Where the girls are : growing up female with the mass media

by Susan J. Douglas

Paper Book, 1995




London : Penguin, 1995.


Where the Girls Are is a romp through the confusing and contradictory images of women in American pop culture, as media critic Susan J. Douglas looks back at the television programs, popular music, advertising, and nightly news reports of the past four decades to reveal the decidedly mixed messages conveyed to girls and women coming of age in America. In a humorous and provocative analysis of our postwar cultural heritage (never losing sight of the essential ludicrousness of flying nuns or identical cousins), Douglas deconstructs these ambiguous messages and fathoms their influence on her own life and the lives of her contemporaries. Douglas tells the story of young women growing up on a steady diet of images that implicitly acknowledged their concerns without directly saying so. It is no accident, she argues, that "girl groups" like the Shirelles emerged in the early 1960s, singing sexually charged songs like "Will You Love Me Tomorrow?"; or that cultural anxiety over female assertiveness showed up in sitcoms like Bewitched whose heroines had magical powers; or that the news coverage of the Equal Rights Amendment degenerated into a spat among women, absolving men of any responsibility - a pattern mirrored in shows like Dallas and Dynasty, where male amorality was overshadowed by the cat-fights between Joan Collins and Linda Evans. And yet for all the images that reinforced a traditional view of servile and dependent women, Douglas powerfully reveals how American mass culture also undermined these images by offering countless examples of girls and women who were actors in the wider world and who controlled their own destinies. In fact, it was the kitsch images of the 1950s and '60s that paradoxically helped to create a genuine feminist consciousness in the 1970s and '80s. The Ronettes, Gidget, and Charlie's Angels may seem unlikely feminist heroines, but Douglas reclaims them as cultural touchstones for contemporary women trying to make sense of their own lives. Her lively narrative is sure to provoke laughter and wonderment over why no one else had ever noticed these things about America's popular culture. "We must rewatch and relisten," writes Douglas, "but with a new mission: to go where the girls are. It's time to reclaim a past too frequently ignored, hooted at, and dismissed, because it is in these images of women that we find the roots of who we are now." With warmth, wit, and a keen eye for the absurd, Where the Girls Are supplies a crucial missing chapter in the cultural history of our time.… (more)

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½ (123 ratings; 3.7)

User reviews

LibraryThing member HanGerg
This book examines the way women have been portrayed in the media roughly since the author's teenage years in the 1950's, up to the time the book was published in 1994. She justifies this approach by explaining that she was part of the great post-war baby boom, and being part of such a large cohort
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at such a time of rapid change made her generation uniquely influential on our culture, as advertisers and cultural producers started to gear everything to this huge potential market, hence the invention of "the teenager" amongst other cultural shifts.
She starts by looking at the TV programmes and pop music that she first became aware of her teenage years, which to hear her describe it, was pretty unsubtle in its insistance that a woman's place was in the home, and that for women, satisfaction was to be found in looking really great to ensnare a husband, then settling down into a life of being a selfless martyr to your family. Yet a mere ten years later, women who were raised on this cultural diet were saying things like "marriage is slavery" and protesting outside the Miss World competition. The opening chapters do a great job of explaining how this generation became those women, dealing with how they saw that this selfless work for family wasn't actually working out for their mothers, not least because during the war years they had been told that they could do a man's job whilst the men were away, but as soon as the men returned from war were told very firmly to get back in the kitchen. She also examines the effect of the Cold War, and the fact that American schoolchildren were having it drilled into them that in order to compete with the Ruskis they were going to have to strive to be the very best they could be - and rather stupidly "The Man" didn't just broadcast this message to boys - girls' radar picked it up too. This caused a bit of a split in the female psyche of the day - on the one hand being told domestic bliss was the best they could and should hope for, and on the other, being told they were the brave new hope that was going to take America into the future. This kind of contradiction seems to repeat itself again and again over the course of the book, and one of the key themes is how women during this time have been forced into an impossible position, where their own personality is divided against itself in many ways.
I thought this book was full of great insights, and for someone like me that wasn't particularly aware of the full history of the women's rights movement, it was very illuminating. Even for those that were there, the author has some really incisive things to say about the media's treatment of the emerging movement. Some of it was so obviously biased and ill-informed that it's enough to make your blood boil. Some of the coverage was more subtle, but equally damaging in the long term, and this was the bit of the book I found really interesting. Douglas explains how many media commentators of the time, although being largely hostile to the women's movement, did have to concede that they had a point when it came to some of the economic arguments that the movement made regarding the need to pay women the same wage for the same work, and the need to provide good quality childcare to free more women up to join the workforce. However, the same commentators, often completely dismissed the movement's insistence that "the personal is political", and the legacy of that can still be felt to this day I think, where economic attitudes towards women have, by and large been reformed (although many of us are still waiting for that equal pay etc...), but it's in the domestic sphere, where the rates of domestic abuse, for example, are still pretty appalling, that very little progress has been made. Anyway, there's loads of equally interesting and thought provoking arguments advanced in this book, which I will not go into here, but if this is a topic you're interested in, I would recommend it most heartily. It's written by an academic, and is academic in tone, as in it's very thoroughly researched and advances quite detailed arguments, but at the same time it's very readable and written with a light touch that makes it very accessible. The only reason it didn't get the full 5 stars is that it is very American-centric, and occassionally mentions celebrities or famous legal cases that I've never heard of, and gives no background info, instead taking it for granted that the reader was familiar with them. Apart from that small fact, I ate up every word.
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LibraryThing member DawnFinley
It's true that this book is certainly media-studies-lite, but there is something to be said for making a kind of feminist-informed analysis of media culture so accessible. I gave this to my mother, in the hopes it might shed a little light for her on what consciousness-raising can do; how
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successful I was is uncertain, but I know reading this did her no harm. As a point of entry into more sophisticated readings of media culture, this is porbably not a bad choice. If you are a more advanced critic/thinker/consumer, you won't be missing much if you don't check this out (although the reading is fast, and perky enough).
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LibraryThing member the_hag
Wow…I don’t even really know where to begin with this book. To my way of thinking, it’s an excellent overview of women in the media from the early sixties to about the early nineties and it does a pretty thorough job of it dealing with everything from Jackie O to Beatle mania to I Love Lucy
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and I dream of Jeanie, all the way up to Dynasty and Dallas. It was an eye opener for me from the perspective of I’ve seen a few episodes of most of the programs she discusses, but many (Dynasty, Dallas, Cagney & Lacey, Hill Street Blues, LA Law, and many more), I’ve seen either NO episodes or maybe 1-3…we either weren’t living in the US at the time (Dynasty and Dallas) or I refused to watch (Hill Street Blues). So from that angle, this book is interesting, because I know these shows were widely acclaimed and watched by millions…it was a whole other take on their popularity and ultimate message to and about women and men and their places in society.

I’d love to see an expanded edition to include some of the other shows in the last 10 years (Xenia, Buffy, and so on)…but overall, having not read much about women in the media (beyond what is shown on the news, somewhat ironic I know) or about feminism (not something I’ve had any real contact with or connection to in my life. I can’t say that my mom ever talked about feminism), so this book was interesting on many levels and while a bit outdated (written in 1994), it was still well worth reading. I give it a solid B…mostly because it’s now out of date, otherwise very readable and humorous, while being informative at the same time.
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LibraryThing member LibraryDiva76
An enjoyable, accessible gallop through territorty that should be familiar to anyone born between 1940 and 1980 (younger readers may scratch their heads at some of the references.) Will change the way you look at pop-culture phenomena as varied as the Rolling Stones, Charlie's Angels and Disney.
LibraryThing member bexaplex
Where the Girls Are is more of a memoir buttressed by academic studies than an analysis. The central argument, that tension in the media between women's power and women's powerlessness led women into a feminist movement in the 70s, is frustratingly bare of evidence. As a memoir, however, there's a
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fantastic depth; Douglas quotes everything from news commentary quotations to movie plots in a 40 year period (I loved the news anchor commentary on the Women's Strike for Equality).

There's something very late 20th century about a media memoir — I doubt anyone today could argue that their own experience with media was universal. To me the phrase "mass media" evokes the phenomenon described in the book: girl groups on the radio, Beatles concerts, evening news and Newsweek.
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LibraryThing member KRaySaulis
Great book with a lot of history wound in with media. My only issue is that there were a few points where it felt she was reaching a little bit... Looking for meaning in areas where there may not have been meaning. Looking for interpretation where it may simply have been entertainment. However, her
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explanations of television shows were well-written and the book read easily, considering the kind of book it is.
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LibraryThing member Devil_llama
The author looks at the role of mass media in creating and nurturing feminist thought. She examines not just the news, but also the entertainment that was offered up to budding feminists throughout the middle of the 20th century. Looking at the way the media chose to play women against each other,
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and how they couched stories about feminism is a bit disheartening, even for one who lived through this and remembers her own difficult, ambivalent relationship with the media and how they presented women. It also serves as a corrective for those who claim that all second wave feminists shut out women of color; there were many feminists who were women of color, and attempted to center them in the movement, but the media simply wasn't having any of it - they focused solely on the middle-class white woman. This book should be required reading for....well, for everyone, but certainly anyone who works with, lives with, or interacts with women.
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Original publication date


Physical description

340 p.; 22 cm


0140242295 / 9780140242294
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