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You've Come A Long Way, Baby: Women, Politics, and Popular Culture

reviewed by Jennifer Scanlon - March 15, 2011

coverTitle: You've Come A Long Way, Baby: Women, Politics, and Popular Culture
Author(s): Lilly J. Goren (ed.)
Publisher: University Press of Kentucky, Lexington
ISBN: 0813126029, Pages: 300, Year: 2010
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This collection of essays draws on a myriad of popular culture forms, music, fiction, film, and television among them, to explore the representations of women’s lives that inform what feminism means in contemporary society. Most people, the authors argue, experience feminism through the lens of popular culture rather than through the home base of this set of writers: academia. By viewing female characters juggling family, work, and romance on film, or following the successes and failures of female police officers and presidents on television, women and men witness what it means to be female—and perhaps feminist—in contemporary life. The dozen or so contributors to this edited volume view their work as political activism, as it engages with the real and the representational and targets an audience of young women who might be eager to understand themselves better as consumers in and of these popular culture worlds. Attempting to negotiate the tension between what might be called “real world” and academic understandings of popular culture, the essays combine personal and scholarly responses in an effort to both consume and consider popular culture’s modes of feminist engagement.

Editor Lilly J. Goren outlines a theoretical stance that shapes the volume: approaching each popular culture venue from the perspective of third wave feminism. She opens the volume by discussing the 2008 U.S. presidential election and juxtaposing the accompanying second wave of feminism (peopled by supporters of Hillary Clinton) and third wave (peopled by supporters of Barack Obama). For readers outside of academia or perhaps even outside of gender and women’s studies programs, though, this juxtaposition might seem simply to reduce differences among feminists along age or generational lines. A brief but not wholly satisfying discussion of the meaning of the third wave follows, but for the most part it is up to individual contributors to make the link between their topics and the third wave. Some of the authors do this fairly well; in other cases the third wave theme seems largely tangential.

The collection is divided into four sections. Part I, “Feminism and the Idea and Constraints of Freedom,” is the least satisfying of the groupings. Essays in this section alternately display two of the weaknesses apparent in various places in the book as a whole: an overly narrow disciplinary focus, and insufficient editing. The first piece, “Extreme Makeover and the Classical Logic of Transformation,” by Emily Askew, explores the rhetorical parallels between women’s participation in reality television’s extreme makeovers and Christian notions of sacrificial atonement. The essay assumes a significant level of familiarity not only with Christian theology but also with postmodern feminist theory—a familiarity not required by any of the essays that follow.

The second and third essays in this grouping, “Smart, Funny, and Romantic?,” which focuses on romantic comedies, and “From Madonna to Lilith and Back Again,” which focuses on women, feminism, and popular music, both demand significant editing. The piece on romantic comedies, written by Laurie Naranch, attempts to link its analysis to feminist history by drawing back to the 18th century. Had the author drawn on 18th century popular fiction by or about women, perhaps the case could be made, but discussions of Olympe de Gouges and Mary Wollstonecraft seem oddly paired with discussions of the film The Wedding Planner. In another section of the essay, the author outlines a series of underlying elements for several films but explores them adequately only in one case. Similarly, the essay on popular music, written by Rachel Henry Currans-Sheehan, provides a rambling discussion of a wide variety of musical forms with no clear analytical stance. In addition, when the author examines problematic lyrics, she engages with hip-hop music but not country, the music she opens up with, or rock, which receives significant attention. For each of these essays, the editor could have played a more significant role, demanding more cohesion within essays as well as a more fleshed out continuity among them.

Parts II to IV explore, with greater success, television, advice literature, popular fiction, and women’s magazines. One incongruent essay, “The Mommy Track Versus Having It All,” does a fine job of exploring the many obstacles women face in their attempts to carve out any work-life balance. Attentive to the issues of race and class that seem largely to have escaped the attention given to the “mommy wars,” Julia Wilson writes in a clear and accessible style. In the end, though, one wonders how this piece fits into the collection as a whole, as it is far more attuned to the real than the representational in women’s lives.

Other essays, however, accomplish the goals of the collection by exploring, in compelling fashion, the ways in which women’s lives and third wave considerations emerge in popular culture. Peter Josephson and Rebecca Colton Josephson’s “The Reformer and Her Work,” which provides close readings of two television shows, The Closer and Saving Grace, is exemplary in this regard. The principal protagonist in The Closer, Deputy Chief Brenda Johnson, both exhibits and challenges traditional femininity; in third wave fashion, she experiments with her identity as she moves through professional and personal challenges. Similarly, Natalie Fuehrer Taylor’s “The Personal is Political,” which examines the ways in which contemporary women’s magazines handle feminism, provides a clear case about the impact of the second wave, and now the third, on this industry.

Finally, a few of the essays make compelling cases for the genres they study but hardly engage with this second-wave, third wave trajectory. Cecilia Konchar Farr’s “It Was Chick Lit All Along,” a thoroughly convincing analysis, argues that we take seriously the kinds of fiction real women readers have enjoyed for centuries. Arguing not only that chick lit is legitimate fiction but also that the novel itself has long been chick lit, the author makes a claim for the commercial as well as aesthetic legitimacy of works that speak to women’s desires for identification, emotion, and excitement. But her historical exploration reaches back not to Marilyn French but to Jane Austen, and there is no discussion here of the third wave. Likewise, Mary McHugh’s “The Money, Honey,” a review of the role of women in television news, provides an apt, sobering analysis of the challenges facing female news anchors and reporters. How it follows the essay on chick lit, however, or closes the volume, remains unclear.

You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby offers its readers a variety of approaches and themes for exploring women’s relationships to and representations within popular culture. One wishes, however, that the volume offered a more even—and unified—set of readings.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: March 15, 2011
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16364, Date Accessed: 5/26/2022 6:40:07 AM

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About the Author
  • Jennifer Scanlon
    Bowdoin College
    E-mail Author
    JENNIFER SCANLON is Professor and Director of the Gender and Women’s Studies Program at Bowdoin College. Her research interests include women’s and feminist history and consumer culture. An award-winning teacher and scholar, she has published four books and written many scholarly articles on aspects of women’s and girls’ cultural and consumer practices, including beauty parlors, chick lit, boardgames, popular feminism, and online book reviews. Her most recent book, Bad Girls Go Everywhere: The Life of Helen Gurley Brown, now a Penguin paperback, was named a “Book of the Times” by the New York Times, “Book of the Week” by The Week, business book of the year by Marketplace, and reviewed widely and to significant acclaim nationally and internationally.
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