Songs Meant To Empower Girls May Convey A Different Tune

By Heidi Stevens
Chicago Tribune.

What if she lets the wrong stuff go?

This is my fear (one of them) for my daughter, who, like millions of other girls, absorbs daily doses of pop psychology via “Frozen’s” “Let It Go” and Taylor Swift’s “Shake it Off.”

I don’t need to tell you how these two songs have woven their way into our culture, prompting national sing-alongs and social media memes and inculcating our girls with the notion that they need not break stride when jerks and jokers inevitably cross their paths.

Players gonna play (play, play, play, play) and haters gonna hate (hate, hate, hate, hate)

“I’m just gonna shake (shake, shake, shake, shake)

“I shake it off, I shake it off

“Heartbreakers gonna break (break, break, break, break) and the fakers gonna fake (fake, fake, fake, fake)

“Baby, I’m just gonna shake (shake, shake, shake, shake)

“I shake it off, I shake it off”

This is icing on the empowerment cake we’ve been eating since last winter, when “Frozen” did its own brand of climate changing. (Girls like to go to the movies? Who knew?) As Idina Menzel belted out at the Oscars (among other places):

“Let it go, let it go

“I am one with the wind and sky

“Let it go, let it go

“You’ll never see me cry!”

I often wonder how these songs shape the way girls go through the world. My friends and I admit to referencing both Taylor and Idina when our daughters get bogged down in drama: isolating cliques at school, stinging words from an unkind classmate, a hoped-for invitation that never materializes.

But I worry that we’re coaching them to feel like failures if they don’t develop preternaturally thick skin. And worse, that we’re not teaching them to recognize, process and properly react to bad behavior.

“They’re learning to dismiss the impact of things that are impactful,” says Roni Cohen-Sandler, a family therapist and author of “Stressed-Out Girls: Helping Them Thrive in the Age of Pressure” (Penguin Books).

I had called Cohen-Sandler to run my fear by her. She did not tell me to let it go.

“I understand that the message is you don’t have to please everyone all the time,” she says. “But I think that message is not being delivered thoughtfully.”

We exist, she says, on an emotional continuum.

“On one end are people who take everything to heart and are constantly reactive and unhappy and always need their equilibrium restored,” she says. “But the other end of the spectrum is dangerous because it teaches girls not to pay attention to their own feelings of being annoyed, upset, hurt, feelings that alert us to the fact that something isn’t quite right.”

When I think of the situations and relationships I most regret enduring, they all begin with me coaching myself to shake something off: a boy’s jealous streak, a friend’s history of poor judgment, a partner’s short temper.

“We all have to learn, whether we’re talking about a friend, a partner, a colleague, a supervisor, how to navigate that relationship,” Cohen-Sandler says. “Our feelings alert us to when we need to do something different. We may need to speak up or end the relationship or talk to someone about our feelings.

“But if we learn not to pay attention to other people’s behavior,” she says, “we never learn how to interpret it.”

That’s a pretty big risk, and one I’m not eager to take with my daughter. (Or my son, of course. But he’s not internalizing, or even listening to, these lyrics the way my daughter is.)

I asked Cohen-Sandler how parents can take the healthy parts of these power ballads and temper them with a dose of nuance.

“Never dismiss your daughter’s feelings or think that if she vents those feelings, she’s going to be overwhelmed by them,” she says. “I think the opposite is true. When girls can name their feelings, they can deal with them in a healthy way.”

Start by listening, she says.

“You’re the sounding board. If they say they’re hurt, your job is to help them understand why they feel hurt and whether there is anything to do about it.”

Shake it off, let it go, will be the right answer sometimes. Other times, it won’t be. I want to be on alert for both.

I don’t want my daughter to tune out detractors if in the process she stops listening to herself.

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