Thursday, August 5, 2010

Book Review: Susan J. Douglas, Where The Girls Are

Where the Girls Are: Growing Up Female with the Mass MediaPublisher/Year: Times Books, 1995

Susan Douglas’ examination of the last fifty years of popular culture and mass media in her insightful book, Where The Girls Are: Growing Up Female With The Mass Media, is a wonderfully frightful and grossly fantastic journey. Fantastic because she actually grew up with the very music, television, and magazines she analyzes and can therefore pass on “I was there and I survived” truth moments. Frightening because, for all her analysis, the book ultimately illuminates how far women have come, and yet not, in terms of the how the mass media constructs and projects images of women.

Douglas’ intertwines women’s history with personal antecdotes with a deft hand. Her main thesis is that women, caught between feminine desire and feminist repulsion, are "cultural schizophrenics." She constructs her argument around the history of the love-hate relationship of women to the mass media. From the music of the Shirelles, to Ariel from The Little Mermaid to Betty Freidan and Gloria Steinem, Douglas successfully outlines the paradoxical situation of women who reside in a culture inundated by sexist imagery. Such imagery is perpetuated by a mass media obsessed with coding femininity and masculinity according to patriarchal ideology. Using personal "schizophrenic" moments embedded in the everyday functionings of popular culture in tandem with a feminist content analysis methodology, Douglas extracts and illuminates those pivotal moments in women's lives and society's consciousness that are culturally significant and psychologically bruising.

Quite simply, women's cultural schizophrenia is defined by a dynamic where women "rebel against yet submit to prevailing images about what a desirable, worthwhile woman should be" (8). According to Douglas, women's cultural schizophrenia arises from the fact that "the mass media raised us, socialized us, entertained us, comforted us, deceived us, disciplined us, told us what we could do and told us what we couldn't" (13). Because the mass media plays a central role in our socialization, it continually bombards women with mixed messages regarding what women should and should not do, what women can and cannot be. These mixed messages have resulted in an erosion of a unified female self because women have learned to simultaneously compartmentalize themselves into a host of personae when presented with an array of media archetypes and stereotypes. As a result of this process of compartmentalization, women are ambivalent toward femininity on the one hand and feminism on the other.

One of Douglas's key points is that one cannot assume that "the media is all powerful, or that the audiences are just helpless masses of inarticulate protoplasm" (16). She argues that audiences resist media images and messages all the time by turning off the television, by ignoring the magazine advertisings, and by yelling “bullshit” at billboards. Douglas is careful to point out that some images are harder to resist than others because the mass media has taught women to continually place themselves under the constant scrutiny and surveillance of male eyes. The mass media does this through the production, reproduction and promotion of patriarchal ideals of femininity and womanhood. But by overtly appealing to women's femininity however, Douglas argues that the mass media also cultivates a certain degree of awareness and consciousness that incites women to rebel against those sexist and stereotypical images by flipping the page or by “flipping the bird”. In Douglas' words, "we love and hate the media, at exactly the same time, in no small part because the media, simultaneously, love and hate women" (8). Therefore, our viewing of mass media and its messages is both feminine (submitting) and feminist (rebelling). It is this fluctuation between love and hate, submission and rebellion, that gives rise to women's feminine and feminist viewing positions within and of popular culture.

The notion that women have a dual viewing position because it is both feminine (submitting) and feminist (rebelling) contributes a new angle to the wealth of research completed in the area of feminist cultural studies. Because 'looking' is such a central part of the reception of an image, feminist cultural theorists examine the ways in which the act of looking is constructed to reflect gender divisions and the social relations of patriarchal power. Viewing pleasure and displeasure arise through the confrontation between the reader's experience of reading the text and the reader's social experiences influencing the interpretation of the text. Examining woman's "cultural schizophrenia" impacts how feminist theorists understand women's pleasure/displeasure because it establishes a viewing position based on women's subjectivity as textual readers. By acknowledging women as active contributors to and negotiators of their viewing experiences, one can begin to understand the totality of the female viewing experience in relation to popular culture.

Understanding the totality of the female viewing experience is exactly what Susan Douglas is attempting by arguing that women occupy a dual viewing position in relation to popular culture. By asserting that women oscillate between a feminine viewing position, characterized by love, desire and pleasure, and a feminist viewing position, characterized by hate, questioning and critique, Douglas understands that women's consumption of popular culture is a circuitous and interactive process because women are both emotionally and intellectually stimulated by that which they are consuming. In other words, we interact with the images placed before us because our cultural schizophrenic nature requires that consumption not be a passive reception of images but rather, an active process of reading the images in order to ‘debunk’ the sexist and patriarchal foundations perpetuating their production. The result of this interaction is that women are positioned to continuously oscillate between a feminine and feminist viewing position because they are at once the surveyed and the surveyor, the object and the subject.

Where the Girls Are is a highly enjoyable romp through the narcissistic pleasures of Vogue, the identical twin craziness of The Patty Duke Show, and the political machinery of the ERA movement. Her pragmatic re-workings and re-tellings of the female mass media experience using her own lived experiences over four decades is unique, refreshing, and exciting. Using numerous popular culture examples, Douglas' presents women as the surveyed and the surveyors on the basis of their subject positioning rather than their textual positioning. By granting women the power of the look, Douglas validates her own and every other woman’s feminine/feminist schizophrenic popular culture existence.

1 comment:

  1. It's almost hard to swallow that, although published in 1995, this book is frighteningly accurate today?!

    One way to address this is to teach kids media literacy skills - so that even when they see unhealthy media images of girls and women, they can process them in a healthy way.

    The Healthy Media for Youth Act, H.R. 4925, would create a competitive grant for these programs, as well as facilitate research on the health effects of negative media images on youth and set up a taskforce that would establish voluntary standards for more girl positive media.

    Sounds good, right? Support this bill by visiting! You will find a draft letter that you can customize and send to your Member of Congress, urging her or him to support the Healthy Media for Youth Act.

    Let's make sure that 15 years from now, Susan Dougals' book is not still relevant!