Monday, July 26, 2010

Story Behind A Tormented Girl's Suicide

In late January, 15-year-old Phoebe Prince made headlines when she committed suicide after prolonged harassment from classmates at South Hadley High School in Massachusetts. Six months later, the town of South Hadley and the blogging community are enthralled with the case. Media sources ranging from the Boston Globe and NBC's Today Show to lesser known sources like The Republican have featured stories about this young teen's suicide.

Phoebe Prince moved from County Clare, Ireland, to South Hadley, Massachusetts, in 2009. Later that year, she began to attend South Hadley High School where she easily made friends and maintained strong academic performance. However, her involvement with an older boy sparks harassment from her peers.

The media portrays Phoebe's story as suicide resulting from stereotypical girl-on-girl bullying, but there is more to her story than mainstream media leads us to believe. In an investigation by Slate, Emily Bazelon challenges District Attorney Elizabeth Scheibel's argument by analyzing information about Phoebe Prince and the actions of the six teenagers who are thought to have bullied her. Bazelon questions the validity of the six teens' sentences which range from stalking and harassment to statutory rape and most serious, civil rights violation involving bodily injury. She suggests that the sentences against the teens could be too severe because Phoebe's cutting, depression and distance from her father may have contributed to her decision to ultimately kill herself.

While reading about this girl's story, I began to question the motive of the teen bullies. As I continued to look through articles about the case, I came across a post written by the Boston Globe that focused on the teens as "The untouchable Mean Girls." These teens definitely fit the Lindsay Lohan Mean Girls definition; vengeance-seeking, name-calling, slut-shaming, mean girls whose football player boyfriends go along with everything they say. However this article's introduction caught my attention:

Like a lot of kids her age, Phoebe Prince was a swan, always beautiful and
sometimes awkward. Last fall, she moved from Ireland into western Massachusetts, a new town, a new country, a new culture. She was 15, when all that matters is being liked and wearing the right clothes and just fitting in.

The first thing that bothers me about this is the emphasis that the author puts on her appearance, comparing her to a swan. Secondly, the author suggests that a 15-year-old girl only needs to worry about the superficial. These two issues bring to mind society's obsession with appearance and how much popular culture has sexualized women and girls because the harassment that Phoebe faced was related to her brief relationship with a football player who immediately returned to another girl and consisted primarily of slut-shaming in the forms of internet bashing, name-calling and taunting.

In general, the media's reinforcement of hegemony often leads to internalized sexism, racism and homophobia. Because the media sexualizes women and girls while also shaming women who enjoy sex, women who are subject to internalized sexism often bash other women for being "slutty." In addition, the sexualization of women and girls has influenced teen girls' body image and self-esteem, leading to their emotional vulnerability and even attacks on other girls who are considered attractive.

I seriously wonder if these types of unfortunate events would happen as often if women and girls were not so sexualized... I am curious as to what everyone's opinions are on this subject?

Photo Credit: Brisbane Times

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