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  • The Modern Girl around the World: Consumption, Modernity, and Globalization
  • Sonja Kim
The Modern Girl around the World: Consumption, Modernity, and Globalization. Edited by Alys Eve Weinbaum, Lynn M. Thomas, Priti Ramamurthy, Uta G. Poiger, Madeleine Yue Dong, and Tani E. Barlow. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2008. 448 pp. $94.95 (cloth); $25.95 (paper).

Identifiable by her “bobbed hair, painted lips, provocative clothing, elongated body . . . open, easy smile” (p. 2), consumptive patterns, and seemingly transgressive behavior, the Modern Girl was at once both representation and real, cropping up in diverse parts of the world during the 1920s and 1930s, on urban streets, in advertisements, on the silver screen, as characters in fiction, and in journals and newspapers as commentators debated her presence. The culmination of collaborative work by the Modern Girl around the World Research Group based at the University of Washington in Seattle and its Tokyo-based sister group, the Modern Girl and Colonial Modernity in East Asia, this volume offers the first comparative study of the Modern Girl that not only spans the globe, as indicated by its title (countries of study include the United States, France, South Africa, India, Soviet Russia, China, Australia, Japan, Germany), but also academic disciplines (literature, [End Page 411] history, cultural studies, gender studies, political economy). As such, it is a valuable resource for use in the classroom and research.

In the introductory chapter, “The Modern Girl as Heuristic Device: Collaboration, Connective Comparison, Multidirectional Citation,” the editors explain their methodology. In order to address their central questions, “How was the Modern Girl global? And what made her so?” (p. 2), the research group tracks the visual representations of the Modern Girl (thus Modern Girl as heuristic device) in various archives throughout the world. In so doing, they argue that the Modern Girl, whether she was called “flappers, garçonnes, moga, modeng xiaojie, schoolgirls, kallege ladki, vamps, and neue Frauen” (p. 1), emerged simultaneously throughout the world (countering earlier scholarship that placed the emergence of the Modern Girl in places such as India and South Africa after World War II), and that she was no mere imitation of the American flapper (thus denying Western-centric notions of modernity or femininity). What she shared with her sisters in other countries was her associations with romance and sex, visibility, self-fashioning, performance, consumption, and indirectly women’s agency, thereby often perceived as threatening conventions, the social order, or political agenda.

Using methods the editors call “connective comparison” (reading texts “to identity connections among disparate locales and to explore the overlap and distinctions among Modern Girl representations,” p. 26) and “multidirectional citation” (the “incorporation of local elements with those drawn from elsewhere,” p. 4), the second introductory essay, “The Modern Girl around the World: Cosmetics Advertising and the Politics of Race and Style,” addresses the transnational linkages that highlight the Modern Girl’s specificity as well as commodity and visual circulations. Advertising, the editors argue, was “one of the primary means through which a distinct Modern Girl simultaneously appeared around the globe in the 1920s and 30s” (p. 25). Dissemination of and shifts in the Modern Girl image reflect the growing trends of global interdependence and political nationalism. Cosmetics, in particular, reveal how skin color, facial features, modern aesthetics, and physicality could be variously deployed in the formation of national racial and social hierarchies.

The ensuing twelve essays further analyze the Modern Girl in her particular context. Following these, the volume concludes with three commentaries, by Kathy Peiss; the late Miriam Silverberg, whose earlier work on the Modern Girl in Japan inspired the research group; and Timothy Burke.1 A comprehensive bibliography (combining the [End Page 412] references used by all the scholars in this volume), a note on contributors, and an index close the volume.

Readers may not find clear the organizing logic of the order of the individual essays. They are not divided by geographical location, chronology, or other apparent logic of methodology, focus, or discipline. For example, the United States is the locale for chapters 3 (Davarian L. Baldwin’s examination of black beauty culture and race womanhood through the figure of entrepreneur Madam C. J. Walker) and 6...


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