Girl Power? by Dorothy Woodend

Not so very long ago girl power ruled. Sisterhood was powerful and Girls Kicked ASS! Well, we still might mouth the words but we've forgotten the tune. The Spice Girls vanished into tales of eating disorders, rumors of sapphic love and custody battles. The usual tabloid fodder, which, perversely enough, is closer to the realities of most ordinary girl's lives. At least according to Girl Culture (Chronicle Books; $40.00) a new book from L.A. photographer Lauren Greenfield who has been shooting photographs of girls and women all over the US for the past five years.
 
Girl Culture is a portrait of girls growing up fast in a hyper-sexualized pressure-cooker world where magazine covers are wall to wall glossy implants, Eminem raps about killing women and Britney Spears grinds her way into super stardom, all the while maintaining she is still a virgin. Never has the schism between what is and what seems been so great.
 
It is not a particularly easy place for anyone. Accompanying the photos are essays from the girls themselves - from an 11-year-old at fat camp, to a long term anorexic to a group of 7th-graders getting ready for a party- the single thread in every image is the desire to be beautiful. Beauty is everything and Greenfield's portraits reveal the vast hunger, the need to be desired, even objectified, that typifies most girls lives. In one of the essays, pin-up queen Cindy Margolis says "It just kills me when these girls look at magazines and wish they could look like that. I try to tell them, 'Nobody looks like that.'"
 
But even the youngest girls in Greenfield's book have swallowed the party line, adapting the sexually provocative poses of pop culture. Four-year-old Allegra poses wearing makeup, a too-large pink leotard and gold pumps, while six year old Lily wryly picking out clothes says "I want to be on television. I want to be famous, so everyone can see my pretty face and my whole body."
 
Having lived with a teenager for the past few years, I am well immersed in girl culture, and the resulting confusion it engenders. Already teenage girls are far more vigilant about their bodies than I ever was. And just as gullible. They read CosmoGIRL not BUST. Certainly, there are lot's of strong girl role models. Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Reece Witherspoon, are plucky, tough and seemingly fearless. But real girls don't have it quite as easy as their fictional counterparts. They aren't all whip thin like Sarah Michelle Gellar, or as flawlessly beautiful as Rory on the Gilmore Girls. In the real world fat girls get teased, slutty girls are shunned, and the in-crowd worries they'll stop being popular.
 
Increasingly consumer culture is written on the bodies of women and the would-be models and actresses, cheerleaders, showgirls, and strippers portrayed in Greenfield's photos are all reduced to trading in flesh. Sex sells and sex is power. "I would rather be dumb than a slut, but I would rather be a slut than be fat or ugly" says 18 year old Mary Cady, a self-confessed exercise addict. Seventeen year old Alison agrees "Attention is something people just crave, It's a form of love, and everybody needs love. That's why girls want to be famous like Britney Spears."
 
"Let be be finale of seem" said poet Wallace Stevens meaning, what is real is better than what is fake. But fake is King (or Queen). As a photographer Greenfield is deeply attracted to artifice and so much of what is traditionally feminine is exactly that; makeup, "fake and bake tanning", breast implants, and endless dieting to control and contain the unruly female body. "I want to be a stick thin girl. A double zero. I look at the models and actresses and I want to be like that" says 14 year old Stephanie. Few, if any, of the girls depicted question the forces that (quite literally) shape both their bodies and their lives. The personal is no longer political, it's just personal. When Naomi Wolf's The Beauty Myth was published critics attacked it as hyperbolic, conspiracy theory hysteria but after looking at Greenfields' portraits, you emerge with a sinking sensation. Uh oh..maybe Naomi was right.
 
But before you start bemoaning "girls these days", even Greenfield admits to some ambivalence about her project. Photos of semi-nude girls--are titillating enough that magazine editors clamor for Greenfield's work and certainly sexualized girlhood is real and potentially damaging, but there are lots of girls who navigate the deep water of adolescence without being sucked into the hollow vortex of "celebrity image culture." Sleater-Kinney, Tegan & Sara types, girls outside of mainstream, girls who get beaten up by police at WTO Summits and couldn't give a rat's ass about mascara or dieting. Fat and happy feminist girl.
 
Girls who fight the power with real girl power.