Heteronormativity is singularly unappealing as both ideology and a word. This collection of essays, charting the global emergence of the "modern girl" in the period 1920-1940, gives a number of reasons why this is also the case in practice. Among those reasons is the way in which white, highly (hetero)sexualised Western definitions of beauty have come to have a stranglehold on the aesthetic imagination of much of the world. The 11 case histories in this volume all point to the derogatory ways in which female physical appearance outside the Western model was radically undermined. It is not surprising to read of the "modern girl" in New York or Berlin, but it is much more surprising to read of the same person appearing in the media of, for example, India or Zimbabwe.
The contribution that this fascinating volume makes is not, however, confined to producing evidence about the many ways in which women have been encouraged to think of themselves (and their bodies) in terms of highly prescriptive aspirations. The various essays about particular countries, as well as the more general essays that open and conclude the volume, demonstrate that the relationship between modernity and women and femininity is not just important, but essential. We can berate the normative assumptions underlying the idealised figure of the modern girl, but as well as making this point, it is perhaps also necessary to recognise that the modern girl was a person expected to consume. The material collected here is drawn largely from various kinds of advertising material in which the subjectivity of women becomes crucial to new industries of consumption.
Reading the advertisements that will apparently transform women into entirely non-domestic goddesses, it is striking that much of the tone taken by the advertisers is that of a singularly paternalistic doctor or teacher. "Scientific" studies are widely invoked as are citations from various "laboratories" or "experts"; a tradition that continues to this day, even though the focus of much of today's bogus science in cosmetic advertising is concerned with anti-ageing products. The change in the advertisers' perception of the collective subject is striking: in the 1920s and 1930s that subject (in both senses) is a young woman, whose appearance, it would seem, needs taming and organising. Hair and face need strict regimentation, bodily functions need strategies of concealment and "careless and lazy ladies" should get up earlier and make more of an effort. Today, it is widely assumed that it is "old" women who need persuading to continue to make that effort; if 60 is the new 40, then for many women there is a lot to do.
Bill Bryson once remarked that Britain was an ideal place for socialism because much of the population over the age of 25 already dressed like East Germans. Leaving aside the obviously negative assumptions about East Germany (and people over the age of 25), the remark contains the highly relevant point that not everyone takes notice of advertising fantasies about appearance. Yet, at the same time, we know that "dressing" the face and the body are huge (and significant) industries; the health of the high street has become an indicator of general economic prosperity. We therefore reach an extraordinary paradox, in which the willingness of modern "girls" (of all ages) to buy (literally and metaphorically) the promise of beauty matters greatly to our economy, while in our daily lives we visibly reject the importance of appearance.
A thread that unites the advertising of the 1920s and the 1930s with the present day is the fear that advertisers attempt to induce in us - a fear endlessly reiterated in television makeover programmes and the before-and-after photographs of the unimproved and much-improved person. These exercises could lead us to regard the whole "beauty industry" as slightly comic, yet the essays in The Modern Girl remind us that beauty and fashion are no joke.
Two in particular stand out: Liz Conor on attacks on Aboriginal women and Anne Gorsuch on Soviet women. Conor's essay induces rage, Gorsuch's a more complex mix of sadness and rage. In the first case, the rage is provoked by the evidence of cruelty towards the Aboriginal people (an instance of modern imperialism at its very worst), and in the second the sadness is about the refusal of the Stalinist regime to countenance the possibility of grace and elegance in dress. Women, the feminine, seemed to have no place in state socialism; an absence that gave way to the later shackling of the feminine to the market economy in a relationship of little profit to women.
The Modern Girl Around the World: Consumption, Modernity and Globalization
Edited by The Modern Girl Around the World Research Group
Duke University Press
£77.00 and £18.99
ISBN 9780822342991 and 43059
Publication 25 March 2009