Articulating Adolescent Girls' Resistance to Patriarchal Discourse in Popular Media

By Durham, Meenakshi Gigi | Women's Studies in Communication, Fall 1999 | Go to article overview

Articulating Adolescent Girls' Resistance to Patriarchal Discourse in Popular Media


Durham, Meenakshi Gigi, Women's Studies in Communication


This paper explores and theorizes the experiences in adolescent girls' lives that pertain to their ability to resist damaging media representations of femininity. Traditional theoretical approaches to resistance involve notions of "resistant reading" of media messages. In this paper, I move beyond the individualized concept of resistant readings of media messages to a theory of resistance related to collective feminist activism, in the context of girls' culture. After surveying the theories of resistance currently employed in the mass communication/cultural studies literature, I compare these formulations with recent scholarship on girls' development. I conclude that the widely accepted construction of autonomous and individual "resistant reading" neglects important aspects of girls' lives; the question must be approached, instead, in terms of communities and collectivities that form a central part of girls' culture, with the goal of mobilizing adolescent girls in their dealings with patriarchal popular culture.

Feminism is resistance--yet "resistance" is a tricky term, rife with sliding meanings and multiple interpretations. Concepts of "resistance" underlie a vast number of analyses of various dimensions of social and political struggle. Traditional critical approaches to resistance in the context of mass communication involve notions of "resistant reading" of media messages (see Fiske & Hartley, 1978; Radway, 1984; Fiske, 1986; Fiske, 1987). In this paper, I attempt to reconceptualize "resistance" through an action-oriented collectivist framework--that is, to move beyond the highly interiorized and individualized constructions of resistant readings of mass media to a theory of resistance that is related to feminist praxis and activism, and that might eventually be helpful in empowering and mobilizing adolescent girls to collective political action in their dealings with patriarchal popular culture. Any discussion of feminist resistance is problematic; as Davis and Fisher (1995) point out,

   If the analytic starting place is the relationship between structured forms
   of constraint and women's agency, how do we investigate the ways women's
   activities are limited through asymmetrical power structures and at the
   same time treat women as active and knowledgeable participants in the
   constitution of social life? Or conversely, how do we focus on women's
   resistance without losing sight of the structural constraints that make it
   difficult for them to resist at all? (p. 3)

These questions present the central paradox addressed in this paper. Given that women and girls live in a mediacentric world--a world where mainstream media institutions are part of a regulatory system of social power--I want to think more about the experiences that allow some women to engage in a struggle with dominant norms, while others succumb to systemic oppressions and internalize patriarchal ideologies that work to subjugate them further.

The question becomes even more complex when it is applied to very young women, i.e. adolescents. In adolescence, girls (of varying races, classes, ethnic origins and sexual orientations) enter into a time and space that has been characterized as a "troubled crossing" (Brown & Gilligan, 1992), a period marked by girls' anger, awareness of, and ultimate acquiescence to being confined and constrained by social expectations for women. The passage out of childhood for many girls means experiencing a loss of self and self-determination as cultural norms of femininity and sexuality are imposed upon them (Stem, 1991). Mass media play a part in this cultural confinement and repression of girls. It is virtually incontestable that mass culture abounds with sexist and otherwise problematic representations of adolescent girls (see, for example, Duffy & Gotcher, 1996; Durham, 1998; Pierce, 1990; Pierce, 1993; Wolf, 1997;). Researchers such as Hancock (1989), Brown and Gilligan (1992), Pipher (1994), and Orenstein (1994) all offer evidence that in adolescence, girls of varied backgrounds within American culture commit to the ideological value system represented in media messages and other cultural institutions and learn to view themselves through the dominant ideological lens.

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