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Our daughters, ourselves

American Sweethearts:
Teenage Girls in Twentieth-Century Popular Culture

By Ilana Nash
Indiana University Press, 2006

Reviewed by Margaret Foley

Today's media is awash with portrayals of teenage girls that often appear to be positive but when analyzed further, are, in fact, quite disempowering. As cultural historian Ilana Nash argues in American Sweethearts: Teenage Girls in Twentieth-Century Popular Culture, these images have their roots in the 1930s, when the adolescent girl entered the world of movies as a character in her own right.

Nash focuses on stories and characters that became part of a narrative cycle, which is a "collection of stories about a single character across several media." A fascinating aspect of this approach is the way it allows one to see how different themes are incorporated or taken out and what type of political or cultural message is transmitted. American Sweethearts analyzes the period from 1930-1965, but her conclusions have relevance for the portrayal of teenage girls in contemporary media.

While she discusses a wide range of characters -- Gidget, Nancy Drew, Corliss Archer, Junior Miss, and Patty Duke, among others -- the narrative cycles of these characters show how the more the character is represented in the media, the more she is forced to conform to prevailing patriarchal standards. As it turns out, something interesting happens on the way to multiplex.

One of the best examples of this process is in Nash's analysis of Nancy Drew. When the books first came out in the 1930s, they were enormously popular because Nancy was a new type of heroine, who showed few traces of her Victorian forebears. "The series, more often than not, created cracks in the armor of patriarchy that girls could use to sustain their own dreams of power."

Nancy was intelligent, had equal relationships with adults, had her own car, was not subservient to her boyfriend, and by virtue of being a detective, had carved out an independent identity for herself:

In addition to these heady combinations of mature responsibility and total freedom, Nancy enjoy[ed] an array of skills that blur the boundaries between genders. She c[ould] throw a hard punch, fix anything from flat tires to stalled motorboards, and handle a gun like a man, but she also flawlessly perform[ed] such traditionally feminine pursuits as nursing, ballet dancing, sewing, playing the piano, and taming naughty children with the demeanor of a governess.

As Nancy moved from the page to the screen, she lost much of that individuality. As a character in a series of books, Nancy needed only to appeal to her target group, girls between the ages of ten and fifteen. As a character on the screen, she needed to be repackaged to broaden her market, and this repackaging removed many of the character traits her readers found so appealing:

[T]he loss of producers with strong commitments to their girl audiences, and the widening of that audience to include males and adults destroyed all the subversive potential of Nancy Drew and left only a broad caricature of female adolescence, expressing patriarchy's dismissive attitude toward the too-radical notion of young girls' personhood. In these films, Nancy crystallizes the stereotypes of teenage femininity that would prevail, and increase, in the years to follow.

Nash describes this need to make Nancy conform to prevailing 1930s notions of what a teenager should be as a "pretty baby" phenomenon. Instead of showcasing Nancy's strengths, these movies instead "tacitly instruct[ed] girl views in how to personify a patriarchially sanctioned version of femininity." This took place against the background of prevailing notions of the roles of men and women in a country that was still feeling the effects of the Depression. Women were to stay home and not compete with men for jobs in a small labor market. If women could take the place of men, then men's social status was at risk. It was far better to teach girls that their skills and abilities were much more suited to the home.

As a result, Nancy became much less of an individual onscreen. While in the books Carson Drew enjoys talking with his daughter and hearing her intelligent analyses of her cases, in the movies he constantly questions and belittles her judgment, telling her that what she says is not based on rational analysis, but on her women's intuition instead. Her boyfriend, renamed Ted in the movies, is not the occasional accessory he is in the books. Instead, he takes an active role in saving and helping Nancy, taking on character traits he does not possess in the books. Nash gives several excellent examples of this, one of which is from Larkspur Lane. In the book, a friend of Nancy's attempts to touch a fence that is an electric fence, and Nancy warns her off. In the movie, it is Nancy who almost touches the fence, and it is Ted who warns her off.

In short, what these movies tell girls is that when you step outside cultural bounds be prepared to be reined in. This, in many ways, is the exact opposite of the books, in which for Nancy there was no glass ceiling that couldn't be broken and no envelope that couldn't be pushed.

Interestingly, Nash shows that every decade had its equivalent of a Nancy Drew, although few of these other characters have survived as well as she has.

The 1940s, influenced by the more aggressively male culture or World War II, produced Corliss Archer, a "delightfully dangerous" fifteen-year-old, who uses her charms and flirting to try and get what she wants. Corliss Archer began as a series of short stories in 1943 in Good Housekeeping and eventually became a television series. Every time Corliss uses her charms in a way that is deemed too aggressive or inappropriate, the men in her life, her father and her boyfriend, must put her in her place. In fact, Nash argues that the popularity of the series stemmed from seeing an outgoing and aggressive girl continually humiliated and put in her place.

The 1950s and 1960s also saw a continuation of this trend. While shows like The Patty Duke Show and Gidget, were some of the first to revolve around the perspective of a teenager, they still reinforced traditional gender roles by making fathers have the final say and by having the protagonists get into a series of scrapes that result in them returning to, rather than escaping from, cultural norms. In one episode of The Patty Duke Show, Patty decides to join the Peace Corps and go to Africa and begins an intensive study of the region. At the episode's end, however, she decides she's needed more at home:

This portrayal offered particular pleasures to girls of that generation, raised as they had been on rhetoric about the ambitions and potential of American youth, and the simultaneous, contradictory messages that marriage and motherhood were the proper goals of women.

In addition, the late 1950s and 1960s saw some of the first attempts to seriously examine the "darker side" of the teenage years. Movies like Peyton Place, A Summer Place, and Lolita addressed adolescent sexuality for the first time. However, they could also "trouble adult sensibilities on two counts: they made teenagers appear as important human beings rather than "wacky kids," and they reinforced a hoary and highly problematic construction of youth as 'trouble.'" These movies also sent other messages as well. Teenage girls were constructed as seductresses and also told that engaging in sexual behavior removed them from being part of acceptable society.

While Nash ends her detailed study with the 1960s, she does provide some insight into the portrayal of female adolescence in contemporary media. The trope of the adolescent seductress is alive and well on many a television channel today. While it may appear that there are more nuanced and diverse representations of girls in the media today, it is not enough to show girls enjoying and excelling at sports and science. If, as is so often still the case, the goal of a teenager learning to play tennis or entering a math competition is to gain a bikini-ready body or make father proud or just to get the guy, then we really haven't come so far from a dumbed-down Nancy Drew after all.

mmo : april 2006

Margaret Foley is a writer living in Portland, Oregon, where she is a founding editor of the litzine, Thereby Hangs a Tale (www.therebyhangsatale.com). She is a regular contributor to the MMO.

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