SUSAN J. DOUGLAS. Where the Girls Are: Growing Up Female with the Mass Media. New York: Random House, 1994. 325 pages. $23.00.
A litmus test of a book like this one, purporting to capture, codify, and enclose neatly within two hard covers the distinct experiences of hundreds of thousands of individuals, is to count how many times the appropriate reader is jolted into self-recognition, perhaps also into a wince, a wry smile, or a belly laugh.
Where The Girls Are: Growing Up Female with the Mass Media aces this test. For women born in America after World War II--hypnotized unawares by television shows like I Dream of Jeannie and movies like Cinderella, thrilled and guiltily galvanized by music from the Supremes to Helen Reddy, shamed and seduced by the heart-stopping perfection of the faces and bodies in make-up ads in Seventeen and Glamour--this book is sometimes no less than a mirror. In it, Susan J. Douglas, a professor of media and American studies at Hampshire College and media critic for The Progressive, offers up the landscapes of her own life as a map on which to trace the origins of both the present-day feminists and the feminist apologists. It is an informed, funny, extraordinarily readable, and often disarmingly personal study.
In chapters with titles like "Why the Shirelles Mattered," "Sex and the Single Teenager," and "The Rise of the Bionic Bimbo," Douglas examines rarely-unearthed artifacts of female baby boomers' youth, often casting over them a new, brazen light. In the characters of blonde, perky sidekicks like Cricket on Hawaiian Eye, Douglas sees offered to viewers "a fantasy about life beyond domesticity, away from some respectable, dull thud of a crewcut husband and whiny, needy children....They suggested, if only in a whisper, liberation." In rock music, the male falsetto of Lou Christie, the Four Seasons, and the Beach Boys allowed girls to sing the lead instead of the harmony. Girl groups--whose songs might glorify victimhood but whose pounding music "put the lie to the lyrics by getting the girl out on the dance floor, moving on her own, doing what she liked"--presaged the joining together of feminists later in a social movement on a large scale and a renewed sense of sisterhood on the personal. In Samantha Stevens of Bewitched Douglas sees one of the first female television characters who is beautiful and powerful yet still lovable--unlike her enduring Disney counterparts, Cinderella's cruel stepmother and Snow White's wicked queen. Scrutinizing The Mary Tyler Moore Show, she points out that Mary Richards, symbol of the liberated, unmarried, self-supporting woman of the 1970s, was hardly the spokeswoman for freedom: "Mary's specialty was...linguistic camouflage....As soon as she raised her voice, she muted it. It was as if her vocal cords alternated between femininity and feminism."
Readers revisiting this age with the expectations of the current one will probably be shocked when Douglas resurrects the condescending, contemptuous comments of revered newscasters on the feminist movement and the agendas of editors at major newspapers and newsmagazines like Newsweek and Time. Some women may feel either embarrassed or relieved to read her confessions about her love-hate relationship with television's Charlie's Angels and her admittedly conflicted attitude toward beauty magazines: "I don't 'read' Vogue or Glamour; if you'll pardon the masculine metaphor, I enter them." Sometimes she, too, wishes above all else to be beautiful; sometimes, she says, "I think it's the most dumb-ass goal you can have." Turning a cold eye on today's worship of the perfectly toned body and the marketing of exercise videos, she sums up Buns of Steel like this: it "is designed to humiliate women and to make us complicit in our own degradation. …