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Where the Girls Are.

By Susan J. Douglas Times Books 342 pages; $23

Perhaps you've forgotten the wacky "Women's Lib" episode of "The Beverly Hillbillies," where Jethro sees Granny and Ellie May carrying a placard reading "Free Women" and yells, "I'm gonna git me one of them."

Or the "Liberation Movement" installment of "Green Acres," in which Lisa lectures Oliver on the really hard aspects of being a woman, like waiting an hour and a half for your nails to dry.

Or the show where Gidget concludes, "I'd set back women's lights a hundred years--exactly where they belong."

But Susan J. Douglas hasn't forgotten. Touring four decades of popular culture, she unearths these classics and plenty of others similarly patronizing.

Yet given all this bait, Douglas hasn't written an angry book. In many ways, she looks back fondly on the culture she grew up in, patriarchal pomposity and all. A "media-induced schizophrenia," she believes, helps explain what it means to be a modem woman.

"American women today are a bundle of contradictions because much of the media imagery we grew up with was itself filled with mixed messages about what women should and should not do, what women could and could not be," Douglas writes.

At the same time media images urged women to be "pliant, cute, sexually available... and deferential," they also inspired them to be "rebellious, tough, enterprising, and shrewd." The same media that "may have turned feminism into a dirty word ... also made feminism inevitable."

Douglas tries to reclaim, on behalf of baby boom women, a sense of ownership and connection to that complex culture, to show "there is nothing inherently superior about Elvis or James Dean in relation to the Shirelles or Natalie Wood."

Girls growing up in the 1950s, she writes, learned from Disney and fairy tales that the good girls, the ones to emulate, were the sweet princesses. The wicked ones were those overly made-up queens and stepmothers coveting power. Yet by the beginning of the next decade, television had introduced a different, real-life icon: the smart, take-charge first lady Jacqueline Kennedy, offering "new possibilities for the princess role."

The 1960s brought the sexual revolution and the throbbing mixed messages of girl group music, "by turns, boastful, rebellious, and self-abnegating ... strong and empowering ... masochistic and defeating." For every "I Will Follow Him," Douglas finds a "You Don't Own Me." For every swoon over the mop-headed Beatles, she sees girls who "wanted some gender boundaries blurred."

Reacting to this "prefeminist agitation," a nervous pop culture turned women into witches like Samantha and sorceresses like Jeannie and, of course, flying nuns--ridiculous but also subtly affirming that "male authority wasn't so impregnable or impressive" after all.

By the late '60s, the protest rhythms of Mary Travers and Joan Baez had unified and emboldened a movement. The baby-talk feminism of Gloria Bunker gave way to mighty-mouthed Maude, and even the jiggling Charlie's Angels proved week after week that women working together could thwart the bad guys.

Yet media messages also contrived to contain the rising female consciousness, reflecting debate over the Equal Rights Amendment with the catfight themes of "Dallas" and "Dynasty," "a spectacle: two women ... locked in a death grip that brought them both crashing down."

During the '80s and '90s, "women's liberation metamorphosed into female narcissism unchained," as media, particularly advertising, elevated "the flawless rump" over intellectual achievement. Here, too, though, women could locate models--Roseanne and Murphy Brown, Nina Totenberg and Katie Couric.

Balance is a cornerstone strength of the book. Amid the litter of old-think sitcoms and pop anthems, Douglas finds enough treasures to conclude that the media "played a key role in turning each of us into not one woman but many women--a pastiche of all the good women and bad women that came to us through the printing presses, projectors, and airwaves."

Certainly there's plenty to be depressed and angry about here, including the news media's condescending coverage.

Not so many years ago, the respected commentator Harry Reasoner could dismiss the "girls who are putting together Ms." magazine for "just another in the great but irrelevant tradition of American shock magazines."

Douglas' irritation occasionally simmers through, especially when she mentions Lyndon Johnson, "that vulgar turkey neck ... shifty-eyed, and with all the charisma of raw poultry."

But generally she's less harsh than Susan Faludi in "Backlash," reconciled to helping women find value in their collective cultural heritage.

For better or worse, she concludes, the mass media are no more consistent and monolithic than life itself "The truth is," Douglas writes, "growing up female with the mass media helped make me a feminist."
COPYRIGHT 1994 University of Maryland
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Copyright 1994 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Stepp, Carl Sessions
Publication:American Journalism Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jul 1, 1994
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