Laurean D. Robinson, MA
Founder, Editor, Writer, “The Student Becomes The Teacher” International Popular Culture Blog
I am a woman of the baby boom, which means my history is filled with embarrassment, littered with images I’d just as soon forget. Old photos of my friends and me in platform shoes or, worse, hot pants, our hair freshly ironed, arm-in-arm with some neanderthal yet highly self-satisfied boyfriend in a surplus army jacket, serve as unforgiving reprimands of how naive and pliable we seemed in our youth.
- Susan J. Douglas from “Introduction”
Thus begins the insightful and historically-thorough analysis of American popular culture in Where The Girls Are: Growing Up Female with the Mass Media (1995). Now if you skipped that Feminist Lit class in college (or haven’t added to your Summer 2014 class schedule YET), this is a perfect soft-cover substitute that any college professor should include on any cultural syllabus. But just as Sheryl Sandberg and Mellody Hobson has encouraged both men and women to become more vigilant and engaged in the discriminatory practices in the workplace and classroom, author Susan J. Douglas offers a balanced assessment of the role of popular media has played in depictions and gender roles assigned to women beginning with our culture’s most beloved television and motion picture programs – Walt Disney Presents, The Wonderful World of Disney, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Peter Pan, Lady and the Tramp, and Snow White.
Primal images about good girls and bad girls, and about which kind of boys were the most irresistable . . . [Good girls were] beautiful, usually much more beautiful than anyone else , but completely unself-conscious about it -you never saw Snow White or Cinderella preening in front of some mirror. [They] were so virtuous, so warm and welcoming, so in tune with nature, that bluebirds couldn’t resist alighting on their heads or shoulders and surrounding them with birdsong (28-29).
That doesn’t sound too bad, I’ll admit but let’s go a little further . . .
These [good] girls were extremely hardworking, always scrubbing cement floors and serving food to others, and despite the fact that they never heard one word of thanks, and instead just got more unfair abuse, they smiled happily, sang throughout their chores, and never, ever, ever, complained.
So Disney’s Cinderella was a child servant to grow up to be a selfless maid to her family who could have had her stepmother arrested for her treatment by Department of Children and Family (if only telephones and DCF actually existed in France during 1850’s-1880’s). Good to know.
Because they were so beautiful and kind and young, they were detested by older, vindictive, murderous stepmothers or queens wearing too much eyeliner and eyeshadow, usually blue or purple.
So Snow White’s and Cinderella’s stepmothers were “haters,” jealous of their stepdaughters’ beauty and selfless nature. Hmmm, do we know any of those “stepmothers” in our OWN lives?
In their [stepmothers'/bad girls'] hands, power was lethal: it was used only to bolster their own overweening vanity, and to destroy what was pure and good in the world. In the ensuing battle between the innocent, deserving, self-sacrificing girl and the vain, black-hearted, covetous woman, the girl won in the end, rescued from female power run amok by some handsome prince she had met only once.
Very interesting. So these binaries play out the stereotype of “good girls” being innocent, selfless, full of heart and labor, while the “bad girls” are naturally threatened by these qualities, leading these girls to unspeakable measures of violence and terror to remove this protagonist (including death).
Even James Barrie’s Peter Pan isn’t safe from redundant parodies of female protagonists and secondary characters as feuding, jealous, and murderous rivals who would injure (or kill) each other for the affection of an ageless and immature boy who will never grow up (Ladies, does this scenario sound familiar in our dating and/or married lives?).
In the Disney version, one of the central themes is female competition over the attention of a boy. Tinker Bell is a scheming, overly possessive, vain little chorus girl constantly admiring her reflection in mirrors or any available body of water. These scenes tell us right away she’s a no-good little bitch. Wendy is a kind-hearted, servile, masochistic wimp who only wants to wait on boys. She is in awe of Peter from the moment she meets him, silently accepting the dismissive remarks he makes to her in the nursery about girls talking too much and so forth . . . the vain and catty mermaids splash her with water and try to drive her away so they can have the happily self-absorbed Peter all to themselves (30).
The “shocking” revelation is the ulterior motives of such films by the movie company’s masterminds – Walt Disney and his male cartoonists who created weak female characters at their whims of fantasy:
Disney wasn’t passively or innocently reflecting anything; he was actively emphasizing and exaggerating certain assumptions about women and girls while clearly ignoring others. All we have to do is compare his Peter Pan with the one starring Mary Martin (which ran on Broadway during the same decade) to see that the story worked fine, if not better, without Wendy being a helpless, fawning twit and Tinker Bell a narcissistic bimbo. But to too many men, or at least male cartoonists, the ongoing catfight between girls, especially beautiful girls, over some boy, any boy was irresistible; they had to play it over and over — Betty versus Veronica, Lois Lane versus Lana Lang, and so on.
Douglas furthers her “Fractured Fairy Tales” through her analysis of race and gender of the 1959 film Imitation of Life “with Lara Turner as Laura, a selfish, blond bitch who is always primping in front of a mirror and is obsessed with her career [as an actress]. She is . . . the mother who , once she get a taste of professional success, callously relegates her child to the care of others so she can claw her way to the top. She ‘takes in’ a black woman, Annie (Juanita Moore), and her daughter, Sarah Jane (Susan Kohner), and they all ive together for the next fifteen year or so. Annie, who is more beatific, good, and holy than the Virgin herself, raises Susie (Sandra Dee), Laura’s daughter, while Laura becomes a famous actress” (34).
The interesting twist in this narrative is the skin color of Sarah Jane matches her live-in playmate, Susie, than her hardworking black mother; “the fair-skinned Sarah Jane keeps trying to pass for white, and since Annie, who’s obviously black, kinda makes this hard to do, the Judas Sarah Jane treats her saintly mother like a leper, denying her in public and running away to dance half naked in strip joints. But no matter how spiteful and hideous Sarah Jane is , Annie never gets fed up or even a bit peeved . . .Through her martyrdom, she has become larger than life, eternal, a legend (34-35).
If you have not seen this movie, RENT IT NOW! The ending is very emotional (and I will not spoil it with a reveal). The decision to assign the specific personalities to the specific characters was a very progressive one as Douglas explains:
What’s especially interesting here is the reversal [Douglas] Sirk does: the fair, blond woman is self-centered and bad, the darker woman is Christ-like and good. Usually in popular culture it was the other way around, although black women, when they got movie or TV roles at all, could only be selfless earth mothers who spoke in malapropisms and loved white children more than their own” (36).
“. . . black women and white women were used against each other in American popular culture, the white woman embodying standards of beauty impossible for the black woman to achieve, but the black woman serving as a powerful moral rebuke to the self-indulgent narcissism of the white woman who dares to think of herself” (36).
The book is structured as more of a manual than a linear narrative which I always like because I don’t always think linearly. With chapters entitled “Mama Said,” “Sex and the Single Teenager,” “Genies and Witches,” and “I Am Woman, Hear Me Roar,” a reader will comb through the cultural world and psyche of women and girls spanning the women’s vote of the 1920’s, female employment during a post-Pearl Harbor America of the 1940s, the rise of the Women’s Liberation Movement of the late 1960s and 1970’s to the 1990’s.
But it won’t feel like a lecture; it will feel like an informed discussion from your trusted aunt or grandmother. Douglas’s voice is balanced and honest, citing historical data and content to paint a realistic picture of the social and cultural environment your grandmothers, aunts, and mothers were forced to live in. I thought I knew enough of this history from my Feminist class in college but there was some material that I was knew to me (or my age is finally getting to me already).
I definitely recommend this book to any new high school/college graduate of any gender who doesn’t understand why the questioning of Hillary Clinton’s sanity by Republican knuckleheads goes beyond being offensive. According to our history, it’s a time-honor tactic to discredit ANY woman of power. So read up this summer, class!