“Where the Girls Are by: Susan J Douglas – Review”

17 Oct

Last summer I read Susan J. Douglas’ “Where the Girls Are”. Granted I was interested in how American media has influenced women throughout time in American Society. This book was written through the eyes of a female growing up with the ever-changing aspects of the mass media. I felt Douglas’ general argument came down to the simple fact that the mass media evolution has contradicted the female role since the 1930s to present day. There were many examples of evidence the author drew upon and expressed just how much power the media has had on women in the last 40 years.

“The historical concept behind the events that have happened throughout the years indicate why so many women are ambivalent about feminism. Women often look down on the “feminist label”, yet embrace many precepts of it.”, as explained by Douglas. Her main point is that mass media can be both beneficial and destructive to the female population. The mass media creates feelings on what is a woman by the term of which media portrays them to be. Yet every era throughout time has had drastically different terms on what the definition of a woman should be.

An everyday example of how the media portrays women is by body image. These body images fluctuate and are never constant. If a woman is over a size 5, she can be labeled as fat in terms of the media yet acceptable in real life. If a woman is under size 0, she can be labeled anorexic in real life, and yet glorified in the media. Another example would be if a woman was assertive in the 1930s, she would be frowned upon. If a woman is too passive in this day and age, she is considered a doormat in terms of the media. These are the contradictions that Douglas points out to the audience.

Douglas gave some personal examples she witnessed herself growing up in her household. As a young girl, Douglas would watch television shows such as “Leave it to Beaver”, with characters such as June Cleaver, whom would assume roles as submissive and happy housewives. Douglas explains her confusion with this role as she depicted her mother’s role in the household as a less than ideal situation. Douglas would describe her own mother as a hardworking woman who did indeed complain and did most of the work inside the home. Douglas remembers of a time when in her young life, she would watch June Cleaver’s character and then look down upon her own mother’s character.

The reason Douglas developed this ideal image of a housewife was because these television shows depicted the mother’s role as a happy one. The mother never complained, was cheerful, and was content with having a helpful husband to engage their children’s activities. “My confusion about what I would be when I grew up stemmed from the disparity between glowing media images of happy, fulfilled moms and my mother’s daily indications that her life was one no sane girl would ever want to aspire. We got it, even as kids, that there was a big difference between June Cleaver’s attitude toward life and Mom’s.” (Where the Girls Are. Douglas, J. Susan. Pg. 45)

Douglas digs deeper into the issue of the woman’s role in the household and in the workforce. Douglas explains that women in the 1920s and the 1930s were encourages to not steal a man’s job. Staying home and raising your children was the ideal image for women at this time. There were even laws in twenty-six states that prohibited married women from being employed. It was when the United States entered WWII that the woman’s role changed. Advertisements such as “Rosie the Riveter” began to emerge, encouraging women to join the workforce. Women were encouraged to obtain jobs such as beauticians, nurses, secretaries, and school teachers.

As the years passed into the 1950s, one clear notion became certain. If you were a woman who became a success, you would castrate the man you are with. It was neutral to take one mediocre jobs, yet you couldn’t be too good at your job to the point of making more than your husband. Unfortunately, these ideals from the 1950s still live on today. If a woman makes more than a man, chances are the man will become intimidated by the woman. The difference is that today, her powerful girlfriends would convince her that she is “too good” for him anyways. In the 1950s, a woman was alienated if she was successful. Times truly do change.

It was in the 1960s that the Sexual Revolution emerged. Douglas and her counterparts were coming of age, and new media was being filtered to the masses, or should I say “un-filtered”. I imply that because during these times, women were encouraged to express their sexuality. This was a complete turnaround from the ideals presented in the 30s or 50s. Birth control was introduced in 1960. Mass media distributed movies such as “Cleopatra” which depicted Elizabeth Taylor who cheated on her husband and stealing another woman’s man. These were once considered touchy and taboo subjects. The sexual revolution and the mass media brought them to light. “Liked other mixed messages we were getting, the ones about sex were at war with each other, some telling us we should never, ever behave like boys, the others telling us we had every right to as much sexual freedom and license as they did, especially now that we could avoid getting pregnant”. (Where the Girls Are. Douglas, J. Susan. Pg. 81)

Music expressed that women had sexual urges just as men did, and people were talking about it. Douglas points out the contradictions in the music industry during her youth. Girl groups began speaking about sex. For example, a girl band named the Shirelles began singing about the idea of sleeping with a man and wondering if he will still love her afterwards. Yet Elvis’ music encouraged young boys to rebel and be reckless. “In the early 1960s, pop music became the one area of popular culture in which adolescent female voices could be clearly heard. They sang about the pull between the need to conform and the often overwhelming desire to rebel, about the tension between restraint and freedom, and about the rewards and costs of prevailing gender roles. They sang, in other words, about getting mixed messages and about being ambivalent in the face of the upheaval in sex roles.” (Where the Girls Are. Douglas, J. Susan. Pg. 87)

Yet even with these mixed messages, sexual desires were scary for teenage girls in the 1960s. Songs only went as far as using violins as instruments and did not include electrical guitars. The beat of a song could be considered provocative, so much as its lyrics. It was in 1969 when a girl group called the Supremes could start the notion of glorifying female celebrities. Young teenage girls, regardless of the color of their skin could relate to Diana Ross and would emulate her sophisticated way of being. The Supremes appeared to both girls and women as sexy yet respectable. With the blend of white and black culture, racial divisions were beginning to merge culturally.

Women began appearing on sitcoms such as Bewitched and I Dream of Genie in which they were portrayed as witty, sexy, and did more than play the role of a housewife. Women in America began to feel a turbulent shift. Newspapers would public articles such as “Our Greatest Waste of Talent is Women” and “Women – Emancipation is still to come.” Professional women were becoming fed up from their unfair treatment and lobbied the Kennedy administration to take action for them. It was during these times that women realized they were undervalued and it was about time for their voices to be heard. “In 1961, Kennedy established a Presidential Commission on the Status of Women, with Eleanor Roosevelt as its head, to ascertain how to eradicate the prejudices and outmoded customs that act as barriers to the full realization of women’s basic rights.

The Kennedy administration also outlawed discrimination in the federal civil service and in the 1963 pushed through Congress the Equal Pay Act, which prohibited paying men and women different salaries for the same jobs. The Kennedy Commission’s report, American Women, the establishment of child-care services, advocated equal opportunities for women in employment and education, urged women to seek public office, and argued that the government’s mission should be to secure equality of rights for women. The front page story in The New York Times headlined the report with U.S. Pane Urges Women to Sue for Equal Rights.” (Where the Girls Are. Douglas, J. Susan. Pg. 124)

With the set of new laws in place, more iconic female role models appeared in the media that the average woman could relate to. The president’s wife, Jackie Kennedy, redefined the standard of femininity in America with her style and her demeanor. Women in film such as Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, simulated a female who had a fear of marriage, an eccentric bohemian style, and had a petite slender frame with small breasts. Women were no longer viewed by the media in a stereotypical manner. The days of secretly miserable housewives were over. By the late 1960s, equality for women was drawing closer.

By the 1970s, the women’s liberation movement began to feel backlash by the media and their male counter parts. Shows such as “Police Woman” would display messages about what types of women get raped. These types of shows insinuated that certain women were “asking to get raped” by their choice of clothing or occupation. The women showed on television had occupations such as being a stripper, a pornography actress, or some sort of helpless victim. While in the 1960s, the Sexual Revolution was encouraged by the media. In the 1970s, it was clear the contradiction lied is the media beginning to degrade women.

Douglas also presented study data on how advertisements still undermined the female image in the 1970s. “Three-quarters of those television commercials that featured women were for products to make you, your bathroom, or your clothes stop smelling bad; women were rarely used in ads for cars or gasoline, which most women used with more frequency than they did Lysol. But whether an ad featured women or not, the sales pitch had to be clinched by the male voice of authority: men accounted for nearly 90 percent of all voice-overs in TV ads.” (Where the Girls Are. Douglas, J. Susan. Pg. 200)

In the late 1970s, characters that eased the tension between antifeminists and feminists emerged. Characters such as the women in The Bionic Woman, Charlie’s Angels, and Wonderwoman all represented powerful, educated, devoted, and traditional morale women. These women could fight crimes, be CEO, have many children, and still tend to their husbands. It was in the 1980s to this day that women had realized the roles of contradiction that the media had placed upon them.

“So where are we now, in the era of I’m not a feminist, but…? We are an overlay of imprints, bearing, in some way or another, the fossilized remains of Queen of the Day, Sputnik, the Sexual Revolution, catfights, Charlie’s Angels, and buns of steel. We have learned to be masochistic and narcissistic, feisty and compliant, eager to please and eager to irritate and shock, independent and dependent, assertive and conciliatory. We have learned to wear a hundred masks, and to live with the fact that our inner selves are fragmented, some of the pieces validated by the mass media, others eternally ignored” (Where the Girls Are. Douglas, J. Susan. Pg. 270)

The author views the power of the media to keep on ruling the ideal female image. Douglas doesn’t believe these contradictions will go away as many of them still go on today. Douglas claims the media still represents women as being the ones waiting for men to take action, be rescued, or are somehow victimized. Being a woman and claiming you aren’t a feminist is a big contradiction in Douglas’ opinion. Women are constantly reminded that the word feminist is bad, yet they are repressed with images that still represent inequality. Douglas ultimately believes this ongoing struggle between feminism and the mass media will continue.

I believe Douglas is right in her conclusions about how the mass media portrays women. It’s a complete contradiction. We are told to be one way, and then pulled in another way. The theory that can be applied to this would be the Reception Theory, specifically aimed towards feminism. It was American cultural studies researcher, Janice Radway in 1984, who realized the identity crisis women faced in terms of relating to anything that made them feel competent. Radway claimed that women were connecting more with male characters in romantic novels than they did with the females, even though that was not the intended preferred reading style.

Through a male character, female audiences created negotiated meanings through these passages in a passive retaliation to the patriarchal meaning the mass media had instilled in them all these years. Us as women, do have feelings of power and in that sense if a male character has gentle traits yet a strong demeanor, a woman could relate to that. In today’s society, the notion of a male dominated society has remained. The media will continue to use the very same subliminal messages that confused the postmodern woman with her feminine identity in American society. The modern woman however, I believe has evolved in such a way to recognize gender role expectations and often rise above them.


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