Could it be that the 1970s television show Charlie's Angels represents a "utopian moment of sisterhood"? Or that the secret of the programme's huge success was its perfect exploitation of the "tensions between anti-feminism and feminism"? Is it possible that the aggregate message of Bewitched, I Dream of Jeannie, Wonder Woman and The Bionic Woman is that women without special effects are powerless? Do you recall the early portrayal of "women's lib" on television, when feminist discourses were put in the mouths of silly sitcom characters like the one played by Eva Gabor on Green Acres? In that episode, the fur-coated blonde earnestly explained the true nature of women's oppression with a series of rhetorical questions: "Have you ever waited for an hour and a half for your nails to dry? Have you ever tried to make an appointment at the beauty parlour before a holiday?" Susan Douglas's Where the Girls Are is an exercise in recuperation and re-interpretation which recounts a history of the representation of women on American television, but also makes some major detours into the realm of girl group music, women's magazines, Hollywood films and the history of the feminist movement itself. At its best, the book offers startling new angles on familiar entertainments. At its worst, it occasionally degenerates into a catalogue of synopses which reveal worthy but obvious contradictions.
The book's main weakness, however, involves an insistent personal thread in which Douglas presents herself as a paragon of perky normality. The book actually begins with the words, "I am a womanI", and then regularly reverts to a form of pseudo-confessional that has become all but compulsory in contemporary feminist writing. My irritation with this autobiographical mode is twofold (and, to be fair, Douglas is not the worst but, rather, a typically mediocre practitioner of the genre).
First, most writers underestimate the difficulty of writing decent autobiography. As a result, academics should probably stick to snooping into and revealing other people's lives rather than relating the banal details of their own parents, spouses and children. Second, reference to a feminist self is all too often meant to stand in for systematic empirical research into other women's tastes, actions and interpretations. Ironically, Douglas spends a whole chapter criticising advertisements for products like skin creams for propounding "liberation as narcissism", but fails to question how her own expository mode might also partake of the egocentricity of "me-generation" feminism.
Memoirs aside, Where the Girls Are presents an engaging string of arguments. Its strong central thesis is that feminism and anti-feminism have raged through the media in equal measures for several decades. Douglas, therefore, gives powerful evidence against Susan Faludi's Backlash thesis that contends that the media only began to mount a war against women in the mid-1980s.
Douglas argues that the anti-feminism of the 1980s looks "flaccid" compared to the backlash of the late-1940s and early-1950s when Rosie the Riveter was pressured into quitting her job to make room for men returning from the war. A decade later, Betty Friedan's Feminine Mystique went to number one in the bestseller lists, inspiring a heated debate about the status of women which was taken up, documented and fictionalised by all kinds of media. In fact, the sexual revolution was one of the biggest stories of the 1960s, if only because it helped sell newspapers and magazines. And by the 1970s, argues Douglas, "ideological warfare about women's proper place was the prevailing subtext of American popular culture".
In a chapter called "Genies and Witches", Douglas demonstrates this continual "warfare" by comparing and contrasting Bewitched (1964-72) with I Dream of Jeannie (1965-1970). In both programmes, the female characters have supernatural powers which the men beg them not to use, except occasionally and then only in the home. When used in the public sphere, the men are "made to look foolish and incompetent in front of their male superiors". Despite these similarities, I Dream of Jeannie can be seen as a backlash against Bewitched's empowerment of women. Whereas Bewitched blurred gender roles, I Dream of Jeannie accentuated them. Whereas Bewitched was "a woman's dream and a man's nightmare", I Dream of Jeannie was a classic fantasy of male dominance where a sexy girl would do anything for her "master".
Readable, idiosyncratic but generally persuasive, Where the Girls Are retrieves and sometimes even redeems various feminine stretches of American cultural history. Douglas takes pleasure in suggesting how the "laughable" and "historically insignificant" can be seen to contain some "danger". Although useful for students of American studies, women's studies and cultural studies, the book is perhaps most valuable to new cable subscribers keen on turning their digestion of endless reruns into something a little more edifying.
Sarah Thornton is a lecturer in media studies, University of Sussex.
Where the Girls Are: Growing Up Female with the Mass Media
Author - Susan J. Douglas
ISBN - 0140 242 295
Publisher - Penguin
Price - £9.99
Pages - 340