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.
The sound is both unmistakable and unforgettable. Equal parts siren call, banshee cry, and woeful lament, the anguished scream of the female horror victim is a primal utterance that instantly evokes unsolicited dread from somewhere deep within.
This noise, often accompanied by a stabbing pantomime reminiscent of Psycho, is the typical response that greets me whenever I mention my research interests in horror. Many of my peers, in speaking about their brushes with the genre, mention how media has instilled a perpetual sense of fear in them: to this day, friends will trace a hatred of clowns back to It or apprehension about blind dates to Audition. Those around me see horror as the representation of a force that serves to limit action, crafting a clear binary that contrasts the safe and acceptable with the foreign and dangerous.
To be sure, there is a certain amount of truth to what my friends believe; to live in a post-9/11 world is to be familiar with fear. As an American, I have been engaged in a “War on Terror” for my entire adult life, warned that illicit drugs fuel cartels, told to fear invasion, and have heard that everything under (and including) the sun will give me cancer. Fear has become a modern lingua franca, facilitating discussion that ranges across economic recession, immigration, religion, and moral politics. Perhaps worse, I internalized fear as I struggled to get the best grades and test scores in an unforgiving educational system, desperate to find meaning in my college acceptances and hoping for validation in achievement—growing up, there were so many ways to fail and only one way to succeed. Whole parts of my identity have been defined by my fears instead of my hopes and although I rebel, I realize that fear continues to have a haunting effect on my life: I continue to quell the fears that I will not live up to expectations, that I will become frail, and that I will one day forget what I am worth.
And I don’t think I’m alone.
As a genre, horror touches on our collective desire to explore fear along with other states of liminality, pushing the boundaries as we attempt to expand the extent of the known. We find fascination in Gothic figures of vampires and zombies as transgressions of the norm or discover exhilaration in horror’s potent blend of sex and violence as a means of violating cultural standards without suffering the real life repercussions. Underneath oft-cited morality pleas (“Good girls don’t!”) we negotiate themes of power, gender, and sanctity of life in a rich field ripe for exploration. As one example, torture/survival films, which most definitely assume a different meaning in a post-9/11 world, potentially facilitate an exploration of humanity at its extremes: both assailant and victim are at limits—albeit very different ones—of the human condition and provide us with a vicarious experience of dominance and helplessness.
Despite my interest in the various mediated manifestations of horror, television holds a special place in my heart as a representation of shared cultural space that serially engages with its audience. Not being an active churchgoer, I find that television is my religion—I set aside time every week and pay rapt attention, in turn receiving moral messages that reflect and challenge my vision of the world. Building off of this connection, I have begun working with Diane Winston in order to understand how lived religion in television programming can convey community, values, rituals, and meaning making in a function analogous to that of institutional religion. Admittedly not a theologian by training, I hope to extract themes from religion (e.g., the enactment of religion through bodies and the alignment of religious belief with practice) that will provide additional perspectives on my central interests of horror, myth, and narrative. I have begun to realize that religion, like horror, prompts individuals to contemplate the mystic and the infinite; although they employ different approaches—religion concerns itself with the path toward while horror obsesses over the inescapable nature of the great abyss—both frameworks ask, “What lies in the void?” Auditing “Religion, Media and Hollywood” has cultivated a solid foundation in the shifting concepts of sacred/secular and re-enchantment, which in turn have provided additional theoretical support for an understanding of how narrative structures are propagated, transmitted, and interpreted by individuals and groups. Prompted by Dr. Winston, I have learned that “good” television has the ability to assume varied meanings for its audiences, providing multiple narratives (and thus entry points), and lends itself to a reworking by viewers whose productions then become a part of a larger cultural context. Through television, I have learned that “my story” is really “our story.” Or, more accurately, “my stories” overlap with “our stories.”
Growing out of a childhood filled with the fantasy of Piers Anthony along with a healthy appreciation for classical mythology (and an unhealthy one for Stephen King), my head became filled with stories of wondrous alternate places. Enraptured as a young teen, it was only later that I began to understand exactly how much these fictions had allowed me to explore alternate expressions of self, causing me, on some level, to consider existential questions like what it meant to be human, how I defined justice and morality, and why I valued life.
In 2004, during a memorable viewing of Saw—which I soon realized was a spectacularly poor choice for a date movie—my head spun as I fought off a surge of terror, contemplating questions I had long avoided: What gave my life meaning? What would I do to survive?
My stomach shrank as I felt something inside of me break. While the gore was not exceptionally appealing (the fear of suffering before dying was firmly placed in my mind after an ill-advised viewing of Misery in my younger days), the sinking feeling that I experienced came from the realization that, if this scenario were real, I would be a target of the Jigsaw killer for I didn’t appreciate my life. Long after the movie had finished, I remained terrified that I would be abducted and end up in a basement chained to a wall. “After all,” I thought to myself, “Didn’t I deserve what was coming to me? Just a little bit?”
After a week of sleepless nights, I finally realized that the solution to my problem was actually rather simple: start living my life in a way that was meaningful and fulfilling. Instead of being terrified, I chose to work through my fears and be empowered; I challenged myself to start taking risks and to do things that scared me.
A Light in the Dark
My personal history with the genre is part of the reason that I am excited to explore the opportunities present within horror, which spans across such seemingly disparate areas as the occult, Gothic, science fiction, slasher films. The seeds planted by the relatively simple pop culture themes of my childhood have now turned into my academic focuses: aliens have become an interest in exploring the Other, witches have given me insight into alternate forms of female power, Greek myths have caused me to question the presence of gods (or God) in our lives, vampires cause me to consider an obsession with eternal life, and zombies raise notions of decay and paranoia. An interest in horror, Fantasy, and Science Fiction has sparked a quest to understand the structuring role of narratives, replete with a questioning of not just how the world is but how the world could be and should be. And the world could be—and should be—better.
In contrast to conventional notions, full of frozen faces and cowering victims, I see the field of horror as an incredible space to explore some of the concepts that most challenge society. While it may be true that storytellers working in the genre aspire to scare us, they do so as a means to a larger goal: fright is used as a provocation that forces us to consider why we are terrified in the first place. Whether we realize it or not, exposure to horror allows us to understand the mechanisms of fear and, in the process, realize that the unknown is becoming the known. Although not necessarily therapeutic, areas like horror can be enlightening and potentially empowering. When we choose to experience a work of horror, we make a concession that the content could (and probably will) frighten us—an acquiescence that gives media the freedom to explore psychically stressful issues. I focus on horror because I am fascinated by the genre’s potential for self-exploration, but I choose to study media and culture because I am more broadly fascinated by the ways that stories intersect with identity: we continually create narratives and are, in turn, shaped by them.
More than a mere research interest, I fight to study mediated narrative and popular culture because I see them as spaces for the negotiation and development of voice for youth. From Buffy in “Hush,” to Disney’s Ariel, to Echo (both the Active and the nymph), the media we experience and love often deals with issues of voice and my hope is to use these mediated representations to begin a dialogue with young people about their voices and the power contained therein. Inspired by scholars such as Carol Clover, Nina Auerbach, Judith Halberstam, and James Twitchell, I endeavor to recast the minority voice, transforming it from one of terror to one of triumph. Realizing that I was lucky enough to have discovered my voice early in life, I am compelled to help others find theirs. From my work with the non-profit 826LA, which helps to build writing skills in youth, to my involvement with the Norman Lear Center, USC’s Center for Higher Education Policy Analysis, and Asian Pacific American Student Services, I am racing to build my skills in new media literacy and cultural studies so that I can empower young people to think critically about the world around them and to reclaim their voices. Driven by my desire to advocate for youth, I see a responsibility to leverage my education as a Ph.D. student into meaningful change, helping other students understand the impact of popular media and to realize that they can be incredibly powerful if they only let themselves be.
A colleague recently mentioned in passing that she knew someone whose role model was a Disney princess. (On a side note, does it matter if I mention that the person in question was not a five-year-old girl? If it matters, why does it make a difference?) I couldn’t help but laugh when I overheard this bit of conversation as I have a long-running quibble with my friend Shannon about Disney.
When I was younger, the first of the great modern animated Disney movies was just being released in theaters. As a result of the films, I was inundated with Disney culture throughout my childhood and I loved the movies dearly for the story, the animation, and the music. At the time, I bought whole-heartedly into the Magic that Disney was creating, and for the most part, I still do. However, as I grew up, I couldn’t help but think that in some way the whole Disney Princess culture was feeding into a larger societal problem. I certainly don’t think that Disney is to blame for this phenomenon, but I do think that Princesses serve to engrain a particular thought pattern into the minds of young girls and give them unrealistic expectations for their romantic lives throughout the rest of their lives.
I might have a strong cynical streak in me, but I’m still a sucker for romance when you get right down to it. I love being swept away by things, I love surprises, and I definitely believe in the idea of finding a great love. The problem that I have with the way things are going is that somewhere along the line the whole process became a little less about the person that we love and a little bit more about ourselves.
All of a sudden, it becomes about the grand romantic gesture; all of a sudden, it becomes more about you than the object of your affection. Behind it all there’s a well-intentioned, though misguided, attempt to make the recipient feel special, as though you’ve jumped through so many hoops to make something unforgettable happen, when, in truth, there’s always an element of “Look how hard I worked to make this come about, aren’t I special?” It’s about that kiss that will wake someone up from a hundred years of slumber and change his or her world in an instant, the slaying of a monster, or even dying to prove one’s love for another (and occasionally later being brought back to life because True Love cannot be vanquished, after all). It’s about a plane writing out an invitation to prom in the sky, it’s the creation of a floor plan of a house in candles, and, of course, it’s about opening our window to hear a boom box outside blaring Peter Gabriel. It’s about sending a love interest on a chase through Manhattan to end up in Times her face on a giant screen, searching the world for a used book with a phone number, or making everybody in a stadium pay attention to you while you propose.
I can’t help but think that part of the grandeur of it all is the notion that other people will be amazed at the effort to pull off the stunt. For a second, the world revolves around the two of you and you create a phenomenal story to recount at the rehearsal dinner. Do we confuse the attention and adrenaline with romance? Perhaps I’m out of touch with things, but I’ve always thought that love is something more private and personal—each person feeling the rush is enough. Maybe it’s not always about the furor and the public presentation but a simple act of pausing in the middle of the street while walking your dog at night when the world is quiet and asking someone to hold a ring instead of a bag of poop.