On Tyga, Kylie Jenner, and the Appeal of the “Young Girl”10/23/2014
by Camonghne Felix As a woman who spent most of her teen years becoming expertly familiar with th...
by Camonghne Felix
As a woman who spent most of her teen years becoming expertly familiar with the streets of New York City, I am no stranger to the spell of attractive older men. As a teenager who considered herself “ahead of my time” (ignore my adolescent narcissism), older men were often my kryptonite. They provided a kind of intellectual and social worldliness that I felt was missing from the boys my own age. While I was probably right about that difference in intellectual and social capital, what I did account for was the kind of emotional capital these older men had over me.
I was 16 and distraught from a newly diagnosed personality disorder. I fought with my mother as consistently as I would self-injure, and my high school dean was my only friend. Every morning, he would buy my breakfast and let me skip my 1st period class to sit in his office and read. It seemed innocent enough at first—he had a daughter my age and a photo of his wife on his desk. He’d been a support to me for almost a year, so I barely noticed as his behavior—and our relationship—began to change.
“Look at me,” he said, his finger arching my neck. I looked up. “You are so beautiful. Even when you cry.” It was a compliment. It was a warm, comforting compliment when I felt most ugly. “I wish I were young enough to marry you, so that I could take care of you.”
The compliments that had at first comforted me later became a clear look into the mind of a predator. It wasn’t my first run-in with a charming predator, but this was different because it wasn’t really about sex, and he was my only friend. I should have told someone, but out of fear of loneliness, I kept him close, even as his advances grew more intense.
Earlier this week, when I checked the updates on my newsfeed, I felt a drop in my stomach when a story about a conflict between Tyga and Lil Wayne popped up, with a photo of Kylie Jenner below the title.
As I have almost no interest in the Kardashian Klan, I almost didn’t Google Kylie Jenner’s age. But I did, and was concerned when I learned the the conflict had little to do with music—and everything to do with 25-year old Tyga’s rumored relationship 17-year-old Kylie.
I am not asserting that Kylie Jenner, or necessarily every young woman in a relationship with an older person is being treated outside of their own will. What I am asserting is that the appeal of the Young Girl to heterosexual older men is no innocent attraction, and that it is a male-centered construction embedded in our culture that perpetuates a deeply irresponsible misogynistic dynamic.
Laurence Steinberg in his piece Adulthood: What the Brain Says About Maturity, an op-ed published by The New York Times writes, “significant changes in brain anatomy and activity are still taking place during young adulthood, especially in prefrontal regions that are important for planning ahead, anticipating the future consequences of one’s decisions, controlling impulses, and comparing risk and reward.”
Nowhere in the world does a girl at 16 occupy the same social space as a woman at 26 – and this has nothing to do with the way she is perceived or what is expected of her body. Before an individual can truly claim adulthood, some things that we have no control over must occur: the brain’s prefrontal cortex continues to develop until around age 25, and it influences our decision-making, critical thinking, personality expression, and the self-moderation of social behavior.
The Young Girl is beautiful—and brand new to her beauty. She is still just as in awe of it as you are, and that makes her routinely vulnerable. Misogyny loves a vulnerable girl. Misogyny loves an impressionable and easily influenced body. It means that the person in control can create a social and physical ownership. The Young Girl barely knows the difference between being owned and being cared for. The Young Girl is talented and fresh with unrealized power. If misogyny can claim her power, then it can capitalize on it—or exert dominance over it.
The Young Girl is my 4-year old self who once felt comfortable with an uncle, but turns 17-years-old and avoids his gaze at dinner.
The Young Girl is Aaliyah – who married a 27-year-old R. Kelly at 15. He goes on to assault every other young women he crosses paths with. And the community says, “How could we have known?”
The Young Girl is 16-year old Jada, who’s rape went viral and was mocked by thousands after her attackers posted videos and photographs of her naked, violated body on social media—eventually shared by over 1 million viewers, under the hashtag #jadapose.
The Young Girl is Tjihsha Ball, 18 and Angelia Magnum, 19, bound together by zip ties and left to die on a Florida road. The local media coverage mentions the girl’s occupations (strippers), their economic status and criminal record, but never discuss the efforts to find their killers.
We should care about the implications of Kylie’s alleged relationship with Tyga. We should also care about Jada and Tjihsha and Angelia. While I’m no advocate for telling anyone “how to be a feminist,” I think that to be feminist and anti-misogynist also means we are vigilant about how narratives of young women and girls are manipulated and presented in mass media. These stories reinforce a pathology that confuses young women and potentially endangers them. I’ve overheard and directly spoken to some of my students about their relationships with much older men. It always seems to begin in shrouded mystery and always ends in trauma. I can’t count how many adult romance novels I read as a child about teacher/student relationships and young mistresses. I can’t count how many of those unhealthy dynamics I found myself in because of my unfiltered and unguided exposure to those stories.
A few months into my last year of high school, I found out that The Dean had been suspended because of an investigation. As it turned out, other young women came forward about advances he’d made on them. My naiveté had never considered that he might have been inappropriate with other girls – I thought of myself as his irresistible attraction, not the subject of an unhealthy obsession he’d always had. That misunderstanding was not my fault, but a functional part of how he’d come to manipulate me and other girls. When men who hold power (whether it’s due to their age, status, race) prey on young women, this is a consistent tactic. These predators make her believe she is special, not like those “other girls” her age, and isolate her. When I read those old romance stories now, these patterns of psychological manipulation are ever present.
This is not just about young women in the public eye, who have advocates and famous rappers who will speak out to protect them. This is about men getting away with being predators, and the way our society puts girls without advocates in danger. Our most vulnerable and most at-risk young women are left to “figure it out,” but we offer them no support and no models of healthy relationships. It is our duty as a global community to continue to educate our children about healthy and unhealthy relationships—and the law cannot continue to be the only qualifier in how we identify them.
While I commend Lil Wayne for his decision to take a stand against Tyga’s irresponsible decision, I wonder about the young black women constantly exploited by hip hop and its fans. Can we talk about the young girls invited backstage, or on the tour bus, or to a hotel room—who wind up exploited or taken advantage of based on the notion that they knew what they ‘came for’? Where are the rappers standing up for them? Where are the label heads who will dispose of an artist based on his violences? Is that safety and consideration only reserved for white girls in the public eye? The rest of the world turns a blind eye to the safety of black girls, so much so that our girls never get to be girls. They come out of the womb as women, thought of as inherently sexual, immoral, and self-sufficient. In this world, the only person responsible for a black woman is herself.
Camonghne Felix is a writer, New York City native, and a MFA candidate at Bard College. She writes about young people, contemporary culture, and the intersecting politics of both. She was a 2012 Pushcart Prize nominee, and the 2013 recipient of the Cora Craig Award for Young Women.