Advertising / Culture / Feminism

Girl Scout Cookies and Media Misrepresentation

With Girl Scout cookie season right around the corner (sales officially start the first week of February!) you’re about to be bombarded with kids begging you to purchase their pricey boxes of joy every time you walk past an ATM, train station, or grocery store. Most of you will comply, because let’s be honest, no one can say no to a box of Thin Mints, especially when you think about how perfect they are after you leave them in the freezer for a few days. But how many of you will look at the boxes, or the girls selling them? And if you live in the suburbs, you may get girl after girl knocking on your door, smiling with a cookie order form in her sticky little hands. Do you buy one box from each girl? Buy twelve from the first girl who shows up and say “sorry” to everyone else?

I was an active Girl Scout troop member from 7th – 12th grade (troops are required to dissolve at the end of high school). We did cookie booth sales every year, but as we got older and decidedly less adorable, we heard some crazy stuff from our potential patrons. We were told that we were too old to be Girl Scouts more times than I can count. One woman even refused to believe we were Girl Scouts because our vests were beige, and not green or dark brown like she was used to seeing. (Vest and sash colors change based on your level. Cue the “The More You Know” theme music.) Someone even asked if we were Girl Scout moms, and where our daughters were—while some of our moms were at the booth with us!

It didn’t take long before we started scrutinizing the cookie boxes we were trying so desperately to sell. A cursory glance suggested a plenitude of diversity; each box featured a different troop of real Scouts doing various Scouty things—zip lining, playing with animals, experiencing nature—and most troops on the boxes seemed to represent a range of ethnicities. However, not one box featured a single girl who looked older than twelve. As I mentioned before, Girl Scouts can go up to age eighteen. Even with substantial dropoff in troop numbers between middle and high school, that’s still a huge portion of Girl Scouts that were not represented.

GS Cookie Boxes

Older Scouts are already de facto discouraged from cookie sales; it’s hard enough for anyone to compete with the adorable six-year-olds when they’re in their awkward junior high years. That fact alone all but keeps older Scouts from doing door-to-door sales, which just leaves the aforementioned booth sales. But when so many people don’t even believe in the Scout status of the teenage girls, cookie sales for those troops just don’t happen.

For Girl Scout troops, cookie sales are less about the money—each troop only gets to keep a certain percentage of their earnings each year—and more about skill-building. Cookie sales are meant to teach each girl five major skills: goal setting, decision making, money management, people skills, and business ethics. A high percentage of Scouts—a percentage that, I would argue, might benefit even more from these lessons—aren’t getting the experience they deserve. While I agree that they are learning about rejection, and maybe even delving into strategic marketing in order to gain more customers, they are having to fight an uphill battle against the very group (i.e. those who decide which girls get to be on the boxes) who wants them to gain these skills.

Is this a women’s issue? Absolutely. By now you may have noticed that The Boy Scouts of America do not seem to suffer from the same misconceptions. When someone tells people that he was a Boy Scout through the age of 18, it’s a sign of commitment to a respected set of values. When someone tells people that she was a Girl Scout through the age of 18, she is often met with skepticism and laughter. Someone who sticks with Boy Scouts is seen as dedicated; someone who sticks with Girl Scouts is seen as not letting go of her childhood. This is not speculation or exaggeration—these are actual reactions that I have seen or heard firsthand. People inadvertently end up belittling an important scouting tradition just because of a difference in gender. The end result is that we have one more reason for girls to feel worse about themselves. The ridicule and stereotypes (“all Girl Scouts are just kids! If you’re still a Girl Scout, you’re probably a nerd!”) lead many girls to feel worse about themselves and even quit Scouting altogether.

The boxes got a major makeover in 2013. Rather than just showing girls laughing together and having fun, they now demonstrate more of what Girl Scouts do: volunteering in a community garden, public speaking, learning karate, and earning badges for it all. After looking carefully, I have to admit that some of the girls do actually appear to be in their teens. While the idea behind refocusing the design is admirable, it still doesn’t address the fact that the consumers are ignorant about the age range of Scouting. I would have loved to see more on how each of the skills can help Scouts as they grow from little girls into young adults.

GS New Cookie Box

But Girl Scouts does so much for girls beyond teaching them how to sell cookies—it gives them volunteer opportunities, teaches the importance of finding their place within a community, and shows girls how to care for themselves and each other, not to mention it looks great on college applications. When older girls are pushed to quit by being told that they don’t belong, they can miss out on a very healthy and supportive group that can give them lifelong lessons, friends, and opportunities.

Next month, and every February when cookie sales roll around, check your judgments before you just walk by a group of high school girls in beige vests outside your local Safeway. You may not have seen them wandering around your neighborhood with those order forms, but trust that they are Girl Scouts just like every little Daisy and Brownie that comes into your office or college dining hall with their parents every year. They are not nerds, or oversized kids, or whatever else you might have been socialized to believe. They are Girl Scouts, they are committed to learning life skills, supporting each other, and serving their community—both through volunteer efforts and delicious cookies—and they deserve your support.


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