Unruly Girls, Unrepentant Mothers: Redefining Feminism on Screen

Unruly Girls, Unrepentant Mothers: Redefining Feminism on Screen

Unruly Girls, Unrepentant Mothers: Redefining Feminism on Screen

Unruly Girls, Unrepentant Mothers: Redefining Feminism on Screen


Since the 1990s, when Reviving Ophelia became a best seller and "Girl Power" a familiar anthem, girls have assumed new visibility in the culture. Yet in asserting their new power, young women have redefined femininity in ways that have often mystified their mothers. They have also largely disavowed feminism, even though their new influence is a likely legacy of feminism's Second Wave. At the same time, popular culture has persisted in idealizing, demonizing, or simply erasing mothers, rarely depicting them in strong and loving relationships with their daughters. Unruly Girls, Unrepentent Mothers, a companion to Kathleen Rowe Karlyn's groundbreaking work, The Unruly Woman, studies the ways popular culture and current debates within and about feminism inform each other. Surveying a range of films and television shows that have defined girls in the postfeminist era-from Titanic and My So-Called Life to Scream and The Devil Wears Prada, and from Love and Basketball to Ugly Betty -Karlyn explores the ways class, race and generational conflicts have shaped both Girl Culture and feminism's Third Wave. Tying feminism's internal conflicts to negative attitudes toward mothers in the social world, she asks whether today's seemingly materialistic and apolitical girls, inspired by such real and fictional figures as the Spice Girls and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, have turned their backs on the feminism of their mothers or are redefining unruliness for a new age.


Everything will be changed once woman
gives woman to the other woman. There
is hidden and always ready in woman the
source, the locus for the other. The mother,
too, is a metaphor. —HÉLÈNE CIXOUS

Oh, Mother, shut up. —ROSE TO HER

ONE OF THE EMOTIONAL turning points of the 1997 blockbuster Titanic occurs soon after the ship’s collision with the iceberg that will sink it within hours. In a scene of escalating panic and chaos, Ruth (Frances Fisher), the mother of the film’s headstrong protagonist Rose (Kate Winslet), urges her daughter to join her in a lifeboat quickly filling with other members of the upper class. Rose is revolted by her mother’s snobbery and yearns to remain with her newfound love Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio), a frisky young fellow traveling in steerage. She pauses, fixes her gaze on her mother, then refuses with a resolute, “No, Mother.” In doing so, she turns her back not only on her old life but also, in all likelihood, on life itself rather than follow the path laid out for her by her mother.

The film has dramatized her choice with the laserlike clarity of melodrama: Jack stands for innocence, art, freedom, and love, and Ruth stands for all that the film vilifies—the weight of convention, especially on women, but more important, the oppressiveness of the class structure symbolized by the opulent excesses of the ship. The film validates Rose’s moment of self-definition . . .

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