by Keidra Chaney
Nancy Jo Sales’ American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teenagers (2016) takes on quite a bit: the rise of “selfie culture” in social media, how seemingly unlimited access to online porn is educating (or miseducating) an entire generation of young adults, the influence of celebrity culture and the increasing and constant social pressure of living a connected life online as well as how existing and evolving gender roles play a part in how young people interact and socialize with each other, online and off. Sales mostly tells this story through interviews: she talked to hundreds of girls in the United States between the ages of thirteen and nineteen about their experiences with social media — and with their peers.
There’s much to chew on here, but in a book that aims to amplify the experiences of girls and shed a bit of light on their own self-perception, I found the book much more telling about Sales herself, her own connections to and opinions about social media, feminism, sex, and intimacy.
Sales seemed to have a specific narrative in mind: one that connected celebrity culture, online sex and social media to the eroding self-worth of adolescent girls.
The book seemed to focus squarely on those conversations that supported that narrative, and there were a lot of experiences and interactions via social media that felt left out in the process. For example, there’s a lot of anecdotes about boys coercing and pressuring girls for nudes via text and social media, and quite a few references to the influence of the Kardashian/Jenner clan, the former being the primary lens of interaction between girls and boys in this book and the latter being the primary lens of interaction that girls have with each other. Of course, this happens online every day (and not just to teenagers) but a lot seemed left out. Namely, large swaths of online culture.
While there’s an entire section about how teen girls follow and admire Vine stars like Nash Grier, American Girls neglects to have any substantive mention of Tumblr until about 150 pages in. The book credits a groundswell in online feminist discourse on social media to the horrific mass murders by Elliot Rodger in 2014, with no mention of the conversations around feminism (mostly involving women of color) that were happening on Twitter years before. One could argue that those conversations skewed older, but I’d argue the same about the online discourse post 2014. Sales mentions Gamergate, but no discussion of the online culture of trolling that feeds into it. The discussion reminded me very much of the late 90s / early 2000s protectionist media literacy literature that warned parents about the harmful effects of television and video games on their children.
In general, Sales positions her narrative around the teens as passive, self-aware consumers reacting to media, but rarely responding.
I am no social media utopianist, nor am I any kind of expert on teen life, but along with media consumption we must acknowledge the sometimes sophisticated, sometimes messy pushback that social media has facilitated: via Tumblr conversation and memes, YouTube response videos, etc. Kids and teens do talk back to messages online. They do it to each other, through each other and they do it directly to media creators. To focus solely on how teens use social media without focusing on the pushback and commentary of these teens against this mediated culture seems disingenuous. It’s a big part of how teens (and adults) assert their identities these days, online and off.
Sales attempts to employ a (for lack of a better word) intersectional approach to conducting her interviews; she does acknowledge the differences in lived experiences of girls of color, queer and trans girls, and lower-income girls throughout the book. However, she mostly uses it as a way to point out that the consistency of her narrative goes beyond race and class. Sales mostly features upper-middle class teens in urban areas to supply the narrative of her book: they are racially diverse, but still largely share a similarity of background, outside of a few notable outliers, like Jasmine, a 14 year old Latina from the Bronx who loves YouTuber Bethany Mota and finds empowerment through makeup tutorials, and Montana, a transgender teen new to feminism.
These stories, these kids voices comprise the heart of the book, and I would have liked to have read more perspectives from them focused around gender and feminist thoughts, rather than Sales attempt to connect there to a singular trend focused around social media. It probably would have changed the overall narrative of the book, but it may have more broadly reflected the complicated nature of adolescence in the social media age.
Summary: It’s a good “conversation starter” book, and will probably fuel many of the worst fears of panicky parents, but lacks some of the historical and contextual understanding of social media and online culture to be a deep read for those interested in those topics.