- Growing Up Female: Adolescent Girlhood in American Fiction
Balance is the key to Barbara White's study of female adolescence, Growing Up Female: Adolescent Girlhood in American Fiction. White balances critical approaches, emphasizing feminist readings of novels by feminists without forcing ideological interpretations upon more conventional works (an imposition that has often seduced less astute critics into gross misreadings). She also balances, very adroitly, the relationship between life and literature, exploring the restraints imposed on a literary genre that aspires to realism (the novel of female adolescence) by a society that fails to offer realistic options for selfhood for girls. White's expressed purpose is "to illuminate some of 'these patterns of experience that hold true for women' in the fiction of adolescence." She goes on to suggest that "a study of female adolescence in fiction will interest people who are not literary critics." Growing Up Female not only fulfills its critical purpose; it also speaks poignantly to those of us, critics or not, who have grown up female.
Within a general survey of the novel of adolescence from 1920 to the present, White focuses on close readings of selected works by three authors she considers "representative novelists of female adolescence: Ruth Suckow, Carson McCullers, and Jean Stafford." The formal development she had thought to discover in over fifty years of fiction did not exist. "Plot, theme, characterization, image, tone—all have remained surprisingly consistent . . . form has changed only in accordance with broad developments in the novel in general." Perhaps the most significant constant in the novels of female adolescence has been the authors' concern with "portraying their heroines' reaction to womanhood. In most of the novels from 1920 to 1972 this reaction has been overwhelmingly negative." Whatever the social context or the fictional texture, adolescent heroines remain prisoners of gender.
Although the novelists of the last decade have made efforts to free their captive heroines, White points out that those who do "try to present more positive images of growing up female have difficulty staying within the realistic tradition of the adolescent novel." Indeed, Ellen Morgan has argued that "the social reality in which the novel is grounded is still sufficiently patriarchal to make a realistic novel about a truly liberated woman very nearly a contradiction in terms." White, however, is unsure "whether fantasy is a viable form for the portrayal of positive images of adolescence." (It would be interesting to have her analysis of David R. Palmer's Emergence, published in 1984, a science-fiction novel with an elevenyear-old heroine, a super intelligent mutant who saves the world from total destruction.)
White concentrates her concluding remarks not on fantasy or science fiction as new modes for adolescent fiction but on developments in those novels that have attempted to remain within the realistic mode. According to White, "the most striking development . . . does not have to do with feminism and is often at odds with feminist goals. This development is the more explicit treatment of sex, a change that can be traced to the 'sexual revolution' and new permissiveness in publishing. . . ." The influence of the women's movement is seen in the feminist consciousness of many contemporary heroines and in the new treatment of old themes such as mother-daughter relationships and male violence. New authors [End Page 312] also have new names for old problems. Heroines are less likely to waste away or eat "greedily" and more likely to suffer from anorexia nervosa or bulimia. But the most important development in White's opinion is the "emergence of lesbian themes and characters." She points out that "most recent novelists present lesbianism as wholly positive and liberating" and that "negative attitudes once given to the heroine are transferred to socializing agents like mothers and psychiatrists who consider lesbians 'freaks'. . . ." Such negative attitudes are also shared by many literary critics and too often skew their judgment of novels with lesbian heroines. Even androgyny is contemptible in the opinion of some. White exposes the prejudice and concomitant misreadings of several such critics, notably Leslie Fiedler and Chester Eisinger...