Seen but Not Heard: Feminist Narratives of Girlhood
Seen but Not Heard:
Feminist Narratives of Girlhood
Caitlin Moran, How to Be a Woman, New York: Harper Perennial, 2011, 320 pp., $15.99 (paperback).
Peggy Orenstein, Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture, New York: Harper, 2011, 256 pp., $25.99 (hardcover).
University of Southern California
The first thing one needs to know about Caitlin Moran’s How to Be a Woman (Harper Perennial, 2011) is that it is not an academic book, nor does it claim to be. Moran, a columnist for the London paper The Times, rightly asserts that the movement of feminism is too important to be discussed solely by academics and endeavors to use vignettes from her life to illustrate particular ways in which the question of feminism infiltrates meaningfully into the everyday lives of ordinary individuals. In and of itself, this effort represents a perfectly admirable attempt to reintroduce notions of feminism into mainstream culture but good intentions can only carry one so far.
Ultimately, when boiled down to its purest essence, Moran’s assertion that she has “stuff to say” (12) is really what this book is all about. Moran has assembled a collection of shorter pieces loosely linked by the fact that they all derive their thrust from a moment in which an experience has given her some insight into the condition of being a woman—and a pointedly white and heterosexual one at that—in the United Kingdom. Given Moran’s background as a columnist, one is not surprised that her book should take this form and, indeed, one might be inclined to deem the project successful if the book were conceived simply as a memoir of sorts. Instead, however, Moran positions her book in the tradition of the feminist practice of consciousness raising and readers must question what sorts of insights are gained from perusing this particular text.
“But wait!” Moran might argue, “I’m not a feminist academic!” (12) And she would be correct in that assertion. What the caveat does not excuse, however, is a demonstrated lack of rigor in thought or practice. As one example, Moran cites an “Amnesty International survey that found that 25 percent of people believe a woman is still to blame for being raped if she dresses ‘provocatively’” (203) which might very well be true but Moran does not provide any means to verify such a statement. It is precisely because feminism is such an important issue that Moran should do her due diligence and not allow her position to be undermined by an easy attack; Moran should force her detractors to confront her ideas and not her evidence, which is frustrating since Moran has some really good ideas.
For example, one of the themes that runs throughout Moran’s book is the way in which being a woman (i.e., female identity) is manifested through, and displayed on, the body and that women’s internalized sense of how to appropriately discipline their bodies plays a key part in becoming a woman in the United Kingdom and the United States. Pubic hair, in particular, occupies a bit of Moran’s attention as its initial appearance and subsequent removal remain closely linked to conceptualizations of womanhood and femininity. A notable section of Moran’s second chapter discusses how technical considerations of shooting pornography marketed to heterosexual men—again we must be wary that this constitutes conjecture for Moran provides no sources—have been imbued with a layer of cultural meaning that consequentially influences women’s grooming habits. Women, in short, are affected by a cultural product that likely does not have their best interests in mind and it is precisely this type of revelation that illustrates the continued relevance of feminism. And yet it is also interesting to note when and where Moran draws arbitrary lines: pubic hair, for example, should be trimmed but not waxed. But why, you might ask? Here Moran misses an opportunity to discuss the larger implications of the way in which women (and men) have been socialized to relate to women’s bodies and although Moran correctly notes that pubic hair is different from other forms of ancillary hair in that it is sexualized, she fails to touch on the broader issue of how hair management (of which trimming would surely be included) is related to perceptions and enactment of femininity.
And of course it would seem rather impossible to discuss female bodies and femininity without broaching the subject of the vagina. Moran muses on a conversation with her younger sister, “So now, in 1989, we have no word for ‘vagina’ at all—and with all the stuff that’s going on down there, we feel we need one.” (56) Although Moran goes on to talk about the various euphemisms that women have for their vagina, she does not touch upon the way in which this practice points to the way in which language plays a crucial role in configuring, maintaining, and enacting the relative subjugation of women. Moran notes, for example, that terms describing the vagina have the ability to cause discomfort but ultimately portrays this phenomenon as empowering—she notes that the most offensive male counterpart is “dick”—but not discuss the ways in which this difference is actually indicative of a problem. What does it mean, for example, that we are much more familiar with, and accepting of, dicks? Nothing particularly good for women, most likely. Compounding the problem, Moran makes a critique about how “pussy” evidences a disconnect between women and their vaginas but does not comment on the way in which a refusal to embrace “vagina” ultimately leads to the same conclusion. Here, instead of making a compelling argument about the way in which language can be used to excavate relationships, Moran merely produces a polemic about the vagina’s various names that ultimately boils down to a description of her personal taste without investigating how her taste—and here one might certainly nod toward Bourdieu—was cultivated in the first place.
And the vagina performs a key function for Moran as she provides a catchy, if unhelpful, survey on page 75 to determine if one is in fact a feminist: Do you have a vagina? Do you want to be in charge of it? (Feminists, by the way, should answer “yes” to both.) Like Naomi Wolf’s Vagina, we see a way in which the vagina is made to stand in for the entirety of womanhood, essentially reducing the meaningful elements of a woman to her vagina. Surely, this is a provocative question but not incredibly feminist in the long run. Moreover, what about those who do not have a vagina (e.g., men)? How are they supposed to figure out if they are feminists or not? Compounding the problem, we must investigate what it means to be in charge of one’s vagina: in the abstract, one might state that being in charge means that one should be able to do whatever one likes with one’s vagina but we are left to question how such a practice manifests in the real world. Here, Moran’s ambiguity allows her to assume a position that is difficult to counter for who would argue that women should not have control over their own bodies in theory? Moran provides a good sound bite that is ultimately meaningless, however, for there are many ways in which the actions of men (and women) do not evidence a belief that total control of the vagina belongs to the women who bear them.
And yet perhaps the most problematic way in which Moran’s ambiguity affects her writing rests in the rather causal way she employs the term “the patriarchy.” On one hand the term is easy enough to define but where Moran fails is in her refusal to explain exactly what “the patriarchy” encompasses; patriarchy manifests in a variety of forms and through myriad agents as it operates on individual, interpersonal, and institutional levels. Here one senses another distinct limitation in her work: How to Be a Woman is written by Moran to other women like Moran. For Moran, “the patriarchy” does not need to be defined because its meaning is assumed. Ultimately Moran’s overly simplistic attempts to define feminism and patriarchy also do a larger disservice as Moran fails to address the notion that individuals may benefit from feminism without ever being feminist themselves. Moran’s assumptions about feminism occlude the nuanced ways in which individuals can work to support both feminism and patriarchal hegemony in a manner that does not produce internal conflict.
In contrast to Moran’s efforts, one feels compelled to laud a work like Peggy Orenstein’s Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture (HarperCollins, 2011) for its ability to use personal narrative as an entrée to discuss the way in which female gender roles are configured and interpreted on a variety of levels. Using her experiences with her daughter as a narrative backbone, Orenstein carefully develops a series of thoughts about the effect that princess culture has on contemporary children.
Primarily focused on the influence of markets, Orenstein shows how economic concerns have played a large part in shaping the world that girls experience today. From the concept of Disney Princesses as an effort to revitalize a flagging corporate consumer products division to the way in which American Girl dolls promote intergenerational female bonding through consumption to the mapping of a family’s aspirations for social mobility onto child beauty pageant contestants, Orenstein illustrates how disparate aspects of girlhood are connected to each other and to a larger system of meaning. It is precisely because of the influence of marketing, Orenstein argues, that the transgressive core of “girl power” has been eschewed for the faux empowerment of “girlz.” The insidious bargain that girls strike is to gain claims toward empowerment by using consumption to reaffirm traditional gender roles. Even as fewer opportunities become salient for young girls—here reference is made to a classroom exercise in which young girls chose to imagine themselves as a princess, a fairy, a butterfly, or a ballerina in contrast to boys who assumed a variety of roles—Orenstein explores how performance of gender has become increasingly divorced from notions of female pleasure. Particularly notable are the ways in which Orenstein uses new communications technologies like social media and picture messaging to showcase how young girls’ identities have become, in part, more externally focused with the cultivation of the self as a kind of real-time performance piece that lies parallel to one’s physical existence. Sexting, for example, is not a post-feminist celebration of the body but rather constitutes a functional practice where girls demonstrate their ability to use their bodies as means toward particular ends (e.g., keeping a boyfriend). Orenstein also suggests that young girls develop a form of internalized self-surveillance as they learn to see themselves and their bodies as others do. Connecting this to chapters on body image and princess gowns, Orenstein builds a case for how body, femininity, and self are intimately related for girls; for many girls, how one feels is related to how one perceives one’s body to look. Ultimately, Orenstein challenges readers to question exactly what kind of practical power is provided by an empowerment that continues to be grounded in perceptions of the female body.
In contrast to the ambiguity that Moran displays about being a woman at the end of her book, Orenstein develops a clear plan of action that asks individuals to consider how they participate in the maintenance of a culture that might be detrimental for girls. Although both authors ground their analysis in the trappings of everyday life, the key to Orenstein’s success is the way in which she calls for a type of engagement that extends beyond Moran’s askance that readers get up on a chair and proclaim “I am a feminist!” In the end, it is a shame, really, for frank discussion of feminism’s importance is sorely needed in today’s society and Caitlin Moran owes the awkward thirteen-year-olds of the world—including the one who forms the core of her story, herself—better.