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The Lion and the Unicorn 24.1 (2000) 168-171

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Book Review

Delinquents and Debutantes:
Twentieth-Century American Girls' Cultures

Serious about Series:
Evaluations and Annotations of Teen Fiction in Paperback Series

Sherrie A. Inness, ed. Delinquents and Debutantes: Twentieth-Century American Girls' Cultures. New York: New York UP, 1998.

Silk Makowski. Serious about Series: Evaluations and Annotations of Teen Fiction in Paperback Series. Ed. Dorothy M. Broderick. Lanham, MD, and London: Scarecrow Press, 1998.

Girls' culture is an academic field of growing intensity and complexity, and it is of interest to students of children's literature, sociology, psychology, cultural studies, and anyone who works with girls. While not always addressing every member of its broad audience at the same level of sophistication, Sherrie Inness, in her collection "about the different ways that cultural discourse shapes both the young girl and the teenager" (2), does an excellent job of showing how long girls' culture has been shaping the gender of American women and how pervasively it does so.

Divided into three parts ("Law, Discipline, and Socialization," "The Girl Consumer," and "Re-imagining Girlhood"), the examination begins [End Page 168] with the largest institutional forces. Laureen Tedesco's article on the actual nature of the conflict among Baden-Powell, Juliet Low, and the Campfire Girls does a good job of familiarizing the reader with previous studies but also reveals the ways in which the Girls Scouts have chosen a "self-history that insists that Girl Scouts are determined and resist the odds" (26). Students in introductory Women's Studies courses would be especially well-served throughout this collection, because, as in this essay, the authors are careful to view their sources critically, not simply accepting even those generalizations that might have seemed more politically acceptable in the early days of Women's Studies. In another example of careful historical work, Mary C. McComb's essay sets advice and marriage manuals of the 1930s and 1940s in the context of the Depression and the increasing joblessness of the male wage earner. Women were encouraged to "rescue emasculated men from their collective crisis and make the world safe for prosperity" (58). Another mark of a well-structured collection is the inclusion of new material from writers who are known specialists--Miriam Formanek-Brunell, on the cultural history of dolls--but who are entering new fields. Formanek-Brunell contributes a piece on the gendering of babysitting in postwar America, for example. All of the essays dealing with institutional forces are carefully textured and base their conclusions on specific documents from the historical context.

In the second part--considering the girl as consumer--perhaps the most interesting piece is Inness's own essay on Pleasant Company (note that the name is not "The Pleasant Company") and the American Girl doll line. While the article is attentive to the ideological issues--are these dolls truly anti-Barbies or not?--there is also an appropriate attention to statistical data concerning the financial success of the company. (Its recent sale to Mattel, creators of Barbie, heats up once again this volatile mixture of ideology and entrepreneurial success.) Inness's unease with the upper-middle-class ambience of these dolls and books does not blind her to the fact of positives as well as negatives about both, and the article would serve as a good introduction for academics who may not be aware of this phenomenon.

Although the articles in the first two sections have been critical, the third and, for students of children's literature, perhaps most important, section takes as its center a questioning of traditional notions of girlhood and often focuses on the role of reading in shaping gender identity. While there have certainly been earlier studies of racist and classist issues in the various Nancy Drew series, for example, Melinda L. de Jesus's article on the books as a strong force in the internal colonization of Filipina Americans suggests a larger imperialist agenda as well. Another look at...


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