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Review-a-Day
The New Republic Online
Thursday, July 18th, 2002


 

The Birth of Pleasure

by Carol Gilligan

Teen Angels

A review by Margaret Talbot

I.
Thinking of Carol Gilligan's work as social science has always been a bit of a stretch, but that is how it has generally been received by critics and adepts alike: as a body of psychological research supporting certain controversial hypotheses about the differences between men and women, probably the most influential such hypotheses of the last twenty-five years. Gilligan's famous contention is that girls and women are possessed of a distinctive morality more attuned to maintaining relationships and caring for others than to arguing for justice and equity. This generalization has often been taken as the product of stringent empirical research. So has Gilligan's idea that plucky and confident girls wilt into diffidence on the cusp of adolescence.

Gilligan has always had it both ways. The fact that her writing in In a Different Voice and Between Voice and Silence was fervent, oracular, tremulous with concern about the fate of girls in a patriarchal culture, and laden with literary examples helped to popularize her work and to confer upon her the status of an American sage; and the fact that she was a psychologist and a Harvard professor who conducted interviews with real girls gave her work the imprimatur of science, even when most of her scholarship was anecdotal, or inclined to what seemed like foregone conclusions. Gilligan has a way of making her readers, especially her female readers, feel at once good and smart, virtuous and rigorous.

Her notion of a feminine morality — more solicitous of feelings than consistent with principles — is, of course, an old one. It is the idea that informed the Victorian conception of separate spheres, of the angel in the house gently shaping an insular dominion that was the very opposite of the striving and impersonal world beyond its walls. Gilligan's teaching is in many ways reactionary, which also helps to account for its extraordinary success. She plays on an intellectual ambiguity at the heart of modern feminism. Feminism was born of abstract principles — namely, the argument that the rights of man should, in the name of fairness, be extended to women; but all this complicated and strenuous arguing from ideas did not prevent one element of the female suffrage movement from satisfying itself with the platitude that women were morally different and morally better. Women, according to this latter line of thought, should be given suffrage so that they could bring their superior moral sensibilities to bear on public matters, cleansing the polis just as they cleaned the home.

This was always a treacherous position, implying as it did that women had to prove their moral virtue in order to participate in a democracy, whereas men had merely to prove their citizenship; but such philosophical shortcomings never dampened its appeal for some people. Which is to say, "difference feminism" has been around since the late nineteenth century. Carol Gilligan's role has been to salvage it for our era, to secure it against the severities of egalitarianism, to make it hip. And so Gilliganism has enjoyed a remarkable run and a wide and easy influence, from women's studies departments and education schools to pop psychology and middle-school girl culture.

Gilliganism came along at a time — the early 1980s — when a sluggish lack of interest in sex differences and their psychological implications was not uncommon in feminist circles. (This was before the advent of evolutionary psychology as the totalizing philosophy du jour.) It offered a convincing rejoinder to theories of moral development, notably those of Lawrence Kohlberg, which seemed to place autonomy at the pinnacle of achievement. It was toasty and affirming, at least for women who recognized themselves in it. Evidently there were many such women. Jane Fonda, for one, was so taken with In a Different Voice that she gave $12.5 million to Harvard University in Gilligan's honor, earmarked for a center on the study of how gender affects learning and development. (The penance of the feminist who falls for Ted Turner must be very great.) In 1984, Ms. Magazine named Gilligan its woman of the year, lauding her "new appreciation for a previously uncatalogued female sensibility." And in 1996 Time identified her as one of "America's twenty-five most influential people." According to Time's editors, In a Different Voice had proven that a single book could "change the rules of psychology, change the assumptions of medical research, change the conversation among parents and teachers and developmental professionals about the distinctions between men and women, girls and boys."

Over the last two decades, Gilligan's work has provided the legitimating theory for a large and popular school of thought that took the sloppy romantic arguments about gender difference and the imperilment of girlish psyches even further than Gilligan had taken them. In Women's Ways of Knowing (1986), for instance, Mary Belenky, Blythe Clinchy, Nancy Goldberger, and Jill Tarule contended that women not only reasoned through moral dilemmas differently — they reasoned differently, period. Women, unlike men, distrusted debate because it "threatened the dissolution of relationships"; and they seemed to take "naturally to a nonjudgmental stance"; they excelled at subjective and intuitive interpretations, and valued "truth that is personal, particular, and grounded in firsthand experiences." The more womanly they were, the more they suffered under the "tyranny of expectations," which is to say, the common objective standards of schools and workplaces. And so on.

It was a dubious and insulting picture of the female mind. (The notion of the female mind is itself dubious and insulting.) Yet it proved oddly galvanizing for many educators, who relied upon such conceptions in shaping curricula that catered to girls' "ways of knowing" and in helping to create a vogue for single-sex schools. And it left a big mark on the thinking in How Schools Shortchange Girls, a heavily publicized report issued by the American Association of University Women in 1992, which endorsed the Gilliganesque contentions that girls were being "silenced" in school and so were facing a catastrophic collapse in self-esteem at adolescence, when boys enjoyed a boon.

Gilligan's other contribution to the culture was to popularize the use of words such as "trauma," "crisis," and "violence" to describe what happens to the normal run of American girls when they reach adolescence. From specific clinical contexts, she and her followers imported five-dollar scientistic words such as "dissociation" to evoke the experiences not of, say, Holocaust survivors, or children in wartime, or victims of horrific abuse, but of the survivors — more precisely, the victims — of American culture, who are just girls, kind of, you know, um, growing up. They talked about silence as oppression. Silence was always a consequence of silencing: where there are victims, there are villains. Teen moods and emotions, including muzzy-headed indignation about the adult world and the overwrought adolescent worldview of I-didn't-ask-to-be-born-ism, were endowed with an overtly political dignity. They represented nothing less than fights for freedom: Lesley Gore meets Theodor Adorno.

It was hard to make out exactly what Gilligan meant at times, but it seemed that in the world that Gilligan and the Gilliganites depicted, free-spirited, barefooted tomboys were forever being crushed beneath the giant thumb of patriarchy, never to raise their pert little heads or their impertinent little questions again. "Adolescence," Gilligan declared, "seemed to pose a crisis of connection for girls coming of age in Western culture." It put them "in danger of losing their voices," and even their "connection with what is commonly taken as reality." Indeed, Gilligan and the writers whom she influenced — such as Mary Pipher, the author of Reviving Ophelia, a book much beloved of book clubs that spent nearly three years on the New York Times paperback bestseller list — managed to cast an aura of foreboding and high drama over what might seem to be a pretty good time to be a girl in America, Britney Spears and bulimia notwithstanding. "Something dramatic happens to girls in adolescence," Pipher wrote dramatically. "Just as planes and ships might disappear into the Bermuda Triangle, so the selves of girls go down in droves. They crash and burn in a social and developmental Bermuda Triangle." Yuck.

With their intelligence undervalued, their creativity stifled, their self-esteem deep-sixed, girls were washed up at about thirteen. They were literally selfless. Or else they were holding out bravely somehow, nutty but noble "resisters" in their suburban Masadas. Gilligan also identified the method of their resistance. Adolescent girls learned to "dissociate," in the specific language of psychic trauma that Gilligan favored — to split themselves off from their "true" selves. This was the psychic mechanism that allowed them to survive in a patriarchy.

That this representation of a girl's life in America was accepted at face value, and even eagerly, by so many people was a testament to many things: the long history of unequal treatment of boys and girls; the passion that Gilligan and others brought to their writing on the subject; a certain fairy-tale-like appeal in the image of the poor defenseless girl, a caged nightingale awaiting release by the enlightened. But its popularity owed shockingly little to facts. The facts about the situation of girls in present-day America paint a remarkably different and less desperate picture.

By most measures of success in school, where the trouble supposedly began, girls in America are now doing better than boys. They get higher grades, from elementary school through graduate school; and they receive more academic honors in most fields; and they hold more school offices; and they attend college at higher rates; and they are far less likely to be diagnosed with any of the major learning disabilities. On standardized tests, girls do better in reading and writing, while boys surpass them in math and science, though the differences — except for the female advantage in writing — are small. Teachers tend to expect academic and professional success from girls more than from boys, according to one national survey, and both girls and boys agree that teachers favor girls. There is little empirical data showing that teachers call on or listen to girls less than boys. There is some data showing that much of the attention they do pay boys is "managerial and disciplinary," in the words of one study. There is no data showing a causal relationship between attention from teachers and achievement in school.

In the late 1990s, moreover, several of Gilligan's critics in the academy produced thorough new research that refuted her central claims about sharp gender differences in self-esteem and moral orientation. In 1999, Kristen C. Kling and her colleagues at the University of Wisconsin undertook an analysis of more than two hundred studies on self-esteem, and concluded that there was indeed a gender difference in "global self-esteem" (one's sense of overall worth, as opposed to one's sense of competence in particular areas) that favored males. But they found that this difference was consistently small, and also that it was accompanied by a "striking amount of overlap" between men and women. And they did not see evidence for the theory that adolescent girls suffered a crisis in self-esteem from which they never recovered. "Between the ages of 13 and 32," wrote Kling et al., "self-esteem in both males and females is relatively stable and even shows signs of a gradual increase."

While they did notice that the differences detected were most marked between the ages of fifteen and eighteen — they speculated that this might have something to do with girls' perceptions of their physical attractiveness, which do decline from the fourth to the eleventh grades, while the aesthetic self-esteem of boys remains steady — Kling et al. emphasized that this tendency reversed itself after the bumpy passage through adolescence. "In sum," they modestly observed, "although our data demonstrate that gender differences in self-esteem are related to age, the magnitude of the difference is not as large as the media coverage would suggest, nor is the long-term outlook for female self-esteem so grim. Thus, our data suggests that words such as plummeting should not be used when referring to the development of self-esteem in girls." Indeed, warned Kling and her co-authors, there was a danger that the contemporary preoccupation with girls' supposedly inevitable loss of confidence could become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

One of the researchers on the self-esteem study, Janet Shibley Hyde, went on to produce another analysis, this time of studies on moral reasoning, with her colleague Sara Jaffee. It was an ambitious but tricky task for several reasons, including the fact that Gilligan presents such a sharp contrast between what she describes as the justice orientation to morality and the care orientation to morality, when in real life (and in many studies) the two are difficult to separate. In practice, after all, a sense of justice is seldom a pure or rigid or free-floating principle — the quest for fairness is usually entwined with a sense of obligation toward or concern about other people. Jeremy Bentham was not the only male who ever lived. And the kind of consistency that Gilligan seems to imagine that men and women embody in their moral reasoning, these pure and simple types of ethical temperament, is seldom evident in studies that ask people to solve hypothetical dilemmas, let alone in daily life.

Still, even allowing for the existence of two distinct, coherent, and readily identifiable types of moral reasoning, Hyde and Jaffee found scant evidence for Gilligan's claim that one is used predominantly by males and the other predominantly by females. Though they did observe small gender-related differences in moral reasoning, suggesting that women have a slight preference for the care orientation, these differences were not significant. They noted that boys and girls, when prompted by an interviewer, were equally capable of switching their moral orientation toward a problem, and that the solution they ultimately considered best was not necessarily the first one that they offered. (As the psychologist John Broughton has pointed out, even Gilligan's own interviews show men comfortably shifting into the language of compassion and care — defining morality as "not taking advantage of other people, not hurting them," for example — and women into the language of rights.) To Hyde and Jaffee, the implications for scholarship were clear. Since most males and most females seem to use a mixture of justice and care reasoning, researchers would benefit "from turning their attention away from the study of gender differences in moral orientation and toward a more sophisticated characterization of moral orientation or to questions of how moral orientations develop over time."

It was perhaps inevitable that the girls-in-trouble movement of the 1990s would provoke a backlash: a boys-in-trouble movement that offered a sensible corrective but also trafficked in its own excesses of alarm. Comparatively few people were willing to argue for the extremely unexciting truth, which is that girls fare better in some areas, boys fare better in other areas, and that many of the documented differences are anyway small. Or, to put it another way, that some girls are troubled and some boys are troubled, and that their troubles may take a form intimately related to their gender, but that gender does not make any particular kind of psychic suffering inevitable for all boys or all girls. If feelings were trapped behind the boundaries of sexual identity or completely determined by them, we could hardly understand each other, and literature would be almost impossible, and maybe love would be impossible, too. But the same emotions are found on both sides of every human difference. Emotion is surely one of the great proofs of universalism.

II.
The research that countered Carol Gilligan's claims has done little to diminish her popularity. Research on gender difference is an extraordinarily fraught and polarized enterprise, and messages sent across enemy lines do not often hit home. There is the difference camp and there is the equality camp, and the particular women (and men) who belong to each of them do not seem particularly interested in compromise. (Contra Women's Ways of Knowing, these women like debate just fine.) "There is perhaps no field aspiring to be scientific where flagrant personal bias, logic martyred in the cause of supporting a prejudice, and even sentimental rot and drivel have run riot to such an extent as here," Helen Thompson Woolley observed in 1914. Scholarship on gender differences has improved since 1914, but there is still a fair amount of bias and drivel.

More to the point, perhaps, Gilligan's contentions are not provable or disprovable, because they are not anything like science. You may find the particular stories that Gilligan tells about women and men true to life, or you may not. And that is why the greatest strength of Gilligan's new book is its lack of pretensions to social science. It is, unabashedly, an essay — a circular, solipsistic, New Agey essay, based on sometimes elegant and often engaging readings of texts ranging from the Cupid and Psyche myth (the origin of the book's title) to Toni Morrison and Arundhati Roy, as well as on Gilligan's therapeutic practice with couples, her childhood memories of her mother, and her personal observations of adolescent girls and preschool boys. And it reveals Gilligan once and for all as a state-of-the-art 1960s romantic, a hippie really, enamored of spontaneity and authenticity, and entranced especially by the superior knowledge of twelve-year-old girls — an ecstatic and nostalgic worshipper of youth.

We are suffering under the yoke of Western culture, Gilligan believes. That yoke consists largely of tragic stories of love — tragic because they are the products of patriarchy, and they justify male authority squashing true feeling and the democratizing force of love, to which she gives full due here. Realizing that these are "our stories" is the first step to freeing ourselves from them, she believes, and loving as — well, what? Men and women with no sense of tragedy or history? Gilligan cannot really say. Her language is sometimes downright mystical:

I was searching at the time for a washed-out road. Picking up the voice of pleasure in men's and women's stories about love and also among adolescent girls and young boys, I came to the places where this voice drops off and a tragic story takes over. The tragic story where love leads to loss and pleasure is associated with death was repeated over and over again, in operas, folk songs, the blues, and novels. We were in love with the tragic story of love. It was "our story." If we have a map showing where pleasure is buried, where the seeds of tragedy are planted, then an order of living that over the millennia has seemed natural or inevitable opens to our inspection and becomes a road taken where we could follow another. Piecing together an ancient love story with the findings of contemporary research, I found myself led into the heart of a mystery and then to a new mapping of love.

Yes, yes, a lot of great literature is about women who are punished for their passions, though it would be depressing indeed to read, say, Anna Karenina mainly as an object lesson about life in a patriarchy. And a significant proportion of our stories are indeed tragic — but then a significant proportion of human experience is tragic. No amount of moral hygiene and right thinking will ever change that. Moreover, there are power struggles even in egalitarian relationships, and there is misery even in wholesome social democracies with female prime ministers and an abundance of quality day care. Anyway, there are also different stories to read, stories of fulfillment and contentment and even mature, mutually respectful love. The exasperated Gilligan should pick up Jane Austen now and again. It is a little quaint, in any case, to see Gilligan treating ancient myth or nineteenth-century fiction as an adolescent girl's blueprint for life. Few are the adolescent girls who hook up with Ovid.

Much of Gilligan's book is concerned with the separate paths to development taken by girls and boys, and the way in which the imposition of sex roles stifles the true selves of each. Surprise! Boys, Gilligan argues, are forced to become "inauthentic" earlier — at the age of four or five, just when they are in transition from Blue's Clues to Scooby-Doo, I guess — and are clueless about the process, whereas girls undergo this loss at adolescence, when they are better able to notice it and to rail against it. The news that Gilligan reports is pretty grim. Boys turning five and preparing to enter kindergarten were "separating themselves from their relationships," Gilligan explains, "and in the process becoming less direct, less attentive, less articulate, and less authentic." (She is summing up the research of an admired colleague.) "They were becoming more like `boys.' Inattentive, indirect, inarticulate, inauthentic — words that captured the boys' response to a crisis of relationship; to become one of the boys they had to cover parts of themselves." They must conceal "what is not considered manly or heroic." (At five?!) Girls, by contrast, get more leeway to experiment with gender roles until adolescence, because only then does "their participation in patriarchy" become "essential."

There is certainly some truth to this picture. Every kindergarten class contains a few gender enforcers: boys or girls who say, "That's not what boys do," or "That's not how girls act." And play tends to divide along gender lines in kindergarten, though by no means exclusively. Children entering "real" school may be grasping for the first time that there is such a thing as a public or social self — a way you are with your friends or teachers that is not exactly the same as the way you are at home, and that sometimes involves acting more like a "boy" or a "girl."

Gilligan's interviews with the fathers of four-year-old boys at a preschool are touching testaments to parental worries about this transition. Indeed, far from being eager to impose "manly behavior" on their little boys, these thoughtful fathers seem to want their boys to hold on to their sensitivities and their eccentricities. "How can we help preserve our sons' vulnerability without putting them at risk for teasing and being beaten up?" asks Alex, an earnest college professor. Interestingly, the fathers seem equally determined that their boys keep their wildness — the bumptious and exuberant boyishness that we do not much care for in the Ritalin era — and their sweetness.

Gilligan, by contrast, has a more particular idea, a more doctrinaire idea, of what is authentic and worthy in a little boy. Good guy/bad guy play is no good, for it is nothing other than "the basic script of patriarchy," and "destructive to love among and between men and women, to any kind of love." The news that a five-year-old boy now prefers coin collecting and soccer to drawing leaves Gilligan rueful. "What about his drawing?" she asks his father when he "proudly" tells her about his son's new hobbies. "I could be speaking a foreign language," Gilligan laments. "Michael brushes off the question and repeats that Gabe is now playing soccer and collecting coins."

But how does Carol Gilligan know what an authentic self is? Maybe archetypes of good and evil, obnoxious and hierarchical though they may be, are authentic. Maybe boys are showing their "true" selves when they play good guy and bad guy. Maybe girls are, too. And maybe it is all more various and more complicated than the dichotomy of the true self and the false self, of "authentic" and "inauthentic," would suggest. Maybe parenting requires dialectical thinking.

While I see a lot of four-year-old and five-year-old boys jostling for independence and testing out attitudes, I do not see many who are "separating themselves from their relationships" with the people closest to them. Moreover, some of the signs of intimacy that Gilligan admires in the relationships of young prelapsarian boys and their mothers are actually signs of children's profound dependence on adults. Gilligan dwells on the observation that little boys (one could say the same of girls) perceive their mothers' subtle shifts in mood — anger simmering beneath an even tone of voice, and so on — and wishes that men could be more like that. "I am hearing mothers describe their four-and five-year old sons as emotionally present and clued in to them in a way that their husbands are not," she writes. As a woman named Rachel explains to Gilligan, speaking of her four-year-old, "Nobody pays attention to me like that. Jake is just, like, clued in. It's like Mom why did you kind of use that angry voice with me?"

But surely small children notice "angry voices" and the like because they are utterly dependent on their mothers and on the emotional weather that the adult world establishes for them. Children are always looking for storm warnings, or for more auspicious signals — Will we go out for ice cream tonight? Are Mom and Dad getting along? — because the vagaries of the adult world are mysterious to them and completely beyond their control. (Indeed, Rachel describes Jake as her "barometer.") It can be sweet and gratifying when small boys keep a close watch on their mothers' moods, but it is also a function of the essential powerlessness of the child. Relationships between equals do not generally elicit or require such vigilant monitoring. Gilligan writes admiringly of Rachel's refusal to shield her toddler from the tension that she was feeling at work because "to do so would have been to betray his love." But transparency is not the highest duty in relationships with children. There are some things that children do not need to know.

Though Gilligan pays more attention to boys in this book than she has in the past, it is girls on the verge of adolescence who have her heart. It is they whom she regards as our gum-chewing truth-tellers, our lipglossed sibyls — epistemologically privileged beings, little annunciators of the heart's reasons, uniquely positioned to vouchsafe to us knowledge that the rest of us have long ago forgotten. Though little girls, like little boys, must adopt caricatured sex roles behind which they hide their essential selves, and though these roles block them, too, from being "in relationship," as Gilligan puts it, girls in her view are better equipped to speak about their loss and their falsity. Gilligan sees girls at adolescence "masking their faces, putting on a face that a year or two earlier they had identified as a false face, hiding anger with smiles, boredom with a look of interest, a feeling of being ordinary with a look of specialness. And take on a voice that they had gleefully mimicked as a woman's false voice in hilarious skits where they reveal the acuity of their listening." What she "found extraordinary among girls was their ability to name this process of masking.... The difference in the timing of initiation that leads boys to take on the mantle of manhood earlier than girls put on the masks of womanhood suggests that this process will be more readily articulated by girls and also remain closer to the level of consciousness." Since they do not feel that they can speak freely and still have relationships, especially with boys, they must chose between "being in relationship" and having relationships.

Gilligan's numinous girls have so much to tell us, then, and so much to teach us. I am a little in the dark, though, about what the great girl-message is, for Gilligan tends to cloak it in poetic obscurantism: "[In] the presence of girls who will speak freely and say what they are seeing and hearing, thinking and feeling, women begin to know what they know. I don't know how to talk about this kind of knowing, since it so readily seems suspect. It is the way animals know. Through vibrations. Something that passes between people." Vibrations! By this point, psychology has given way completely to mystagogy.

Of course, the notion of adopting different selves in different contexts, of feeling "untrue" to oneself — of preparing "a face to meet the faces that you meet" — goes back a very long way, to the Renaissance at least, and its dawning awareness of a psychology of deception and pretense. It was William James who first identified, for the new science of psychology, separate and distinct aspects of the self — the "I-self" and the "me-self," which included the "social me." And as for adolescent alienation — and particularly the exquisite awareness of and discomfort with "phonies," with the phoniness that the young are convinced only the young can see through — the most plaintive statement of that accomplishment was written by J.D. Salinger, a man (to put it mildly), and it has been gratefully discovered anew by legions of misunderstood youth, male and female, every year since its publication in 1951.

Gilligan strangely combines the 1950s cult of teen alienation with the 1960s cult of teen self-realization. But the cult of the young, the reverence for spontaneity, the romance of incomplete socialization: all this is itself a kind of immaturity. As most people get older, they realize that the first thing that they say or think is not always the truest thing; that their first thoughts are not usually their best thoughts; that what they write in a diary is not necessarily betrayed by what they say out loud; that the edited self, or the polished thought, is not an inferior or corrupted copy of a deeper, truer, better self. They realize that the truth that a child knows about divorce, say, or more generally about the social conventions of adults, is not a superior truth but a partial one, important to know and to credit, but necessarily occluded, like a glimpse through a crack in a door. The Catcher in the Rye is no longer their favorite book. Its attractions tend to expire with the onset of adulthood.

But Gilligan appears to regard adulthood as a fall, a misery, a corruption; and so the religion of youthful authenticity marches on. And it certainly makes for some smudgy thinking. It is facile to declare that all or even most girls experience adolescence as some kind of debilitating break with what they thought they knew about the world, some kind of devastating confrontation with hypocrisy, some kind of betrayal of self. Some girls probably do — we know that depression strikes women more than men, and that this divide first becomes apparent at adolescence. But it would be useful to know which girls and under what circumstances.

In The Construction of the Self, the psychologist Susan Harter, a critic of Gilligan's, tries to discover precisely that. While Harter argues that some adolescent boys and girls do indeed feel that they engage in false behavior or self-censoring that distances them from others and ultimately from themselves, she maintains that this is a phenomenon best explained by reference to individuals and not to genders writ large. (Genders do not feel bummed out. Individuals do.) "Our own findings on level of voice," Harter writes, "reveal that ... individual differences represent the major phenomenon to be explained; that is, there are no overall gender differences, nor does voice decline with age for girls. Rather, while some adolescent girls lack voice, there are many who report that they are quite capable of expressing their opinions. The same is true for adolescent males in that some stifle the expression of their opinions, whereas others can readily voice their thoughts." (Offhand, I expect that most people could think of more talkative teenage girls and monosyllabic teenage boys in their acquaintance than the other way around.)

Harter's studies also suggest something interesting, not so much a contradiction of Gilligan's position as an important refinement of it. One subgroup of girls whom Harter identified did seem to experience trouble expressing their true thoughts with others, at least in some contexts — and these were the girls who identified the most with stereotypically feminine traits. Harter and her colleagues used various sex-role inventories that ask subjects whether they have certain characteristics traditionally linked to one gender or another: gentleness, empathic listening, and enjoyment of babies and children are on the female side; mechanical aptitude, risk-taking, and competitiveness are on the male side. Those identifying with a more or less even sampling of the characteristics from both columns are called "androgynous" — and in most studies that employ these terms, androgynous females make up sixty to seventy percent of the sample. Those who endorse female attributes but not male ones are decidedly a minority, usually in the twenty-five percent range. And it is they — the so-called "feminine girls" — who report "the lowest levels of voice," that is, the most reticence in expressing their opinions, in public contexts such as the classroom. (In personal relationships, on the other hand, this liability was not apparent.)

But androgynous girls — that is, the majority of girls — said that they were comfortable expressing their thoughts in both public and private. In general, both androgynous girls and androgynous boys reported more support and interest from teachers than girls who were very feminine or boys who were very masculine. (The former may be too quiet and self-effacing to elicit favorable attention, and the latter may be too disruptive.) "We can no longer be content with generalizations implying that most or all girls are at risk for lack of voice," Harter concludes. "Furthermore, we need to attend very seriously to individual differences in level of voice and to identify what causal factors account for lack of voice in some, but not most or all, girls." Harter's is only one study, of course, and this sort of research can be unreliable, dependent as it often is on self-reporting of murky and changeable emotions; but it is certainly suggestive, and it reminds us of the perils of seeing all girls as emotionally united in the same traumatic experience of their gender.

There is a strange irony in all this. Well-meaning though she is, Carol Gilligan may be as guilty in her own way of revering — of fetishizing — young girls as the fashion and entertainment industries. No doubt she detests those industries for all sorts of distortions of a girl's life; but she, too, cannot let a girl be. Gilligan's image of American girls is different, certainly: she does not linger over (or even adequately note) their sexuality, their aggression, or their ambition. But in its own high-minded fashion, Gilligan's fascination with girlhood is just as constraining, just as laden with expectations, as any fan's (or promoter's) fascination with Britney Spears. The flesh peddlers in show business burden the American girl with their kind of inauthenticity, Gilligan burdens the American girl with her kind of authenticity; but they are all in the business of making the American girl carry the American burden. Maybe the biggest favor that the theorists of girl-world and the marketers of girl-world could do for actually existing girls would be to leave them alone. Their lives are complicated enough without all these yokes of exemplariness.


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