For her extensive study of how young women perceive the media in the current age, Emilie Zaslow has gone straight to the root of the matter and interviewed 70 teenage girls from various locations to gauge their opinions.
Zaslow, who is Assistant Professor of Communication Studies at Pace University, backs up these 70 interviews with a range of cultural critics to produce a highly accessible account of exactly how the media is influencing the next generation of young women. The result is Feminism Inc: Coming of Age in Girl Power Media Culture (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009 – reprinted 2011).
The book uses the launch of the Spice Girls and their understanding of ‘girl power’ in 1997 as its springboard, and then takes us through more recent examples such as pop singers Beyonce and Rhianna, and so-say ‘chick-friendly viewing’ including Legally Blonde and Gossip Girl… to name but a few.
What’s most surprising is that some of the answers are not what you would expect them to be. When asked to say which of the female Friends cast, for instance, they most considered strong and independent, the teenage panel repeatedly opted for ditzy Phoebe – rather than, say, Monica, who is married and head chef at a New York restaurant. Less surprisingly, the respondents saw it as inevitable that if they wanted to succeed, then they would need to mimic women such as Shakira or Christina Aguilera, and shake off any innocent seeming image and adopt a conventionally sexy persona.
Zaslow admits that she had not anticipated including a chapter about motherhood in Feminism Inc, yet she does because parenting was a topic that kept coming up in her interviews. She points out that for her panel of interviewees, they were growing up in the media age of the ‘new mom’ figure, who is often single, goes out to work, and juggles her own love life and her often troublesome children. Hugely popular shows such as Friends, Sex & The City, Frasier etc all show successful, working single mums managing to have it all without much struggle…
The consequence of seeing this type of fictional mother on TV meant that Zaslow was repeatedly told by the panel that this was what they were aiming for… but it hadn’t necessarily been well thought through. One teenager, Aiyisha, told her, for instance, that she wanted to be married, have a child and then adopt three more, while also working as a gynaecologist like Cliff in The Cosby Show, and as a fashion designer. However, on reflection, Aiyisha decided she wouldn’t have time for either her husband or children, as she would need to work such long hours, and before she knew it, in her fantasy future, she was living alone.
Less surprising was the response from Zaslow’s panel to the idea of them being feminists, despite their previously expressed beliefs that strong women such as Beyonce were their heroines. The very word ‘feminist’ has been tainted for them by a negative media association, and it turns out that many of Zaslow’s respondents didn’t recognise their independent and positive thoughts or beliefs as being feminist ones – because they understood feminists to be “lesbians who did not shave their armpits”! At the same time, the girls identified with physically strong characters such as Lara Croft from Tomb Raider and presumed she must be a feminist because she can defend herself. Which just proves what we already know – that the media and its often-incorrect portrayal of feminism is doing an incredible amount of damage.
What’s most refreshing about Zaslow’s book is its study of lived experiences by contemporary teenage girls: the next generation of young women. These are the opinions and thoughts of women who will shape the future of our society via all of their actions, and it’s fascinating to know how they collectively think rather than to simply read theories posturing on what academic adults may think. It would be most interesting if Zaslow returned to this group in 10 years time to see how they have got on, and if their views about women’s roles in life, and of feminism, have changed at all. That would be particularly interesting.