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Maria Mastronardi. After Ophelia: Popular Culture and Female Adolescence in Crisis.

Maria Mastronardi. After Ophelia: Popular Culture and Female Adolescence in Crisis. Chicago: University of Illinios Press, in press. Reviewed by Patrice M. Buzzanell, Purdue University.

In After Ophelia: Popular Culture and Female Adolescence in Crisis, Maria Mastronardi examines the "discursive formation of female adolescence" within its socio-historical-political context, focusing on what she calls an "Ophelia discourse" casting female adolescence as crisis. She traces changing intersections among power, gender, discourse, subjectivities, and popular culture that frame what media espouse, create, and reflect as taken-for-granted views of young women's lives. She also shows how these complex discursive relations provide resources for young women and girls (and others) to shape their identities and make sense of their lived experiences. After Ophelia is an exemplary scholarly analysis offering theoretically complex, richly detailed, and eloquent arguments that I can only sketch broadly in the following overview.

To begin, Dr. Mastronardi sets the significance of Ophelia discourse within an array of cultural discourses and practices aligned with self-help, surveillance, agency, adolescent health and well-being, and modernist-postmodernist notions of the self. She cautions that her claim is not "that any girl lacks agency to negotiate her positioning, only that agency is not a zero-sum game." In this construction of constrained agency, adolescent girls are positioned and position themselves as having problems simply because they are adolescent girls. Ophelia discourse encourages parents and others to identify a variety of girls' behaviors according to singular and multiple (mutually reinforcing) diagnostic criteria attesting to the crisis of adolescence and loss of true selves. As a result, adults are encouraged to continuously scrutinize and act upon girls' behaviors--through law enforcers' implementation of fornication laws even in cases of consensual teen sex (chapter 2), through parents' reliance on experts for parenting advice (chapter 2), through psychiatrists' and other health professionals' labeling of certain behaviors as diseases (chapter 3), through standardized treatments that are questionable in effectiveness for eating disorders (chapter 4), through the removal of pro-ana (pro-anorexia) websites without consideration of how they might be considered useful by the girls themselves (chapter 4), and through advertisements on girls' empowerment steeped in myriad class, race/ethnicity, ability, and other assumptions (chapter 5).

In Chapter 3, "Depicting Ophelia," Dr. Mastronardi discusses the alignment of most Ophelia discourse with the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) and its attendant "network of economic, political, and professional relationships." She skillfully argues that the DSM legitimizes sets of symptoms as constituting certain diseases but neither explains why people display these behaviors nor addresses the structural conditions for such behaviors and diagnoses. By taking a Foucauldian perspective on power and discourse, Dr. Mastronardi shows how psychosocial language and rationales are embedded in scientific, modernist, and personal responsibility discourses.

In Chapter 4, "Policing Dis-Order: Moral Panic and Pro-Ana Citizenship," Dr. Mastronardi attends to the presumed causes and treatments for (ana) anorexia and other eating disorders and then considers how young girls are drawn to the intimacy of pro-ana websites that enable them to form relationships, describe their lives, and resist surveillance of parents, friends, and others caught up in Ophelia discourses. The contradictory agency of participating in something meaningful that also can be harmful and can promote greater monitoring by others comes across. Dr. Mastronardi writes, "the sine qua non of the Pro Ana community is the refusal to recover in a conventional, psychologically managed manner" (emphasis in original). Nonetheless, standard treatment is repeated despite abysmally low recovery rates. Lawmakers and media surveillance figures eliminate such websites (and related media) without questioning why they are so appealing to young girls and women. Further, rhetorical strategies in key texts responsive to Pro Ana "panic" re-enforce contemporary myths of Ophelia by representing both "troubled" anorexic women and indeed female adolescents more generally "in the following distinctive yet overlapping ways: they lack a sense of self; they are irrational automatons, they are docile and stupid, passive recipients of media-propagated meanings." Such portrayals effectively denude young women of the qualities deemed requisite to exercising public voice and the privileges of citizenship.

Chapter 5, "Health Campaigns, Girl Power! And Recuperation Strategies," shows how the Girl Power! Health campaign uses Ophelia language, links Ophelia problems with empowerment, and then focuses on how girls react to adolescent issues rather than focusing on the issues themselves. Dr. Mastronardi describes how groups that resist the status quo are incorporated into the dominant culture. For example, she points to the self-contradictions of rock groups that speak about empowerment but offer child-like images of women and Nike [TM] ads ("If you let me play sports ...") that fix on "sports as a magical solution to girl's problems." Intertwined with the power-of-individual-girls and the girls-as-consumers discourses and marketing strategies is a health campaign that is based on small problems (rather than the central issues) and that secures the common-sense of dominant meanings about adolescent girls' heath and identity constructions. With vulnerability accepted as synonymous with adolescence by policy makers, policies and campaigns aim to change individual behaviors (e.g., tell them that they are okay and should be self-confident) without looking at the deep structures that produce them (e.g., a patriarchal society).

Dr. Mastronardi's conclusion brings together several themes that run throughout her book. She highlights the discursive formations that construct adolescence as a problematic period in which vulnerable girls are at risk for any number of diseases, pathological behaviors, and threats to their self-confidence. Cautioning against overly simplistic problem statements and solutions, Dr. Mastronardi warns that socially transformative approaches are rarely part of mainstream discussions. She concludes with some examples of tools for constructing resistance and empowering narratives.

After Ophelia is an excellent overview of the nature of contemporary adolescence for girls in the United States. Dr. Mastronardi has provided a thoughtful and powerful exposition/articulation and critique of discourses interpellating adolescent girls to certain types of subjectivities. This book can function as a research resource as well as a text for communication, gender, and popular culture upper-division and graduate classes. Some chapters may be a bit long for undergraduate students but there are clear separations among different arguments in each chapter so they can be divided easily for students' reading and discussion. I believe that the materials will stimulate exciting discussions about gender and popular communication as well as how we can work toward altering the status quo.

After Ophelia: Popular Culture and Female Adolescence in Crisis will be available from the University of Illinois Press.

Reviewer Patrice M. Buzzanell is Professor of Communication at Purdue University.
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Author:Buzzanell, Patrice M.
Publication:Women and Language
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2006
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