Girls’ Studies: My Super Sweet Sixteen

The instructions for this week’s post follow: “I’d like you to compare what you learned from the Julia Alvarez piece [“Once Upon a Quinceañera”] with the episode of My Super Sweet 16 that you watched.  Feel free to use short clips of the episode or images to illustrate your points.  Some questions you may or may not want to address:  If you were to capture a ‘coming of age’ party on television, how would you choose your subject, how would you edit, and who do you imagine your audience might be?”

To see the episode of My Super Sweet 16 that I watched for this assignment, click here.  Warning: It was horrible!  I can’t believe that girls really act like this.

If I were to capture a coming of age party for a television show, I would likely do so from a less sensational and more traditional lens, which would mean that my version would never make it on television or be of interest to anybody.  However, after watching the episode of My Super Sweet 16, I was so appalled that I cried and I felt nothing but disgust for these types of over-the-top parties.  This girl had a foul mouth and an entitled attitude.  She bossed around her friends, her parents, and treated people like dirt.  I had a really hard time seeing the value in throwing her a party because it seemed to reinforce her entitled attitude.

super sweet sixteen 1However, there is value in these types of parties, especially when they are enacted with tradition in mind as a rite of passage.  Alvarez’s essay recognizes the commercialization and “supersizing” of these parties, but she also lays a foundation for the importance of such rites (p. 153).  She reminds us of the tradition, “a desire to empower our young women, a need to ritually mark their passage into adulthood, remind them of their community and its past, and by doing so give them and ourselves hope” (p. 153).  This is a reason that I would be interested in throwing or filming a sweet sixteen or quinceañera.  It is important to honor our girls with traditions and to induct them into womanhood in a way that helps them to navigate it.  (Michael Kimmel talks about this same need for boys.  Click here to see my post on that.)  I see value in a party that focuses on the religious aspect of it, as “the actual party was often preceded by a Mass or a blessing in church” (p. 152), or the cultural value of it, that it “was not just about us” and that they are “exquisite performances of our ethnicities within the larger host culture” (p. 152).  Such enactments are valuable and tell a girl that she is important and expected to contribute to her community as a woman.

The episode of My Super Sweet 16 did the opposite of this.  It reinforced the girl’s power and control over her parents and her entitlement to act like a monster in order to get what she wanted.  I was especially bothered by her hiring of dwarves as strippers.  It seemed like the ultimate reflection of her personality, as one that is only interested in entertainment and spectacle, rather than dignity and respect for others.  This is certainly a contrast to the focus on values and tradition that a more tame party would embody, as Alvarez tried to depict.

Yet these parties have become outrageous for many reasons.  One may just be the fact that we film them and put them on television.  If a girl knows her party is to be filmed, she may ham it up or demand bigger and better just to make her episode more entertaining.  However, I think this still reflects a personality of entitlement, enabled by her parents, who laughed at her antics and gave her exactly what she wanted in the end.  There was not a lot of parenting going on in the episode, but instead the results of a lack of parenting and an inability of the girl to have learned self-control and delayed gratification.

super sweet sixteen 2Alvarez doesn’t necessarily blame the parents for these types of parties, but she does talk about capitalism and commercialization.  “[T]he quinceañera found welcome soil in the American consumer culture, where businesses stood to gain from the expensive elaborations of the ceremony” (p. 155).  She mentions that the market has become larger, especially in the United States.  She says that “Rites become rights.  New generations feel entitled to what older first generations struggled to obtain for them” (p. 153).  This reflects the idea that we all want our children to have more and do better than we did, but does this then create a cycle in which our children also become more entitled and less willing to work hard for these rites and rights?

While the party on the television show ended up costing some $300,000, Alvarez reveals that “the average nowadays [is] about $12,000 to $15,000” (p. 154).  While this seems modest compared to the $300,000, this is still a lot of money, especially given, as Alvarez points out, that “the poverty threshold for a family of three is $15,277” (p. 154).  This means that many families may go into debt for the extravagance of a party because of its cultural significance and ties to tradition.  The idea of tradition may promote the need for such a party, even if one cannot afford it.  In some ways, tradition may fuel the commercialization of the event.  And yet, Alvarez acknowledges the importance of its democratization, that “the quinceañera has changed from a celebration for daughters of the elite to a fiesta for all classes” (p. 155).

Now, because I’m a quarter Spanish, I was a little chagrinned to find out that the tradition may have roots in eighteenth-century Spain, but that I did not have one.  We did not stick to our Spanish roots strictly, as my grandmother stopped speaking Spanish once she began elementary school.  My parents both speak Spanish because they served missions for our church in Argentina, but they never spoke it with frequency to me.  I wish that I had learned it fluently from childhood, rather than in fragments from college courses and language requirements.  I also wish that we had enacted the tradition of the quinceañera, as I don’t even remember my sixteenth birthday.  I do know that I made my own birthday cake for my seventeenth birthday and my family made fun of it because I tried to make the frosting purple and it turned out sort of grey instead.  Birthdays weren’t a big deal in my family, but I wish they had been.  I wish I had felt more important in my teenage years at passing certain milestones and becoming a woman.  I think those traditions could have given me more confidence.  But as I’ve explored, they have the ability to backfire and create entitlement as well.  The tradition can avoid being “an advertising tool but [instead be] an opportunity to truly empower young people to believe that their dreams for their lives can come true” (p. 157).

From Wikimedia Commons; photo by Bob With

From Wikimedia Commons; photo by Bob With

All of this raises questions for me.  How do we honor our girls and their maturity without spoiling them through entitlement and privilege?  Is there a better way to enact rites of passage without focusing on and enabling a selfish, princess attitude?  How can I give my girls the gift of feeling special when passing milestones while keeping their heads firmly out of the clouds and focused on education and community?