When Mary Pipher was writing "Reviving Ophelia," her book about
adolescent girls and their heartbreaking struggles to maintain their
self-esteem, she hardly felt upbeat about the world young girls were
"My point of view was from the trenches," says Ms. Pipher, a
Nebraska-based clinical psychologist, who has treated girls for more
than 20 years. "So naturally, it was very pessimistic."
Today, some four years after the book's publication (nearly three
of those years spent on The New York Times bestseller list),
view is more optimistic. "There's been a new enthusiasm developing
for helping girls," she says."I meet with group after group of smart
movers and shakers who care about girls."
Pipher and other researchers like her warn that American girls
still face many challenges, including insecurities about self-image -
aggravated by the media's glorification of thin and perfect as the
norm for feminine beauty. And they say girls still must face a world
that includes many gender inequities - including wages. But they
also agree that girls have begun to come into their own in American
culture as a distinct group - with special needs that deserve
attention and unique voices that deserve to be heard.
"Being a girl is more celebrated than it has ever been before,"
says Pamela Ezell, a professor at Chapman University in Orange,
Calif., who studies women's issues and the media.
The carving out of a niche for girls - and the defining of an
agenda for them - is a relatively recent trend, driven by a variety
of factors, including feminist-inspired academic research on the
social development of girls and the federal Title IX statute, which
requires school sports programs to include teams for girls.
The culture of 'go girl'
At the same time that shifts in academia have been taking place, a
kind of cultural boom has been pushing girls and their strengths to
the forefront. Hollywood has weighed in with a long list of movies,
including "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Clueless." The "riot grrl"
trend in rock music - featuring young, strong, angry women - lent a
new cachet and a new spelling to the word "girl," suggesting
and independence. In fact, American women have increasingly shown a
tendency to reclaim a word once shunned by feminists, with phrases
such as "You go, girl" virtually obliterating the memory of
politically correct birth announcements that once proclaimed, "It's
"For so long, the subculture of girls was confined to the bedroom.
Girls were very private, they had a best friend who they shared
secrets with," says Donna Gaines, a sociology professor at Barnard
College in New York. "They were only studied in relation to the male
As recently as 1980, in fact, little research was available on the
development of girls. According to an anecdote that Carol Gilligan,
a pioneer in the field, has shared with her students at Harvard
University, when the editor of the Handbook of Adolescent Psychology
asked an expert to submit a chapter on adolescent girls, the expert
drew a blank: There wasn't enough research to fill a chapter.
Although research by Ms. Gilligan and her colleagues soon began to
fill the void, it wasn't until a decade later, with the huge and
unexpected success of "Reviving Ophelia" (rejected by 13
that girls began to move into the national spotlight.
"People started to take girls seriously," says Lyn Mikel Brown,
author of the upcoming book, "Raising Their Voices: The Politics of
Girls' Anger." Publishers "all want the next 'Reviving Ophelia.'
People are realizing that books on girls and the issues around girls
are really selling," she says.
(Publishers have also discovered there's a market for books on
boys as well; over the next several months, a slew of books on boys
are due out. This newly emerging field is welcomed by many female
researchers as long overdue - although they caution that girls'
are only beginning to be explored and warn against a possible
backlash against such work. …