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  • "Where the Girls Are"—and Aren't
  • June Cummins (bio)
Delinquents and Debutantes: Twentieth-Century American Girls' Cultures, ed. Sherrie A. Inness. New York: New York University Press, 1998.

With this absorbing and compelling collection of essays concerned with the lives, habits, and attitudes of American girls throughout the twentieth century, Sherrie Inness aims to correct what she sees as the hegemonic view that "girls are inconsequential" (1). To this end, Inness assembles essays providing fresh perspectives on the ways in which American girls have reflected as well as shaped social attitudes toward girlhood throughout the century. Often working within a system that forces them into molds and inhibits exceptional or individual claims and practices, but also at times actively challenging those forces and breaking out of those molds, girls have found ways to both accommodate and resist. Through essays that look closely at what may seem to be very narrow swaths of girls' culture, this collection establishes that girls as a unit have significant, growing power and are themselves forces to be reckoned with. As a whole, this collection is highly informative and inspiring about the roles of girls in American culture. At the same time, it is somewhat weakened by a curious distancing effect. Although girls' culture is discussed in detail, girls themselves often seem to be hovering on the edges of several of these essays rather than being their primary focus. This is an interesting tension in a book that argues that girls and their culture have been marginalized and not been adequately studied (1).

Perhaps one reason for this distancing effect is that the book is deeply invested in historical analyses of girls' culture. Seven of the thirteen essays provide interpretations of cultural events, movements, and artifacts occurring before the 1960s. A minority of the essays (five) are concerned with girls' lives in the 1990s, and it happens that a few of these essays are among the thinnest in the collection, although it should also be said that one of the strongest essays, "Producing Girls: Rethinking the Study of Female Youth Culture," focuses on this time period. Generally speaking, however, and especially because the essays [End Page 249] tend to deal with the material aspects of girls' culture rather than girls themselves, the contemporary girl is somehow absent, her experiences less accounted for and probed. In and of itself, this relative absence is not problematic, but in a book attempting to cultivate interest in girls and their culture, it seems that the contemporary girl should have been more rather than less present.

That said, some of the historical essays are excellent. In particular, Rhona Justice-Malloy's "Little Girls Bound: Costume and Coming of Age in the 'Sears Catalog' 1906-1927" is a compelling analysis of how the Sears Catalog not only mirrored but propagated changing ideas of women's fashions during this period. After establishing the dominance of the Sears Catalog for many segments of society throughout this period, Justice-Malloy sensitively and closely examines how seemingly small changes in women's clothing reflected changing attitudes toward women and their roles in society. For example, the "Gibson Girl" look, popular from 1906 to 1909, forced the female form into the unnatural position of a greatly extended, forward-thrusting bust and large, backward-thrusting bottom, pushing the body into an S shape. Intelligently using kinetic theory, which focuses on the meanings of how bodies move in space, Justice-Malloy demonstrates how girls and women's bodies were unbalanced, restricted, and idealized with this enforced S shape. In later years, female clothing became much less restrictive, allowing girls and women more freedom of movement and access to physical activities, such as sports, previously considered the domain of men and boys. Yet even the columnar "flapper" look enforced an unnatural coercion of the female body as it attempted to deny breasts and hips, literally through squelching them with corsets and binding brassieres. Fascinatingly, Justice-Malloy connects this cylindrical look with increased social attention to the machine and other industrial developments: the ideal female form mimicked the piston that drove the modern machine. With such observations, Justice-Malloy connects girls' and women's culture to the general society, proving...


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pp. 249-255
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