We are two part-time academics. Ellen teaches in the English department and Jim in the IT program at George Mason University.

Deborah O'Keefe on _Good Girl Messages_ · 21 April 05

My dear Fanny,

I just finished another book: Deborah O’Keefe’s Good Girl Messages: How Young Women Were Misled by Their Favorite Books. Each term I teach Advanced Comp in the Humanities and have my students read a favorite book from childhood and write on the distance between the way they remember they felt when they read this book and the way they felt while rereading it this term, I assign (and reread) Bobbie Ann Mason’s The Girl Sleuth and myself try to read a new book on children’s literature.

This time it’s been Deborah O’Keefe’s Good Girl Messages, which I picked up for $1 plus postage ($2.49) on the Net.

Like Bobbie Ann Mason, O’Keefe goes in search of lost time and rereads many of her favorite books from childhood as well as many books that were not her favorites. All are grist for her mill. She uncovers an outlook which most early and mid-20th century stories and books for girls and boys dramatized, inculcated, & reinforced.

This outlook is hostile to women having any autonomy or individual life apart from or which have nothing to do with what Mason identifies as the four great episodes of women’s lives. The 4 "ms": menstruation, marriage, motherhood, and menopause. Such books encouraged girls to enact a death wish, to be passive, submissive, self-distrustful, and sexy (but of course hard-to-get) around males. Boys are urged to be physically aggressive (that’s power), ideally athletic, active, challenging everyone everywhere, strong and silent. The girls are to (allude to Mason’s dream in The Girl Sleuth) hidden prostitutes in cream-puff shops with self-sacrifice their mode; the boys are to be macho male gentlemen, rakes and fathers (the counterpart of whores, angels and mothers).

Nothing new here, then. The value of the book is O’Keefe elaborates her thesis and its ramifications persuasively. She chooses quotations aptly. She seems to be able to conjure up the inner feel of a book in a few short words. When she finds much to praise in recent literature for girls, she made me feel joy and pleasure and want to read Jane Yolen’s "The Moon’s River," a story where a young girl rides like a swan across a silver river to reach a road which will lead her to try to enact her dreams.

She also offers some good insights on genres: animal stories she shows characteristically support rank-based hierarchies and are strong on authority figures as having numinous wisdom. Mason points out a disturbing new development in girls’ detective stories: a return to girl groups. O’Keefe suggests why this is disturbing: such stories stress the value of conformity and again tend to present stories where characters learn not to think for themselves and to distrust private moments and (especially) solitude.

O’Keefe, though, provides no depth-psychoanalytic point of view.
The reader is left to wonder if there is no explanation beyond a tendency of people to believe endlessly reiterated propaganda after a while automatically—and as long as the real life situations repeat in milder form what is Writ Large in the books.

This propaganda includes, for example, the idea that little girls should want to read about dying heroines because they want literally to die. Perhaps this shallowness at the core of O’Keefe’s book is the result of determining to write a lucid book which would be readily read by a large audience. Still Mason manages to offer this kind of depth in simple language and through amusing metaphors and retellings of the stories. By contrast, O’Keefe’s book feels empty: it stays on the surface.

I think such depth and explanation necessary because without it you cannot persuade the common reader that what the girl is reading is not just harmless sentimental rubbish. One has to persuade this reader what you are saying is so and one way is to provide an convincing explanation why such scenes are attractive.

In a nutshell, of course, girls want out. They don’t want to be used, abused, hurt for doing what they are pressured into doing.

Anorexia is not a freakish or strange choice at all at all. It keeps the punishment and pressure away. I wrote about this earlier, Fanny, when I wrote about Hilary Mantel’s article expliciting anorexia.

O’Keefe also seems determined to turn away from what she once loved. She does not admit these books validated authentic desires of some girls (and her in particular—me too gentle reader) not to aggress, to retreat, to live in an idyll with companionable affectionate friends. These scenes quietly validated the perceptions of the outcast, intelligent, sensitive, and non-caste that success in the world is not worth the price.

She doesn’t split and lump with sufficient subtlety. For instance, she says all marriages of heroines to older men are marriages to tame fathers/uncles/brothers. Why should a young woman want a young man characterized as rapacious because he’s presented as glamorous. She forgets her own valuing of kindness & respect as the basis of an equal and contented partnership.

I rejoice that Jo March married Mr Bhauer; Marianne, Colonel Brandon.

At the close of the book she does offer a list of recent books for girls which I wish I had known about when I was young. Laura and Isabel read many of these without my understanding what was the appealing content. It’s probably a good thing I didn’t know for had I urged them on Laura or Isabel, it’s likely that at one point both of them would have turned away from it precisely on the grounds I advocated it.

Now I know that Scott O’Dell’s Island of the Blue Dolphin is a female Robinson Crusoe tale :)


Posted by: Ellen

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