By: Sharon Lamb, Ed.D. and Lyn Mikel Brown, Ed.D.
Genre: Nonfiction, Women & Gender Studies, Social Commentary
I was excited to read this book when I borrowed it from a friend a few months ago. As someone who majored in Media Studies in college and minored in Women & Gender Studies, I'm well aware of the insidious ways the media can affect our children, particularly our daughters. As someone who wants to have children one day, I'm always on the lookout for materials that will aid me in raising well-balanced, intelligent people who are aware of the media's attempts to spoon feed them toxic materialism and stereotypes. That is the goal of this book. However, while it provides many good examples of ways to talk to our daughters (which can also be used for our sons and non-binary children) about what they are seeing in the media as well as great book and movie suggestions, the attacks on certain kinds of films, music artists and books are flawed and poorly researched, making this a hard book to recommend when there are far better books like this available.
Lamb and Brown organize the book into six chapters, five of which are related specifically to our daughters - what they wear, what they watch, what they listen to, what they read, and what they do - and the sixth devoted to Sample Conversations With Our Daughters. I will go over each chapter individually.
I had little to no problems with the section on clothing for girls, as for the most part, I agree with the authors. Lamb and Brown lament the limited clothing choices available to young girls and women. The clothes are either too revealing or have cringe-worthy sayings on them like "Don't hate me because I'm beautiful, hate me because your boyfriend thinks I am" and "If It Weren't for Boys, I Would Never Go To School." This book was written in 2006, but that trend is still big today with such shirts as "Boys Are Better Than Books."
Lamb and Brown also point out that clothing for little girls state they are "Princesses," "Angels," "Pretty," or "Have Attitude," while boys get positive clothing stating they're "Champs." I witnessed this in the kids' department while shopping for my nephew not too long ago - there were pajamas in the boys' department that stated the child was "Smart and Brave" but I could not find anything equivalent to that in the girls' department.
I fully agree with Lamb and Brown that it is a problem in marketing that we stereotype girls into brainless bimbos that worship at the altar of makeup, the color pink and boys. From an early age this is being sold to our girls, telling them this is the type of girl to be, and it wriggles its way into the minds of even the most avid resisters.
Next came the chapter on movies and television, which did raise an issue with me. The examples they use in this section are television shows and movies I grew up watching, and while I don't want to tell the authors that their interpretations of the messages in these shows is wrong, I will say I do not agree with them on many examples and feel they didn't do adequate enough research.
The authors state that girls have very little strong female figures to relate to on television and that can be true, especially in the early years where it seems that the boys get all the adventures. They acknowledge Dora the Explorer as an adventurous, strong female character, but claim she is in the minority. As I have seen many children's shows give the exciting storylines to male characters and the majority of children's shows have male leads, this seems accurate to me. I do think we're doing a little better these days with shows like Doc McStuffins and Word Girl, but I don't have much experience with children's television circa 2006.
However, when it comes to the shows watched by teens and preteens, I feel the authors either blew off popular shows with great characters that were on during the time they were researching this book or gloss over them. The authors went out of their way to rip apart shows like Lizzie McGuire, Sabrina the Teenage Witch, and Kim Possible for pushing the girly girl stereotype and love of shopping/clothes/makeup/boys and seemingly forget the fact that some girls do actually like that stuff and it is okay as long as the characters are well-rounded - which Lizzie, Sabrina and Kim all were. There is no mention of shows like So Weird or The Jersey that involved girls with more varied interests such as the paranormal (So Weird) and sports (The Jersey) or of Ren, the brainy older sister in Even Stevens. Gilmore Girls is barely mentioned and there is no praise for the amazing mother/daughter relationship, the fact that Rory's best friend is a girl of color, or that Rory makes intelligence, dry wit and being a bookworm cool. Veronica Mars is also glossed over when she's a badass who is full center between girly-girl and tomboy, her best friends are a guy of color and a female computer whiz and bookworm, she solves mysteries, makes intelligence sexy, rocks the sarcastic humor, and doesn't take crap from anyone. Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel are completely ignored in favor of Charmed despite their badass lady characters. Buffy, Willow, Cordelia, Fred, Tara and Anya all have something to teach our girls and the boys on these shows are just as well rounded and worthy of discussion. I felt like Brown and Lamb wasted more page space ranting about shows that weren't very problematic and ignored some great shows that were available at the time.
Then Lamb and Brown decided to take on the horror genre and I began to lose respect for them. As a longtime fan of this genre, beginning at the age of twelve, I have heard a lot of arguments against it, especially from fellow feminists, and some do have good points while others are obviously ill-informed and poorly researched, based on a small sampling of what the horror genre has to offer. The argument in this book falls into the latter category.
First, the movies they chose to exemplify the horror genre were horrible. They claimed to be talking about Jeepers Creepers but ended up analyzing the plot of Jeepers Creepers II which has an entirely different style than its predecessor. The first film was more of a suspense/thriller/creature feature while the sequel follows more of a slasher formula. They compare Jeepers Creepers II to a little known slasher with a limited theatrical release from 2003 called Shredder which is apparently supposed to exemplify all things slasher.
I REALLY HATE when critics of horror films take the worst of the worst and use them to justify their critiques of the stereotypes in that genre. There is no mention of the classics such as Black Christmas (1974), Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), Halloween (1978), Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) or Friday the 13th (1980), nor of more recent quality slashers such as Scream (which actually does their nitpicking for them). No they choose a slasher that no one has heard of except for its brief run on Netflix Instant Watch. The authors complain that there are never girls helping each other , which may be the case in Shredder, but not in Jeepers Creepers II when the cheerleaders try to help one another, nor in the previous slashers I mentioned above - if the girls end up in a bad situation together they look after one another. The authors complain about the nudity and sex - which are usually aspects of a lower grade horror film, but often make an appearance in slasher films none-the-less. While I am not a big fan of the sex and nudity myself, it doesn't ruin a movie for me - and in the classics it is usually tastefully done. Usually, the more in-your-face the nudity and sex scenes are, the worse the film is.
The only other horror films mentioned are The Exorcist and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake which are also frowned upon for stupid reasons. They make Reagan's gender a major aspect of why her possession was so horrifying when it's really the perversion of innocence overall. Erin in the Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake is chastised for wearing a white tank top and for the motherly focus when she rescues a baby. (What was she supposed to do, leave it there?) She also goes head to head with Leatherface and wins!
Why no mention of that or any of the other badass final girls? There is nothing regarding the empowering feeling a girl gets when a female bests the murderer / monster and comes out a hero - which is what I felt as a teenager and still feel now when I watch these films.
Lamb and Brown act like a female being the villain in a horror film is terrible and stating that all women are either good or evil. Why is it so wrong for a female to be the killer? We can be just as evil as males and there are female serial killers in existence.
Lamb and Brown bring up the virgin vs. slut dichotomy and claim that the slut always has to die. While this is sometimes the case, it isn't always as true horror fans can tell you. Also, the Final Girls are NOT all virgins. It is hinted in both Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th that Nancy and Alice have had sex prior to the beginning of the film. Jess in Black Christmas is struggling with the decision to abort her pregnancy. It's unknown whether Sally in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a virgin. Sydney loses her virginity onscreen in Scream breaking the "only virgins survive" rule. Only Laurie Strode of Halloween is a shy virgin. It's as if Lamb and Brown are paying lip service to a rule they've heard about but never done their own research on.
Next, Lamb and Brown take on the music of the time, and, as the artists and songs they used for examples were a big part of my teenage years, I found myself in disagreement with a lot of what they had to say. Especially since, once again, I found their research flawed at best.
For instance, Lamb and Brown mention that Vanessa Carlton mastered the piano and ballet, but talked about Jessica Simpson as if she was only famous for her reality show, Newlyweds. I'm not a huge Jessica Simpson fan, but that show wouldn't have had the audience it did if Jessica Simpson wasn't already a star (2 hit albums were released prior to the reality series).
Lamb and Brown come across a little hypocritical in this chapter. They practically ignore the problematic songs by the Black Eyed Peas because that band also wrote that one decent song, Where is the Love? (which is a great song, but every other song they release is sexual and/or about drinking/partying), but judge a pop artist like Britney Spears or Christina Aguilera based on two songs out of their many albums. Britney is criticized from going from innocent in ...Baby OneMore Time to sexually compromised in Toxic, the entirety of the two albums between her debut ...Baby One More Time and In the Zone which contains Toxic is ignored - both of which contain songs like Stronger, What U See Is What U Get, Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman, Overprotected, and Cinderella which I loved as a teen. Later in the book they also rip on Britney for having a porn director direct her video for From the Bottom of My Broken Heart - probably her most chaste video ever produced.
The authors do the same with Christina, comparing Genie in a Bottle to Dirrty (which they mistakenly call "Drrty Girl") claiming both are about sex (Genie definitely is - about the conflict between hormones and knowing when it's right to give it up to someone, but Dirrty is more of a dance club anthem with sexual inuendo.) Songs disregarded: I Turn to You (which was supposed to be a love song and Christina turned it into a song about her mother), Reflection (For Mulan), Can't Hold Us Down, Fighter, Beautiful, Soar, Make Over, The Voice Within, I'm Ok and Keep Singing My Song. All of which are empowering and amazing.
Songs that I loved in my youth were attacked for not being girl-friendly such as Perfect by Simple Plan - Lamb and Brown claim it's not "girl friendly" because it doesn't include girls. Well no, it was written by a guy about his relationship with his father - it's HIS story and HIS feelings. However, girls are included in the music video making it relatable for girls as well.
Sk8er Boi by Avril Lavigne is accused of being divisive among girls and upholding stereotypes - again this was a song based on Avril's life - the snooty girl who turns down the skater boy was the kind of girl who bullied Avril for being different. She was describing the kind of girl who, in her experience, was stuck up and superficial, turning her back on people who had real potential in favor of the superficial, preppy, popular crowd. It's about the what happens when you let your friends choose your partner and are afraid to go after who and what you want.
Avril is also criticized later in the book for getting "girly" for her second album and writing songs about boys. (Her first album had a lot of songs about boys on it too, FYI.) They said the "girl power" of her second album, Under My Skin was limited to "the power to wait for the right time to have sex" and used Don't Tell Me as an example. That is not quite what the song is about - it is about standing up for yourself when your significant other or someone you're dating casually or even just a friend is trying to pressure or coerce you into having sex when you don't want to do so. Avril stands up for all the young women telling them it is okay to say "no" and to kick the ass of anyone who doesn't respect that decision.
The authors also act like it is a bad thing that Avril teaches young girls through her lyrics that they have the choice about who they date and criticize her lyrics where she states that the guy she's no longer with never made her feel special - like it is a bad thing to want your boyfriend to treat you like you're special to him. I always interpreted that line to mean that he didn't treat her well or like his girlfriend - for example - take her out on dates, do nice things for her, call her, etc. not that he should have been worshipping at her feet or something. I also don't see anything wrong with young women being told that they don't have to put up with a guy not treating them right which has always been the message that I took out of Avril's early music. The authors seem mad that Avril uses "We all have choices ... we all have voices..." in the terms of romantic love but not in any other terms for young women. I'm sorry, but why does one young pop star have to be the perfect idol for all young girls? Then the authors praise Fefe Dobson who writes the same kind of songs. What?
I swear Lamb and Brown didn't even listen to some of the songs they commented on. They ragged on Good Charlotte for Riot Girl and said that Hold On was written specifically for a girl. No it wasn't - it is an anti-suicide song for their fans. Blink 182 is criticized on for "needing comfort" in IMiss You, (why is that a bad thing? I thought we, as feminists, were fighting for males to be able to break free from toxic masculinity and express their emotions!) Also they say "vocalist" when discussing Blink 182 when both Tom and Mark sing in I Miss You. In fact, they only ever say "The vocalist" when talking about the pop punk bands such as Simple Plan, Blink 182, Good Charlotte and Green Day - they never use their names, nor, it seems, bothered to find out anything about them. So we shouldn't discuss the fact that the Madden twins of Good Charlotte grew up on Welfare, were raised by a single mother when their dad walked out, were bullied relentlessly at school, worked part time jobs to help provide for their family, and taught themselves to play an instrument? Just because they're dudes that doesn't mean they cannot be relatable to young women. I felt they ripped harder into bands who wrote relatable, non-misogynistic , emotional / confession songs than into artists who wrote nothing but party songs about drinking and sex.
The authors also whine about how few bands are fronted by women and then say Amy Lee of Evanescence wrote Tourniquet about a lost love and asking God to save her. Seriously, did they even listen to the song? It's about a LITERAL suicide - she's committed the act, and, as a Christian, is committing a moral sin, so she is asking to be forgiven. It is true that there aren't many female lead bands, but the ones we do have are pretty amazing - Evanescence, Flyleaf, Paramore, Garbage, The Cranberries, Kittie, My Ruin, and many others have some great things to say and will empower your daughters.
The fourth chapter took on what books our girls are reading. While the authors offer some great suggestions for books for young girls and teens, I found them to be off base on some things. They really lay into the American Girl book series which I found to be wonderful as a kid. The authors claim that the word "pretty" was thrown about too much in the first Felicity book, and maybe it was - but as a child I took away the history lessons and the adventures from these books. The authors also got their facts wrong, stating that Kit was one of the original five American Girls and Addy came later when it is actually the other way around. I got into the American Girl products when I was about 6 or 7 and at that time there were Felicity, Kirsten, Addy, Samantha and Molly. Then Josephina was added, followed by Kit and then Kaya . The collection has since expanded more, including girls up through the 1970s and adding at least two more girls of color. The books are criticized for being too commercialized because the dolls that go with them are expensive (but very good quality dolls with bodies that resemble those of girls 7 to 12 years old) and they have too many accessories to blow money on. This may be true, but the savvy parent can limit such large purchases or teach their daughters to earn money to make said purchases, and many accessories such as clothes can be found at craft fairs much cheaper than through the catalog. However, I disagree that the dolls or accessories are really pushed in the books. The stories are great all on their own - the books didn't make me want to purchase the clothes or accessories - the catalogs did. I read the books for the storylines and history and they piqued my interest in social studies and history as I got older. I bought the Felicity and Samantha dolls because I enjoyed their stories the most. I also do not think the authors of this book read more than the "Meet _____" book of the American Girls they did discuss - Felicity and Addy, mostly - and missed out on some of the best books in each girl's series. In the original line up each girl had a six book series. Book 1 was always "Meet ____", followed by the school story, the Christmas or Holiday story, the Birthday story, "_____ Saves the Day" and "Changes for ______" and each book would hold a new lesson or adventure for these girls. Felicity frees a horse from an abusive owner. Addy and her mother escape slavery and flee North to Philadelphia. Samantha befriends the servant girl next door who has no one, and later in the series, rescues this girl and her sisters. All of this is overlooked or glossed over in favor of the authors' complaints that Felicity is part of the cliché that girls like horses and that Addy had to save her mother from drowning because her mother was portrayed as too dumb to swim. (No, her mother was a slave and NEVER LEARNED to swim as she was too busy working the fields!) The authors whined about how very few of the mothers are present and said that Molly's mother was dead (she was not - she is probably the most involved mother in the series that I read). These books contained a lot of great stories and lessons, and I feel the authors missed those in their narrow minded nit picking.
Besides their poorly researched issues with the American Girl stories, the only other issue I had with their take on the books girls read is their description of the Nancy Drew Mystery series as "mov[ing] from intrepid detective to hot-teen-in-trouble books with covers that resembled Baywatch ads" and stating "we knew desire for sales would win out over content." Did you actually read these stories though? The authors are not clear as to which version of the Nancy Drew mysteries of recent years they are referring to, so I'm going to assume it is the continuation of the series numerically in paperback format. On these covers Nancy is blonde rather than a red head, but that change occurred in the sixties or seventies when the original series ended. Nancy is also usually dressed as an average teen in jeans and sweaters or blouses much more practical for sleuthing in than the dresses and heels she frequently wore in the original stories. I found I enjoyed the mysteries in the paperback Nancy Drew stories just as much as the original 64 books in the series (and not all of those were gold either). Still it would be helpful to know just which series the authors are referring to as we have The Nancy Drew Files, Nancy Drew and the Clue Crew, The Nancy Drew Diaries, Nancy Drew: Girl Detective and The Nancy Drew Notebooks in addition to the Nancy Drew Mystery Stories and just plain Nancy Drew.
The authors make one thing clear and that is their dislike for the graphic novel version which is drawn with the "manga look" and gives Nancy an unrealistic body with large breasts (I do believe she always had those, she just didn't wear tight fitting clothing). They also describe George as "pumped up" and "OC-like" - whatever that means. I took the liberty of looking up the graphic novel on Amazon and viewed the "Look Inside" option. Nancy is conservatively dressed though her breasts are a little perky and her tops are a little tight, George is still the tomboy she always was, wearing her jeans and t-shirts, only she may be rocking a little eyeliner and lipstick, and Bess has gone from plump and cute to pin-up girl body, wearing sexy clothes (miniskirts, halter tops) and has become a flirt. They've also added a mean-girl nemesis for Nancy that I've never heard of before (long time Nancy fan, here) which is something I would have thought these authors would have latched onto as they had an entire section on "Mean Girls v. Nice Girls" and how that dichotomy is problematic. Maybe they didn't read the book?
Other than their less-than-well-researched-or-thought-out comments on two of my favorite childhood book series, I did agree with much of what they had to say regarding other teen novels and I loved their recommendations for future reading.
I also agreed with much of what they had to say against teen magazines and how they push material items at girls while claiming they just want girls to be able to find themselves and be true to their own unique personalities. I liked how the authors explained that this is problematic when they are really teaching girls to embrace aspects of the consumer market. My one issue with their take on magazines is how they rip on certain activities or jobs that girls may like just because they are traditionally feminine. They discuss how one teen magazine suggested a list of summer jobs for girls and labeled them as "traditional Mom" jobs such as gardening, baking, organizing and taking care of children, pets and elderly people. Yes, I get the argument that traditionally male jobs such as mowing people's lawns or helping out at a summer camp should be suggested for girls as well, but let's not forget that some girls actually enjoy the "traditionally feminine" jobs suggested and we shouldn't shame them for it. What if a girl likes to bake or make lemonade or cook? I get the implication is that girls belong doing cooking, cleaning and nurturing, but we shouldn't disregard suggestions like this just because they are traditional as there are many girls who enjoy kitchen oriented activities or organizing or being with kids, animals and elderly folks. I think we just need to add more diverse activity and job suggestions so no one feels unrepresented. I do agree with their assessments that the activities suggested for girls by these magazines are pretty lame - such as, watch TV, go to the movies, read a suggested novel (usually garbage), write down lyrics to your favorite songs, watch the clouds, practice karaoke, show off your fave swimsuit at the pool and have a summer fling. (I left out giving your room a mini make over, because I found that fun and soothing in my youth - I still do.) I really liked the ideas for activities pitched by the authors and think they should be incorporated into more parenting and more teen magazines.
Chapter five examined what girls like to play or do in their free time. This chapter focused a lot on sports and the fact that many girls seem to feel alienated from them, which is sometimes true. The authors argue that girls don't have a lot of female sports role models to follow, especially those with the bodies of true athletes, and that is also true as the media spends a lot more time following men's athletics, but the authors also seemed to forget that the Williams sisters exist and that many young women look up to them. The authors also argue that many women abandon sports for drama, singing and art as we "have been taught to be deeper, more emotionally rich and complicated people, and that drama, self-involvement, and angst-ridden self-reflection are the essence of teenage girlhood." (p. 236) The authors go on to say, "But when girls give up sports for these more emotionally charged and dramatic hobbies, they miss the rewards of a deeper connection to their bodies. One could argue that dancers have that bodily connection, but the high incidence of anorexia and bulimia amongst dancers goes against that argument." (p. 236) Or the girl could just not be athletically inclined and instead prefer the arts? I was one of those girls - I'm a terrible athlete, but I love the theater. Also, the swipe at dancers is not okay - I was into dance and knew several dancers growing up and, as an adult, have two acquaintances (one male, one female) who teach dance on a regular basis. Anorexia and Bulimia have nothing to do with being in touch with one's body - they are a mental illness based on control of food and weight. There are also plenty of ways of getting in touch with one's body that do not involve sports - such as singing a full range of notes, hiking, taking a walk, meditation, yoga, perfecting a difficult dance number or blocking sequence, etc. I feel like, a lot of times, despite saying that parents need to be open minded to their daughter's take on things and what activities their daughters want to pursue, it is really like they are saying that girls should be into certain activities over others - which is just as bad as what we learn from the media.
Lamb and Brown go on to attack the suggestion that girls decorate their bedrooms. They dedicate a two page section of the book to ranting about how all the decor marketed for girls rooms being stereotypically girly - pink, purple, floral, paisley - filled with princesses and fairies or pop stars and furniture designed by their favorite teen idol. I understand the comparison to the decor directed at boys is the cause of some of this anger - the boys get decor related to science, nature and sports with color schemes of green, red, yellow and blue - which again indicates that boys are smart and active while girls are passive and silly. This kind of thing does deserve a rant. However, it should not be frowned upon if a girl wants to take initiative to make her room her own to match her growing personality. In my adolescence my room went through two makeovers of my own design. I didn't use a marketing device such as a catalog to guide my choices - I watched a lot of Trading Spaces and HGTV and picked my own color schemes, arranged the furniture how I wanted, etc. It got my creative juices flowing and I don't think that should be discouraged in any child. If your son wants to decorate, there should be no shame in that either.
Chapter six is the best chapter as it provides a strategy for talking to our children about toxic media influence as well as sample conversations. For the most part these are well thought out, although in some cases it appears that the authors are once again out-of-touch, such as when they equate being "goth" to smoking pot and equated piercings and dying one's hair a wild color with self-harming behaviors such as cutting and eating disorders. Otherwise, it is a great tool for discussing problematic media messages and imagery with your child, and it's one of the few things about this book that I would recommend looking into.
Overall: While I like what these authors have to say as far as talking to our daughters (although I think it can be used to educate children of all genders) and the suggestions they have on how to do so, I don't like the examples of media they chose and feel this book was poorly researched. I recommend that anyone interested, go to your local library and make copies of the following: the list of Movies That Feature Strong Girls and Fewer Stereotypes (p. 116), the list of Books and Series that Have Strong Girls and Few Stereotypes (p. 208 - 209), and Rebel, Resist, Refuse: Sample Conversations With Our Daughters (p. 263 - 294). Forget all the rest.