You’ve probably heard about Thirteen . It’s the movie about a 13-year-old girl, Tracy, who falls under the spell of a femme fatal named Evie, a racy, lawless girl who comports herself like a 20-year-old. Having been a well-behaved child, Tracy hooks up with a drug-abusing, tongue-piercing, orgy-throwing crowd. By the end of the film, she’s failing in school, shrieking at her mother and sleeping around.
I went to see Thirteen the other day, and it’s tough stuff. Like most people, I was shaken up by that scene where the girls punch each other in the face for laughs, and by the sequence where Tracy slices up her arm with a razor blade. The movie has, in fact, set off an alarm. In a string of recent articles, teenage girls have been criticized for everything from their social lives to their trashy taste in clothes.
You’d think, from all the attention the topic has received, that girls have never misbehaved before. Haven’t they? Twenty-five years ago, I did similar things while growing up in Manhattan. Lately, I’ve been catapulted back in time, to the 1970’s, because reporters have been interviewing me about Alice Duncan, the 11-year-old protagonist of my novel, One Pill Makes You Smaller . Alice is cared for, and eventually corrupted, by a promiscuous teenage cokehead. Readers are under the impression that the novel is autobiographical. But the shy, timid Alice is far more polite than I. My friends and I were bold and reckless at age 11. By the time we’d reached the ripe old age of 13, we were wild, nihilistic little hellions.
Substance abuse, shoplifting, underage sex: standard operating procedure in the 70’s. Even the clothing was the same. Like Evie, we favored tube tops-those tiny snippets of strapless elasticized fabric that hug your bosom. My mom wouldn’t have liked that outfit, so I carried a change of clothes in my school bag, and a stolen pair of high heels. Eyes ringed with black eyeliner, lips smeared with Vaseline, I teetered down Fifth Avenue in four-inch platforms. Dressing like a hooker got me a lot of male attention. I told guys I met that I was 16, and they believed me (or pretended to). Then as now, a girl’s pubescent body was a source of hidden, forbidden, half-acknowledged power. In school, I was a social reject-taller than most of the kids, freakishly voluptuous. I was happier while parading around in my hooker gear. My clothes and makeup had a transformative effect, changing me into the person that, like it or not, I was becoming-no longer a mere child, but a young woman. The mask and costume reassured me. I wanted desperately to be in control of my body, my feelings and my image.
What’s the cause of girls growing up too fast? The real culprit, of course, is not consumerism or MTV, but puberty. Girls today develop secondary sex characteristics earlier than they did a century ago. I’d had breasts since I was 9, and it had taken me a few years to decide that they were attractive assets, like glittering diamond earrings, rather than a pair of unwelcome moles. When men start staring at your tits, you may think you have only two choices: You can cower, or you can vamp. Girls test the waters, weigh their options. In the 1970’s, the choice-as reinforced by the sultry, libidinous culture all around us-was obvious.
When I was 13, we, too, wore our low-rider jeans so tight we had to lie down on our backs and suck in our stomachs to zip them closed. It was with a sense of pride and duty that we wore those painfully small clothes. “Beauty hurts,” my best friend’s mom used to sigh whenever I complained that my trendy new boots gave me blisters.
Being permissive was the height of chic parenting. She was a stunning woman with bleached-blond hair and a walk-in wardrobe. Sitting in her elegant Park Avenue home, we’d have girl-to-girl chats. She told us what to do if a guy asked us to sleep with him. We should respond with enthusiasm, while being sure to insist upon birth control. We were 12 years old. It never occurred to any of us that, if pressed for sex, we could say no. Sex was in the very air we breathed, floating in the ether of the Zeitgeist . It was hopelessly unhip to regard intimate encounters as unwelcome or-perish the thought-potentially harmful. Thus, that same year (seventh grade), another friend’s dad photographed his daughter and me lying on his rumpled bed, wearing only our underwear, handcuffed together at the ankle.
Though Britney Spears hadn’t been born, it was much easier to get away with dressing like a tramp in the 70’s than it is now. Our parents let us wander around without monitoring our every move, or packing us off to oboe lessons or soccer practice. The entire nation was becalmed, bewitched. In our quiet, affluent neighborhood, a drug dealer roamed the streets, dressed in suede-a Pied Piper offering free samples with a friendly smile and heavy eyelids. Some local parents were shooting up; some were popping Valium. The atmosphere was decadent. Yet the city felt safe to me, then, like a giant playground.
Many American parents became distressed by the thought of good girls going bad. Their panic was symbolized, in 1973, by another film, The Exorcist . Linda Blair played Regan, the daughter who came, literally, from hell. She grunted obscene propositions to her mother, masturbated with a crucifix and urinated on the expensive carpeting. With her baby face and foul mouth, Regan was the archetypal teenage girl. Unbalanced by raging hormones, seized with longing and revulsion for everything around her, she was a pint-sized Jack Nicholson in drag, snarling in the face of niceness. Following on the heels of “flower power” and free love, The Exorcist ushered in the jaded, spitting mood of punk. It tapped into prevailing cultural anxieties. What if America’s children slip beyond control, disappearing into a dark, tarnished underworld? What if no parent can preserve a child’s innocence? What if, one morning, your daughter metamorphosed into someone unrecognizable?
It’s a fair question. About 15 percent of Caucasian girls and almost half of African-American girls are now beginning to develop sexually at the age of 8. Parents would like to help kids navigate adolescence, but the change is unavoidable. While I grew up fast, external cues were operating. I’d watched Brooke Shields, age 15, panty-free in her Calvins. In 1978, in Pretty Baby , she’d been a 12-year-old prostitute who married a disturbingly attractive pedophile played by Keith Carradine. Bad was good, it seemed to me. The counterculture had become a seductive presence that set mainstream morality spinning on its head. Girls barely out of grade school stalked rock stars. Iggy Pop, in a published interview, spoke wistfully of the 13-year-old who became his girlfriend with her parents’ blessing. Girls routinely slept with three of the most popular teachers at my high school.
What a 13-year-old girl does battle with is desire-her own, and that of the individuals around her. She’s at war with her physicality, her extreme makeover, by nature and society’s design, into an erotic being. Young teenagers pose on billboards in Times Square, wearing very little besides their mascara, their come-hither expressions and their handbags. It’s a confusing world, full of mixed signals, and I think girls of all ages understand it.
Lisa Dierbeck’s first novel, One Pill Makes You Smaller , was published this month by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.