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.
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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.
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.
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.