Don’t Tell Teens To Be “Sultry”| Vol. 2 / No. 45.5

Kalliope Jones | Photo: Katryna Nields
Kalliope Jones | Photo: Katryna Nields,  Kalliope Jones

In today’s #FeministFriday post, Elle makes us all feel a little gross and offended on behalf of a pretty cool group of teen rockers. Read on.


When you start doing the math on some of our culture’s most beloved romances and idealized female figures, the results you get are sometimes kinda…. Icky. One of the most celebrated romances in literature, that of Romeo and Juliet, is a not-quite-a-week obsession between a thirteen-year-old girl and a guy who is… older? maybe? 16ish? Almost all of the Disney princesses are teenagers (Elsa, the eldest, has reached nearly spinster status by making it all the way to 21 without finding a man). Most of the other princesses hover in the sixteen-to-nineteen realm, with the exceptions of fifteen-year-old Jasmine and fourteen-year-old Snow White. Because the whole “kiss a seemingly dead girl in a glass coffin” thing wasn’t creepy enough without having to also wonder if she was old enough to stay up past ten on a weeknight. They actually had to raise Pocahontas’ age from the historically accurate “12” so that it would be slightly less weird for her to be willing to sacrifice herself for the love of Mel Gibson I mean John Smith. (Aside from the Beast/Prince Adam and his whole “gonna be a beast forever on his 21st birthday,” most of the princes, of course, don’t have identified ages. Because you are allowed to be a hot dude at any age, and it should in no way concern us how old the person who is seducing a sixteen-year-old girl is.)

So maybe, with so many female cultural touchstones who barely have their learner’s permit, it’s not unusual that we seem to be expecting younger and younger girls to buy in to a sexualized culture. To not only buy into it, but to embrace it and perpetuate it. But even if it isn’t unusual, it is still pretty creepy. Which is why when I hear things like “a teenaged all-girl band lost points in a battle of the bands because they weren’t ‘sultry’ enough,” I still get the all-over iggly wigglies.

Recently, the band Kalliope Jones, made up of “Isabella DeHerdt, 16, on vocals and guitar, Alouette Batteau, 14, drums and vocals, and Amelia Chalfont, 14, on bass competed in Massachusetts’ Tri-County Fair Battle of the Bands. Their competition was made up of individuals of similar ages, ranging from 12-16. So, knowing that the individuals he was judging were (at the most) 16, a male judge took it upon himself to dock points from Kalliope Jones for their showmanship because they weren’t using their “sultriness” enough. Giving the girls a 3 out of 5 for Stage Presence-Showmanship, he wrote,

– Good outfitting style-matches music style well
– ♥ the sultry in bassist voice + Guitar singer’s too (sic)
– Use the sultry to draw in the crowd.
– Audience participation opportunities missed

He later gave them one extra bonus point because “Chicks Rock.” It’s always nice to throw in a condescending, pandering remark right after you’ve told a teenager she’s not sultry enough.

…. A few things, here. First of all, do not use hearts when you are writing a scorecard for a group of musicians. Don’t use hearts when you’re writing basically anything that isn’t an IM or a greeting card. Second of all, oh yeah, NEVER TELL A BAND OF TEENAGE GIRLS THAT THEY NEED TO “USE THE SULTRY” IN ORDER TO SUCCEED AT THEIR OCCUPATION. I really, really didn’t think I would have had to spell that one out for anyone. The bassist, specifically complimented for her “sultriness,” is fourteen. You just told a fourteen-year-old that the best part of her band’s performance is that she is hot in a sexy way. It’s bad enough that the judge would comment on the sexiness of the teenage girls he is ostensibly judging. It’s worse when he’s actually docking points from them because they are not being sexy enough. This Tri-County Fair music expert is basically telling these young girls that the only way they are going to succeed as a band (they got third place overall, behind two all-male groups) is if they amp up their sex appeal. Way to try to give these girls a complex.

The one bright spot in this mess is that the members of Kalliope Jones are awesome young women who are fully aware of when they are being told something ridiculous, and who are willing to call it out. They posted the following on Facebook (it’s a little long for a direct quote, but it’s worth it):

We received third place, a cash prize and gift certificates. In the comments, we were told to “use our sultry to draw in the crowd.” We ended up losing points for not utilizing this aspect enough. As Amelia Chalfant said, A woman’s sex appeal, or anyone’s for that matter, should not be the defining factor in their success in the music industry, and in addition to that, WE ARE CHILDREN! WE ARE 14-16 YEARS OLD.”  The judges tried to say they meant it as a positive thing; that it was supposed to mean “soulful”. They did not understand why we confronted them about it.

From Merriam Webster – Sultry: very hot and humid: attractive in a way that suggests or causes feelings of sexual desire.

We then asked if they had made similar comments to any of the bands that were made up of only boys. They said, “Oh, no. It is a completely different thing.”Actually, it really isn’t. This conspicuous act of sexist and stereotypical thinking was deplorable and pathetic. The fact that they made these glaring and crude, sexist and stereotypical notes about our performance was made worse by the fact that they did so while drinking beer, blowing their bloated beery breath in our faces. It was astonishing, revolting, and VERY offensive. 

We are grateful to have ranked among the top three performers (who, by the way, besides us, were all boys), but to be judged on our sex appeal and told that we need to be more sexy in order to make it as musicians goes against everything we have been taught.

That is one of the best takedowns of entitled male behavior I have ever seen. I could take lessons from these girls. They later took a slightly kinder tone, saying that they hoped that the confusion over the word sultry was an “honest mistake.” 

The problem is, even if it is an “honest mistake,” even if the judge didn’t know the exact (sexual) connotations of the word he was using, he still obviously knew the broad strokes of what it meant. And that’s troubling. Knowing that “sultry” is a supposed version of “soulful” that only applies to girls shows that the judges are at least marginally aware of the gendered expectations that go with it.

In some corner of their brains, there is the expectation that “chick bands” are supposed to have sexy girls in them, that they’re supposed to be sultry and seductive, that they are supposed to take part in “audience participation” that primarily consists of making themselves seem sexually appealing. And there is some corner of the judges’ brains that thinks this expectation is appropriate to push onto teenage girls. That it is appropriate to punish teenage girls when they don’t meet these expectations.

Just because Disney princesses are shacking up with dashing men of indeterminate age doesn’t mean that it should be okay to look at a skilled fourteen-year-old girl and say “Yeah, you’re pretty good…. But you’d be better if you were sexy.”

[Editor’s note: You can check out Kalliope Jones via their Facebook page, and also on YouTube. They’re a heck of a lot better than my band was at 14… which I will not link to.]


Elle Irise is a regular contributor to This Week In Tomorrow. When she’s not reading stories about the sexualization of fourteen year old girls and feeling stabby as a result, she studies gender in  popular culture.