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Girl Press, the publishing house that issues both of these texts for budding fem-teens, claims to offer "slightly dangerous books for girl mavericks," and does so with these and other titles such as Girl Boss: Running the Show Like the Big Chicks, Girl Director: Making Your Own Chick Flick, and Zine Scene: The Do-It-Yourself Guide to Zines. It's a publishing house with a purpose, as explained in the latter pages of its books: "Girl Press is dedicated to creating books for girls that will make them strong, self-reliant, and ready for life's adventures. Girl Press backs up this message by donating a portion of its proceeds to nonprofit organizations working for girls." A laudable purpose, certainly, and the press gives good effort toward its goals by offering The Real Rules for Girls and Cool Women: The Thinking Girl's Guide to the Hippest Women in History.
It goes without saying (but I'll say it anyway) that the current state of literature for teenage and pre-teen girls is lacking a great deal in the progressive thinking department. Admittedly, I'm not completely up-to-date on today's reading lists for teenage girls, but judging from magazines such as Seventeen and serial novels that are basically prequels to bosom-heaving historical romance schlock, much content directed toward this demographic seems designed to bolster insecurities rather than inner strengths. Pointing out flaws and feeding self-consciousness is a great marketing tool for makers of "feminine" products (cosmetics, hygiene, special diets)-like cigarette companies, they realize it's good to create that false sense of "need" at a young age (it drives things like brand awareness, which can last a lifetime). The "good economy" of the past decade also means that certain young girls have increasingly larger disposable incomes-and insecurity + income = a sure-fire formula for consumption. Additionally, and somewhat ironically, teen-girl content tends to focus on boys (as in the boys the teenage girls must "get" in order to have the proper amount of self-worth) rather than the girls it is marketed to. Occasionally, a Judy Blume or a Reviving Ophelia will come along to present a healthy alternative, but these works are still not the norm. Girl Press seems to be attempting to provide the missing link between mainstream girl-content and feminist theory. Hip layouts and attention-span defying text grab the eye of the increasingly media-savvy teenager, and slip in the power of positive thinking along the way. This is not Feminism 101, but it ain't TeenBeat either.
Mindy Morgenstern's diminutive book, The Real Rules for Girls, complete with foreword and endorsement by actress Courtney Cox Arquette, juxtaposes crisp, overexposed black-and-white images from the repressive (and glamorous) 1950s with girl-positive text and quotes from famous women. It proceeds by way of two-page spreads which offer a sentence of sage advice in yellow font atop the aforementioned 50s b/w glamour shot on the left-hand side, and a short paragraph of explanatory text surrounded with quotes of varying relevance to the topic-at-hand on the right. Sections include Romance, Work, Social Life, Family, Money, and Life Tips. Advice ranges from somewhat traditional ("Your mom will always make you crazy") to more "maverick" ("The person who tells you to celebrate your period has never had one."). Clearly, this book is set up to be an alternative to that rather backward-thinking text of a few years back, The Rules.
There is content in the Morgenstern book that is right on, such as the spreads on self-esteem (quite relevant in the young girl's life). For instance, the "This is the best part of the head cheerleader's life" spread advises the reader that "chances are, she's peaked while you still have buttloads of time to do great things," couples that advice with a quote from Ms. Steinem herself, "Women whose identity depends more on their outsides than their insides are dangerous when they begin to age," and frames it all with the following vaguely relevant text, "Don't get crazy about results. Everything's not about winning in the classical sense. The key is learning to enjoy the process along the way. Because most times you'll learn something new about yourself in the process and that, my friends, is winning." Although the remark about the cheerleader can be viewed as divisive (surely there is room within the feminist camp for cheerleaders, or at least enlightened ones), the whole cheerleader schtick has undoubtedly become a standard against which teenage girls are measured. The intent of this spread is not to engender unnecessary woman against woman hostility, but rather to offer perspective to girls who aren't enjoying the shallow status and privilege that high school popularity offers. Recalling my own open resentment of cheerleaders and their ilk, it's not that I wanted to be them, but it certainly seemed unfair that simply because they played into the preset "rules" of femininity so well, they were looked upon positively and given a great deal of power within the community of adolescence that we were forced to share. Morgenstern is offering valuable perspective on issues that can cloud young visions.
Despite my overall satisfaction with girl-positive texts such as The Real Rules, I do have some rather serious problems with Morgenstern's approach. At times she seems to forget her audience, while at other times, she inadvertently reaffirms negative stereotypes of girls. Occasionally, the book is far too upperclass, hetero, and upward mobility oriented for me. At its worst, The Real Rules reads like self-help for Morgenstern, at times a bit too self-reflective and personal. Some examples:
"Here's the deal-you'll never use trigonometry again. Ever." Not true for girls going into math and sciences.
"It's worth spending $50,000 on psychotherapy to feel better about your nose than to pay $10,000 for a nose job." How about neither?
"Take a 2nd look at the dweeb." For what purpose? What if the girl is the dweeb? What is a dweeb, anyway? And isn't Morgenstern supposed to be encouraging girls to move beyond directing their lives and friendships for the purpose of landing a "brilliant billionaire"? Whence this male-centeredness in such an allegedly girl-positive text?
"Don't pluck! Wax or electrolysize for God's sake. It is the quick fix, but plucking only makes hair more coarse." For God's sake, don't be hairy. It isn't feminine. You may be empowered, but you must also be presentable/socially acceptable.
"When I go to a party, I like to pretend I'm not me
try to emulate the personality of a friend or a movie star who's got it going on. How can you fail if you're Cameron Diaz?" If you're not Cameron Diaz, for instance. Incidentally, this tidbit was located on a page above a quote from Janis Joplin: "Don't compromise yourself. You're all you've got." Seems as if Ms. Morgenstern could stand to learn a bit from her own book.
It is this sort of contradictory advice that makes The Real Rules more of a mixed bag of advice to draw from selectively rather than to digest as a whole. Unfortunately, its target audience may not be equipped with the skills for such picking and choosing. The Real Rules is well intended, but definitely lacking.
Cool Women is a more palatable resource than Rules. It's not perfect (Emma Goldman, where are you?), but it makes a valiant effort, and the result is a solid resource/reference text of important female historical (and mythical) figures. The introduction grounds the book firmly within the context in which it was intended to be read, stating "This book is not about heroine worship." Rather than canonizing these women, Cool Women seeks to offer human examples of strength and vision, encouraging young girls toward "takeoff." These are not women presented as unattainable airbrushed ideals of perfection and objects of male lust. The women in Cool Women are doin' it for themselves, and the message is clearly, "If she did it, so can you."
I learned quite a bit from this book. Sure, some of the usual suspects are present (Amelia Earhart, Annie Oakley, Harriet Tubman, Madame Curie), but there are also some controversial choices to spur the critical thinking (Scarlett O'Hara, Evita Peron), as well as women who didn't make it into the conventional western history texts (Gertrude Bell, Babe Didrikson, Althea Gibson, Mother Jones, Lakshmi Bai, Madame C.J. Walker, Wu Zhao, Queen Njinga, Lozen, Margaret Bourke-White, Janet Flanner). Cool Women also offers mythical and fictional female characters for perusal, such as "Cool Goddesses," Nancy Drew, Comic Book Queens, Amazons. Groups of powerful women are also given spreads (Baseball Barnstormers, Soviet Flying Aces, Soldaderas, Suffragists, Lady Spies, Lady Samurais, Harlem Renaissance Women, Blues Divas).
The content of Cool Women places its subjects within historical perspective. For instance, the spread on Rosie the Riveter points out that while Rosie seems to be solely a powerful female image, she was in fact a creation of the WWII propaganda machine. Of course, while Rosie's image did work to shore up the system, it also served as a potent symbol for women that yes they could exist and flourish within the public sphere of the workplace. Negativity is not ignored-- Cool Women is careful to point out that approximately 50,000 Japanese-American women were denied the privilege of Rosie-like aspiration, spending the war confined to interment camps. A sidebar titled "Thanks for Nothing" points out the double-standard that flourished after (and during) the War despite the fact that women had proved themselves capable, strong, and invaluable workers: "After the war, the women pilots who had stepped in to fly planes while the men were away were offered airline jobs-as stewardesses." So yes, "Rosie had started a revolution," but it was an unintended revolution, and the reader is provided with the proper information that enables her to fully appreciate this irony.
The graphical layout of Cool Women tends toward the obnoxious. Overuse of conflicting fonts, strange positioning of text, graphical underlays, and clashing colors belie an obvious attempt to make the book "hip" and appealing to web- and zine-friendly teens. Each subject gets a two-page spread (similar to Rules) that consists of photos or drawings of the woman or women along with several blurbs relating the figure's historical importance. At first glance, the brevity and conversational tone of the blurbs seems shallow, but this book serves as an introduction and a resource, not a stand-along reference text. Suggestions are given throughout for further reading, and the appendix of the book provides a list of selected resources for more in-depth examination. Design issues aside, Cool Women was a fascinating read, and I look forward to the second installment.
Leigh Shoemaker has an MA in Philosophy from the University of Kentucky, Lexington and another master's degree in library science from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. She contributed a chapter on "Part Animal, Part Machine: Self-Definition, Rollins Style" to Third Wave Agenda : Being Feminist, Doing Feminism, (University of Minnesota Press, 1997), and she has written for Bitch zine. She lives and works in Knoxville, TN, and has recently opened a downtown performance space/house of ill repute called "The Pilot Light."