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?

36 thoughts on “Girls’ Studies: My Super Sweet Sixteen

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  1. You make some interesting observations. I like your idea of recognizing this step of development for both boys and girls, but in a much less lavish way. I don’t think I even had a 16th birthday party, except maybe a special dinner at home.

      1. Prom is also dependent – for girls at least – on being asked to it by a boy. My daughter, who is 17, super-smart, and very shy, has not been and is unlikely to be asked to prom by a boy. Any milestone that is dependent on the participant fitting into a social construct that she may or may not want even be capable of fitting into really isn’t a good substitute, because it leaves a lot of otherwise qualifying individuals out of it.

        1. Yes, exactly. One of the podcasts we listened to on prom talked about how some parents force their children to go. Not everybody should have to go, and from your comments, I can see how marginalizing prom can be to those who aren’t interested or don’t fit in for whatever reason.

    1. Something related to high school graduation/first real job might be appropriate. The problem is that with our grotesquely consumerist society, it would just immediately be co-opted by whatever commercial enterprise thinks it can make a gazillion dollars out of the process.

      We will moving my daughter into a dorm this fall for her freshman year in college. That’s a huge rite of passage. It is also a boon for the purveyors of Keurigs and cube refrigerators.

      1. Mmm, I’m thinking we already have huge high school graduation parties. And this assumes that all children need to graduate from high school (well, yes) and go to college (well, no). I am more and more convinced as I get older that our current insistence on everyone having to have a college education is counter-productive. Technical training and apprenticeships (which barely exist anymore) should be just as valued, but aren’t. There just aren’t going to be college-level jobs for all those kids.

        1. Agree with all this. In my opinion, the reality is that it is our societal definition of success that needs to change in order to include all members of our community. We focus on the external trappings of success to the exclusion of all other measures. (As demonstrated in a really disgusting way by reality shows like My Supersweet 16).

          I have one who is college bound. She wants to be a marine biologist today, but who knows what tomorrow will bring. Traditional success is very likely within her grasp, should she choose to seek it. I have a younger one who is probably not college bound, having been diagnosed with autism at three. We have a different definition of success in our home, in part as a result of his reality.

          1. Christine, I love what you say about success and different definitions. I am posting about a book on Monday by Andrew Solomon called Far From the Tree that explores this. You might appreciate the whole book, but especially the chapter on autism. His book explores horizontal identities and how parents and children deal with those. One of the major themes was what you observed about success being different depending on the child.

  2. You ask some great and tough questions! I remember turning 16 as a time for slumber parties – having fun with my girlfriends. I was not raised to be materialistic, but to be of service and give back within the community I lived. To my dad I was his pumpkin and so not a princess – ha! I was taught by him to work for what you want and I still have that work ethic today. If I had a daughter, I probably would raise her like I was raised. I truly did not appreciate how strick my parents were in raising me until I hit my mid-20’s. Kept me out of trouble and living on a good path though and I am grateful for that. Happy Day:)

    1. That’s so true! We don’t appreciate those limits and boundaries until we are older and we end up turning out okay. I wonder if those raised differently ever look back and regret not having strict parents… maybe not?

      1. My nephews were raised to run wild a bit when living with their mom and it is a different ball game now living with their father. I do not think they like the strictness, but do like the routine and schedule. Be an interesting study for sure – ha!

  3. Yikes. It would be nice too, if there were a coming-of-age rite that was not reliant on gender stereotypes (or massive amounts of money). Pie in the sky, probably. When I think about that kind of thing, my mind immediately goes to the kid whose parents can’t or won’t be involved in his/her life, or the kid who’s living in a shelter. How would we construct a rite of passage for those kids?

    1. Oh my goodness! I hadn’t even thought of that, but, yes, how about them? And great point about gender stereotypes. Does a rite of passage always have to be gendered, especially if it isn’t tied to biology (like menstruation)?

      1. That’s true, too! I like the idea of having a dinner and giving the boy or girl some little token. It could be a ring or a watch, not necessarily expensive but meaningful. Maybe even something handed down. My grandmother had a whole drawer of old watches, jewelry made with hair, and so on. I have no idea what happened to it. I got my great-grandmother’s wedding ring, and my sister got my grandmother’s, but mine was stolen.

  4. As I plan my wedding for this summer I have considered tradition, the meaning behind ritual, and what is truly necessary in my growth as a woman. So many magazines, websites, and other brides have this ‘princess’ or ‘queen’ idea. It is very self centered.

    I think that is where the Sweet Sixteen has become corrupted. It has been twisted from a celebratory rite of passage to a focus on the individual. I like Alvarez’s idea of community and growth. The celebration should be about the girl becoming a responsible woman, contributing to society.

    A family tradition I have been lucky to be a part of: When girls turn 14 on my mother’s side of the family she receives a birthstone ring. This ring symbolizes her position in the family as a woman. Wearing that ring means she represents the family. It’s worn on the left ring finger and can only be replaced upon marriage when she joins and begins her new family. That night we have a special family dinner and when the ring is given the parents talk about responsibility of being an adult (even though society won’t recognize the child as an adult for four more years). Every time I looked at that ring growing up I thought of my family and what they would feel by the choices I made. That night meant far more to me than the silly sweet sixteen I had. (At my house by the way where we played games all night haha)

    1. What a neat tradition! I like that it tied you to your family (and therefore community) without all of the focus being on you as a pampered individual or somebody who deserves some sort of queen-for-a-day treatment. That is what, in my opinion, traditions and rites should be about. I side with Alvarez too. 🙂

  5. I have occasionally come across My Super Sweet 16 when I’ve been channel-
    hopping and the way the girls behave is astonishing. They seriously need a reality check!

    I didn’t have a sweet sixteen party — for my sixteenth birthday I went out to visit a country house with my mother. And for my eighteenth, we had a family meal out at a lovely Spanish restaurant. As I was home-schooled right the way through from age 5 to age 18, I didn’t have a prom to go to so I guess I haven’t really experienced the ‘rites of passage’ which a lot of Western young women experience.

    I don’t really feel like I missed out on anything though. But it is definitely nice to celebrate milestones; I simply prefer to do it in a quieter, less extravagant way.

    1. Your milestones and celebrations sound absolutely lovely. I don’t think you missed anything by not going to prom! And yes, I agree. Spanish is beautiful. I did so well with it as an undergraduate, but I’ve lost so much vocabulary in the last ten years or so. I should’ve kept practicing!

  6. P.S. Spanish is a lovely language. Although it is generally easier from childhood, it’s never too late to start learning/improving a second language. 🙂 Spanish is a big component of my degree and it is so interesting. We’re learning via studying Hispanic history, politics and culture.

  7. When I fist watched My Super sweet Sixteen, I wanted to throw something at the girl having the party. She was a spoiled brat,plain and simple. it’s sad becuase there will be no conswquences for her behavior and she’s one of the people that will be a president of some fortune 500 company. ugghhh.

    I do agree with you on there needin to be something special for both girls and boys when they pass that 15-17 age mark. Like you my birthdays weren’t all that great growing up. I just was super excited for the 18th birthday so I could get out of the house and go to college.

    I think it really starts and ends with families. Parents should try to make something special happen even if it’s a trip out to Mcdonalds, something that shows the kid they are doing a good job and your proud of them.

    1. I like your suggestion to make traditions as a family. I think this sort of “ritual” might become more important as we become a more global society and local lines start to blur. We can all celebrate in our own ways, as long as the intent is there to help our children to feel special but also to teach them what it means to be an adult and a contributing member of a larger community.

  8. Emily, these sweet sixteen parties accomplish little and create a sense of entitlement and largess. I strongly feel it is about the worst thing a parent could do for their teen. I go back to the teen of a homeless family we helped, who without her parent’s knowledge, was volunteering to help others at a food bank. To state it again, a homeless teenager was volunteering to help others in need of food. Thanks for sharing these stories of what not to do. BTG

    1. I completely agree. It is telling that a homeless teenager knows about caring and community. I see in this how our struggles have the potential to make us compassionate.

  9. I absolutely agree with you that these Sweet Sixteen parties are a disgusting display of spoiled and selfish behavior. These parties definitely encourage the entitled behavior that this girl displayed on the show. I think it is really crippling for a parent to support these kinds of behaviors in their child, by giving them everything that they want from these ridiculous parties.

    1. I think, too, that this sort of party is a symptom of an ongoing pattern of privilege. It only makes it worse and reinforces the fact that they are “queen.”

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