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Where the Girls Are: Growing Up Female with the Mass Media.

Larissa MacFarquhar

Having read Where the Girls Are I feel like I've been living with Susan Douglas for a couple of weeks, and it's been one long baby-boomer-feminist-media-studies-professor version of The Patty Duke Show. We've watched a lot of TV (she gets very involved and tends to leap up from the sofa, fist shaking, and yell things like Get her, Alexis! or Sexist pig!); she's made me dance around her living room to the Shirelles and the Shangri-Las (she knows all the words and shouts them out); we've sat around reading women's magazines (she can't turn three pages without finding another outrageously sexist ad and shrieking for me to come look). Where the Girls Are is an entertaining tour of postwar feminism and mass media in which Douglas, a professor of media and American studies at Hampshire College, says little new but says it her own way. Neither a Catharine MacKinnon-style warrior nor a Jane Gallop-esque performance theorist, Douglas is a wisecracking homespun curmudgeon--the Dave Barry of feminism. The kind of jokester who relishes suffixes like "in drag" or "from hell," she likens the flying nun's hat to "a paper airplane on steroids" and writes sentences like "Cranky women my age are really getting the fed-up-skis with advertisers."

Douglas hates sexism, but she loves pop culture, and wants to prove that the sitcoms, soap operas, girl groups, and fashion magazines she grew up with were not as bad for women as they might seem. After all, she reminds us that she and a whole generation of women like her grew up watching The Flying Nun and Troy Donahue movies and ended up feminists just the same, so the messages of '50s and '60s pop culture must be more complicated, more ambivalent, than one would think. Douglas has made it her mission to reclaim that culture from the Susan Faludi-style feminists who would condemn it as unsalvageably reactionary; in fact, she wants to demonstrate that it even provided positive role models for protofeminist baby boomers like herself. To her credit, Douglas realizes that the biggest problem she's going to face getting taken seriously in this mission is not Faludi-ism but the kitschiness of her material. She deals with this deftly by pointing out the advantages of kitsch for life--how perkiness, for instance, the horrible signature of female teen stars like Sally Field and Patty Duke, was a clever act that allowed girls to be assertive while staying cute and attractive to boys.

Douglas' central point, then, is the less-than-staggering observation that both the media and women have for the past thirty years been conflicted about the women's movement. (TV shows included both strong and regressive female characters! Women hate to be judged as bodies alone, yet still shave their legs!) Her innovation is to argue that this conflict is nothing to worry about: it's okay, she says, to both love and hate reading Vogue; to be outraged at misogynistic inventions like cellulite, yet to yearn for a product that will make your thighs look like Kate Moss'. Why is it okay? Unfortunately Douglas has no better argument than, It's normal--practically all American women feel the same way. In a book that bemoans Phyllis Schlafly's remarkable success getting those same American women to help defeat the ERA, this seems a bit thin.

Her indulgent attitude toward fashion victims notwithstanding, Douglas gets mad thinking about the commercials that made them victims in the first place. She becomes a central-casting feminist for the first time in the book when she scolds the cosmetics industry for its scientistic, Francophile ads promoting unrealist standards of beauty. "I'm tired of countless starved, airbrushed, surgically enhanced hindquarters being shoved in my face," she cries. "I'm tired of the endless self-flagellation we women subject ourselves to." This is standard stuff, but it doesn't make sense. When Douglas goes to a museum, does she feel outrage, surrounded by totally unrealistic standards of artistic achievement? When she hears a child prodigy playing the piano, does she look down, depressed, at her own clumsy fingers and feel a rush of anger toward the concert's organizers? No, somehow it's just the child prodigies with the teeny thighs and the perfect hair that make her feel like something political is going on. Mao, at least, was consistent in his antielitism; feminists like Douglas are not.

There is a lot of what in Where the Girls Are--Douglas knows her subject and tells its story well--but too little how. Douglas writes in the first-person plural--that useful "we" that lends a pundit both the irrefutability of an eye-witness and the sweep of a historian--but she never really ponders how the "we" came into existence. In the end, I am left wondering, among other things, to what extent it was TV (and movies and songs and ads) that helped light the radical fire under baby-boomer teens and to what extent it was talking about TV that did the trick. In a New York Times Magazine article last August, a deaf man explained that he missed the days before TV was captioned, because talking about TV shows, trying to figure out what had taken place, had been one of the ways deaf consciousness was formed. What the shows were didn't matter--it was the debates they started that was important. Douglas wants to argue that it made a difference to a generation of feminists that Charlie's Angels shot their own bad guys and picked their own locks, but if the messages of popular culture were as various and contradictory as she says they were, how to show that their content had any effect at all? Because she doesn't ask herself this question, Douglas can have it any way she wants: wimpy female characters make girls want to grow up different, strong ones inspire them--either way you end up with feminism.

Larissa MacFarquhar is a contributing editor at Lingua Franca and an advisory editor at The Paris Review.
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Author:MacFarquhar, Larissa
Publication:Artforum International
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Nov 1, 1994
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