Academic journal article Women's Studies Quarterly

Sister Acts

Academic journal article Women's Studies Quarterly

Sister Acts

Article excerpt

It will seem silly for me to note, as I am noting, that I am absent from family pictures taken before I was born. My sisters seemed so perfect together and so perfectly themselves in these pictures, which I have sometimes loved to look at, that I both register my absence and am yet unable to see where I might be.1 Sometimes their outfits matched (maroon pajamas, sprigged with white and trimmed with cotton lace). At other times, like my sisters themselves, the outfits bore a family resemblance as well as signs of differentiation, clothing that by color or cut or by the direction of the plaid showed off one sister's shrewd and observant reserve, another's pleasure in assuming the modes of girliness, the third's ambition to intercede or to break things up with goofy fun. Old enough at some point to look at the pictures, I would never be old enough, before the first of my sisters left home, for their dancing in the bedroom, behind the closed door, for the olderness and coolerness of their rock and roll. (It was their olderness and coolerness that I envied, along with their quarrelsome togetherness behind the door.) But I did have with them the experience of our mother's less cool music, songs from Broadway, televised, and Hollywood musicals. And if I learned envy by listening outside the door to hear or to imagine the secrets of my sisters' samenesses and differences, I learned it also in their company, during my 1960s childhood and 1970s adolescence, listening to songs in which other sisters-like us, rivalrous but only semidetached from one another-rehearsed the routines of envy. The sister songs in our mother's musicals were master classes in the ways and habits of the envious, teaching girls how to recognize the advantages of the enviable object (she will be frothy, flimsy, frail, fluffy, pink, delicate, little, lovely, and "obviously unusual") and what to do with her once one got her alone (Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella 1957). (One might "pull out all her hair.") They taught self-making and self-recognition, too, in telling how to identify the self of whom envy is to be expected; she will be too obviously usual, solid, home un-dressed and alone, "a girl who's merely me." The sisters of sister songs bonded, musically, in nourishing their resentments and reviewing their anxieties, in honing their adjectival observations and dismissals ("She's a frothy little bubble with a flimsy kind of charm"), in contemplating their capacities ("And with very little trouble I could break her little arm"). Sisterhood in the 1960s, that is, even as it asserted its oneness, its generosity, or its power, knew from the start (if it watched its television or listened to its records) how frightening its caring and sharing virtues could be, how often its fusions brought on reactive separations and strikings back.2

Reconsidering in this essay songs from musicals from the 1950s to the 1970s, I am taking it as my task to investigate the songs that structured the sororal relation as an envious one for me and for my sisters, and I understand this task as both autobiographical and cultural.3 The envious stories of my childhood extended, of course, far beyond the sister songs on which I am focused to Laura Ingalls Wilder's Nelly Olesen of the Little House books, for example, to Amy and Jo in Little Women, to countless other stories of girl-on-girl envy; examining the songs that constitute the O'Farrell catalog, I would nevertheless suggest that cultural evidence of envy's organization of sisterhood is elsewhere and everywhere to be found.

So much of what I remember of these envious songs and stories involves my pleasure in them, my delight even in revisiting them, no little part of that pleasure the enjoyment of my sisters' company, experienced as much in the bonding intensity of their resentments as in the attaching charm of their laughter. Some of these songs were a little more the products of their generation's popular culture than they were of mine-perhaps, as I have suggested, even more the residue of a culture less popular than personal and maternal, determined by our mother's nerdogenic tastes-and my attention to them was and is a ready-made marker pointing toward a little sister's envy and emulation of big-girl access to culture's lessons about the ways of women among women. …

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