The Dawn Chorus

Fresh Australian Feminism

The Way We Were – Brownies vs. ‘Tweens’

Posted by hannahcolman on July 7, 2008

I read an article in my local community newspaper last week that detailed the shortage of people volunteering as Girl Guide leaders. Having been a Brownie in my formative years, collecting such elusive badges as ‘Cook’, ‘Hostess’, ‘Gardener’, ‘Camper’ and ‘Knitter’, I was reminded of the innocence and joy that came with being a Brownie Guide (a member of the Girl Guide Association between the ages of seven and eleven years).

Brownie Guides by Nancy Scott 1978

Brownie Guides by Nancy Scott (1978)

Last weekend The Age‘s Good Weekend magazine featured an edited extract from What’s Happening To Our Girls, by Australian writer and lecturer Maggie Hamilton. Hamilton’s research on teens and ‘tweens’ examines the pressures of young girls living in a society obsessed with image, fame and fortune. They are isolated and anxious, and are spending less time with their parents and more time with their peers. This, claims Hamilton (and I am inclined to agree with her), robs them of the ability to make sense of the world.

Reading this article left me feeling cold. Stand by for an extract. But first – I went to the bookshelf and stumbled across a wonderful book from the Ladybird ‘Hobbies’ series, Brownie Guides, written by Nancy Scott and published in 1978.

The first page reads:

The Girl Guides Association has members in over ninety countries. Anyone can belong: it doesn’t matter if a girl is handicapped, what colour her skin is, or where she lives – provided she is willing to make the Threefold Promise, she can be a Brownie Guide.

Delightful! No discrimination here. NB: The Brownie Promise is a simple one – involving doing your duty to God and the Queen, helping others, doing a good turn each day, etc.

It continues:

A Brownie is a very busy and happy girl because there are so many new and interesting things to do when she becomes a Brownie. She makes many new friends, and with these friends finds out how to use her time in the most enjoyable and helpful way.

Yes, Brownies are very busy people, and because they are so busy, they are happy. There are so many interesting things to do in life, and a Brownie is all the time discovering new and exciting things to do. They enjoy making things, especially when the things they make are to be presents for others, such as book-markers, tea cosies, greeting cards, models, or toys for younger children.

Tea cosies! Toys for younger children! Now, let’s compare with an excerpt from Hamilton’s book, and see what the seven to eleven year olds of 2008 are up to.

When I asked tweens what girls their age were anxious about, appearance and acceptance were top of the list.

“They worry about looks. Worry about how their hair looks, their face looks, their eyebrows, and how thin or fat they are,” Vanessa, 9, explained. Vanessa also admitted she worries about “weight and guys ‘n’ stuff. Weight, cos kids tease you, and people look at you with a mean look, and you’re jealous of some girls cos they look better.”

Nine year olds are worrying about their eyebrows? I’m just thankful that at that age I was most worried about cooking a meal from scratch for my family so that I could earn my cookery badge and display it proudly on my brown pinafore.

Brownies present a knitted patchwork blanket to the local hospital

Brownies present a knitted patchwork blanket to the local hospital

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7 Responses to “The Way We Were – Brownies vs. ‘Tweens’”

  1. Great article Han …. I look forward to many more.
    Huzzah and hugs to you!

    Great site too – well done to all concerned… I’ll be
    reading regularly!

    Jude
    XX

  2. Jessica said

    Eh. To be honest the media is always making something out of nothing. Spend any time in the real world and you soon realise it isnt the case. 9 year olds havent all abandoned the “innocence of childhood” to wear whore makeup, wear padded bras and diamante-d g-strings and go topless because Miley Cyrus did.

    The pressures and issues tweens and teens face are the same pressures tweens and teens have always faced. Despite being active in sports and other wholesome activities i was keenly aware of my body and how fat i felt – especially my ass (despite the fact that i wasnt even fat and no kid ever commented on it.) Did this come from the media? Magazines? TV? No, none of those things. Cause until high school i wasnt even allowed to watch commercial television at home and i don’t even think tween magazines existed back then. It came from comparing myself to other little girls. Simple as that.

    We make the mistake of thinking of little girls as dumb little twit blank canvases. They’re much more savvier than that and they seldom get the respect they deserve in the media and hell, even on blogs.

    I have a young 9 year old cousin who is very much into Brownies, as are all her young friends. They’re fun, painfully smart little girls with a wide range of interests. They like tween magazines, they like experimenting with makeup at home, they play sport and are extremely competitive, they are best friends with boys, they enjoy cooking, they like having adventures outside and exploring, they love animals, they love playing on their Nintendo DS and Wii.

    To try and act like one little girl is the same as another little girl is demented. They’re people, they’re individuals, they have different interests from one another, they’ve been brought up differently from one another. To take a worst case scenario and say “this is how girls are these days, oh gee, things were so much more innocent and wonderful when we were kids” is not only bullshit, but it’s a lie. Vanessa, aged 9 is speaking on behalf of her, i know a few 9 year old girls who would probably disagree and think Vanessa was an idiot for caring so much about her eyebrows.

    Focusing on the extreme and painting all other girls with the same brush is anti-feminist.

  3. Great article Han!
    I remember the lovely Brownie days involving culottes and knitting a coathanger cover for mum. I never got to wear one of those great hats like the book cover photograph though! Jibbed….
    This is a great site, I will be reading many more blogs!
    China
    x

  4. Mel said

    I love how thrilled that little old lady in the picture looks to be getting her special Brownie blanket!

    Seriously though, I think Jessica may have a point: it’s easy for us to create a nostalgic, idealised version of our own childhoods and to paint the current generation of kids as lost and fearful, but both are broad and oversimplified ideas.

    Also, while there are feminist aspects to the Girl Guide movement (it was started when girls wanted to be Boy Scouts and decided to march with them at Crystal Palace), it’s hard to escape the organisation’s Christian, militarist background, and the suspiciously domestic focus of its skills development. (Says I, proud owner of Floral Art and Laundress badges.) Since the Scouts started letting girls join, Guiding has had to work a lot harder to justify its gender segregation.

  5. Clem Bastow said

    Floral Art and Laundress? What a catch!

  6. hannahcolman said

    Jessica – I certainly don’t think of young girls today as ‘dumb little twit blank canvases,’ and I’m pretty sure Maggie Hamilton doesn’t either. But Hamilton’s research does paint a rather bleak picture of the pressures that young girls are facing in ‘two thousand and great’, and that’s what I was trying to put across. I was comparing my own experience at that age, which of course was not perfect or free from stress, but was certainly less complex than it is for young girls today.

    And Mel – I understand your sentiment about creating idealistic notions about childhood. Kids of any generation are going to have insecurities but I don’t think you can deny that the way children are being marketed to today is completely different from the ‘past’, if you will. The bottom line is, young girls are constantly exposed to unrealistic examples of beauty as advertising and marketing become more viral and incessant. Of course this alone doesn’t rob a child of their innocence or leave them lost and fearful, but it is certainly a contributing factor in the frightening self-esteem issues that these kids are experiencing. Girls under ten years old are being diagnosed with anorexia, child helplines are receiving phonecalls from depressed children as young as five.
    I know that what I wrote and the examples I used blatantly oversimplifies these issues. I suppose I wanted to paint a picture and see what reactions I got. And yes, the old lady with her patchwork blanket doesn’t seem too enthused, but I’m sure it kept her poor old legs nice and warm.

  7. mscate said

    I was constantly miserable about my weight at an early age, despite how much I enjoyed being a girl guide. Unfortunately not separate entities…

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