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Portraying Waretown High
As a new school year was about to begin, I spent many hours on the phone, chatting with high school teachers in California's Central Valley about my research interest. I was trying to find an advocate who would help me gain entrance into a school to conduct a comparative study of girls from different class and racial/ethnic locations. When I explained my interests, many of the teachers (all women) suggested I read Mary Pipher's 1994 bestseller Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls, popular among school teachers and parents. One even exclaimed, "Oh, you absolutely have to read this book if you are going to study girls." But I was too consumed with arranging access to a site and, once I made my way into a school, with getting to know several groups of girls to spend much time reading.
It was not until several months later that I picked up Pipher's book. By this time, I had come to know approximately sixty senior girls in multiple class- and race-organized cliques at the school I call Waretown High. Reading Reviving Ophelia, I found that some of the stories Pipher tells in her examination of that crucial transition between girlhood and adolescence resonated with Waretown girls' accounts of the trials they had suffered in junior high and early high school. Yet I felt uncomfortable with her summation of the influences on girls' lives.
THE LIMITATIONS OF GENDER
Pipher's title refers to the story of Ophelia, in Shakespeare's Hamlet, which "shows the destructive forces that affect young women. As a girl, Ophelia is happy and free, but with adolescence she loses herself. When she falls in love with Hamlet, she lives only for his approval. She has no inner direction.... When Hamlet spurns her, ... she goes mad with grief. Dressed in elegant clothes that weigh her down, she drowns in a stream filled with flowers" (20). Pipher laments over girls who only a year before ran and played sports, unconcerned about their appearance; girls who on reaching puberty became obsessed with body image and whose self-esteem plummeted as they were indoctrinated in the "junk values of mass culture." She tells stories of low self-esteem, eating disorders, difficulties with friendship, use and abuse of drugs and alcohol, sexual assault, suicide attempts, and at times, confusion over racial/ethnic belonging. Pipher asks why drugs and alcohol are so common among seventh-graders, why girls hate their parents, and what the meaning of body piercing may be. Other problems she lists as "less dangerous" but "more puzzling" are "school refusal" and "underachievement." Although I could not disagree with her finding that we live in "a girl-poisoning culture," I was disturbed by the way she framed the stories of girls she had counseled.
The week before, I had talked with a white girl named Tara, whom I found in the lunchroom, skipping class. A far cry from the blue-eyed, innocently vulnerable-looking adolescent girl on the cover of Reviving Ophelia, Tara had her purple-dyed hair tucked up messily in a rubber band, her short fingernails were painted black, and she wore two charcoal smudges of eye shadow, in a rather outdated-punk statement of nihilism. As she explained, "I wear black, 'cause it describes my mood." On top of her head sat her trademark sunglasses, which she usually hid behind in school but had lifted for our conversation. She wore torn-up cut-off jeans, combat boots (pseudo-brand Doc Martens), and an oversized tan polyester leisure-suit jacket she'd "scored" at the thrift store. Tara was regularly "tweaked" on crank; she was currently grounded for getting "an F+ and improving" on her report card (as she said with a proud chuckle); and she had told me that as a sophomore she "was throwing up all the time" (bulimic behavior). Now she was explaining that her last boyfriend, John, "taught me how to drink high class ... you know, drinking wine with food or something." This comment came on the heels of telling me about a fight she had had with a onetime friend named Jill: "I was pounding her head against the cement when the crowd broke it up." Jill's mother had recently married, and the stepfather's income had made a vacation to Hawaii possible. Tara was invited along, but her parents could not afford to pay for her trip, so Jill had taken another friend. After the trip, Tara reported, Jill "had all these new clothes. And she, I don't know, just changed. She stopped smokin' and started callin' us losers and lowlifes all the time." Tara, who expected she might have to return for a fifth year of high school in order to graduate, had made no plans beyond high school.
I had also spoken that week with Lorena, a Mexican-American girl I'd known for several months. As we sat at the concrete lunch tables in the courtyard, she played with her hair, running her fingers through it, tucking it up into a white scrunchy, only to pull it out again a minute later, tossing her head to direct the hair back over her shoulders out of the way. Her eyelashes were thick with mascara, her long nails were a deep burgundy color, and her lips were painted to match and carefully outlined with a darker shade. She wore white platform shoes, hip-hugger bell bottom jeans, and a tight cropped knit top, all in tune with the recent Seventies retro fashion trend. We had just come from a sewing class composed of white and Mexican-American girls, discussing, as one white girl put it, how "ridiculously dressed up some girls get just to go to the mall." She had carried on about how she preferred to dress very casually for shopping, in her most comfortable old jeans and a sweatshirt. Many in the group concurred, but I noted Lorena's silence. When I asked her about it, her answer pointed to the salience of being brown and the meanings associated with it: "I always dress up for the mall. Otherwise they think I'm shoplifting." A group of white girls walked past us, and Lorena began explaining to me why she "can't stand those rich girls." Using her best "valley girl" accent, she mimicked them saying, "Ohmigod, like I can't believe I left my cell phone in my car." Lorena had missed school three days that week because her father had hurt his back lifting a heavy carton on the loading dock at work. Her mother could not afford to miss work; neither could her older brother, who still lived at home and contributed to the family income with money he made working at the car wash. Consequently, Lorena was the only one able to stay home and care for her dad while he was down.
As she told me this, we walked past a wall display of poetry by students in an English literature class, one of which read: "College should reflect the dedication of the few, / for they all started in the same classroom, / and were given the same work to do." In casual conversation with her peers Lorena spoke of plans to attend the university and an interest in law. In reality, she had not taken the required courses for university admission; she hoped to go to a nearby community college after graduation but wasn't sure her parents could afford it.
Tara and Lorena were each members of friendship groups I came to know well, and these two groups of girls, along with many other groups, were on my mind as I read Pipher's description of girls' lives. During the months I had spent at Waretown High I had not come to see Tara and Lorena as mere victims of a mass culture that promotes their subordination based on gender. To do so would have been to define them solely by their gender and even within that to see them solely as victims. One thing Tara and Lorena had in common, in spite of their many differences, was that by their own naming they were not "preps," the predominantly white middle-class college-preparatory girls they so despised. As I read Reviving Ophelia, it struck me that Pipher's account of the "well-adjusted" girl, who exists before the alleged moment of poisoning or gender-subordinate indoctrination by mass culture, sounded suspiciously like a "prep," one of those girls at the high school who tended to be heavily involved in athletics or some other school-sanctioned extracurricular activity, who were high academic achievers, who usually wore looser, more unisex clothing and little or no makeup, and who were favored by teachers. In short, they were girls who performed a school-sanctioned version of femininity. Applauding girls with these characteristics, Pipher tells us that "androgynous adults are the most well adjusted ... since they are free to act without worrying if their behavior is feminine or masculine" (18).
But the girls I came to know, both white and Mexican-American, were not only worried about whether their actions were masculine or feminine; they were equally concerned with the race and, in a more convoluted way, the class meanings of their practices, or "performances," which, if they mimicked preps, would set them up in a competition where they could only fail. Less (or not only) victims of mass culture than creative users of it, girls who did not meet prep norms created alternative symbolic economies in which they earned and wore different "badges of dignity" (Sennett and Cobb 1972; MacLeod 1987). Their alternative versions of gender performance were shaped by a nascent knowledge of racial/ethnic and class hierarchies.
I confess—somewhat apologetically—that I am presenting Pipher as a straw person of sorts. (Admittedly, my knee jerked each time her tone suggested a girl in lipstick was in need of counseling.) But the fact that her book spent 154 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, ending in August 1998, justifies a close consideration of it. What I recognized as I read the book and thought about girls like Tara and Lorena was that Pipher's account of girls is too often void of the broader social context in which they live. Yet it is not surprising that such a book would find much appeal in our culture, where popular understandings of social phenomena are dominated by individualistic, psychological explanations and routinely lack any consideration of the effect of social structural forces on individual lives.
Although Pipher admits she is generationally far removed from girls today and so is uncertain of the meaning of their practices, a bigger limitation is perhaps less about generation than her unwillingness to more fully analyze the multiple social forces that shape girls' lives. Reminiscent of Carol Gilligan's (1982) early work, gender appears here as the most significant dimension of girls' selves, leaving race/ethnicity, class, and sexuality analytically subordinate. In centering gender, Pipher does not adequately explore the ways that girls' practices, especially the ones that disturb her (such as makeup, tattoos, piercing, drugs, school refusal), often mark hierarchical class and racial/ethnic relations among girls themselves and are not solely the consequence of gender inequality. The girls I had come to admire most, girls who faced the biggest odds in our multi-stratified society and whose strength and creative resistances inspired me, were not simply poisoned by a mass culture that teaches them gender inferiority. Girls do not define themselves only in relationship to boys in a heterosexual matrix; "one can 'become a woman' in opposition to other women" (Alarcón 1990, 360).
This is, of course, not to deny that discourses on gender are at work in shaping the identities and structuring the futures of the girls I came to know. But studies of girls often focus on early adolescence, describing young girls first encountering societal strictures on their gendered performances, whereas I spoke with young women who had come out on the other side with multiple ways of negotiating gender, along with other creative negotiations required by their living in a society stratified by race/ethnicity, class, and sexuality as much as gender. Girls performed different versions of femininity that were integrally linked to and inseparable from their class and racial/ethnic performances. Multiple social hierarchies were at work in the "styles" that girls like Tara, Lorena, and others employed.
The same week I read Reviving Ophelia, the author was featured on the front page of a USA Weekend insert in my local paper as a promoter of "family values." Contributing to the current moral panic about youth and fanning the flame of family values politics, Pipher, along with other moral entrepreneurs, decries elements of mass culture such as rap music, television, and pop psychology books as evidence that "our culture is at war with families" (quoted in Turner 1996, 4). The article notes that the family values "chorus" is "coming from all corners" and that Pipher's (1996) version has a liberal face. Indeed, although naming "family breakdown" as the cause for virtually all social ills is based on dubious social science, it has become a rallying cry across the political spectrum. As Judith Stacey explains, the "revisionist campaign for family values" of the political left (read centrist), like the political right, promotes the claim that two-parent heterosexual married couples and their biological children are superior families. But where the right tends to be explicitly antifeminist and homophobic, centrists opt for a "post-feminist family ethic" (1996, 52), which accommodates feminist ideals of gender equality by taking for granted that women have a right to education, equal wages, and a career, but then goes on to argue that women should choose to place familial needs above career (presuming that families have the luxury to make such a choice, which working-class families do not). This, they argue, is what is good for kids, good for families, good for America. The nostalgia present in family values discourse holds, among other things, a desire for youth to adhere to a middle-class ideal of appropriately timed life stages that includes an extended adolescence. Such a norm can be achieved when entry into the full-time job market can be delayed by extending school years to include college. But, of course, this is a route that working-class kids have historically rarely followed, entering adult roles sooner than their middle-class peers.
Coupled with the discourse on "family values" is the so-called "youth crisis," often coded black (and at times brown), which presumably includes too much sex (think teen pregnancy) and violence (think gangs). In political debate this "youth crisis" is rarely linked to the fact of downward mobility among middle-income working-class people, which has produced more low-income youth with uncertain futures and, in particular, an overrepresentation of youth of color among them. "Family values" discourse displaces a discussion of the increasingly gender- and race-shaped class hierarchy, shifting the focus from economic well-being to family structure. In addition to scapegoating family types, it makes youth itself a threatening enemy to be feared. Indeed, the shift of focus toward youth also works to displace finer analyses of growing inequality. All this became evident to me as I discovered that the lives of the girl-women I was studying were not so different from adult women's lives, as they too had encountered race discrimination in the job market, low wages in sex-segregated jobs, life choices shaped by avoiding abusive partners, partners who refused to accept parenting responsibilities, a search for low-cost child care, and a struggle to combine parenthood with work and school.
This book, then, presents an ethnographic portrait of working-class white and Mexican-American girls in their senior year of high school in a town in California's Central Valley. The context of these young women's lives includes a deindustrializing economy; the growth of service-sector occupations held largely by men and women of color and by white women; the related family revolutions of the twentieth century; the elimination of affirmative action; a rise in anti-immigrant sentiment; and changing cultural representations and iconographies of class, race, and gender meanings. These are social forces that render the very term "working class" anachronistic. My goal was to learn how these young women experience and understand class differences in their peer culture and how their and their parents' class location and racial/ethnic identity shaped the girls' perceptions of social differences at school and the possibilities for their futures.
I examined girls' experience of class difference and identity by documenting and analyzing the "common-sense" categories they used and created to describe and explain class-based differences among themselves. I documented the unspoken boundary work that was a part of everyday interaction among students; the kinds of interaction that reveal symbolic class distinctions and differences in "cultural capital" between working-class and middle-class girls. Most importantly, I have investigated the ways in which these common-sense class categories are infused with and intersect with gender and racial/ethnic meanings. While the most recent turns in feminist theorizing on identity and and experience argue for a stronger understanding of how women's gender identity differs within the category "woman" across racial/ethnic and class lines, at the time of my writing, the race-class-gender trinity remains more often asserted and thought through theoretically, textually, and historically than it is ethnographically explored. It is my hope to advance this body of theory by bringing ethnographic data to it, as I describe the lived experience of these intersections in the lives of the young women I studied and the discourses that construct those experiences.
Excerpted from Women without Class by Julie Bettie. Copyright © 2003 the Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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