some sort of miniature ’80s-inspired clown.”

In short, girls are not very good at doing what adult women are trained expertly to do: Applying makeup, and then immediately obscuring the fact that they are wearing makeup at all. This is where Eby’s critique really falls apart. For her, problematic makeup—-the kind of makeup parents might really be concerned about—-comes down to a question of gaudiness. Teenage makeup use is only a potential problem if it encourages women to perpetually paint their faces like olde-tyme harlots, or clowns, or TV anchors. Actually, the biggest danger of becoming a life-long consumer of the cosmetics industry is that women will learn to hide their beauty industry investment at all costs, to refuse to tip their hand and reveal that it’s all an act.

When young women engage in overt feminine performance, we think of the children, but deep down, we’re thinking about women, too. As these girls enter into adulthood, how do we deal with our discomfort at the version of womanhood they’re taking on? We tell them to keep performing femininity, but by God, to just keep it to themselves. Makeup is to be worn “naturally,” never garishly; sex is something to perform for men behind closed doors, never to be spoken aloud; plastic surgery is tacky, unless it’s good plastic surgery, which is still better than looking old; extreme diets are to be kept private, in favor of of “I just keep in shape by running after my kids”; and feminine performance is in all cases an entirely personal choice, never a culturally-informed one. When we Think of the Children, we’re not disturbed that girls are beginning to adopt feminine performance—-we want them to do that. We’re disturbed because they’ve forced us to to notice how ridiculous it is.

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