Relative Intimacy: Fathers, Adolescent Daughters, and Postwar American Culture

Relative Intimacy: Fathers, Adolescent Daughters, and Postwar American Culture

Relative Intimacy: Fathers, Adolescent Daughters, and Postwar American Culture

Relative Intimacy: Fathers, Adolescent Daughters, and Postwar American Culture


Celebrated as new consumers and condemned for their growing delinquencies, teenage girls emerged as one of the most visible segments of American society during and after World War II. Contrary to the generally accepted view that teenagers grew more alienated from adults during this period, Rachel Devlin argues that postwar culture fostered a father-daughter relationship characterized by new forms of psychological intimacy and tinged with eroticism.

According to Devlin, psychiatric professionals turned to the Oedipus complex during World War II to explain girls' delinquencies and antisocial acts. Fathers were encouraged to become actively involved in the clothing choices and makeup practices of their teenage daughters, thus domesticating and keeping under paternal authority their sexual maturation. In Broadway plays, girls' and women's magazines, and works of literature, fathers often appeared as governing figures in their daughters' sexual coming-of-age. It became the common sense of the era that adolescent girls were fundamentally motivated by their Oedipal needs, dependent upon paternal sexual approval, and interested in their fathers' romantic lives. As Devlin demonstrates, the pervasiveness of depictions of father-adolescent daughter eroticism on all levels of culture raises questions about the extent of girls' independence in modern American society and the character of fatherhood during America's fabled embrace of domesticity in the 1940s and 1950s.


His daughter’s room was full of life. His own old microscope stood on
Margaret’s desk and around it was a litter of slides.… the books were
beginning to be too many for the small bookshelf, starting with
Little Family and going on to his own soiled copy of the Light That
Failed.… The dolls were no longer so much to the fore as they once
were, but they were still about.… and he stood contemplating the
room with a kind of desolation of love for it.
—Lionel Trilling, “The Other Margaret,” 1945

The week that Pearl Harbor was bombed, Life was the only major magazine that did not have time to change its cover. Rather than an image of battleship guns ablaze or military commanders, Life’s cover on December 15, 1941, featured a picture of a sixteen-yearold girl: pretty, smiling coyly, and utterly oblivious to the national tragedy that had occurred a few days earlier. the girl was Patricia Peardon, and she played a thirteen-year-old daughter in Junior Miss, a coming-of-age story that was Broadway’s biggest hit of the 1941 season. Based on a series of encounters—alternately difficult, confused, and fawning—between Peardon and her father, Junior Miss depicted growing up as a process that was defined by moments of sexual recognition and appreciation that took place between an adolescent girl and her father. in chronicling these moments, Junior Miss was a harbinger of what would become a national preoccupation with the meaning—particularly the erotic meaning—of the father-daughter relationship in the aftermath of America’s entrance into World War II. Indeed, in retrospect, what was probably a publishing mishap for Life looks like a prescient emblem of the cultural concerns of the war and postwar period.

At least since the mid-1920s, child psychologists had discussed the “happy girl who… has a father whom she can make the embodiment of her ideals.” Some of the more daring child experts incorporated Freudian notions of Oedipal attachment into their vision of female adolescence. But even in the best father-daughter relationships, the famed child psychologist G. Stanley Hall warned in 1925, “there are . . .

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