Friday, November 02, 2007

This Time I Know What I Think

I shouldn't let Judith Warner get to me. I should roll my eyes, say "there she goes again" with a tolerant smile, let Judy be Judy, and do something worthwhile with my time (and goodness knows I have enough worthwhile things to do today). Except I can't, because just as she is her, I am me. So rather than argue with her in my head, I might as well spew it here, get it out of my system, and go on to my worthwhile day.

So here she goes again with the dire plight of American girlhood. I'm down with the Daring Book for Girls props--it's #1 on the charts at our house, and even S was reading choice bits aloud to me last night. The problem starts when she begins lamenting the fact that nobody else cares about our poor girls, around paragraph 10. I'll spare you my "it's not that bad" schtick, based as it is on dubious anecdotal evidence about the kids I know--oh and, uh, facts like girls graduate from high school at higher rates than boys, girls are more involved in school, Title IX has led to a huge increase in girls participation in sports, etc. (sorry, I just cannot keep finding links, I must get to the worthwhile things I need to do).

Instead, I want to point to two problems with her analysis, both rooted in this paragraph:

Peskowitz, who has a Ph.D. in ancient history and religion, may find it a thrill to apply her professional knowledge to teaching girl readers about “Queens of the Ancient World.” Other mothers may find similar ways to communicate the passions of their lives – poetry, or chemistry, or camping — to their girls via the “Daring” book’s pages. Yet, while all this will undoubtedly strengthen individual mother-daughter bonds, I wonder if it will have any wider effect. What power can any of us – moms and daughters, adrift in the cultural mainstream — have against the hugely seductive, hypnotic machine that has brought us Paris, Miley, Lindsay and more?

First, are we really supposed to believe that only women with Ph.D.'s who are passionate about poetry, chemistry, and camping care about their daughters? I think not. Has Judith Warner has ever talked to a WalMart clerk who desperately wants her daughter to succeed in school? Has she listened to the women in inner cities who are speaking up against violence and begging for alternatives for their kids, girls and boys alike? And for that matter, do you think she has actually watched Hannah Montana? Yes, it's Disney, and I have my Disney critiques, but you can do a lot worse in the role model business than Miley.

Which leads to my second problem, which is about the nature of pop culture and its consumption. It is, I believe, a highly elitist (I know, pot, kettle, and all that) perspective which holds that pop culture is just a "hugely seductive, hypnotic machine," something the ignorant masses simply imbibe without thinking, while we intellectuals watch them, understanding them better than they can possibly understand themselves. From this perspective, if stores are selling revealing costumes for little girls, then little girls must believe that all they are is sex objects. But if you actually get in the trenches with kids and pop culture--hell, with people and pop culture--you will see that the consumption of pop culture is often--not always, but more often than people think--a dynamic event. Kids take what they're given, but they transform, critique, rework, and appropriate--hey, just like smart rich people do, just like, dare I say it, Judith Warner and her daughter might do. Except, maybe not, because they are too busy putting up their hair with pencils and bewailing the state of the rest of the world.

And now I really must get on with my day, which I hope will turn out to be worthwhile.


Libby said...

about the whole pop culture thing: yes.

Amy said...

I'm glad, selfishly, that you did let Warner get to you, as the result was a great post. (And no, I really don't think Warner has ever watched "Hannah Montana," and I'm certain she hasn't listened to her kids sing "Nobody's Perfect" over and over again, because it would be hard to run around screaming, "The sky is falling!" over that relatively innocuous fare.)

jackie said...

Your theories on how people deal with pop culture in their own lives are the foundation of cultural studies, which is what my master's is in! So yeah, you're in good company, and Judith is decades behind :). Fan fiction is only one example of how people take popular culture and make it serve their own needs, and there are many more examples.

Lucy said...

That's the paragraph that irked me, as well, but for different reasons. Are mothers truly powerless over the siren-call of pretty girls in magazines? Hardly. What we do every day and how we respond to pop culture has a far greater impact. Otherwise, Teen People is raising our daughters. Plus! Isn't it a bit cliche to to bemoan the state of 'kids these days'? Every generation has its own issues, and I'll take Hannah Montana happily. It's not a bad show.

Thanks, Becca.

ruby said...

Judith Warner is just so tiresome. But it's worth going through just *why* she is. Thanks for that.