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Ms. Magazine
Sunday, November 15th, 2009
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Feminism, Inc.: Coming of Age in Girl Power Media Culture

by Emilie Zaslow

Girl Power Less

A review by Jennifer Cognard-Black

Run a Google image search on "girl power," and what comes up is a series of visual contradictions: a pink woman's symbol with a fist in the circle; a photo of a businesswoman's legs, in stockings and stilettos in front of a chorus line of men's trousers; girls sporting athletic gear; "girl power" emblazoned across bikini underwear; and an ad for a porn film. In these images the power afforded girls is mixed. A working woman is reduced to her girly fashion sense. A little girl's source of influence is what's written on her panties. And almost every image is linked to consumerism. "Girl power" is up for sale.

In Feminism, Inc., Zaslow details the contradictions within a media culture that's been pervasive and potent ever since the Spice Girls popularized the phrase in 1997. On the one hand, she writes, "girl power is a commodification of opposition to traditional femininity." Epitomized by such popular figures as Lisa on The Simpsons and rapper Missy Elliott, girl power encourages young women to be independent choice-makers and suggests they can control their own sexuality, style and sense of self. Yet Zaslow points out that such feminist discourse is undercut by corporate media, explaining that "[girl power] does not celebrate a feminist movement for social change at structural levels."

What distinguishes Feminism, Inc. from prior discussions of girl power is Zaslow's focus on how girls react to media rather than a close analysis of that media. Although she summarizes the historical context in which girl power became a popular sensation and refers to other girl-culture studies, at the heart of her book are a series of focus groups and one-on-one interviews performed with 70 teenage girls from a range of class, race and ethnic backgrounds in New York City. It is the voices of these teens that compel the reader -- as when Thea and Meg argue about whether the women of The Apprentice exploit their sexiness in order "to change how things are run" or merely objectify themselves by "not using their brains." These young women have a complex understanding of gender, race, sexuality and class; they're able to appreciate how Phoebe on Friends is simultaneously a dumb blonde and an iconoclast, with her "really wacky clothes" and ability to do as she feels.

Yet Zaslow's ultimate outlook for these girls is grim. Their wholesale purchase of corporate feminism shrink-wrapped with femininity leaves them with emotional contradictions that she calls "cultural discordance." Their powerful desire to be equal, respected and autonomous cannot be realized within a media culture interested in keeping girls as savvy shoppers. Surf the Internet and the message is clear: Beneath the title "Girl Power -- Empowering Girls Worldwide," the company touts "Super Sunglasses" for all those young "trendsetters who want to leave an impression."

Jennifer Cognard-Black is a professor of English and coordinator of women, gender and sexuality at St. Mary's College of Maryland; she is also the mother of a girl-power tween.

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