Book Review:

“I’m not the girl I used to be. Now I want to surround myself with beautiful
things. And I want to look beautiful too. I’ve discovered that it’s easier to face the world
when I like what I see in the mirror” (Douglas 245). In Susan J. Douglas’s Where the
Girls Are: Growing Up Female with the Mass Media, Douglas describes this quote (from
an ad for Charles of the Ritz) as a summary of the recent history of the media’s influence
on the portrayal of women in society. Douglas depicts this period of American history in
light of her experiences in a society surrounded by the mass media during her generation.
Although the author describes her book as a “tour through the images of the past four
decades,” her accounts do not reflect those of the entire generation but rather an account
of her own personal experiences as a white, middle-class woman growing up in the
“baby-boomer” generation.
In her book, Douglas paints a picture of her transformation into feminism as a
product of the music, television, text media (magazines), and youth media (fairy tales) of
her generation. According to Douglas, the mass media was a major contributor to the
way women were perceived in society, as well as a factor in the development of her own
feminist identity. During the 1970’s, Douglas’s feminism came with the baggage of
being “relentless, unforgiving, and unwilling to bend or compromise” (7). Feminism was
a definite negative connotation during this time. Furthermore, it was not long before the
emergence of the women’s movement became notoriously known, with significant credit
owed to the mainstream media (7).
Douglas’s portrayal of her experiences with the mass media dates back to her
mother’s generation.
She recalls this period of the media’s role in her mother’s
generation by saying, “ads for household appliances, like Maytag’s, which showed an
ecstatic woman gushing, ‘Look…no work!’ or the one for an electric mixer that
instructed, ‘You Dial It!—Dormeyer Does It!’ suggested that women led a life of leisure”
(54). According to Douglas these advertisements were not only influential for mothers,
but their daughters (Douglas’s generation) were beginning to absorb these images as
In a chapter entitled, “Fractured Fairy Tales,” Douglas recalls her generation’s
first exposure to the media’s classification of gender roles within storybook fairytales.
“Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Peter Pan, Lady and the Tramp, and Snow White got us
baby boomers during the Paleozoic era of psyche formation, when the most basic features
of our psychological landscape was oozing into place,” remembers Douglas. This early
age exposure to the media, reflected images of good girls and bad girls, and about which
type of boys should be the most appealing (28). These fairy tale images are very
common to almost all American generations, regardless of race, class, sexuality or
ethnicity. However, the examples of the mainstream media that Douglas is exposed to as
a teenager and an adult are more specific to her class and racial background.
Within her book, Douglas explores many areas of the mass media including music
and text media.
The media example that I thought was most interesting was the
television sitcoms. According to Douglas, in the late 1940s and early 1950s television
programs such as “I Love Lucy,” “The Honeymooners,” “Your Show of Shows,” “The
Burns and Allen Show,” “Mama” and “The Goldbergs” contained female characters that
contradicted and resisted the housewife stereotype (50). However, in the late 1950s these
shows were replaced with female characters in shows like “Father Knows Best,” “The
Donna Reed Show” and “Leave It to Beaver” that were molded and defined by their
reproductive bodies and housewife roles (51). I find it problematic that Douglas uses
these examples as a “tour through the images of the past four decades” of her
generation’s relationship between the media and the concept of womanhood. I feel that
the exposure to these television shows that Douglas describes, excludes a huge portion of
her generation’s American society, which included African American and lower-class
women, such as my mother.
When I asked my mother whether she remembered watching the previously
mentioned television programs (before some of them became common reruns for modern
television) she commented, “I knew about them, but a lot of families couldn’t afford
televisions back then. When we did watch television, those weren’t usually the type of
shows we watched.” Although my mother cannot account for all of the lower-class
African Americans of the baby boomer generation, she does present another element to
Douglas’s argument.
Douglas’s argument presents yet another problem for me, a generation X-er, who
cannot relate to the cultural capital of her generation. Because I belong to a younger
generation, I am not very familiar with the televisual texts that Douglas makes reference
to. Although, I have seen a few episodes of (rerun) shows like “I Love Lucy,” “I Dream
of Jeannie” and “Bewitched” on Nickelodeon, decades later, these shows do not convey
the same message that they did during the context of the baby boomer generation.
It is true, however, that I have found my own experiences very similar to
Douglas’s. Belonging to the same generation as Douglas’s daughter, I have also been
exposed to movies such as Home Alone, Cop and a Half, The Karate Kid, and Free Willy
that she describes in her Epilogue (297). I agree with her idea that after all this time, little
girls remain “absent, invisible, denied,” while these movies all contain boys in lead roles
that portray “little boy adventures and little boy heroism” (297). There are also still many
modern television shows that present the “cookie-cutter” mom (51) role that appalls me
as an independent and career-minded woman. Television’s dominant representation of
women in the 1950s as white, middle-class, homemakers and consumers is not as
popular, but still existent today. Furthermore, I would recommend this book to others,
because despite differences in cultural capital (things people get from growing up in a
culture) other people, like myself, may find connections between the experiences of
Douglas and their own.
Where the Girls Are is a very well written book that elaborates on the history of a
particular generation through the experiences of one woman. Douglas’s humor and wit
transform this book from merely a historical recollection to an entertaining account of
how mainstream media has affected the identity of a woman.
Although, the ideas
presented in this book may not convey those of all cultures, races, classes or generations,
it does provide an elaborate account of the media’s influence in society.
importantly, Where the Girls Are is a unique portrayal of life during an important era of
our countries history.
Work Cited
1. Douglas, Susan J. Where the Girls Are: Growing Up Female with the Mass Media.
New York: Random House, 1995.