When I was around 13 or so, my best friend and I conspired to fabricate a humiliating anecdote to send in to Seventeen Magazine’s “TramaRama”. Had we not lost interest in this diabolical plot, the story would’ve sounded something like this:

“I was at the mall with my friends when my contact lenses [somehow] fell out of my eyes. I’m completely blind without them, so I had to crawl around the floor feeling for them [while my friends just silently watched I guess?]. I didn’t realize in my search that I had unknowingly crawled into the men’s restroom. Suddenly I hear the unmistakable voice of my CRUSH (omg!) asking what I’m doing squirming around in human excrement on the bathroom floor. I was MORTIFIED!!! Now, I wish I had never found my contacts. That way, I wouldn’t have to look him in the eye again!”

Improbable, template-based sensationalism? Yes. Standard content for the requisite “embarrassment” column in teen girl magazines? Absolutely.

John Fiske writes that the sensation of what we call embarrassment is what happens when deeply internalized socially constructed modules of “correct behavior” come into conflict with an intentional or unintentional subverting action. The cognitive dissonance between the enacting the id/ego against the regimen of ingrained superego is “embarrassment”.

Teenage girls are especially captivated by their embarrassment. Preoccupied with the locus of ongoing trauma(rama), they derive a perverse pleasure from dwelling on their real and imagined grotesque displays.

In working out the “why” of it, it’s important to point out the under-examined fact that women and especially adolescent girls are constantly in danger of accidentally making a spectacle of themselves; of unintentional transgression– a crime for which they are routinely chastised, disowned and punished by disciplinary methods far beyond embarrassment alone. Boys’ mischief-making may put them under the lash, but they are well aware of the cause-and-effect of their actions in a way girls may not be.

In choosing an outfit in the morning, for example, the adolescent girl wants to be attractive and fashionable, but remains unpracticed in body-management. It takes years to learn how to conceal and display the feminine body appropriately, a skill that is learned, unfortunately, the hard way.

I remember vividly many instances when I left my home feeling sexy and confident and grown-up, only to discover half-way through the school day that my cleavage was too exposed, my skirt showed my panty-line, my lipstick was smeared, or any other number of “mistakes” I have since learned to expertly foresee and manage.

At 14, I was already an outlaw, aware that I must pay my dues to society for the crime of my flesh or be forever on the run from multitudes of undercover authorities.

Embarrassment comes not only of the sloppy trial-and-error containment of the developing female body, but of the sudden change of rules a girl encounters on her way to womanhood: the regulation of speech, physicality, social performance and decorum. The core principle of all of the above is the girl must learn to disappear: to become physically small, move in delicate unobtrusive motion, speak softly, to passively allow one’s space to be taken forcibly by others. Never dance with too much exuberance, never believe in your opinions too resolutely, never howl with laughter too loudly, never demand too much.

The process of reconciling the imperfect, embodied “self” with the ideal, unattainable disappeared “bourgeois woman” is where the endless parade of humiliations come from—an adolescent experience shared by boys, though to a far less degree. Insofar as the female superego is more regulating, there are more rules to be unintentionally broken.

Humiliation is a dominantly feminine experience.

What interests us is the pleasure girls derive from missteps, as evidenced by the Rabelaisian preoccupation with vicariously experiencing the embarrassment of others. From My So-Called Life, to Blossom, to Felicity, the spectacle of mortification is a staple of any “coming of age” girl narrative. In Seventeen or YM, the embarrassing stories focus disproportionately on physical secretions such as menstrual blood, urine, feces, unwanted odors etc. typically displayed before the policing gaze of an abstract “crush”—the symbolic prize of conformity which slips through the embarrassed girls’ fingers as punishment for her mistakes.

In that a girl literally can’t help but transgress, her “rebellion” is hardly admirable. What is deliciously subversive, however, is the dark pleasures she derives from dwelling in humiliation. These real or fictionalized girls in the “TraumaRama” column, form a generalized image of the teenage girl as the shit-eating glutton, farting, pissing and bleeding her way in hot-cheeked disgrace to the oblivion of her subaltern state. We identify with her. We laugh along with her. We celebrate her monstrosity while thanking the heavens her fate is not our own.

The fact we can derive pleasure from the clash of the pre-gendered self and the idealized woman is evidence of the thriving embers of our rebellious nature. We do not feel pain for these girls as much as we revel in their behavior, driving away the sanitized “crush”, in exposing the ugliness of incomplete (never complete) womanhood. This grotesque self-vision is shared between us in discourses of “embarrassment” because we have no other way socially acceptable to speak of our so-called failures. We frame confessions of embarrassment as repentance (“I was soooo mortified, I could crawl into a hole and die!”), when it is merely code for saying “here’s a glimpse of truth between you and me. See? I’m a deviant too.”

We learn as adults not to be mortified so often precisely because these kinds of discourses teach us that we are not alone in our failures.

The embarrassment column is one of many ways teen magazines serve a vital purpose in the positive development of girls. For all the crimes of these rags, here we see something worth celebrating and preserving.

Advertisements