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How the Media Perpetuates the Myth of the Lone Girl Activist

This false narrative gives us reason to believe in a system that rewards self-reliance and the illusion that the deserving just worked a little harder.

Photo Credit: Tinxi / Shutterstock.com

The following is an excerpt from the new book Powered by Girl: A Field Guide for Supporting Youth Activists by Lyn Mikel Brown (Beacon Press, 2016): 

When Julia Bluhm was just fourteen, she wrote and posted an online petition with Change.org asking Seventeen magazine to agree to one non-photoshopped spread per month. She had heard one too many “I’m having a fat day” comments from the other girls in her ballet class, made the connection to her favorite teen magazine’s propensity for featuring uber-thin models, and decided to act. Her petition struck a public nerve and went viral. Julia made the rounds on national TV news shows, and dozens of blogs, newspapers, and magazines covered the story. In the end, eighty-six thousand people signed the petition. Seventeen’s executive director, Ann Shoket, raised a white flag in the form of a “Body Peace Treaty” in which the magazine agreed to a no-photoshop policy and committed to “celebrate every kind of beauty.” Newspaper headlines announced the victory: “Teen Julia Bluhm Convinces ‘Seventeen’ to Feature Realistic, Non-Airbrushed Models” and “Maine Teen Wins Battle Against Seventeen on Photoshopped Images.”

In a country that worships superheroes and loves David and Goliath endings, it was a great story, an inspiring story. But it wasn’t the real story. Not even close. Missing in the avalanche of media celebrating Julia’s specialness and singular success was the underlying reality: she was a well-trained, well-connected, and fully supported member of a team of girl activists with SPARK Movement, a girl-fueled intergenerational activist organization working online and on the ground to ignite an antiracist gender-justice movement. While this added information might pluck Julia out of the rarified air of self-made superstars, it affirms her as a very smart and strategic young activist. As Julia explains: “I think collaboration has always been a key to leadership. Maybe there is one person leading an action, but there are always a bunch of people backing that person up and supporting them. With a bigger team comes more resources, more people who hear about your action and a bigger change. I think the most successful movements are the result of teamwork.”

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Julia had that bigger team. So did eight-year-old environmental activist and “kidpreneur” Maya Penn when she launched her eco-fashion line; twelve-year-old anti-GMO activist Rachel Parent when she organized her first rally; and Andrea Gonzales, sixteen, and Sophie Houser, seventeen, when they invented Tampon Run, a video game designed to break taboos around menstruation. Young activists don’t just pop up fully formed and informed. They are brave, passionate, and wide awake, yes, but they don’t possess unique activist genes. They have been the beneficiaries of supportive environments, raised or educated or scaffolded by people with deep skills. They have been enabled by socially conscious and committed adults who know how the system works, who have shared their knowledge and resources, their time and their connections, who have invested their energy and instilled in youth what philosopher of education Maxine Greene calls a “passion for possibility.”

So what was the real story of the Seventeen magazine action? It was a remarkable action initiated by a girl. This is true. But by a girl whose activist tendencies were nurtured from a young age. Julia’s parents supported the “Lucky Lady Bugs” club she and her friends started in third grade as a way to raise money for various community causes, hosting the group and driving them to their fundraising events. A fourth-grade public school teacher advised Julia’s Civil Rights Team, encouraging students to fight school-based bias and discrimination, and her sixth-grade guidance counselor helped Julia and her fellow students create a group called Student Body Advocates in support of their gender-nonconforming classmates. By seventh grade, Julia began to call herself an activist, telling me that she believed, as one of the so-called “good people” (her air quotes) in her school’s social hierarchy, she had a responsibility to act in the face of unfairness. In middle school, Julia attended annual Girls Rock! conferences hosted by Hardy Girls Healthy Women, a feminist nonprofit in her community, where she learned about SPARK Movement. Once she joined the SPARKteam of girl activists, she participated in training on a range of issues, such as media literacy, intersectional feminism, antiracist movement building, blogging, petition development, and youth organizing.

Julia had all of this support, information, and experience at her disposal when she initiated her Change.org petition. Because the SPARKteam learned that effective petitions are often accompanied by engaging videos, Julia and teammate Izzy Labbe made a video of boys and girls in their junior high school commenting on a current issue of Seventeen, while Maya Brown, another team member, blogged about the progress of the petition, and the rest of the team facebooked, tweeted, and tumblred the news. SPARK alerted all sixty partner organizations, encouraging them to do the same.

Even with the support of this intergenerational coalition, Julia and the team were lucky. The timing was right. Her petition landed in the midst of news coverage on the sexualization of underage models, health concerns about too-thin models, and growing complaints and proposed legislation in France and England addressing the negative effects of photo editing on girls and young women. So when Change.org tested and sent the petition out to a broader audience, twenty-five hundred signatures quickly became tens of thousands. Given the possibility that Julia’s petition could result in real and positive change, SPARK’s executive director, Dana Edell, and Change.org’s women’s rights director of organizing, Shelby Knox, talked with Julia and her parents about possible next steps. Meanwhile, the SPARKteam met to consider a creative and fun action to give the petition more visibility, settling on a mock photo shoot outside Seventeen headquarters in Manhattan. SPARK and Change.org sent out a series of press releases announcing the photo shoot and petition delivery and flew Julia and her mother to New York City to be part of the action. The morning of the mock photo shoot, a group of SPARKteam girls met at Change.org’s headquarters with Julia and her mom as well as Jamia Wilson, then vice president of programming for the Women’s Media Center, Edell, and Knox to prepare their action. The girls decided to wear SPARK Movement tees and carry whiteboard signs with colorful slogans they brainstormed, like TEEN GIRLS AGAINST PHOTOSHOP and THIS MAGAZINE’S FOR ME? MAKE IT LOOK LIKE ME! The group talked strategy and Wilson offered the girls some last-minute media training, advising them about how best to interact with journalists and stay on message.

The photo shoot was inundated with press, and Shoket quickly invited Julia, her mom, and Edell to her office for a cupcake-sweetened chat. Soon after, Seventeen published its Body Peace Treaty. The SPARKteam blogged about the events leading up to their public win, even as two other members, Carina and Emma, prepared to launch their own petition to challenge Teen Vogue to follow suit.

Make no mistake about it, Julia’s passion for the issue, as well as her intelligence and poise in the midst of a flurry of media attention, was all hers. But the effectiveness and reach of her activism, as well as her thoughtful responses to the press, had much to do with the support and preparation she’d received. Her fellow teammates carried her cause forward. Adults working with SPARK challenged her to think deeply and critically about the issues and enabled her to reach far beyond what she could accomplish on her own. Behind the scenes, a well-organized intergenerational partnership strategized with her, offered experience and perspective and financial assistance, and then helped spread the word far and wide. Julia was an experienced, connected, and fully supported fourteen-year-old activist initiating the right action at the right cultural moment with the right tools and platform at her disposal.

Does it really matter that the media’s version of Julia’s success is not an accurate telling? Julia told me why she thinks so.

"We got a lot of press for Seventeen magazine but they only talked about like half the story. They made it sound like, 'Oh this girl from a small town started this petition by herself and got like thousands of signatures.' And that’s really unrealistic because there was so much more work done behind the scenes by everyone at SPARK and the girls and all of the partner organizations that made it possible. It creates, like, an unrealistic idea that, 'Oh, if you start a petition, you can just change the world,' but it’s a lot, there’s a lot more work put into it. So I guess the story of what we are doing needs to be recognized more, but also needs to be recognized correctly; like they need to include everything we did for it and stuff and not just leave out half the story."

Julia became so frustrated with journalists’ creative editing, the erasure of layers of support and of her coalition work with Izzy, Maya, and the other girls on the SPARKteam, that she began to accept interviews only when SPARK was “recognized correctly.” In one such interview with Laura Zegel at Viral Media Lab, Julia spoke about the connection she saw between the way fashion magazines airbrush images of models and the way journalists edited her story.

"I was the one who wrote the petition, but getting 86,000 signatures on it was the work of all of the SPARK movement members, and our 60+ sister organizations. They shared it with everyone they knew, posted it all over the internet, wrote blogs, and Izzy Labbe made a video that received over 13,000 views. Whenever I was interviewed by the press, I always talked a lot about SPARK, but they always ended up cutting that out. That really bothered me.

"Photoshop is used in many cases because companies think that if they show perfect girls in their ads, they will make the buyer feel inadequate, and therefore buy the product. I relate that to how the press changed my story, because they also changed the product to make more money. They probably thought the headline starting 'One Teenage Girl From Maine ...' would make more money than the headline starting 'A Group of 20 Activist Teens ... ,' so they changed it."

Julia understood both the market value of her story and the heavy costs to girls everywhere of reducing her complex set of experiences to “special girl” status. Telling a “you start a petition, you can change the world” story of individual effort erased the very conditions necessary for the action’s success and vital to the education of other girls who might want to become activists like her. Because the media consistently suppressed collective collaboration and instead hyped Julia’s individual achievement, she and her team lost a genuine opportunity to educate youth and the adults who work with them about the most important truth about effective social-change work: you don’t do it alone.

Excerpted from Powered By Girl: A Field Guide for Supporting Youth Activists by Lyn Mikel Brown (Beacon Press, 2016). Reprinted with permission from Beacon Press.

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Lyn Mikel Brown has been studying and working with girls for more than twenty-five years. A professor of education and human development at Colby College, she is the author of five previous books about gender and girlhood, and is the cofounder of three grassroots organizations.