Neither is Emma nor Malala. But tell that to people on both sides of the aisle who condescend to the courageous young women who are fighting battles we should be protecting them from.
No special moral value attaches to youth. This should be obvious, given that most of us, at one point or another, were children. Any belief that young people are inherently pure or wise or good ought to be shattered by recalling the actual kids you’ve known: spoiled brats, neighborhood bullies, the kid whose sole takeaway from math class was that he could, by punching in a very specific formula, get his calculator to spell “BOOBS.” Political movements premised on the inherent goodness of youth have a patchy history: The baby boomers rallied behind the cry of “don’t trust anyone over 30,” and went on to become everyone’s go-to example of corrupt, incompetent old people. Children are people, and, like all people, they’re a mixed bag—good, bad, and indifferent, smart and stupid, righteous and wicked, or, in most cases, somewhere in between.
Yet, by that same token, some children are smart—brilliant, even, or morally upright, or politically insightful. Those virtues derive, not from their youth, but from who they are. Yet when a smart young person does show up on the world stage, it’s hard for them to speak and be taken seriously, when even progressives would often prefer to trivialize them by turning them into symbols of Childhood, with a capital C. This problem gets even worse when those young people are girls.
The latest example is Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old Swedish leader of the recent Climate Strike who recently gave a memorably pissed-off speech at the UN: “I shouldn’t be up here,” Thunberg began. “I should be back in school on the other side of the ocean. Yet you all come to us young people for hope. How dare you?”
Thunberg seems fiercely opposed to being viewed through a sentimental lens. At her testimony before Congress—a golden opportunity to weep and plead and be a soft-eyed, innocent child mascot for Mother Earth—Thunberg instead dryly submitted an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change special report on global warming: “I am submitting this report as my testimony because I don’t want you to listen to me, I want you to listen to the scientists,” she said at the time.
Yet the reaction to Thunberg is often one of volcanic sentiment. Thousands of people on social media have typed clichés like “and a little child shall lead them” or “out of the mouths of babes” in connection with her name. Others have honed in on her autism, presenting her as an instance of what disability advocates derisively call “inspiration porn”: “Children with special needs have super powers. This little girl is teaching us a lot,” wrote journalist Andrea Chalupa.
In fact, Thunberg is neither a little child nor a little girl nor a baby; she’s 16, two years away from the age of majority in Sweden and the U.S. It’s an age when lots of us were having sex, using recreational drugs, going out without adult supervision, and—importantly—had our adult tastes, personalities, and politics pretty much in place. Similarly, Thunberg’s autism is only surprising or “inspiring” if you don’t normally believe autistic people can be smart, effective, or politically engaged. Though Thunberg has the right to describe her autism in any way she sees fit, and has in fact used the “super power” language herself, there’s a difference between an autistic person expressing justified pride and a non-autistic adult using language that frames neurodivergent children as magical unicorns who exist to teach non-disabled people life lessons.
The same tropes used to trivialize Thunberg on the left are used to undermine and discredit her on the right. On FOX News, she’s been labeled a “mentally ill Swedish child,” her neurodivergent status no longer an inspiration but a liability; when people on the Right say “special needs child” about Thunberg, they typically sound more like the commenter who insists that “[she] is a special needs child with Asperger’s syndrome. She needs to go home under the care of a psychiatrist and take anti-anxiety medicines. She should not be allowed to miss school anymore.” Donald Trump, never one to shy away from calling a woman hysterical, has sarcastically called her a “very happy girl.” (She put it her Twitter bio.) The supposed “innocence” of childhood is invoked, not for misty-eyed tributes to her purity of spirit, but to argue that she is too young to have her own opinions: Alt-right commentator Martin Geddes decries “those who promote [Thunberg] and abuse her innocence by doing so.” Conservative blogger Matt Walsh accuses Thunberg’s parents of “child abuse,” claiming that “[Thunberg] is merely repeating what she has been told by adults who know better” and that “if any grown-up in Thunberg’s life really cared about her psychological and emotional well-being, they would sit her down and explain that climate change is not going to destroy human civilization.” That poisonous condescension carries into Thunberg’s social-media mentions, which are full of comments along the lines of “I’m so sorry adults are using your child innocence in this way. Best wishes to you little one.”
Again: She’s not that little. This is a trap that otherwise well-meaning progressives place ourselves in all the time. By fetishizing the supposed innocence or purity or truth-telling power of youth, we give the Right a way to cast powerful and effective activists as mere misguided children.
Thunberg belongs to a history of teenage girls who have been adopted as international symbols: Parkland survivor Emma Gonzalez, female education advocate Malala Yousafzai, “Little Miss Flint” Mary Copeny, or, in an admittedly far less life-or-death situation, my former boss Tavi Gevinson, who emerged as the face of feminist girlhood during the feminist media boom of the early ’10s. There is, admittedly, symbolic potency in these young women. It’s just that the symbolism is built on fundamentally sexist ideas about girlhood. Since we view children as innocent, and women as fragile, the idea of girls’ bodies being endangered or threatened (by gun violence, sexism, climate change, you name it) inspires special protectiveness in adults. There’s also the idea that—since young girls are supposedly weak and frivolous—any seriousness or strength they show must be exceptional. The lineage probably goes all the way back to Joan of Arc, who had the temerity to lead an army despite being a girl.
But, if Joan of Arc was a girl, she was also a soldier—someone who planned campaigns, who got hurt and captured, who won and lost battles, like any other general. To fixate on her girlhood is to miss her actual skills. Gevinson did not succeed because she was tapped into some collective teen psyche, but because she could run a magazine as well as any adult male publisher I’ve met, and better than many; Gonzalez and Yousafzai and Thunberg deserve our attention, not because they are fragile, shivering babes in the woods, but because they are intelligent and capable advocates for causes that ought to concern us all. To the extent that we believe these girls’ authority derives from their girlhood, we will stop paying attention to them once they grow up—which, given how sorely we need the voices of intelligent, capable women, would be a shame.
I return, again, to Thunberg’s ferocious repudiation of sentiment: publicly refusing to be a symbol of “hope,” refusing to dilly-dally by talking about her personal feelings when there’s a global-warming report full of actionable facts right there on the table. I don’t want you to listen to me, I want you to listen to the scientists. That is to say, the facts, the problems at hand, are and will always be more important than the person delivering the message. In the whole public conversation around Thunberg, it can sometimes seem she’s the only one capable of keeping her priorities straight this way. If the rest of us could follow suit—looking away from the messenger, and toward her message—change might actually be within reach.
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