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Bitchfest: Ten Years of Cultural Criticism from the Pages of Bitch Magazine

Overview

In the wake of Sassy and as an alternative to the more staid reporting of Ms., Bitch was launched in the mid-nineties as a Xerox-and-staple zine covering the landscape of popular culture from a feminist perspective. Both unabashed in its love for the guilty pleasures of consumer culture and deeply thoughtful about the way the pop landscape reflects and impacts women's lives, Bitch grew to be a popular, full-scale magazine with a readership that stretched worldwide. Today it stands as a touchstone of hip, young ...

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BITCHfest: Ten Years of Cultural Criticism from the Pages of Bitch Magazine

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Overview

In the wake of Sassy and as an alternative to the more staid reporting of Ms., Bitch was launched in the mid-nineties as a Xerox-and-staple zine covering the landscape of popular culture from a feminist perspective. Both unabashed in its love for the guilty pleasures of consumer culture and deeply thoughtful about the way the pop landscape reflects and impacts women's lives, Bitch grew to be a popular, full-scale magazine with a readership that stretched worldwide. Today it stands as a touchstone of hip, young feminist thought, looking with both wit and irreverence at the way pop culture informs feminism--and vice versa--and encouraging readers to think critically about the messages lurking behind our favorite television shows, movies, music, books, blogs, and the like. BITCHFest offers an assortment of the most provocative essays, reporting, rants, and raves from the magazine's first ten years, along with new pieces written especially for the collection. Smart, nuanced, cranky, outrageous, and clear-eyed, the anthology covers everything from a 1996 celebration of pre-scandal Martha Stewart to a more recent critical look at the "gayby boom"; from a time line of black women on sitcoms to an analysis of fat suits as the new blackface; from an attempt to fashion a feminist vulgarity to a reclamation of female virginity. It's a recent history of feminist pop-culture critique and an arrow toward feminism's future.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"We love Bitch and think BITCHfest is an essential component of any feminist's library."--Guerrilla Girls

"As delicious as a day spent with your funniest, smartest friend, this collection is also a call to action, inspiring readers to fight the fear of female power. As the many writers in here show, few wrongs are righted without a bitchfest first."--Cristina Page, author of How the Pro-Choice Movement Saved America: Freedom, Politics and the War on Sex

"In a society as celebrity-obsessed and fad-saturated as ours, we ignore pop culture at our peril. Hurray for the women of Bitch, who raised their banner of intelligence right at the intersection of pop culture and feminism. They've done so with humor, vision, fire, and guts, as this book of selections from their first decade proves. Read it, learn from it, enjoy it, argue with it, revel in it."--Robin Morgan

"With humor and insight Lisa Jervis, Andi Zeisler, and their contributors explore what it means to be female, a feminist, a lover of pop culture, and that other thing that rhymes with rich but is so much more fun."--Ariel Levy, author of Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture

"Bitch is my favorite magazine. It makes feminism fun, relevant and approachable--it's like the Marlo Thomas of our time."--Joel Stein, columnist, Los Angeles Times

"We were working at Ms. magazine in 1996 when a xeroxed pamphlet arrived at the office bearing the name Bitch. We opened the zine and found what we'd been fearing didn't exist: feminist writing that was funny, engaged with pop culture, and yet intellectually rigorous. Eureka! BITCHfest is the greatest hits, and reading them is like hanging out with the smartest people you know."--Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards, co-authors of Manifesta

"Essential reading for the modern woman."--Margaret Cho

"This often mind-stretching, occasionally predictable and generally entertaining collection of articles from Bitch magazine has something for every feminist, postfeminist and reactionary. Bitch was founded in 1996 in response to 'post-feminism' by 'freshly minted liberal arts graduates with crappy day jobs and a serious media jones.' With refreshing depth, literacy and humor, these essays explore questions surrounding puberty, gender identity, sex, 'domestic arrangements,' beauty, pop culture and mainstream media, and media literacy/activism. Tammy Oler examines menarche and female puberty in horror films; Gaby Moss analyzes the media's obsession with 'mean girls'; and Lisa Jervis gives a rundown of sex scenes and pride in YA lesbian novels. Leigh Shoemaker puts down Camille Paglia's contention that males are superior due to their urinary 'arc of transcendence' by evoking the Virgin Mary's breasts squirting milk through the air into Jesus' mouth. Audry Bilger protests the use of 'guys' as gender neutral. Conspicuously absent is any discussion of women and aging. Maybe we'll just have to wait for Bitch's 20th anniversary, when its editors will be pushing 50."--Publishers Weekly

"'Whenever anyone has called me a bitch, I have taken it as a compliment,' writes comedian Margaret Cho in the foreword to this anthology from the self-proclaimed Queen Bee of Grrrl Zines. Positioned as an antidote to the patronizing pages of Cosmopolitan and Vogue, Bitch revels in its power to provoke as it ponders the landscape of popular culture from a feminist perspective. In honor of the magazine's tenth anniversary, founding editors Jervis and Zeisler have amassed essays (including some specifically commissioned for the collection) on a bounty of brazen topics, from the ramifications of sexual abuse and rape to the lesbian tendencies of Japanese macaques. Its writers are no wallflowers: Leigh Shoemaker's 'stand-up' discussion of female urination, for example, adds new meaning to the expression, 'Looking out for #1.' From transsexuality to body image to gender-bending 'slash fiction' that amorously pairs the likes of Captain Kirk and Spock, there's plenty here to amuse and enlighten the target audience--and plenty to rattle the cages of card-carrying macho men and women who might find the racy rants a bit over the top."--Booklist

"This work represents an alternating mix of the most hilarious, alarming, and unexpected essays from Bitch magazine's first ten years. Over three-quarters of the works come from the last five years and, with the exception of an approving pre-scandal profile of Martha Stewart, retain cultural currency. About-Face founder Kathy Bruin journals on the eve of her celebrated 1998 'Don't Feed the Models' postering campaign. Keely Savoie presents a brilliant journalistic brief on the 400-plus animal species documented in homosexual relationships. Shauna Swartz turns out an indelible account of the severe life of reality porn actresses. BITCHfest writers, a mix of thought leaders and unknown activists, share a talent for asking thorny questions: how can Westerners distinguish between American cosmetic labiaplasty and African genital mutilation? Why can't female Cosmo readers admit they're attracted to, rather than jealous of, waifs on the glossy covers? Readers new to this feminist quarterly will find the articles, almost without exception, original, intelligent, and well written. This compilation has staying power. Highly recommended for both public and academic libraries."--Library Journal

"Feminist-energized pop-culture essays that appeal to a wide array of tastes and reading preferences as they celebrate Bitch's tenth anniversary. Margaret Cho doesn't mind being called a bitch, she quips in the introduction: 'I have taken it as a compliment.' So have many of the 43 writers assembled here, all equally frustrated by the force-feeding of mass-media values and the lack of motivational role models. Jervis and Zeisler founded the 'zine to eschew the complacent postfeminist viewpoint. Among the inspiring and the outspoken are features on young-adult novelist Norma Klein ('Stormin' Norma'); 'the trials of female adolescence' via horror film ('Bloodletting'); the empowering androgyny of '80s music videos ('Amazon Women on the Moon'); the atrocity of rape ('The Collapsible Woman'); and current hot topics gay parenting ('Queer and Pleasant Danger') and cosmetic reconstruction ('Plastic Passion,' 'Vulva Goldmine'). Many of these pieces are spirited with a unique feminine bravado, but the editors don't leave out the male point of view; there are terrific essays on the emasculating effects of male bonding ('Holy Fratrimony') and the notion of the fading usefulness of men ('Dead Man Walking'). Less engrossing offerings include discourses on speech tics ('The, Like, Downfall of the English Language,' 'On Language'), the art of peeing ('Urinalysis'), 'humilitainment' ('XXX Offender') and the 'tragedy' of lesbians who sexually desire men ('What Happens to a Dyke Deferred?'). Pieces that make room for humor are stronger than the indignant, alarmist entries; some of the strongest works get right to the awful truth: Martha Stewart is man-less because 'she doesn't seem to exude that warmth andcaring nature men enjoy' ('The Paradox of Martha Stewart'); both Jane Magazine ('Pratt-fall') and Carnie Wilson ('Your Stomach's the Size . . . ') should just go away. By volume's end, alas, feminism fatigue definitely sets in and deep, anti-conspiratorially cleansing breaths are in order for all warrior princesses. Smartly written, socio-cultural vignettes that speak to everyone, loud and clear."--Kirkus Reviews

Publishers Weekly
This often mind-stretching, occasionally predictable and generally entertaining collection of articles from Bitch magazine has something for every feminist, postfeminist and reactionary. Bitch was founded in 1996 in response to "post-feminism" by "freshly minted liberal arts graduates with crappy day jobs and a serious media jones." With refreshing depth, literacy and humor, these essays explore questions surrounding puberty, gender identity, sex, "domestic arrangements," beauty, pop culture and mainstream media, and media literacy/activism. Tammy Oler examines menarche and female puberty in horror films; Gaby Moss analyzes the media's obsession with "mean girls"; and Lisa Jervis gives a rundown of sex scenes and pride in YA lesbian novels. Leigh Shoemaker puts down Camille Paglia's contention that males are superior due to their urinary "arc of transcendence" by evoking the Virgin Mary's breasts squirting milk through the air into Jesus' mouth. Audry Bilger protests the use of "guys" as gender neutral. Conspicuously absent is any discussion of women and aging. Maybe we'll just have to wait for Bitch's 20th anniversary, when its editors will be pushing 50. (Aug. 15) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
This work represents an alternating mix of the most hilarious, alarming, and unexpected essays from Bitch magazine's first ten years. Over three-quarters of the works come from the last five years and, with the exception of an approving pre-scandal profile of Martha Stewart, retain cultural currency. About-Face founder Kathy Bruin journals on the eve of her celebrated 1998 "Don't Feed the Models" postering campaign. Keely Savoie presents a brilliant journalistic brief on the 400-plus animal species documented in homosexual relationships. Shauna Swartz turns out an indelible account of the severe life of reality porn actresses. BITCHfest writers, a mix of thought leaders and unknown activists, share a talent for asking thorny questions: how can Westerners distinguish between American cosmetic labiaplasty and African genital mutilation? Why can't female Cosmo readers admit they're attracted to, rather than jealous of, waifs on the glossy covers? Readers new to this feminist quarterly will find the articles, almost without exception, original, intelligent, and well written. This compilation has staying power. Highly recommended for both public and academic libraries. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 4/15/06.] Elizabeth Kennedy, Oakland, CA Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Feminist-energized pop-culture essays that appeal to a wide array of tastes and reading preferences as they celebrate Bitch's tenth anniversary. Margaret Cho doesn't mind being called a bitch, she quips in the introduction: "I have taken it as a compliment." So have many of the 43 writers assembled here, all equally frustrated by the force-feeding of mass-media values and the lack of motivational role models. Jervis and Zeisler founded the 'zine to eschew the complacent postfeminist viewpoint. Among the inspiring and the outspoken are features on young-adult novelist Norma Klein ("Stormin' Norma"); "the trials of female adolescence" via horror film ("Bloodletting"); the empowering androgyny of '80s music videos ("Amazon Women on the Moon"); the atrocity of rape ("The Collapsible Woman"); and current hot topics gay parenting ("Queer and Pleasant Danger") and cosmetic reconstruction ("Plastic Passion," "Vulva Goldmine"). Many of these pieces are spirited with a unique feminine bravado, but the editors don't leave out the male point of view; there are terrific essays on the emasculating effects of male bonding ("Holy Fratrimony") and the notion of the fading usefulness of men ("Dead Man Walking"). Less engrossing offerings include discourses on speech tics ("The, Like, Downfall of the English Language," "On Language"), the art of peeing ("Urinalysis"), "humilitainment" ("XXX Offender") and the "tragedy" of lesbians who sexually desire men ("What Happens to a Dyke Deferred?"). Pieces that make room for humor are stronger than the indignant, alarmist entries; some of the strongest works get right to the awful truth: Martha Stewart is man-less because "she doesn't seem to exude that warmth andcaring nature men enjoy" ("The Paradox of Martha Stewart"); both Jane Magazine ("Pratt-fall") and Carnie Wilson ("Your Stomach's the Size . . . ") should just go away. By volume's end, alas, feminism fatigue definitely sets in and deep, anti-conspiratorially cleansing breaths are in order for all warrior princesses. Smartly written, socio-cultural vignettes that speak to everyone, loud and clear.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780374113438
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • Publication date: 8/8/2006
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Pages: 400
  • Sales rank: 586,233
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Lisa Jervis is publisher of Bitch and a regular lecturer on media and feminism. Andi Zeisler is Bitch’s editorial/creative director. Both women write regularly for newspapers and magazines nationwide.

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Read an Excerpt

BITCHfest

1
Hitting Puberty
BEING A GIRL HAS ALWAYS MEANT NAVIGATING A TIDE OF mixed signals and unexplained directives, and when I was ten, none filled me with more free-floating dread than the Movies. If you're a woman between the ages of twenty-five and forty-five, you know what I'm talking about: that fateful day in fifth or sixth grade when the boys and girls were separated (the boys herded, invariably, into the school gym), sat down, and told, via filmstrip, all about what makes them different.
Those of us schooled by Judy Blume's Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret knew, if only vaguely, that there was something called a period that happened to girls that made us older, mature, even special. Blume didn't fully explain the mechanics of menstruation, focusing instead on its importance as a badge of maturity and the fact that it required some cryptic accessories (a belt?) to accommodate; the filmstrip we watched that day didn't do much better. I don't even recall a mention of blood, much less any step-by-step explanation of how the monthly process happened and why it was necessary. All information was disseminated on a need-to-know basis. And we, as girls, apparently didn't need to know what was happening to our bodies. Nobody told us, for instance, that growing pains are actually more than a figure of speech (a fact that would have saved me, a few years later, from being convinced that I had nipple cancer). And there was no mention of the important by-products of our changing bodies, either--the fact that theymight really bum us out, cause us to be jealous of and mean to each other, or attract unwanted attention.
When the boys and girls were reunited in the afternoon, after the Movies, everything had changed. Neither side knew what had gone on with the other, but we now regarded each other warily, armed with our new (if cloudy) knowledge that though we played kickball together at recess and all trapped bugs on the sidewalks before dinner, we were now defined, irrevocably, against each other. I don't know if the boys got a parting gift, but the girls did: a pastel pamphlet, handed out after the filmstrip, produced by Modess and directively titled "Growing Up and Liking It."
Puberty is a time when girls by anatomy become girls by imperative, socialized into a world where we're supposed to be more excited about a big box of maxipads than about, say, the wonders of the solar system. Tomboys are instructed to be more "ladylike." Boys are transformed from buddies into people we're supposed to either stay away from or develop crushes on. Instead of digging on our own unique qualities--our ability to draw or skateboard or double Dutch--we start focusing our energies on fitting in with everyone else, zooming unhappily in on our perceived shortcomings with the precision of the Hubble telescope.
Since 1992, when Lyn Mikel Brown and Carol Gilligan published Meeting at the Crossroads, their landmark study on how girls' self-esteem plunges at puberty, we've slowly become aware that the problem is a universal one, affecting girls of all places and races and classes. Mary Pipher, whose 1994 book Reviving Ophelia built on Brown and Gilligan's research and prescribed ways for adults to help the girls in their lives through this time of crisis, identified female puberty in America as an update of Betty Friedan's "problem with no name," writing that "America today limits girls' development, truncates their wholeness, and leaves many of them traumatized."
The problem may have had no name, but in the years since Brown, Gilligan, and Pipher identified it, the subject of puberty and its discontents has yielded some amazingly lucid, bracing, and resonant pop culture. From books (Dorothy Allison's Bastard Out of Carolina, Danzy Senna's Caucasia, Peggy Orenstein's nonfiction study Schoolgirls) to TV (My So-Called Life, Freaks and Geeks) to movies (Welcome to the Dollhouse, Girls Town, Thirteen), the past decade-plus has given girls a bigger platform than ever before from which to talk about growing up and not liking it one bit.
But at the same time, it's also made puberty and adolescence more visible than ever before. We've always been obsessed with youth, but the age of media consent appears to be dropping ever lower. Adults read books about a pubescent wizard and get obsessed with The O.C. Teen starlets, once confined to the pages of Seventeen and YM, are sprawled all over the covers of Vogue and Elle, which have in turn spawned their own teen versions. Journalists who wring their hands over the thirteen-year-olds who traipse the streets in hoochie-mama ensembles buy their own assenhancing pants at Forever 21. The blurring of boundaries between childhood and adulthood in pop representations is sometimes cute and poignant, as in movies like Freaky Friday and its remake or those wacky Gilmore Girls, but more often disturbing--as when frat-house retailer Abercrombie & Fitch began peddling tween-size thong panties printed with cutesy comeons for the training-bra set.
And ever since published studies of teen girls and relational aggression--Rachel Simmons's Odd Girl Out, Lyn Mikel Brown's Raising Their Voices, and Rosalind Wiseman's Queen Bees and Wannabes, among others--became big media news, the nuances of girls' untamed hostility have been shorthanded to bemoan an epidemic of "mean girls." The result is that media outlets have been quick to broadcast the most sensational examples of this girl trouble--girls who physically hurt each other (or worse, hurt or humiliate boys)--but less inclined to draw attention to the culture that does-so much to foster our anger and resentment.
It's a difficult time, puberty, and maybe an acknowledgment of that was exactly what those stupid filmstrips, with their clinical, bloodless diagrams and stilted voice-overs, were trying to get across. But on the upside, puberty is often a time when girls in the process of being socialized into their gender are also politicized by it. They have questions that can't be answered by the pink and blue playbooks we've been using to define girls and boys since forever. They don't see why they should accept the status quo rules and limitations--don't climb trees, don't call boys, don't show your smarts--assigned to them just because they happen to be female. They challenge the lessons of sex, race, manners, mores, and everything else about girlhood that we learn everywhere from MTV to Tiger Beat to Toys "R" Us. They offer clear insights on crucial intersections of feminist consciousness and pop product. If the culture at large would just listen, we all might learn something.--A.Z.

Amazon Women on the Moon
Remembering Femininity in the Video Age
Andi Zeisler / WINTER 1996
 

 

 

LIKE SOME GRIZZLED OLD-TIMER SITTING ON THE PORCH OF the homestead talking about the good old days, I think back to the first time I saw MTV and pity the prepubescents of today who didn't have the luck to see, as I did, the wonder of MTV when it first aired. I was eight years old, alone in my living room, and somehow I knew that I was witnessing a tremendous event: a connection with something that just wasn't accessible through after-school cartoons or Gilligan's Island reruns. When I recall what I saw back then, my perception of those early videos creates the memory that resonates in my TV-addled mind as the truth. And what I remember best are the images of women I saw on MTV. I'm aware of those representations in a different way than I was in those first golden days when I sat glued to the small screen, clutching a handful of Fritos. What I say about these images now comes from filtering them through a screen of theory and history and related bullshit, but it still comes from what I saw back then. The women of MTV were not merely women; rather, they were on-screen archetypes of what a video-age woman could be, and they were indelibly printed on my young brain.

The Androgyne
By the time the first little MTV spaceman planted his flag on the screens of cable-blessed homes, androgyny in rock music was old news. This was, after all, the post-glam-rock early 1980s. The New York Dolls, Patti Smith, David Bowie, and many others had been praised up and down not only for their musical achievements but also for their knack for appropriating/ mocking the styles of the opposite sex. But the legions of suburban tykes lounging in our beanbag chairs in front of the tube didn't know about that. All we knew was that there was a huge number of girly-looking guys staring out at us from the other side of the TV screen, and we were mesmerized. Through Adam Ant and Duran Duran, I absorbed the concept of androgyny unconsciously as I giggled dreamy-eyed over these grown men with made-up faces, these boys who looked too much like girls to be the "opposite" sex.
But then there were the actual girls: Joan Jett, who wore head-to-toe black leather and reveled in crunchy cock-rock riffs in her video for "I Love Rock 'N' Roll"; and skinny, imperious Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders. These women's physical images incorporated a litany of bad-boy references, from pre-zirconium Elvis to Marlon Brando to Keith Richards. They were aping the style of men whose blatant sexuality made them "dangerous." Not so much rejecting femininity as cloaking it in the historical acceptibility of male rebellion, these women were insinuating themselves into the badass canon. I didn't consciously think that they looked like boys, but when I saw the video for the Pretenders' "Brass in Pocket," I thought that Chrissie Hynde in a waitress's uniform was all wrong. And the end of the video, when she runs out of the diner and hops on the tough guy's motorcycle--well, that was all wrong, too. Anyone who had seen the video for "Tattooed Love Boys" knew that Chrissie would never let her ass be grabbed by a customer and then go for a ride on his hog. She'd get on her own motorcycle and peel out of the diner parking lot, spraying that loser with a mouthful of gravel.
Perhaps the most memorable androgyne of early MTV was Annie Lennox of the Eurythmics. In their first video, "Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)," Annie wore a man's black suit and held a riding crop (or maybe it was a pointer), her bright-orange flattop rising out of the ensemble over her placidly menacing, masklike face. The dangerous sexuality of Joan andChrissie's leather pants was here replaced by the more dangerous sexuality of total gender unrecognizability. No real precedent for female-to-male cross-dressing had been set on television at this point, although the madcap hilarity of men impersonating women had been proved many times over, from Milton Berle to M*A*S*H. The employment of cross-dressing for noncomedic purposes, and by a woman, was jarring. The whispering among my elementary-school friends about this video yielded only one possible conclusion--that Annie Lennox must be a lesbian.

The Future Freak
The second image that appeared consistently on early MTV can best be described as the Space-Age Future Freak. The SAFF, like the Androgyne, took more than one form. There was the faraway-eyed, operatic Kate Bush, the future-Barbie frontwomen of Missing Persons and Berlin, and the space-age amazon Grace Jones, among others. But unlike the Androgyne, the SAFF had no basis in history other than the collective projection of "the future" that held 1980s media in its thrall. Computers, NASA, and ever-expanding medical and industrial technologies were spurring us on to the future, but what about humanity? The fears of future dehumanization, particularly of women, were given paranoid form in movies like Blade Runner and Liquid Sky, where futuristic females invariably took on the form of alien succubi, preying on the hapless male heroes. The sexual female, given power, mutated into something evil that had to be stopped by the likes of Harrison Ford. The message of these films? Future women are going to be scary, castrating sexual deviants. The video counterparts of these cinematic women presented an alternative to traditional notions of what constitutes femaleness. The SAFF was not soft, not yielding, and seemed entirely her own invention. Her voice was clearly that of a woman, yet it was not a "feminine" voice--it was robotic, as Grace Jones's was, or it was the ethereal, otherworldly siren song of Kate Bush.
But the SAFF's physical image was hyperfeminized, caricatured. In the video for Missing Persons' "Destination Unknown," lead singer Dale Bozzio sported a floor-length white mane, a Mylar-and-bubble-wrap dress, and spike heels, and she sang in a high-frequency baby-doll voice while staring at her own bizarre face in a smoky mirror. This image plays intoclassic notions of woman as the infantlike, narcissistic other. But despite the contradictions inherent in the SAFF persona, she defined the future--unknowable, cloudy, and scary.

The Bad Girl
This MTV archetype was perhaps the most familiar one. As tough as the Androgyne but less masculine, earthier than the Future Freak, the Bad Girl was like a canny, fun older sister--smart and sexy and cut-the-shit direct. All her songs spoke directly to someone--presumably a guy--who was trying to mess with her, and she wasn't having it. Pat Benatar, Toni Basil, the Flirts, the Waitresses, and Patti Smythe of Scandal all embodied a kind of fishnet-stockinged consciousness that allowed them to seem like slutty girls while harboring a clearheaded intelligence and the occasional subversive agenda. Toni Basil's "Mickey" video exploited the whole good girl/bad girl cheerleader motif, with Toni cartwheeling around, pompoms in hand, while delivering the genderfuck line, "Come on and give it to me, any way you can / Any way you wanna do it, I'll take it like a man." Pat Benatar took the Bad Girl role one step further, using the video format to star in mini-movies in which she took on the personae of other bad girls. In "Shadows of the Night," she portrays a 1940s Rosie the Riveter type who dreams of being a ruthless, glamorous double agent. And in "Love Is a Battlefield," probably the tour de force of her video career, Pat plays a teenage runaway whose foray into the big city leads to her working in a seedy dance parlor with other unlucky women. But Pat mobilizes the women into a line-dance uprising against their evil pimp, and liberation ensues. Go on with your bad self, Pat!
Sadly, these would turn out to be the salad days of the Bad Girl, because once MTV realized that their main audience comprised adolescent boys and their hard-ons, the marketing dynamic took over and these women all but vanished. Pat Benatar and Toni Basil were replaced by nameless inflatobreasted bimbos who writhed in videos by poufy-haired lite-metal bands like Warrant and Poison, portraying groupies, porn actresses, and girlfriends. MTV wanted you to believe that this was what a Bad Girl was, but even those of us just graduating from our training bras knew the vast difference between a player and a plaything.
Little by little, the archetypes of early MTV disappeared from the screen, displaced by the ever-increasing popularity of the channel and its ability to create and crush images and fads with heartless precision. The use of women primarily as cheese-metal video ornaments made it necessary for those women who were actual musicians to protect themselves from winding up as yet another babe spread-eagled on top of a Camaro. So women like Tracy Chapman, Suzanne Vega, and the Indigo Girls ushered in a new era of no-frills videos--no leather pants, no bubble-wrap dresses, no Benataresque role playing. They played solid, admirable music that also happened to make boring-as-hell video viewing. Having experienced the myriad over-the-top moments of MTV's first inception, there was no substitute. Well, there was Madonna, who aimed to amass all the aspects of the Bad Girl, the SAFF, and the Androgyne into one package, but that's a whole other essay.
Those early images and videos were powerful. They were novelty and stereotype and affirmation. They provided young girls with ideas of rebellion, sex, and self-sufficiency that couldn't be found in the pages of Young Miss. They allowed us to think critically and find fault with other images of women that we saw not only on MTV but also in other media. They inspired us to rock out. If you turn on MTV today, in between segments of Beauty and the Beach and The Real World, you might--if you're lucky--see something that reminds you of what MTV once was: that brave new world where the women talked tough and the men looked pretty.

Rubyfruit Jungle Gym
An Annotated Bibliography of the Lesbian Young Adult Novel
Lisa Jervis / WINTER 1998
 

 

 

THE GENRE OF YOUNG-ADULT FICTION (YA TO LIBRARIANS and other bookish folks) has always been kinda pedantic, in the best possible way. YA novels have always provided a sort of educational service, a vehicle for young people to address important issues in their lives through narrative; they're the way the culture at large transmits nuanced information about, say, the death of a family member or a first period. So when YA literature takes on lesbianism, it usually results in one of two things: a force of indoctrination into the cultural codes of compulsory heterosexuality, or a lesson in gay pride.
Lesbian books generally go like so: Girl meets girl, each feels something for the other; they spend some time (separately) examining/feeling guilty about/feeling confused about their feelings; they finally talk to each other; they begin a relationship; someone else finds out; something horrible happens; they break up/stay together/renounce homosexuality. Too often, even well-meaning lesbian YAs dole out shame and punishment to their protagonists: rape or expulsion from school, family, and community.
However, the affirming lesbian teen novel has begun to flower--not surprising, considering the progress that has been made in lesbian, gay, and bisexual rights. Fictional young lovers still get in trouble when they're caught having sex; high-school students still scrawl ugly graffiti about suspectedsexual practices. But queer YA characters are beginning to doubt themselves less and love each other more. Slowly but surely, we're reaching a point at which het YA fiction has been for years: Lesbian teens can grab more and more reassurance, advice, and inspiration from the genre. Where and how much? Let's see ...

Patience and Sarah by Isabel Miller (Fawcett Crest Books, 1969)
Set in 1816 Connecticut and "suggested by the life of" two actual postcolonial women, P & S is a historical novel with a twist.
JACKET COPY: "Bold, innocent, and strange ... that was their love."
THE RELATIONSHIP STARTS ... Head over heels. Butch Sarah meets femme Patience while stocking her woodpile. Before you know it, the two are smooching.
CAN THEY FESS UP? Well, Sarah's always been conspicuously masculine, and Patience lives in her brother's house, so people suspect plenty. And it all comes to a head when Patience's sister-in-law catches them in bed together.
WHEN SOMEONE FINDS OUT ... Miscommunication and family disapproval at first keep them from leaving their small community together but later force them out. Does that count as punishment? Yes, in that they can't stay where they are and be accepted; no, in that they'd already hatched plans to leave and start a life together.
IN THE END ... The two women live as wives in peace.
AND THE SEX? Sensually allusive. "Who can count the times the waves will take her unexpected in the deep of a kiss and throw her teeth against my lip and nick it?"
PRIDE QUOTIENT: Yes, Virginia, there have always been lesbians, even in 1800s New England. But, well, the story doesn't exactly feel immediate.

Ruby by Rosa Guy (Laurel-Leaf Books, 1976)
With its political dialogue and the quasi-teacher/student relationship, Ruby is almost as much about post-civil rights politics as it is about lovers Ruby and Daphne.
JACKET COPY: "They fill the aching emptiness in each other, learn from each other, love each other, despite the shared knowledge that their happiness will end as abruptly as it began."
THE RELATIONSHIP STARTS ... Sudden and weird. Ruby admires Daphne from afar and then shows up at her house unexpectedly one weekend morning. Daphne gives Ruby a political lecture, during which she calls Ruby an Uncle Tom, and then they make out.
CAN THEY FESS UP? Daphne's mother is fine with it as long as the girls aren't too open about their love; Ruby's traditional West Indian father objects strenuously, but no more than he would to a similar relationship with a boy. Ruby's sister takes it all in stride.
WHEN SOMEONE FINDS OUT ... Ruby's father hits her when he realizes that she deceived him in order to spend a weekend with Daphne. Daphne's mother forbids Ruby to take shelter in their house.
IN THE END ... Daphne breaks off the affair and says she's "going straight." Ruby is reconsidering plans with an old almost-boyfriend. Capitulation to compulsory heterosexuality, or acknowledgment of the fluidity of sexuality? I have to go with the former, given the melancholy tone and Ruby's still-active feelings for Daphne.
AND THE SEX? Rare and nonspecific. "Holding, touching, fondling, body intertwined with body, racing around the world on brilliant waves of color" is as explicit as it gets.
PRIDE QUOTIENT: Low. How could it be otherwise when they're both gonna date men in the end?

Happy Endings Are All Alike by Sandra Scoppettone (Laurel-Leaf Books, 1978)
Two smart, beautiful suburban white girls find each other and fall in love.
JACKET COPY: "Jaret Tyler has no guilt or shame about her love affair with Peggy Danziger ... But then a disturbed friend of Jaret's younger brother ... sets out to teach her a lesson."
THE RELATIONSHIP STARTS ... They are brought together by a mutual pal and become close friends, then more.
CAN THEY FESS UP? Jaret's mother is fine with it; Peggy's sister Claire isemphatically not. The girls are determined that no one else know, because they're scared, and rightly so, of what residents of their small suburban town would think.
WHEN SOMEONE FINDS OUT ... Jaret is brutally raped and beaten by a guy wanting to teach her a lesson about thinking she's too good to date men.
IN THE END ... Peggy ends the relationship after the rape because she can't stand the thought of being outed at the trial. However, with the help of a shrink hired by her father--ironically, to help her get over the queer thing--she realizes she's still in love with Jaret and they reconcile.
AND THE SEX? Nothing explicit, but it's clear that they're having plenty.
PRIDE QUOTIENT: Mixed. Jaret is sure of herself and supported by her family; Peggy, even when the two reconcile at the end, is reluctant to claim a lesbian identity. "I only know that I love you and I want to be with you now," she says. Unlike in Ruby, however, this does seem to be an acknowledgment of sexuality's fluidity--perhaps because the young lovers are still together.

Crush by Jane Futcher (AlyCat Books, 1981)
In the mid-'60s, at an exclusive boarding school filled with cruel, manipulative upper-class girls, crushes are more than common, but actual lesbian relationships are forbidden.
JACKET COPY: "Jinx knew she had a serious crush on Lexie, and knew she had to do something to make it go away. But Lexie, who always got her way, had other plans."
THE RELATIONSHIP STARTS ... Lexie, the fastest, most glamorous golden girl at Huntington Hill, takes Jinx on as a project, which starts their intense friendship.
CAN THEY FESS UP? Jinx believes she must keep the depth of her feelings for Lexie secret not only from everyone at school but also from Lexie herself. She knows she could be kicked out of school for being queer, and she also senses Lexie's underlying unreliability.
WHEN SOMEONE FINDS OUT ... Both girls end up expelled.
IN THE END ... Jinx is disillusioned about the relationship, while Lexie seems unchanged.
'AND THE SEX? Not quite happenin'. The two kiss and rub up against each other once or twice, but no more.
PRIDE QUOTIENT: Nil. Jinx may survive okay, and even goes to the college of her choice, but there's really nothing but misery connected to lesbianism here.

Annie on My Mind by Nancy Garden (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1982)
Even though some plot elements are similar to those in Crush, Annie is a fundamentally optimistic story of friendship and romance.
JACKET COPY: "Liza never knew falling in love could be so wonderful ... and so confusing."
THE RELATIONSHIP STARTS ... The two girls meet in a museum and strike up a friendship, which takes them both by surprise with its intensity and slowly becomes romantic.
CAN THEY FESS UP? Nope.
WHEN SOMEONE FINDS OUT ... Annie and Liza get caught having sex in the house of two teachers for whom they've been house-sitting, and at the same time the lesbianism of the two teachers is uncovered. Liza is suspended from school and almost expelled, and the teachers get fired.
IN THE END ... The two lovers, after one estranged semester away at college, redeclare their love and plan to spend a holiday together.
AND THE SEX? Cutaway: "A light in the hall ... made a wonderful faraway glow and touched Annie's soft smooth skin with gold. After the first few minutes, I think the rest of our shyness with each other vanished."
PRIDE QUOTIENT: An explicit lesson: "Don't punish yourselves for people's ignorant reactions to what we all are," says one of the teachers. "Don't let ignorance win. Let love."
EXTRA-SPECIAL INTERTEXTUAL NOTE: Annie buys a copy of Patience and Sarah for her and Liza to read.

A Stone Gone Mad by Jacquelyn Holt Park (Alyson Publications, 1991)
This story spans from 1948 to 1977, which might explain why, in the first chapter, Emily is exiled from her family after her sister discovers her making out with another girl; it might also explain why Emily subsequently tries to be "normal" through relationships with men. What it doesn't explain is why, in 1991, someone would choose to write a novel (for an independent queer publisher, no less) that's so filled with self-hatred and the rhetoric of illness.
JACKET COPY: "When sixteen-year-old Emily Stolle is discovered in the arms of a female schoolmate, she is as appalled as her family."
THE RELATIONSHIP STARTS ... Which one? Mattie is Emily's older sister's best friend, Lu is a sorority sister, and then there are all those anonymous women from the bars.
CAN THEY FESS UP? Absolutely not; the reaction is invariably disgust and shame.
WHEN SOMEONE FINDS OUT ... Emily is first sent away and shunned by her family, then later cut off by a close friend who briefly became a love, then made to move out by a bigoted roommate. And, of course, she's plagued with constant shame and the belief that she's sick.
IN THE END ... After years of denial--and of trying to "cure" herself through relationships with both men and women--Emily sustains a long-term relationship with a woman. She even comes out to some strangers on the subway. But it seems a hollow gesture, since the people who really mattered in her life either never knew about her lesbianism or were unable to accept it.
AND THE SEX? Pretty explicit, in a deadpan kind of way: "Emily's hands dropped to Reena's breasts; the nipples hardened."
PRIDE QUOTIENT: Negative. The fairly happy ending for Emily and her girlfriend Anna can't make up for a story in which, for more than three hundred pages, desire for women is referred to as "that hated curse that was following her," and lesbianism is a "disease [that], surely as any malignancy, ravaged her and ruined those it touched as well."

Dive by Stacey Donovan (Puffin Books, 1994)
A sparely and beautifully written novel that is more about V's father's terminal illness than about her romance with a classmate.
JACKET COPY: "As V falls for Jane, she begins to discover that in love, as in life, there are more questions than answers."
THE RELATIONSHIP STARTS ... V is drawn to Jane from the very first time she spots her in the hallway, and the two start walking home together every day.
CAN THEY FESS UP? The unreal, almost hallucinatory tone of the book renders the question of to tell or not to tell irrelevant.
WHEN SOMEONE FINDS OUT ... Doesn't happen.
IN THE END ... V and Jane are in love.
AND THE SEX? In the same fluid, not-quite-stream-of-consciousness prose as the rest of the book: "Every time I touch her somewhere, and I have to touch her everywhere, she murmurs, the urgency of desire, the surrender to the hands that take us."
PRIDE QUOTIENT: Not clearly articulated but fairly high nonetheless. "I recognize the fact, according to the world, I mean, that two girls having sex together ... is pretty unusual. What I don't understand is how it got to be that people still think there's something wrong with it. Even I think there's something wrong with it ... Or I think I thought I did. But I don't."

Good Moon Rising by Nancy Garden (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1996)
High-school seniors Jan and Kerry embark on a typical teen first love: movie dates, kissing in cars, surreptitiously spending the night.
JACKET COPY: "A love story, a portrait of aspiring young actors, and a powerful reminder of cruelty met through intolerance."
THE RELATIONSHIP STARTS ... New girl Kerry beats Jan out for the lead in the school play. When Jan coaches Kerry on her lines, romance blossoms.
CAN THEY FESS UP? Well, they're worried about it, but they decide fairly early on not to hide the relationship.
WHEN SOMEONE FINDS OUT ... There's some harassment by schoolmates, which the lovers put a stop to by coming out.
IN THE END ... The girls are planning how to tell their families.
AND THE SEX? Plenty of making out (with quite sexy descriptions), and Garden doesn't shy away from even more: "Jan traced the sunspots on Kerry's body. 'My golden love,' she whispered ... 'I never knew hands and mouths could make anyone feel what I've felt today.'"
PRIDE QUOTIENT: Off the scale. "[Jan] faced Kent and, loud enough so everyone would be able to hear, said, 'You were right. The signs were right. I am gay.' With the words came a sense of relief and liberation so great that she felt she never wanted to hide again."

Stormin' Norma
Why I Love the Queen of Teen
Andi Zeisler / WINTER 1998
 

 

 

TWO YOUNG BOYS AND TWO YOUNG GIRLS ARE WATCHING TV. It's cable, it's rated R, a hot tub is involved. Everyone is watching the screen in silence when suddenly one of the boys nudges the other, points to his crotch, and announces, with no small amount of pride, "Look, I've got a boner."
Stock Beavis-and-Butt-Head fare, sure, but it was also the moment when it dawned on me that, when it comes to verbalizing physical feelings about sex, the societal benevolence handed to boys is rarely, if ever, extended to girls. Those of us who grew up in the '70s and '80s entered puberty in the glow of a celluloid world that seemed to have a single raison d'être--to visualize the sexual blossoming of the American boy. Female characters in carbon-copy movies with names like Losin' It and Screwballs were exhibited as either the facilitators of or hindrances to that all-important loss of male virginity. These movies were supposedly all about girls, but actual girls weren't important enough to figure prominently, except in those moments where attractive body parts were doled out for male satisfaction. We were sluts. We were prudes. If there was any kind of middle ground, we weren't gonna discover it at the multiplex.
Where were we going to find it, then? Most likely at the library, where it was assumed girls outnumbered boys--just as it was assumed we were the moviegoing minority--and could, by default, strut our stuff. But even withwhole shelves devoted to telling the stories of girls--historical girls, sporty girls, adventurous girls--there was still one story that too often wasn't getting told: the story of girls and sexuality. And that's where Norma Klein, queenpin of the young-adult boy-girl sex novel, came in to help.
Now, Judy Blume is widely considered the patron saint of teen-girl literature, and not without ample reason. Her oeuvre, which includes Tiger Eyes, Deenie, and Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret, buoyed enough of us through puberty that it should be considered required reading for anyone with ovaries. Tons of us have some variation on the story of sneaking a friend's older sister's copy of Forever into our sleeping bag and avidly searching out the much-whispered-about "good parts." But if Judy was the wise older sister nimbly guiding us through the confusing realm of maxi-pads and training bras, Norma Klein was the wacky, worldly aunt ready to blow our minds with a feminist, intellectual outlook on sex and relationships that would make us look twice at what the movies proclaimed as the Way Things Are. Klein's formidable contribution to the YA canon--forty-plus books--served as proof that even if Hollywood and network TV have boys on the brain and in the billfold, someone was interested in making the sexual coming-of-age of girls equally important. Herewith, nine reasons why Norma K. rocked the young-adult genre.

Her books lived up to the label "young adult."
The paradox of young-adult media--magazines, television, movies--is how, even in the process of trying to make girls feel comfortable with their lives, the messages imparted most often encourage extreme discomfort. Being "yourself," girls are told, is fine, as long as that self concentrates on being thin, pretty, unintimidatingly smart, and boy-friendly. Along this same line, countless authors of novels for girls translated the term "young adult" to mean "shopping-obsessed, boy-crazy bubblehead," and the result was a vast assortment of stories that centered on a female character just dying to be asked to the prom by Joe Hunky Football Fondler. Consider the insanely popular Sweet Valley High series, which focused on a group of walking, talking cliches--the nice girl, the crafty girl, the rich girl, the studious girl--whose apparent sole purpose in life was to gossip and scheme against each other in hopes of scoring a fella.
Unike these books, NK's narratives refused to equate a dance with sublime happiness, or to measure social success with physical looks. Instead, her characters were unspectacular and self-conscious girls and boys, usually in their last year of high school. They've never had a "real" relationship but have developed a substantial battery of expectations and opinions. They meet someone and hit it off, and the story traces the development of the relationship and the myriad changes sex brings to their lives. Where other YA novels would close on the happily-ever-after image of the main character wrapped in her date's beefy arms at the prom, NK's novels asked: What happens after that?
Klein treated her characters as the burgeoning adults they were, addressing the problems that arise when things like sexual jealousy, impotence, and parental envy are introduced into teen relationships. By the end of many of her books, the affair has ended and the characters are ensconced at college, ruminating on what has been learned from this first, complicated relationship, and ready to start another.

She wrote funny, faceted, smart characters.
There's the anxious cellist Robin in Queen of the What Ifs, the reluctant starlet Rusty in Domestic Arrangements, the misfit lovers Peter and Leslie in Family Secrets, the repressed artist Augie in My Life as a Body, and the opinionated science whiz Maggie in Love Is One of the Choices. They were awkward, lumpy, beautiful, smart, flaky, Jewish, Zen Buddhist, neurotic, outgoing--and most important, they were all of these simultaneously. NK's characters broke the dream-teen mold of most young-adult novels--instead of sucking down Orange Julius at the mall, these kids were more likely to be practicing the bassoon or training their pet chimpanzees. The plotlines themselves were layered and unconventional, focusing on everything from discovering a parent is gay to what happens when twin fourteen-year-olds decide to open a gourmet restaurant to distract themselves from their parents' separation. Klein's young characters, in fact, were almost too cerebral--I mean, how hard would you laugh if you were seventeen and your best friend busted out with a statement like "I believe celibacy sharpens my perceptions of reality"?--but for all their precocity, they displayed enough cluelessness and self-absorption to be believable as actual teens.

She picked up right where Judy Blume left off.
Klein took it for granted that we knew how our bodies functioned and focused instead on the complications that emerge once teenage girls do something with their sex information. If Blume's novels helped girls realize that everything they were feeling and experiencing was normal, Klein took it one step further, emphasizing that not only were the feelings normal, but that girls should never doubt their right and ability to express them.
However, knowing plenty about the insecurities of adolescence, she also threw down a cold, hard reality--teenage girls aren't always applauded by their peers for having an independent, matter-of-fact attitude toward sex. This issue is verbalized in It's OK If You Don't Love Me when main girl Jody grapples with the contradictions inherent in her sex ed class's breezy discussions. ("I hate to tell people, even other girls, that I'm on the Pill. I think it's hard to admit that sex is something you want to do or might do. It's one thing to say you believe in it in the abstract, but to come right out and say I guess I'll be sleeping with someone tonight, I might as well be prepared, is hard.")

She put the ladies first.
Not only that, but she posited a world where the gender roles taken for granted by other young-adult novels--even Blume's--were adjusted with so little fanfare that they seemed to always have been that way. Her heroines never stood by their lockers chewing their hair over whether Joe might ask them out; these girls marched right up to Joe without a twinge of indecision.
This female-forward approach was even more explicit when it came to sex. Not only did female characters take the lead, they took it in ways that were widely considered "male"--and curiosity, not capitulation, characterized their experimentation.

She made boys our friends.
Klein gave girls boundless credit for possessing both brains and agency, but never at the expense of her male characters. Many of her books were written from the perspective of teenage boys, and while her male characters--including No More Saturday Nights' Tim, a college freshman and singlefather, and Joel, who flounders his way through a first affair in Beginners' Love--weren't what you would call sensitive New Age guys, they were portrayed as thinking, feeling, emotional people. In the YA genre, where boys were regularly depicted as no more than jockish arm trophies who either made girls' lives worthwhile or ruined their reputations, this was, sad to say, more props than were generally given.

Her characters spoke up.
Klein's female characters had a lot to say, especially on the subjects of gender, sex, and feminism. Whether loudmouthed or demure, these girls were each confrontational in their own way, primed and ready to challenge outdated assumptions of gender difference, social conditioning, and more. In It's OK If You Don't Love Me, for instance, Jody is outraged to discover how ill informed her younger brother is about sex ("Girls like to do it too, you know"); in Love Is One of the Choices, Maggie engages in a passionate argument with her father about whether pornography can appeal to women.
These back-and-forth debates are natural and narrative, rather than pedantic, and they mirror the often frustrating impossibility of schooling one's parents/siblings/peers in viewpoints that buck the status quo. NK's girls and women speak up on behalf of themselves and their gender as a whole, but even when their statements don't illustrate a feminist viewpoint (though they often do), the dialogues that emerge reflect the vital and changing ideas of what girls and women want from society, men, and each other.

She tried to right the wrongs of the information police.
Remember in grade school when boys were informed about erections and wet dreams while girls were told about menstruation in what was essentially a shill for Kotex? That was sex education: Boys learned that their bodies were a source of pleasure; girls were warned that the wrong brand of pad would lead to the ruin of their best white jeans.
Had Norma Klein been in charge, boys and girls would have sat side by side to learn about themselves and about each other, and wouldn't enter pubertywith the assumption that sexual attitudes were gender-coded. Klein's books made reference not only to the misguided way boys' and girls' sex education is disseminated, but also to the way the media telegraphs a wealth of wrongheaded moral dogma.
NK worked into her characters' mouths sly commentary on this passage of information and how it causes teenagers to inadvertently participate in their own manipulation; these revelations are an encouragement to look critically at what girls, especially, are told in books that are ostensibly for them. Beginners' Love's Leda, for instance, takes issue with the YA subgenre of the "sexual disaster" novel, in which all teenage nooky invariably leads to misfortune and regret ("God, don't you hate those books for teenagers where they have to get married and she drops out of school and they live over a garage and he works in some used car lot? And there's always some scene where a girl who's had an abortion comes to visit and she's gone insane and becomes a Bowery bum, just in case you didn't get the point"); Maggie of Love Is One of the Choices, meanwhile, is relieved that her first sexual experience isn't the bloody horror it's made out to be in books for teens.

She got on the wrong side of book-burning fanatics.
Klein's willingness to point out where society's moral judgments fail teenagers didn't go unnoticed by the people who make those very judgments. Since we all know how well female sexual agency flies in our society--particularly when it involves teenagers--it's no surprise that several of Klein's books have in the past been banned from school libraries, putting them in the company of To Kill a Mockingbird, Lord of the Flies, and Brave New World. But we all know that the books people don't want teenagers to see are the honest ones, and NK's tales, written in the '70s and '80s, remain as relevant and controversial as they were when they were first published.

She changed some lives.
I like to think of Norma Klein as one of my first feminist influences. Not that I didn't log my share of hours mooning over some bowl-cutted junior-high crush when I could have been doing more interesting things. But Klein--along with that proudly erect kid in front of the TV--started me thinkingabout the inequity that defines the teenage realm: the code of conformity that uses the word "slut" to brand the girl who speaks her mind about sex, the mind-set that not only allows but encourages the devaluation of girls and their sexuality. There was no shortage of girl media to remind us of what we were supposed to want, but Klein proposed an all-important alternative. Her books weren't only fun, smart, and sexy; it's clear to me now that they were also a form of activism--the refusal of one writer to pander to the what-girls-want formulas used by other writers and publishers of young-adult books. Klein died in 1989, but she left a legacy of strong, provocative girl literature that continues to burst the wispy bubble of dyed-to-match pumps and homecoming dances--a gift I know I'll always be grateful for.

Sister Outsider Headbanger
On Being a Black Feminist Metalhead
Keidra Chaney / FALL 2001
 

 

 

I'M NOT SURE EXACTLY WHEN OR HOW IT HAPPENED, BUT AT some point in my childhood I began to think I was a white guy trapped in the body of a black girl. And not just any white guy, either--a guitar player in a heavy-metal band.
Okay, stop laughing. It's no joke. I'm a black female metalhead. Like I said, I can't really tell you how it happened. Maybe it was growing up in the '80s, being fed a steady diet of Ratt videos on Chicago's quasi-MTV UHF station. Or maybe it was coming of age at the same time heavy metal reached public consciousness as the Voice of the Disgruntled Adolescent White Male. Sure, I wasn't white, male, or even particularly angry as a ten-year-old--but I recognized the force of those electric guitars, relentlessly pounding drums, and growling vocals. Even then, I knew that heavy metal was power, and power was irresistible.
Over the next few years, I embraced my heavy-metal destiny. I wasn't ashamed of my love for metal; I just couldn't explain it to most people. Heavy metal has always been and will always be the redheaded stepchild of rock, much maligned and generally misunderstood. Respectable rock fans and critics dismiss it as simplistic and puerile; religious conservatives condemn it as "the devil's music." To a lot of black folks, it's just a bunch of crazy white guys screaming, which is just as bad. Even my older sister, whois almost ridiculously eclectic in her musical tastes (Barry Manilow!), wasn't exactly feeling metal.
Yet in the early '80s, some of us kids in the 'hood did listen to metal. Radio was somewhat less segregated than it is today, but hip hop didn't exist to MTV or radio. We did know about Quiet Riot and Poison, those mainstays of pop-metal. Later, when hip hop came of age and my peers grew out of the Crüe and into Boogie Down Productions and N.W.A., cable television got me intrigued by Megadeth, Anthrax, and Queensryche.
I buried my metal affection at first, not wanting to seem like too much of a freak to my friends, sneaking Metallica songs in between Salt-N-Pepa and Digital Underground on mix tapes. Like decaffeinated coffee, a black female metalhead is something that doesn't make sense to a lot of people; this was especially true at a time when hip hop as a genre was very much linked to the cultural experiences of the black community--"black folks' CNN," as Chuck D once put it. What could I possibly find appealing about heavy metal, seeing as how it didn't reflect my life experience or cultural identity in any tangible way?
Actually, I think that contradiction was what appealed to me in the first place. Heavy metal was so radically different from the music I grew up with that it allowed me to imagine myself as someone radically different from the geeky, awkward preteen I normally was. Even as my burgeoning feminist self felt empowered by seeing Queen Latifah and Monie Love do "Ladies First" on Yo! MTV Raps in 1989, another part of me--the one that secretly watched Headbangers Ball in my basement every Saturday night--wanted to run away from home and become a roadie for Metallica.
Maintaining the dual identity of regular high-school student by day, hard-rockin' metalhead by night made me feel pretty isolated. Finding other heavy metal-loving black kids in a Lutheran high school in the pre-Internet '90s was no easy task. But by sophomore year, I had encountered some kindred spirits: I met my friend Nicole when she noticed the cover of my Metal Edge magazine peeking from my notebook on the way to English class. "You read Metal Edge?" she asked in shock. I was ready for another fight--I had already endured more than a semester's worth of ridicule after coming out as a metalhead--but she exclaimed, "So do I!"
It was cool to find girls who read both Essence and Rip, who could talkabout the new Slayer video and the pros and cons of relaxers in the same conversation. I felt validated, even though my mom thought I was suffering the delayed effects of some childhood head injury and classmates accused me of betraying my blackness or flirting with satanism. Instead of trying to change people's minds, I settled for screwing with them. My friends and I wore our metalhead status like badges of honor: We all felt like outsiders for one reason or another, and it was no coincidence that we were all attracted to music that made difference into a source of pride.
It's this sense of self-imposed alienation from "normal" society that's a big part of metal's appeal. In her 1991 examination of the genre, Heavy Metal: A Cultural Sociology, Deena Weinstein aptly calls heavy-metal fans "proud pariahs." Metal has never been particularly trendy, even in its heyday, but that outsider element adds much to the music's appeal. "Some people get into music that's not really popular, like heavy metal, to make themselves distinct from their peers," Weinstein told me during a phone interview. "It makes sense that you'd be attracted to it. Teenagers use music to distance themselves from their parents, their upbringing."
There's also the sense of camaraderie and acceptance that is unique to metal fans (well, and Deadheads): a loyalty that borders on obsession. Metalheads are not casual fans. We memorize every word to every song of every album by our favorite bands, we wear tour T-shirts until they literally fall apart, we see our heroes in concert dozens of times, we spend hundreds of dollars on bootlegs and import LPs even if we don't have a turntable to play them on.
But though I was drawn to the outsider appeal of the music in the first place, it was difficult for me to forget my double outsider status at concerts, where guys would gawk and point at me and my metalhead clique as if we were Martians instead of black girls, and we could count the number of black faces on one hand. But once the lights went down and the band came onstage, we were all headbanging and moshing and howling the words to the songs. The music took over, and we could all share that universal bond of loving it, if only for a few hours.
Of course, as in all of rock's subgenres, female metal fans have had to walk that fine line between sighing teen-dream fandom and balls-to-the-wall solidarity. A lot of women embrace and identify with the music and musicians the same way male fans do, while also grafting very girly wantsand desires onto metal's aggressive vibes. We want to be tough and emulate our heroes and start our own bands--but, yeah, we also fantasize about hanging out with the guys, dating them, fucking them.
And so female fans found ways to connect with each other: as pen pals, chatting in the women's restrooms during concerts, at record stores, wherever we could. We even had our own magazine, the aforementioned Metal Edge, the late-'80s and early-'90s incarnation of which was a strange amalgam of Kerrang! and Tiger Beat. Glossy pinups and wall-size foldouts sat next to ads for instructional videos like How to Play Guitar like Yngwie Malmsteen and classifieds from aspiring musicians trying to start bands. Metal Edge never explicitly billed itself as a metal magazine for teen girls, but Gerri Miller, the magazine's longtime editor in chief, had an uncanny knack for appealing to the desires of female metalheads. One of my favorite sections was "When They Were Young," a three-page spread of B-level pop-metal bands' goofy baby photos and high-school yearbook pictures. ("That's how you knew that Metal Edge was really for girls," recalls my friend Christina. "No boy cares about what the guys from Slaughter looked like as babies.")
Was Metal Edge exploiting our conflicting desires? Maybe. But the magazine was one of the few forums where we female fans could simultaneously indulge our lustful groupie desires and our dreams of being in the band without losing our hard-core credibility.
By the time I entered college, I'd started to reconcile my identity and beliefs with my love for metal, but it was hard to leave my ambivalence behind. If saying that I'm a metalhead and a feminist sounds like a contradiction, then saying that I'm a feminist because of heavy metal probably sounds even more so. But metal did empower me. Because the music was so far away from my experience, it didn't place definitions on who I was or could be as a black female. When I listened to Metallica or Corrosion of Conformity, I wasn't a "bitch," a "ho," or some anonymous jiggling booty in a rap video; I wasn't a woman who needed rescuing by some dream-date pop star. I was someone who felt weird in high school, who wanted a place to belong.
Bands like Living Colour and Sepultura took things a step further by bringing a strong antiracist and political tone to their headbanging. Such bands helped me adapt my fandom to my personal ideals, and in turn I examined songs with a critical ear; refused to support bands with racist, sexist,or homophobic lyrics; and wrote angry letters to metal fanzines when they made racist comments. Most important, having the music as an emotional outlet made me feel safe to eventually explore my identity as a black woman and as a feminist, and to find strength in that as well.
Heavy-metal fandom doesn't hold the same place in my life that it did when I was thirteen; I try to keep up with the music, but I'm not deeply immersed in the fan culture. Maybe it's because now that I'm older, I have a greater understanding of my own identity and I don't need the music to help express my feelings or provide a sense of community.
In some ways, music fandom seems a lot more diverse than it was when I was a teen. Thanks at least in part to MTV, kids of different races and ethnicities have more music in common than even a decade ago. It's not uncommon to see a black or brown kid giddily requesting Papa Roach on Total Request Live, and hip hop has replaced rock as the soundtrack of adolescent rebellion for kids of every color. Black rockers like Living Colour and Fishbone and newer bands with multiracial lineups like Sevendust and the now-defunct Rage Against the Machine have made strides in crossing rock's color line.
But MTV and radio (including black stations) still don't know what to do with artists who don't fit any preexisting molds, like Me'Shell NdegéOcello or the black-female-fronted rock band Skunk Anansie. So instead of taking on the challenge of exploring black rock, mainstream media largely ignores it. Even now, we sistas who rock don't have a high-profile role model to identify with or emulate. The act of participation in rock music as musicians and as fans is still pretty subversive for black women--for black folks in general, really. I hope at some point the music industry will have the guts and good sense to support black rock, and young black women who want a harder sound than Tracy Chapman will be able to find the emotional connection I did, plus something more--a sense of being represented musically, culturally, and politically. But right now I'll settle for those rare but cherished moments when I spot a girl walking down the street sporting a 'fro and a Korn T-shirt. I'm reminded that we're still out there, challenging the racism and sexism in the industry and in fandom through writing fanzines, making websites, supporting black rock bands--and, if nothing else, messing with images of who the "average" metal fan is supposed to be.

Bloodletting
Female Adolescence in Modern Horror Films
Tammy Oler / SUMMER 2003
 

 

 

AH, MENARCHE. ANY GIRL WHO READ ANYTHING AS A PRETEEN can testify that young-adult novels, teen magazines, and other media specifically directed at teenage girls never fail to depict menstruation as an event that girls anxiously anticipate and celebrate. Yet the most memorable visual representation of a girl's first period tells a very different story. Brian De Palma's 1976 horror classic Carrie (adapted from Stephen King's novel) opens with a post--gym class shower-room scene in which high-school pariah Carrie White discovers blood creeping down her legs. She reacts as one might expect a girl oppressively sheltered by a religious-zealot mother to--that is, with utter panic. Her fear and confusion are met with cruelty: The nicer classmates simply wrinkle their noses at her cluelessness, but the bolder ones pelt her with tampons and maxipads, laughing and screaming, "Plug it up! Plug it up!"
It's a moment of excruciating vulnerability and humiliation, but it's also the moment when Carrie discovers the telekinetic power that she will ultimately use to wreak bloody revenge ('scuse the phrase) on her tormentors. The unforgettable opening scene prefigures Carrie's transformation from bullied menstruating girl to menacing, electric horror queen with startling symmetry, for Carrie is as much about puberty and menstruation as it is about revenge. The two narratives come to a head at the film's notorious end, and in the ensuing pig's blood--soaked violence, Carrie is not only unableto "plug it up," she does quite the opposite: She opens up completely, unleashing her vast, horrific female power on everyone in her path.
Never mind Judy Blume's Margaret; Carrie was my first introduction to the trials of female adolescence. Watching the film at age seven, I was vaguely aware of what it might mean to be a teenage girl, my impression formed by conversations I overheard between my preteen sister and our mother. But nothing prepared me for Carrie. My reaction to this set of images linking menstruation, humiliation, and supernatural power was a mixture of fear and fascination: I understood that Carrie's rage had put her firmly in the grip of evil by the end of the movie, but I was nevertheless in awe of her power. And I began to suspect that both rage and power had everything to do with becoming a woman.
Carrie is but one of a whole host of horror films of the '70s and '80s that feature narratives of a "possessed" girl--possessed by spirits or demons, or in possession of otherworldly powers. In Carrie, the convergence of possession and puberty takes place most powerfully during the onset of menstruation. Two other films of this period--1977's Audrey Rose and 1978's The Fury--reference this connection, with female characters whose possession symptoms become extreme with the physical launch of puberty, suggesting an intrinsic link between sexual maturation and susceptibility to the supernatural.
Carrie and her cohorts entered puberty at a time when the horror genre was obsessed with the female curse. The twenty years between 1970 and 1990 produced a multitude of narratives about possessed women, in addition to those about teenage girls, among them The Visitor (1979), Deadly Blessing (1981), The Incubus (1981), The Entity (1981), and Witchboard (1985). Similarly, horror of this period is full of narratives about satanic/demonic pregnancy, the most famous being Rosemary's Baby (1968) and The Omen (1976). In these films, possession takes place in women's wombs, and the horror of the film becomes both their literal inhabitation by evil and their capacity to reproduce demonic progeny.
In Men, Women, and Chain Saws, Carol Clover's extensive analysis of gender in modern horror, she notes the predominance of these "female portals" in film and notes that "where Satan is, in the world of horror, female genitals are likely to be nearby." According to Clover, to be a portal is to be"open" or susceptible to becoming possessed by satanic or supernatural powers--a reflection of the long-held historical view of women as both cursed and unclean. From the first mythic "open" woman, Eve, Western culture has defined women as more susceptible than men to the temptations of evil, and the language of horror pushes this notion one step further--in these films, women's very bodies become the Pandora's box that unleashes evil into the worldly domain.
For the adolescent girls of this horror-film genre, biology is destiny. Against their wills, their bodies become the site on, in, and through which the films' supernatural battles take place. And while these girls are ostensibly the films' subjects, the narrative action inevitably reduces them to being merely bodies themselves, with their actual experiences rarely investigated or explored. As much as we can identify with Carrie White's painful teenage reality--the bad skin, the social ostracism, the irrationally controlling mother--by the time prom night turns ugly, her humanity is all but gone. She's reduced to the ultimate self-destructive object of horror, and, like her victims, we're asked to react only with fear and terror, not with sympathy or pity.
The girls of supernatural horror suffer from the fact that they are too female, which makes them radically different from the subjects of slasher films, the other wildly popular '70s and '80s horror subgenre in which teenage girls figure prominently. The girl survivor of the slasher film is smart, resourceful, and tomboyish--she invariably has a boy's name and avoids the sexual activities that doom her female counterparts. She triumphs, ultimately, because she transcends her gender, a conversion that allows a predominantly male horror audience to identify with her victory over whatever ax-wielding psychopath menaces her. No such identification is prescribed in supernatural horror; instead of objectifying girls for an audience's uneasy sexual pleasure, supernatural and occult movies objectify them exclusively to produce horror and disgust in their viewers.
No film bears this out quite like The Exorcist, widely regarded as one of the scariest movies ever. While menstruation is not explicit in the film, the story's preoccupation with blood and bodily fluids, as well as the adolescent anxieties that Linda Blair's Regan MacNeil faces (puberty, divorce, an absentee father, jealousy for her mother's attention), suggests that possessionis invoked to mask other forces at work. Throughout the film, Regan's small adolescent body is subjected to as much abuse by her would-be saviors as by her demon possessors. We watch with equal horror the excruciating battery of medical testing Regan endures and the disgusting manipulations of her demon possessors. Regan transforms from girl to female portal so thoroughly that her character's only cry for help is literally written on her body ("help me" spelled out in the raised skin of her stomach). At the end of the film, when an enraged Father Karras, the titular exorcist, physically assaults Regan, the audience barely registers any shock. In no other film context would the act of a grown man punching a teenage girl be acceptable, or even understandable. Yet the action that immediately follows--Karras is himself possessed and subsequently hurled out the window to his death--makes it clear that this is really his story and not that of the young girl left crying in the corner of her room. Regan spends the few remaining moments of the film gaunt and silent, hardly even a witness to her own terrifying trials. No longer "open" (at least not until the sequel) thanks to Karras's sacrifice, she becomes useless as the object of horror--and as the subject of the film.
Growing up on a steady diet of horror movies, I identified something in these images that attracted me in a way that images of girls in nonhorror films never could: As much as becoming a woman in these films is a curse, it is also a source of tremendous power. Made during the height of public discourse about women's liberation and reproductive rights, these films signal a preoccupation with issues raised by feminism. They propose a distinctly feminine source of power that must hide behind a satanic or otherworldly guise, too terrible to recognize and too destructive to respect. In this light, Carrie White's metamorphosis from frightened menstruating girl to force of nature is the ultimate ascendancy to womanhood. Struggling with adolescent insecurities and baffling, embarrassing transformations in their own bodies, these characters unleash the monstrous beginnings of girl power.
I don't mean to suggest that these images are actually positive, but possession has the potential to be a compelling metaphor for female adolescence, with its attendant social anxieties and bodily mysteries. Coupled with slasher films and their grim female survivors, '70s and '80s horrorfilms told dark coming-of-age tales at a time when adolescent girls were virtually invisible elsewhere in celluloid. With a few notable exceptions, like Fast Times at Ridgemont High and the Molly Ringwald-ruled realm of John Hughes, films about adolescence during this period--exemplified by Breaking Away (1979) and The Outsiders (1983)--were dominated by boys.
I'm keenly aware of the limits of such images and our ability to reclaim them; no matter how powerful these girls become or how much they challenge ideas of acceptable behavior, they are never truly agents of their own power. They are able to act only in relation to the greater forces that victimize them. Thrills aside, these films come dangerously close to pressing the conclusion that being female is, in reality, the ultimate horror.
It's this conclusion that's at the center of the 2000 film Ginger Snaps, a departure from the clichés of girls in horror and a paradigm shift for the genre. Instead of exploiting puberty as a means to inspire abhorrence in its audience, the film explores it as a complex and isolating part of female adolescence. Ginger Snaps reframes puberty within horror's werewolf narrative, shifting the experience of female adolescence away from transformation into portal to transformation into monster.
Curiously, women have historically been all but absent as the subject of werewolf films--a strange oversight, given that the connection between menstrual and lunar cycles seems like an exploitation no-brainer. In Ginger Snaps, lycanthropy becomes a means to explore the awkward experience of first menstruation; after title character Ginger suffers a werewolf attack shortly after her first period, the film plays on the double meanings of Ginger's physical changes, from suddenly robust body hair to painful cramps. When her younger sister Brigitte begins to suspect that Ginger is undergoing more than just "the most normal thing in the world," she observes, "Something's wrong--like more than you being just female." Her pointed equation between "female" and "wrong" speaks to the disdain the sisters feel throughout the film toward their female schoolmates and the loathsome condition of being a girl in general. (Ginger and Brigitte, who is fifteen, are--like Carrie White--both years late in starting their periods, a physical manifestation of their desire not to join the contemptible world of adulthood and sexuality.)
The more the film emphasizes the connection between femaleness andhorror, however, the more it radically divests the connection of its power. The loathing Ginger and Brigitte feel for their female peers has primarily to do with the world of sexual double standards they encounter among their peers. When discussing her disappointing first sexual experience, Ginger says flatly, "He got laid. I'm just a lay. He's a hero and I'm just a lay--a freak mutant lay." As if to respond to the clichés that express an essential, biological link between femaleness and horror, Ginger Snaps entreats us to examine how potentially damaging such links are for young girls. Ginger and Brigitte want out of the preoccupation with "boys, body, and fitting in" that their mother claims is the central experience of young womanhood.
And as if to continue the tradition of revenge in teen horror (and further Ginger Snaps' tie to Carrie), the film uses Ginger's violent transformation to point out adolescent sexual stereotyping. After she kills one of her many victims, Ginger tells Brigitte with a mixture of pride and despair, "No one ever thinks chicks do shit like this. A girl can only be a slut, a bitch, a tease, or the virgin next door." But despite this self-conscious objection to accepted female behavior, the film refuses to celebrate the mayhem wrought by Ginger, no matter how empowering it may seem to some.
Finally, the film never loses sight of its emotional center--the relationship between the sisters. As Ginger begins to transform beyond recognition, the film makes Brigitte the primary point of identification--she's been left behind, and her conscience concerning Ginger's feral violence is at odds with her need to protect her. We witness Brigitte's struggle to find a cure and save her older sister, yet simultaneously escape from beneath her increasingly menacing shadow.
 

TAKEN AS A WHOLE, THE PERVASIVE IMAGE OF THE ADOLESCENT girl as portal/monster in the language of horror reflects the power of female puberty to unsettle, disturb, and, at its extreme, horrify. As much as images like those in the likes of Carrie and The Exorcist offer the possibility of embracing a distinctly feminine source of power, they threaten to reduce girls to mere expressions of their biological essence. The tradition also presents the female body as a contested site: As the girls of these films transform into portal/monster, they move beyond the sexual and into the grotesque, revealing a significant cultural preoccupation with control over the expression of female sexuality by young women themselves.
Yet such metaphors have the capacity to reflect the complexity of adolescence, as in Ginger Snaps, where the experience of female puberty itself is varied, exhilarating, and traumatic. Finally, these films reflect the daunting task that real adolescent girls must face: how to forge their identity in relation to their emerging sexuality in a culture that continues to be radically undecided about how to view them.

The, Like, Downfall of the English Language
A Fluffy Word with a Hefty Problem
Gus Andrews / SUMMER 2003
 

 

 

IN A SEPTEMBER 2002 ARTICLE TITLED "COSMO'S CRASH Course in Office Talk," Cosmopolitan helpfully guided its readers' anxiety to a part of life they might not yet have agonized about: their speech. "If you're like many young women," the article confided, "you undermine your professional profile by littering your speech with words such as 'um', 'like,' and 'you know.'"
The article's author trotted out a series of career consultants to reinforce this idea. "Not only does using such words as 'like' and 'you know' make you seem unpolished and inexperienced," explained Kristen M. Gustafson, author of the book Graduate! Everything You Need to Succeed After College, who's quoted in the piece, "but it makes people disregard your ideas because you sound as if you don't have confidence in what you are saying."
Slang-bashing is nothing new. Along with rap, heavy metal, television watching, gum chewing, teen sex, and other faves, juvenile speech patterns are periodically written up as a sign of the decline of Western civilization. "Like," in particular, comes in for heavy abuse, thanks in part to the expression's longevity. While slang descriptors such as "groovy," "fresh," and "radical" were quick to fade into peculiar-sounding obsolescence, "like" has retained its currency in youth culture for over forty years.
The beatniks were the first group to be tarred with the "like" brush in the popular imagination. Maynard G. Krebs, the misappropriation of beatcool featured on early-1960s TV show The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, was known to pepper his lazy lines with "like." Whether beatniks actually said "like" or whether it was introduced into mainstream pop culture to exaggerate or mock the differences between beat speech and "normal" speech is unclear. Regardless, the word continued to be associated with youth--and, more specifically, with the fringe elements of youth culture--throughout the '60s and '70s. The 1986 BBC documentary series The Story of English linked the origins of "like" to the surf culture that emerged on the Southern California coast in the late 1950s. From there, the documentary hypothesizes, it headed inland to suburban malls, where it eventually fell into the vocabulary of the Valley Girl, that brainless, shopping-obsessed bimbo archetype native to California's San Fernando Valley.
Musician Frank Zappa and his fourteen-year-old daughter, Moon Unit, breathed life into the caricature with 1982's "Valley Girl," wherein Moon Unit parodied her motormouthed peers from Encino in a song that introduced the rest of the world to Val slang like "gag me with a spoon" and "grody." The teensploitation classic Valley Girl, which lovingly lampooned its namesake, followed in 1983.
More than a decade later, another teen movie--the Emma update Clueless, with its Val-speaking, white (or at least whitewashed) Beverly Hills teen socialites--presumed that the Valley dialect's cultural associations had shifted from brainless consumerism to a classier brainless affluence. This is probably why, when I asked a twelve-year-old student of mine in the South Bronx what it means to speak professionally--as opposed to, in her words, "talking ghetto"--she responded, "It means, like, you have to, like, talk like this."
Was she channeling the class implications of "like," or its race implications? It's hard to separate the two. Perhaps she got an earful of Hilary, the spoiled older sister in the African-American family on the early-1990s sitcom The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Hilary's accent was pure Val, and it certainly signaled upper-class status. Her speech patterns, along with those of her lawyer dad, preppy brother, and snooty butler, provided linguistic contrast to Will Smith's ghetto authenticity.
I grew up near the Valley itself, so "like" has subtly different class implications for me. My prep-school friends and I might well have agreed to meet at, like, the Wet Seal in the Galleria, like, this weekend. But we ignoredour own "bad" grammar when conjuring up the stupidest character we could imagine, an airhead whose rapid-fire speech was peppered with "like," "totally bitchin'," and "ohmigawd!" Put bluntly, Valspeak was white trash. We were supposed to abandon mall crawling for more sophisticated pursuits as we got older, and we were supposed to grow out of "like," too. Our parents looked out for our class standing. I got my first drubbing for using the word at age thirteen: A friend and I were in the car, talking excitedly and with abandon, when I realized that my stepmother and father were giggling in the front seat. Eventually, my stepmother turned around to face us and said, "Forty-three."
"Forty-three what?" I asked.
"You've said 'like' forty-three times in the last five minutes." She snickered.
Despite its rich history and subtle sociopolitical meanings, "like" is still just bad English to most adults, an error to be corrected. To linguists, fortunately, the phenomenon is worthy of more thought. In February 2002, the serendipitously named Muffy E. A. Siegel published a paper on "like" in the Journal of Semantics. Linguists are generally concerned with describing how words are used rather than with chastising the user, so the article is an assessment of the rules by which the word is deployed, with comments on where "like" challenges established linguistic theories.
Siegel hypothesizes that the use of "like" indicates that the speaker isn't committing to the accuracy of what she or he is saying. This can work in a number of ways. For example, in the phrase "Like, a giant moose knocked our tent over," "like" could be taken to modify the whole phrase, in which case the speaker is giving one example of many things that went wrong on a camping trip. It could be modifying "moose," signaling that the speaker is employing hyperbole (it could have been a small deer that knocked the tent over). Or, more simply, it could mean the speaker wasn't clear on exactly what kind of animal had knocked down the tent. (Granted, this is not a new concept. Even my father, who laughed along with my stepmother's "like" tally, will defend his phrasing "like, five cars at the show" to mean "about" or "approximately.")
Siegel does not address the use of the word "like" in the phrase "was like," where it replaces "said." (For example: "I was like, 'That dog has got to go,' and she was like, 'What? He's such a sweet dog,' and I was like, 'He's peed on the carpet four times this morning.'") But her theory works by extension:"Was like" is a good way for a speaker to indicate that the dialogue she is re-creating should not be taken as the exact words spoken by the participants. This extension also makes a place in English for the phrase "And she's all ..."
Siegel's understanding of "like" as a modifier places the word among "maybe," "possibly," "you know," and similar phrases known as hedges. So it's not surprising that "like" is associated more with women than with men. Since the 1970s, sociolinguists have noted that women often use hedges to soften the impact of their statements. What would-be grammar police (like the Cosmopolitan article's author) don't acknowledge is that hedges say less about an individual woman's lack of confidence than they do about society's expectation that women not be assertive.
Either way, it seems to be a good idea to help young women root "like" out of their speech entirely. But Siegel also offers a more positive perspective on the use of the word. Studying twenty-three tape-recorded interviews of high-school honors students--both boys and girls--from suburban Philadelphia, Siegel found that spontaneity of speech, not insecurity, was most strongly correlated with a flurry of "likes."
While she found that girls did use "like" much more often than boys, she also discovered that speakers of either gender said it less often when they had more time to plan what they were saying. The speaker's comfort, level and the informality of the setting also seemed to increase the use of "like." "Happily," Siegel concludes, "if girls use 'like' more than boys, it may indicate as much a gift for intimacy and spontaneity as insecurity."
Alas, fewer young women probably read the Journal of Semantics than Cosmo, so the results of this survey are unlikely to do much to break the vicious cycle that plagues "like" users: You don't feel confident in what you're saying, so you use "like"; your parents pick on you for saying "like," so you feel less confident in what you're saying; you say "like" more, they pick on you again, and on it goes.
The thrust of popular language use will never sway the gatekeepers of the English language. While "like" and other nonstandard usages spread to their very living rooms, they still cling to the shibboleth that bad English displays the speaker's stupidity. Meanwhile, my twelve-year-old student determines the meaning of "like" from Clueless's Cher and Dionne. What happens when she meets my stepmother, or the Cosmo article's author? Willshe try to speak Val in an attempt to raise her class standing? How many potential employers will dismiss her as incompetent, either for her adopted Valspeak or for her native South Bronxese?
You can't maintain linguistic purity by sheer force of will, or even through English classes. People don't have to be taught language to learn it. Babies are naturally wired to learn language by example, whether via parents or TV. By now, kids who've never heard of a Valley Girl are surely learning to say "like" from their parents. They may be admonished by those same parents not to use the word; they may learn to code-switch, turning off their use of the word in formal situations--but it's not likely that they'll give it up. Despite attempts to stigmatize it, "like" will live on.
What can Cosmo's job consultants do about it, aside from undermining more women's confidence? According to Siegel, they'll have to deal with it. "The language mavens always say, 'Oh, they're wrecking the language,'" she told The Philadelphia Inquirer in 2002. "And it's always girls and working people [who are blamed for it]. But languages change because they need to change. There are so many more girls and working people than there are language mavens."

Teen Mean Fighting Machine
Why Does the Media Love Mean Girls?
Gabrielle MOSS / WINTER 2005
 

 

 

LIKE ALMOST ALL FIRST DAYS OF HIGH SCHOOL IN CINEMA history, that of Cady Heron, protagonist of Mean Girls (2004), goes poorly. A practical, homeschooled teen raised in Africa by zoologist parents, Cady is mystified by the social customs of American high schoolers and confused by teachers who don't trust her; she ends up eating her lunch alone in the girls' bathroom. Cady, who apparently has never had a negative or hostile thought in her life, is quickly accosted by two very different types of mean girls: the sarcastic "art freak" Janis and the bitchy clique the Plastics. Cady is enlisted in a revenge scheme Janis has hatched against head Plastic Regina George, but soon finds herself enjoying the perks of popularity enough to attempt to unseat Regina and become Queen Bee herself.
Mean Girls spins a fairly pedestrian yarn about the seduction (and subsequent redemption) of an innocent outsider by the posh lifestyles and flexible morals of the popular kids. But while most teen films are based on a potent mix of recalled adolescent fantasies and repressed memories, Mean Girls was based on a bestselling self-help book--Rosalind Wiseman's 2002 book Queen Bees and Wannabes: Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends, and Other Realities of Adolescence--that's one of the central texts of a movement that for the past few years has galvanized parents and their daughters against an alleged epidemic of meanness in their midst.
Spearheaded by Queen Bees, Rachel Simmons's 2002 book Odd Girl Out:The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls, and mentoring/workshop programs like the Ophelia Project, the battle against mean girls ostensibly focuses on teaching girls responsibility for their actions and solidarity with their peers. A natural extension of the girl power quasifeminism of the '90s, the fight against mean girls purports to address a problem overlooked by adults and bring it to an audience of youth and their parents.
A closer examination of the assumptions behind the anti-mean-girls movement, however, reveals a far more complicated situation. Though its tenets are beneficial to girls, mean-girls theory also has a dark side, where harmful female stereotypes are given a girl power-savvy spin and spouted by the very people who claim to be working in girls' best interests. The media's reception of the subject raises some disturbing questions about girls, power, and society, and the assumptions inherent in mean-girls rhetoric could leave a powerful and troubling mark on teen culture.
Mean-girls theory dates back to the pioneering 1992 book Of Mice and Women: Aspects of Female Aggression, which featured work by (among others) editors Kaj Björkqvist and Pirkko Niemelä, whose studies have been mentioned in almost every article on the girl-bullying phenomenon. In a study of gender and aggression among preteen girls, Björkqvist claimed that women were more likely to display anger "relationally," within the context of their social relationships, rather than in the physical way that's traditionally perceived as "aggressive." Distilling the major forms of relational aggression--gossiping, rumor spreading, socially isolating one's peers--through subsequent study, researchers concluded that when it was given equal weight to physical and more outright verbal expressions of anger, women were just as aggressive as men.
Around the same time, pop psychologists were taking notice of the inner lives of teenage girls. Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls, Mary Pipher's 1994 bestseller on the dangers of being young, American, and female, described female adolescence as tumultuous, scary, and a "hurricane" from which "no girl escapes." Pipher's work lent teenage girls and their problems a respect they rarely received in popular culture but said little about the possible role of suppressed aggression. This idea was left untouched until Lyn Mikel Brown's 1998 study of teen-girl anger and aggression, Raising Their Voices. Brown made explicit her intention to contradict the image, by then well developed, of the teen girl as victim. Advocating"healthy" anger (as opposed to "destructive" aggression) as crucial to girls' self-respect, she linked it to the development of "strong voices" and the ability to "actively resist dominant cultural notions of femininity."
While Brown's book didn't cause quite the sensation of Ophelia et al., by the time it was published her topic was more relevant than ever. Taking its cues from the politically aware riot-grrrl culture, the '90s girl power phenomenon--typified by postmodern (and feminism-literate) teen thrillers like Scream and Jawbreaker, a new national mania for women's soccer, and the Spice Girls--championed a kind of wholesome, boisterous aggression. Though girl power, less a movement than a marketing pitch, stopped short of recognizing the many reasons a girl might have to be angry, it nailed the connection between self-esteem and the ability to display aggression in the dual meaning of one of the era's popular slogans: "Girls Kick Ass."
By the end of the '90s, any truly empowering elements of girl power had been lost in its marketing blitz, and pop psychologists seemed to lose interest in teen girls--until 2002, when "mean girls" became a media buzz phrase. Wedding Björkqvist's theories of relational aggression to Reviving Ophelia's take on girlhood under siege, the mean-girls zeitgeist proclaimed by Queen Bees and Wannabes, Odd Girl Out, and others transformed teen girls from victims to victimizers. Mean girls made the cover of Newsweek and were the subject of hand-wringing everywhere from The Washington Post to Oprah.
But an examination of the mean-girls coverage reveals a media interested in a few things besides girls' self-esteem.
Much of the coverage focused on Queen Bees, with its breezy tone and sound-bite-ready quotes. But its popularity may also stem from Wiseman's dark, not-so-sympathetic depiction of teenage girls. Despite good intentions, Queen Bees has some weak points that can be (and have been) interpreted as license to denounce girls as catty and shallow.
Wiseman presents her book as a relatively lighthearted guide to the adolescent heart of darkness she terms "Girl World." But in her reach for humor and hipness, she reinforces much of what she seeks to eliminate. Unlike Simmons, who locates the roots of girls' meanness in the cultural demands of niceness, Wiseman luridly promises to reveal the "nasty things" girls do to one another, but she doesn't take societal expectations regarding female aggression into account in explaining them. Though sherattles off the usual list of harmful media influences--music videos, sexualized advertising, etc.--she narrows her argument by asserting that girls themselves, not the popular culture that feeds them, are the "prime enforcer of these standards."
Furthermore, though Wiseman is genuinely interested in the health, safety, and success of teen girls, those reporting on her work are not. The revelation of the news articles and TV specials that followed the 2002 release of Queen Bees and Odd Girl Out was not that America had created an emotionally stifling culture for its daughters that sometimes caused them to act out in calculated and hurtful ways, but that girls were, well, mean. The constructive ideas suggested by Wiseman, Simmons, and others for promoting self-esteem and challenging the teen social system were left out of nearly every article on the subject. In a March 2002 article in The Observer (U.K.), Tim Field, author of Bullycide (and presumably an authority on this sort of thing), declares girls "better" at bullying than boys and is "appalled" by the lengths to which girls go to commit acts of relational aggression. A 2002 episode of Oprah on "the hidden culture of girls' aggression" revolved not around the question of why popularity has become paramount to teen girls' existence or how that might be changed, but, as Oprah.com summarized it, "Why are girls so mean?" Questions of cultural and social responsibility for girls' well-being were quickly lost in the sensationalistic and frequently sexist rush to reveal "the truth" about girls. In the ensuing melee, the authors' compelling ideas were spun into stereotypes disguised as social science.
At best, mean-girls theory has been lumped in with the larger field of bully psychology, completely ignoring the gender element except when it provides a little added titillation. At worst, the subject has become a safe cover for hostilities and fears about teenage girls and their power. The media's interest seems to be less about spreading awareness of behavior that hurts girls than about the potential of having real, psychological proof that the only asses girls kick are each other's.
While most of the media dust has settled around this "crisis," mean-girls theory has left its imprint on pop culture. One of the most obvious is the aforementioned film, which alternately embraces and mocks its source material, one moment parodying the idea that "meanness" is something that can be exorcised, the next suggesting that one can be reformedwith some well-timed apologies. The film showcases, at its dramatic turning point, a style of consciousness-raising that Wiseman developed for her youth-mentoring program. When hostilities are high and all the film's female students are mad at each other, they must engage in a practice Wiseman calls "owning up," which entails a girls-only group publicly apologizing to each other. (Curiously, the practice was omitted from the curriculum for boys that Wiseman later developed.) Mean Girls scoffs at the act's potential to heal wounds--in fact, it shows the possibly more realistic outcome of dividing the girls further.
However, when Cady does her own "owning up" after being elected prom queen, it achieves the desired forgiveness, and in the end everyone hangs out in one big, nonjudgmental group. But the plot points that take them there are suspect: Innocent Cady doesn't become a Machiavellian power puppeteer because she has anger to vent; she does so just because it's so damn easy. Conversely, the film's end finds former Queen Bee Regina channeling her hostility into a new life as a lacrosse player, suggesting that her anger didn't stem from any specific place, and that her emotional health is simply dependent on "burning it off" in a socially acceptable manner. Likewise, sarcastic Janis is mellowed by the love of mathlete Kevin G. (These are, of course, age-old ideas for how to calm overly aggressive women.) And in the "owning up" scene, a teacher--played by the film's screenwriter, Tina Fey--comments, in response to a question about the girls' self-esteem, that self-esteem is not the issue: "They seem pretty pleased with themselves."
The mean girl has been absorbed as a pop culture figure, while any insight regarding how she got that way (or the degree of cultural change necessary to eliminate her kind) is forgotten. Self-help has been traded for a more traditional moralizing. Plus, it's supposed to be funny. In boycentric films like Lord of the Flies, Bully, and the recent Mean Creek, teen male anger--which frequently erupts in violence--is given serious moral dimension; in contrast, Cady does no real soul-searching because her anger is presented as slapstick. (Interestingly, the '80s teen classic Heathers, Mean Girls' obvious precursor, did involve anger erupting into murder yet was also billed as a comedy.)
Despite all this, the mean-girls craze may have opened the door for a cultural discussion about the importance of female friendship. Talkingabout what girls will put up with for friendship--pursuing it with a passion previously ascribed only to romantic relationships--can lead to a greater understanding of the crucial role that female friendships play in girls' lives, as important as any romance. And tween/teen media featuring nonmean girls does thrive: The protagonists of popular TV shows like Lizzie McGuire and That's So Raven value close female friends, and then there's that thriving straight-to-video empire created by Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen. A T-shirt sold last summer at the tween chain Rave Girl made an even bolder statement: Emblazoned with "Hilary's Best Friend" (referring to Hilary Duff), it's a powerful counterpoint to those "Mrs. Kutcher" and "Mrs. Lachey" Ts that also made the rounds last year. Sure, there must be a lot of competition to be Hilary's best friend, but it would be a joy comparable (or even superior) to wedding a pop idol.
Anti-mean-girls rhetoric sounds feminist because it's nominally about empowering girls; but, once filtered through popular media, it doesn't ask girls to explore their anger or aggression, nor does it address why they're expected to be "nice"--and, more important, how being nice doesn't always leave room for being smart, strong, capable, independent, or adventurous. What could've been a teen feminist movement, touching on some of the great unrecognized truths about life as a girl, ultimately became nothing more than a tired recapitulation of the good girl/bad girl game, with all its attendant moralism. The mean-girls debates could have helped transform the way teenage girls are encouraged to think and act toward each other. But in the end, all we got was another catfight.
Copyright © 2006 by Lisa Jervis and Andi Zeisler

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Table of Contents

Forword
Margaret Cho

Introduction

CHAPTER 1
Hitting Puberty

Amazon Women on the Moon: Remembering Femininity in the Video Age, Andi Zeisler, Winter 1996

Rubyfruit Jungle Gym: An Annotated Bibliography of the Lesbian Young Adult Novel, Lisa Jervis, Winter 1998

Stormin' Norma: Why I Love the Queen of Teen, Andi Zeisler, Winter 1998

Sister Outsider Headbander: On Being a Black Feminist Metalhead, Keidra Chaney, Fall 2001

Bloodletting: Female Adolescence in Modern Horror Films, Tammy Oler, Summer 2003

The, Like, Downfall of the English Language: A Fluffy Word with a Hefty Problem, Gus Andrews, Summer 2003

Teen Mean Fighting Machine: Why Does the Media Love Mean Girls?, Gabrielle Moss, Winter 2005

CHAPTER 2
Ladies and Gentlemen: Femininity, Masculinity, and Identity

Urinalysis: On Standing Up to Pee, Leigh Shoemaker, Fall 1997

The Collapsible Woman: Cultural Response to Rape and Sexual Abuse, Vanessa Veselka, Winter 1999

The Princess and the Prankster, Two Performers Take on Art, Ethnicity, and Sexuality, Karen Eng, Fall 2002

What Happens to a Dyke Deferred?: The Trouble with Hasbians and the Phenomenon of Banishment, Athena Douris and Diane Anderson-Minshall, Fall 2002

On Language: You Guys, Audrey Bilger, Fall 2002

Skirt Chasers: Why the Media Dresses the Trans Revolution in Lipstick and Heels, Julia Serano, Fall 2004

Fringe Me Up, Fringe Me Down: On Getting Dressed in Jerusalem, Danya Ruttenberg, Winter 2005

Screen Butch Blues: The Celluloid Fate of Female Masculinity, Keely Savoie, BITCHfest 2006

Dead Man Walking: Masculinity's Troubling Persistence, Brendan O'Sullivan, BITCHfest 2006

CHAPTER 3
The F Word

And Now a Word from Our Sponsors: Feminism for Sale, Rita Hao, Fall 1998

I Can't Believe It's Not Feminism! On the Feminists Who Aren't, Julie Craig, Spring 2002

Celebrity Jeopardy: The Perils of Feminist Fame, Rachel Fudge, Winter 2003

Unnatural Selection: Questioning Science's Gender Bias, Keely Savoie, Spring 2004

On Language: Choice, Summer Wood, Spring 2004

Laugh Riot: Feminism and the Problem of Women's Comedy, Andi Zeisler, BITCHfest 2006

Girl, Unreconstructed: Why Girl Power Is Bad for Feminism, Rachel Fudge, BITCHfest 2006

CHAPTER 4
Desire: Love, Sex, and Marketing

In Re-Mission: Why Does Redbook Want to Keep Us on Our Backs?, Amy Harter, Spring 1997

Hot and Bothered: Unmasking Male Lust, Lisa Jervis, Fall 1997

I Heard It Through the Loveline: And Misinformation Just Might Make Me Lose My Mind, Heather Seggel, Spring 1998

The New Sexual Deviant: Mapping Virgin Territory, Carson Brown, Winter 2000

Envy, a Love Story: Queering Female Jealousy, Anna Mills, Summer 2001

Fan/Tastic Voyage: Rewriting Gender in the Wide, Wild World of Slash Fiction, Noy Thrupkaew, Spring 2003

Hot for Teacher: On the Erotics of Pedagogy, Jennifer Maher, Spring 2004

Holy Fratrimony: Male Bonding and the New Homosociality, Don Romesburg, Summer 2004

CHAPTER 5
Domestic Arrangements

The Paradox of Martha Stewart: Goddess, Desperate Spouse-Seeker, or Feminist Role Model?, Jennifer Newens, Fall 1996

Double Life: Everyone Wants to See Your Breasts--Until Your Baby Needs Them, Lisa Moricoli Latham, Fall 2002

Queer and Pleasant Danger: What's Up with the Mainstreaming of Gay Parents?, Margaret Price, Fall 2003

Mother Inferior: How Hollywood Keeps Single Moms in Their Place, Monica Nolan, Fall 2003

Hoovers and Shakers: The New Housework Workout, Sarah McCormic, Winter 2005

CHAPTER 6
Beauty Myths and Body Projects

Plastic Passion: Tori Spelling's Breasts and Other Results of Cosmetic Darwinism, Andi Zeisler, Fall 1998

Vulva Goldmine: The New Culture of Vaginal Reconstruction, Julia Scheeres, Winter 2000

Are Fat Suits the New Blackface? Hollywood's Big New Minstrel Show, Marisa Meltzer, Winter 2002

Busting the Beige Barrier: The Limits of "Ethnic" Cosmetics, Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, Fall 2004

Your Stomach's the Size of a Peanut, So Shut Up, Already: An Open Letter to Carnie Wilson, Beth Bernstein and Matilda St. John, Fall 2003

Beyond the Bearded Lady: Outgrowing the Shame of Female Facial Hair, Aimée Dowl, Spring 2005

CHAPTER 7
Confronting the Mainstream

Pratt-fall: Ten Things to Hate About Jane, Lisa Jervis and Andi Zeisler, with special guest vitriol by Rita Hao, Winter 1999

Marketing Miss Right: Meet the Single Girl, Twenty-First-Century Style, Andi Zeisler, Winter 2000

The God of Big Trends: Book Publishing's Ethnic Cool Quotient, Noy Thrupkaew, Spring 2002

The Black and the Beautiful: Searching for Signs of Black Life in Prime-Time Comedy, Lori L. Tharps, Summer 2002

I Kissed a Girl: The Evolution of the Prime-Time Lesbian Clinch, Diane Anderson-Minshall, Winter 2004

XXX Offender: Reality Porn and the Rise of Humilitainment, Shauna Swartz, Fall 2004

Bias Cut: Old Racism as New Fashion, Rachel Fudge, Fall 2004

CHAPTER 8
Talking Back: Activism and Pop Culture

Please Don't Feed the Models: A Day in the Life of an Urban Guerrilla, Kathy Bruin, Fall 1998

Refuse and Resist with Jean Kilbourne: How to Counteract Ad Messages, Laura Barcella, Winter 2001

Full Frontal Offense: Bringing Abortion Rights to the Ts, Rebecca Hyman, Winter 2005

Meet Anne: A Spunky, Adventurous American Girl, Anne Elizabeth Moore, Spring 2005

How to Reclaim, Reframe, and Reform the Media: A Feminist Advocacy Guide, Jennifer L. Pozner, BITCHfest 2006

The BITCHfest Resource List

About the Contributors

Acknowledgments

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