Monday, August 26, 2013

Where the Girls Are: Growing up Female with the Mass Media

1994, 1995 Times Books edition
Susan J. Douglas
Where the Girls Are: Growing up Female with the Mass Media
Bought new for $14.00
Slightly worn paperback

As you might guess from the condition, I haven't read this book very often, so I was very pleasantly surprised by how fantastic it is.  It's intelligent, witty, snarky, sometimes crude, sometimes sophisticated, and always aware of ambiguity and contradiction.  In fact, ambiguity is as much the subject as what it was like for Douglas, born white, middle-class, and American around 1950, to grow up watching TV and movies, listening to rock music, reading magazines.  It is her story (without being a biography as such), but it is also about other Baby Boom women.  I think there are things that others can relate to-- women my age and younger, women of other classes and colors, and some men-- but that is her focus.  She is the daughter of a woman who struggled with 1950s messages about work and home, and the mother of a girl who loved Disney princesses yet made Douglas change all the pronouns to female during bedtime reading.  She is also a professor of media studies, which she both takes seriously enough that she thinks it should be studied, and as irreverently as she takes everything else.

There's so much here that's quotable, but I'll try to narrow it down:

  • "'Woman's bone structure and bodily proportions overwhelmingly lead her toward more passive interests and an inward life,' which I guess explains why American moms always sat on their asses, drinking beer and watching ball games, while our naturally more active dads chased the kids around the house, and drove them to scout meetings and Little League."
  • "Now, since Lisa [on Green Acres] spent much of her time flouncing around in chiffon, ostrich feathers, and gemstones the size of Fig Newtons, completely unable to cook or manage the household, the viewer saw immediately that feminist generalizations about domestic life certainly didn't apply here, and therefore, they might not apply elsewhere."
  • "In copy sounding as if it had been written by Alexander Haig, our skin was put in a bunker, or better yet, behind Reagan's version of Star Wars, as 'protective barriers' and 'invisible shields' deflected 'external aggressors.'"

As you might guess from that last quote, Douglas is building in part on Wolf's Beauty Myth, and of course Faludi's Backlash, although she sees the media as offering both pro-female and anti-female messages, sometimes at the same time, as with The Mary Tyler Moore Show.  She argues that living with the contradictions is part of what being a modern American woman and/or a feminist is.

This is the best book I've reread since Adamson's 1973 Marx Brothers book.  (Sorry, fiction just wasn't as good in the 20th century as in the 19th.)  Like that whimsical, cynical work of media criticism, this isn't perfect.  (I don't think I noted it, but Adamson was a bit sexist and homophobic, if not obnoxiously so.)  This book does spend much more time on the '50s and '60s than on the '70s, '80s, or '90s.  I do appreciate that it's the first book to actually get what was great about Roseanne.  (Even Roseanne's My Life as a Woman didn't, but then at the time that first biography came out, her show hadn't yet hit its stride.)  Yet there were so many other shows and movies Douglas could've talked about, even if this is her story.

The copyright page has 1994 and 1995, but I went with the earlier date because the main change from the hardcover first edition seems to be the addition of media contacts, and you can get much more up-to-date information on the Internet.  Yes, wouldn't it be great if this book went up to the Internet, not to mention the Spice Girls, Hermione Granger*, and Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign?  Well, as it happens, in 2010 Douglas published Enlightened Sexism: The Seductive Message that Feminism's Work Is Done.  I've got it on order and I'll let you know what I think of it when we get up to '10.  And no, I don't know what it includes, but this is one case where I am willing to buy the sequel without knowing the details.

*Douglas says of then-recent kids' movies, "Gutsy, smart, enterprising, and sassy little girls remain, after all this time, absent, invisible, denied."

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