The Modern Girl Around the World: Consumption, Modernity, and Globalization

The Modern Girl Around the World: Consumption, Modernity, and Globalization

by Alys Eve The Modern Girl around the World Research Group

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During the 1920s and 1930s, in cities from Beijing to Bombay, Tokyo to Berlin, Johannesburg to New York, the Modern Girl made her sometimes flashy, always fashionable appearance in city streets and cafes, in films, advertisements, and illustrated magazines. Modern Girls wore sexy clothes and high heels; they applied lipstick and other cosmetics. Dressed in provocative


During the 1920s and 1930s, in cities from Beijing to Bombay, Tokyo to Berlin, Johannesburg to New York, the Modern Girl made her sometimes flashy, always fashionable appearance in city streets and cafes, in films, advertisements, and illustrated magazines. Modern Girls wore sexy clothes and high heels; they applied lipstick and other cosmetics. Dressed in provocative attire and in hot pursuit of romantic love, Modern Girls appeared on the surface to disregard the prescribed roles of dutiful daughter, wife, and mother. Contemporaries debated whether the Modern Girl was looking for sexual, economic, or political emancipation, or whether she was little more than an image, a hollow product of the emerging global commodity culture. The contributors to this collection track the Modern Girl as she emerged as a global phenomenon in the interwar period.

Scholars of history, women’s studies, literature, and cultural studies follow the Modern Girl around the world, analyzing her manifestations in Germany, Australia, China, Japan, France, India, the United States, Russia, South Africa, and Zimbabwe. Along the way, they demonstrate how the economic structures and cultural flows that shaped a particular form of modern femininity crossed national and imperial boundaries. In so doing, they highlight the gendered dynamics of interwar processes of racial formation, showing how images and ideas of the Modern Girl were used to shore up or critique nationalist and imperial agendas. A mix of collaborative and individually authored chapters, the volume concludes with commentaries by Kathy Peiss, Miriam Silverberg, and Timothy Burke.

Contributors: Davarian L. Baldwin, Tani E. Barlow, Timothy Burke, Liz Conor, Madeleine Yue Dong, Anne E. Gorsuch, Ruri Ito, Kathy Peiss, Uta G. Poiger, Priti Ramamurthy, Mary Louise Roberts, Barbara Sato, Miriam Silverberg, Lynn M. Thomas, Alys Eve Weinbaum

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Rarely do collections offer both a compelling object of study and a sophisticated, portable method emanating out of concrete historical particulars. In doing so, the Modern Girl Around the World Research Group models collective feminist critique even as it illuminates new intellectual pathways and raises questions about the uneven terrain of the global and the analytical power of ‘connective comparison’ that will find interlocutors across an array of scholarly projects.”—Antoinette Burton, author of The Postcolonial Careers of Santha Rama Rau

“The study of the Modern Girl exemplified by this groundbreaking collection and research project will reconfigure the ways we understand modernity, globalization, gender, and consumption. This book is sorely needed.”—Caren Kaplan, co-editor of Between Woman and Nation: Nationalisms, Transnational Feminisms, and the State

“This is a truly revelatory work of international scope. The authors' innovative collaborative method and their theory of ‘multidirectional citation’ provide exciting new points of departure for the global history of gender formation and of everything else besides.”—Nancy F. Cott, Harvard University

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Duke University Press
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Next Wave: New Directions in Women's Studies
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The Modern Girl Around the World

Consumption, Modernity, and Globalization


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ISBN: 978-0-8223-4299-1

Chapter One

The Modern Girl as Heuristic Device

Collaboration, Connective Comparison, Multidirectional Citation


The Modern Girl emerged quite literally around the world in the first half of the twentieth century. In cities from Beijing to Bombay, Tokyo to Berlin, Johannesburg to New York, the Modern Girl made her sometimes flashy, always fashionable appearance. What identified Modern Girls was their use of specific commodities and their explicit eroticism. Modern Girls were known by a variety of names including flappers, gar çonnes, moga, modeng xiaojie, schoolgirls, kallege ladki, vamps, and neue Frauen. Adorned in provocative fashions, in pursuit of romantic love, Modern Girls appeared to disregard roles of dutiful daughter, wife, and mother. Contemporary journalists, politicians, social scientists, and the general public debated whether Modern Girls were looking for sexual, economic, or political emancipation. They also raised the possibility that the Modern Girl was little more than an image, a hollow product of clever advertising campaigns in the new commodity culture.

The signal contribution of our collaboration has been the discovery of the Modern Girl as a global phenomenon in the 1920s and 1930s. Our group, which has engaged in collaborative research and writing for seven years, is composed of faculty members at the University of Washington trained in literary criticism, history, cultural and feminist studies, and political economy and possesses regional expertise in Africa, Asia, Europe, and North America. This volume contains our efforts-in this introduction, in a case study that appears as chapter 2, and in individual chapters-to trace the Modern Girl's various colonial and national incarnations and to reveal linkages among the many geographic locations in which she appeared. This volume also includes chapters by scholars whose work on gender, modernity, and consumption has influenced our own, and with whom we have been in dialogue. We invited these scholars to consider, or to reconsider, their research in light of our group's two central questions: How was the Modern Girl global? And what made her so?

The first section of this introduction elaborates two techniques our group developed for answering these questions and entering debates about gender and globalization. These are the Modern Girl as heuristic device and the method of connective comparison. Subsequent sections discuss chapters in this volume in relation to six thematics that repeatedly emerge in our work and in that of other volume contributors: the modern, the girl, visual economies, nationalisms, commodities, and consumption.

The Modern Girl as Heuristic Device and the Method of Connective Comparison

We intentionally elected, at the outset, to employ the Modern Girl as a heuristic device. The adjective "heuristic" means "serving to find out or discover." A heuristic device cannot be taken as given a priori; rather, it emerges in and through the research process and possesses a future orientation. Visual representations of the Modern Girl allowed us to track her across the globe. Numerous iconic visual elements including bobbed hair, painted lips, provocative clothing, elongated body, and open, easy smile enabled us to locate the Modern Girl around the world in approximately the same years between World War I and World War II. These visual elements also allowed us to discern the linkages shaping specific phenomena across geographic and political boundaries. Our ability to call upon each other's regional expertise promoted recognition of underlying structures of commonality and difference specific to various nation-states, to different colonial and semicolonial regimes, and to diverse national and international corporate strategies.

Equally important, using the Modern Girl as a heuristic device allowed us to capitalize on unexpected research findings. In tracking corporate deployments of the Modern Girl in Indian and South African advertising campaigns, for example, Priti Ramamurthy and Lynn M. Thomas discovered the existence of Indian, black, and mixed-race Modern Girls in the late 1920s and early 1930s, more than a decade earlier than previous scholarship had suggested. This discovery of the near simultaneous appearance of Modern Girls around the world complicates widely accepted histories of commercial capitalism, consumption, and visual culture that presume the dissemination of "modernity" from Europe and North America to the rest of the world in the post-World War II period.

In using the Modern Girl as a heuristic device we were able to learn from each other about economic and political processes in geographic locales other than those in which we individually conducted research, and, consequently, we were able to develop the method we label connective comparison. Connective comparison avoids recourse to abstract types and instead focuses on how specific local processes condition each other. It scrutinizes the idea of discrete temporal and geographic locations by positioning specific local developments in conversation with those occurring elsewhere in the world. In so doing, it highlights the inchoate manner in which things previously understood to be local come into being through complex global dynamics. Connective comparison is, thus, a method that neither reads peculiar phenomena as deviations from an abstracted "norm" nor one that measures such developments against those postulated by theories of inevitable modernization. Rather, it puts into practice Johannes Fabian's insight that the time of modernity is lateral and simultaneous, not evolutionary or stagist. Connective comparison avoids establishing temporal priority in a manner that privileges linear causality.

Notably, working in collaboration facilitated the method of connective comparison. Only in very rare instances can one person handle the multiple languages and historical contexts that such research demands. To pay more than lip service to the diversity and commonality that characterize globalization, regional and disciplinary specialists must agree, as we have, to bring individual expertise to bear on a shared set of questions. Members of our group, who work in Chinese, English, French, German, Hindi, and Swahili, have thus together employed the method of connective comparison. In turn, this enabled us to track the Modern Girl's specific manifestations and also to demonstrate the simultaneity of modernist aesthetics and aspirations without turning the simultaneity discovered into either sameness or equivalence.

Among our most important findings is that in any given geopolitical location, above all else, the Modern Girl was distinguished from other female figures and representations by her continual incorporation of local elements with those drawn from elsewhere. We have termed such incorporation multi-directional citation. We define it as the mutual, though asymmetrical, influences and circuits of exchange that produce common figurations and practices in multiple locations. In our usage, multidirectional citation pertains to both actual Modern Girls, historical agents who produced and performed new appearances and subjectivities by incorporating elements from disparate locations, and to representations of these new appearances and subjectivities. Figures 1.1 through 1.5 in this introduction are examples of such representations. In chapter 2, our collaborative case study on cosmetics advertising, we illustrate our method of connective comparison and the existence of multidirectional citation by locating the circulation, interaction, and entanglement of images and ideas of the Modern Girl within and across specific colonial, national, and international hierarchies.

Taken together, the Modern Girl as a heuristic device, the method of connective comparison, and the associated concept of multidirectional citation have enabled us to engage current debates about globalization. In most recent scholarship globalization describes processes of economic and cultural integration specific to the second half of the twentieth century. By contrast, this volume provides a study of globalization before the invention of the term. Though some scholars have argued that economic globalization is as old as capitalism, we are less interested in identifying its origins than in providing a nuanced analysis of how global commodity and cultural flows shaped modern femininity across geopolitical locations. To this end, and in contrast to previous studies of moga, garçonnes, modeng xiaojie, neue Frauen, and flappers that focus on one nation or, at best, bilateral relations between a nation and its formal colonies, we examine the Modern Girl's global emergence through economic structures and cultural flows stretching beyond such discrete and circumscribed boundaries. In our case study of cosmetics advertising and in individual chapters, U.S. corporations emerge as a major source and as the most important international distributor of imagery associated with the Modern Girl, especially because of U.S. preeminence in the international distribution of advertising and film. However, we suggest that processes of Americanization were not uniform and should instead be understood in relation to British, European, and Japanese colonialism and the international circuits through which corporations, cultural workers, and image makers operated. On this point our analysis resonates with Richard Wilk's argument that globalization comprises a series of social and economic processes through which commonalities are expressed differentially-as what he calls "structures of common difference." For us, the multi-directional citations that shaped the Modern Girl reveal such "structures of common difference."

Our group arrived at a shared set of questions about the Modern Girl through our prior individual research on gender, political economy, and cultures of consumption in twentieth-century Africa, Asia, Europe, and North America. Over the course of our collaboration we have disagreed on numerous issues about how to ask and answer questions. At times, our divergent disciplinary frameworks have proven difficult to reconcile. These differences are evident in our individual chapters. And, yet, it is our sense-more vivid now in retrospect-that these differences have also constituted an invaluable asset. Sharing area and disciplinary expertise as well as our individual research findings with one another, each of us was continually reminded that no one place or single process can stand as the "model" or the determinative force in making the Modern Girl global. Such sharing prompted us to develop a methodology that refuses temporal progression as the basis of comparison.

Once formed in 2000, our Seattle-based research group organized a multi-year speakers' series, inviting scholars from other institutions to the University of Washington to engage with our questions and findings. Miriam Silverberg was the first scholar whom we invited, as her pioneering essay on the Modern Girl in interwar Japan had inspired our initial work. Her comments, along with those by Timothy Burke and Kathy Peiss, conclude this volume. Chapters by other scholars who shared their work with us follow this introduction. In 2001, Tani Barlow spent six months at the Institute for Gender Studies at Ochanomizu Women's University in Tokyo, where she worked with Ruri Ito to form a Tokyo-based sister research group, "The Modern Girl and Colonial Modernity in East Asia." In September 2004, our two groups cosponsored a workshop at Ochanomizu at which several of the chapters collected in this volume were first presented. What you are reading may aptly be described as a retrospective account of our journey: an introduction by way of conclusion.

The Modern

The Modern Girl as heuristic device opens up an obvious, if difficult, question: What made her "modern"? In answering this question, volume contributors examine how the Modern Girl was singled out as a marker of "modernity"-a concept that scholars in the humanities and social sciences have long sought to limn and define. Earlier conflation of "modern" and "Western" has been challenged by those who have sought to emphasize how academic and popular discussions of modernity inevitably create hierarchies that posit some societies as "ahead" and others as "catching up." Others have treated the problem of fascist modernity and its relationship to capitalism and liberal democracy. Still others have challenged the notion of a singular modernity, arguing that modernity ought to be understood as "multiple"-as composed of "alternative" or "parallel" forms forged through the complex interplay of imperial and indigenous social formations and politics. Some scholars working in regional Asia have put forward "colonial modernity," a concept that stresses the colonial roots of revolutionary modernization and the markets and civic institutions that linked "semicolonial" areas, including parts of China, to the larger capitalist world system. Others remind us that those living in areas of Africa that have experienced profound economic decline in recent decades often feel "cheated" out of modernity's promises.

This volume intervenes in discussions that decenter the idea of Western modernity through treatment of the multifaceted linkages-ideological, aesthetic, and material-among the locales in which the Modern Girl emerged. It pays attention to how people in different contexts understood the Modern Girl as modern. And it explores how dominant modernist ideologies-such as those of individual autonomy, scientific racism, and social reform-conditioned the Modern Girl's global emergence. This volume also pays particularly close attention to how modernist aesthetics emanating from multiple contexts shaped and were shaped by what we refer to as "the Modern Girl look": the Modern Girl's surface or image and its representation. Indeed, most contributors to this volume examine how a Modern Girl-either an actual historical actor or a representational strategy-became recognizable, consumable, and locally intelligible. For, ultimately, this volume argues that debates over the Modern Girl always relied upon and reworked notions of modernity and femininity (and, consequently, also ideas of masculinity) in specific locales. For contemporaries the Modern Girl was a harbinger of both the possibilities and dangers of modern life.


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Meet the Author

Alys Eve Weinbaum is an Assistant Professor of English, University of Washington.

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