Reviewed by Sara Johnson
Think fast! What was the name of your high school slut? What entire athletic team was she rumored to have favored? Chances are, these answers spring to your lips faster than you thought she was in high school. In answer to this disturbing and yet ageless phenomenon, Emily White has endeavored to dissect and deconstruct the myth of the teenage slut, through a series of interviews, observations, and research, all analyzed in her book Fast Girls.
White opens with a simplified yet insightful answer to the "why" of the slut archetype. She explains, "kids tell slut stories because they need an allegory for the mystery of sex itself" (20). Further, "the wordless, crashing power of sex makes teenagers want to name it, control it, find a pattern for it" (21). White describes teenagers as a set of "tribes" who seek meaning and definition for their vague notions of sexuality through a scapegoat, "the slut," who inevitably comes to embody the tension they feel between their sexual desire and their sense of morality.
White presents her victims of the slut rumor as girls whose identity was chosen for them, as opposed to one they brought on themselves. "Being a slut is not a story about the body so much as all the things that have been spoken about the body" (50). She presents the "slut" as a universal character, inevitably found at all high schools. White first proves that the designated reputation of the slut is born from redundantly similar rumors and this character exists in every school. By universalizing the slut role, White depersonalizes this image and emphasizes the lack of autonomy that girls face when, through no control of their own, they are suddenly cursed with a scarlet letter of sorts. After reading this book, there can be no plausible argument that starts with, "well she must have done something to deserve it."
In a lengthy and sometimes drifting explanation of the Jungian archetype, White presents the slut as an unconscious rendering of the fear of female sexuality. She describes teenagers in limbo, as they attempt to compromise between messages of excessive sex as bad and their raging hormones. White states that teenagers try to make sense of this contradiction by drawing lines of good and bad. "By turning one girl into the slut among them, the kids try to reassure themselves that they are on the right side of fate: they are good while she is evil... They have the right kind of desire while she has the wrong kind" (59).
One of the more insightful and redeeming chapters of Fast Girls examines the cruelty of other girls in the perpetuation of the slut rumor and persona. White explains, "girls have so little access to pornography that their sexual imaginations do not have much of a visual element... Thus the slut and her rumored acts exist in an elliptical darkness; her techniques are a mystery" (134). Girls, lacking the societal encouragement to explore their own bodies and (heterosexual) sexuality in which males indulge, feel threatened by a peer who supposedly knows sexual tricks and skills of which they have never heard. White also blames the female adolescent state of "boy craziness" as a driving force of teenage girls' tendency towards cruelty and deception. At the risk of offering a trite, teen magazine answer, White salvages the "boy craziness" argument by explaining it as yet another mark of patriarchy, "the story in which the male is central, the hero" (136).
White makes an excellent case for the reader's awareness of the way that the media encourages society's perception and subsequent condemnation of the slut. For example, she cites numerous classic horror movies in which the slut is the first to go, often after she's engaged in transgresive sexual behavior. She points out that this slut-killing scenario is so accepted and recognized among teenage horror movie fans, it was parodied in the popular Scream series (71). White also criticizes Bernard Lefkowitz, author of Our Guys: The Glen Ridge Rape and the Secret Life of the Perfect Suburb, for his lack of critical analysis of the slut persona. White admonishes Lefkowitz, who argues that the victim, a mentally handicapped girl raped by a gang of neighborhood all-stars, was not a slut, and therefore should nor take blame. This logic implies that if she had been a slut, then the boys' crime might have been less severe. Lefkowitz's statement emphasizes the subconscious tendency to dismiss the slut as an individual wit h feelings and integrity.
White interviews and anonymously quotes many former high school sluts, giving a name and a voice to the girl who never had them. White emphasizes the lack of autonomy and self-worth that girls come to feel as their identity is defined for and not by them. "The more infamous a girl becomes as the high-school years press on and her reputation flourishes, the more she feels like she does not have any core connection to her own name" (117). Instead of experiencing a coming of age, girls deemed sluts undergo an erasure of the self. White details the lasting detrimental effects that former sluts suffer after defining themselves at this pivotal time with rumors instead of building their own sense of self.
Unfortunately, the aforementioned points, while compelling, are too few insights in a 213-page book. White's paragraphs tend to build a lot of unnecessary verbiage into less than substantial conclusions. There are many instances in which White raises an inviting question and leaves the reader lacking a well-analyzed answer. For example, White lists the regrets that Julie, a self-proclaimed feminist, has when she looks back on her cruel treatment of a friend that she abandoned in the face of a slut rumor. White goes on to cite numerous women who, looking back on their high-school years, are in disbelief at their treatment of a female peer. But White goes no further than the women's claim to remorse, which eventually reads like an obvious outcome. Of course these women feel bad for how they acted. But so what?
At times, White seems too involved in her own metaphors to extract more insightful theories from such comparisons. She poetically offers, "Crawling with germs and soul sickness, the slut finds herself enclosed, living in a kind of quarantine" (126). She then fails to adequately deconstruct themes of health and sickness and their attachment to acceptable or contemptuous behavior in our society. She gets the reader thinking about such correlations but fails to expand on them.
An overwhelming sample of the girls that White interviews and cites are white and suburban, and White includes a disappointing chapter on the dynamics of race in the slut story. She does account for the tendency for slut rumors to circulate in a white, suburban environment where teenagers yearn for some kind of drama in their cookie-cutter days. However, she avoids really tackling the connection of race to the slut archetype by stating, "The nonwhite girls who did not identify 'highschool slut' as a powerful phrase were, in essence, saying: that is not our word, that is yours. Take it" (182). But to accept this request and dwell only on girls who recognize the word "slut" is an ethnocentric approach to a universal archetype. Just as the idea of feminism is strengthened by other cultures' own conceptions of a similar idea, White's research would benefit from a cross-cultural examination of the slut phenomenon, as opposed to a sidenote that other demographics in America do not as easily identify with her versio n of the slut.
Overall, I came away from Fast Girls with less than I had hoped. I do feel more aware of the archetypal nature of the slut, and I found myself noticing, for instance, a cartoon advertisement in a newspaper in which boy and girl embrace with the evil temptress conniving over their shoulder. Granted, awareness is the first step to the education and knowledge that will eventually distill a harmful stereotype.
But I began this book hoping to come out of it with a new sense of rhetoric, an innovative and insightful deconstruction of a society that perpetuates and hardly questions an attack on young girls and their sexuality. Unfortunately, I found a sad irony in that, like the rumored slut who doesn't actually "put out," Fast Girls does not fulfill my intellectual appetite as much as I had hoped. While White does paint an informative and important picture of the factors that turn a neighborhood girl into the high-school slut, I wish she had delved deeper into the societal, rather than personal, implications of this witch hunt. A good sequel to this book would be a more analytical and less observational and repetitive account of the teenage slut.
Sara Johnson graduated from the University of Virginia in 2002 with a degree in English after devoting much of her fourth year to working with iris. She has since moved to Boston where she interned for Teen Voices Magazine and currently works in the college editorial department of Houghton Mifflin Company.Citation: Johnson, Sara. "Fast Girls: Teenage Tribes and the Myth of the Slut. (Book Reviews 2002).(Book Review)." Iris: A Journal About Women (Fall 2002): 64(3).