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by Valerie Walkerdine, Helen Lucey and June Melody
New York University Press, 2001
Review by Janis S. Bohan, Ph.D. on Sep 26th 2003
Growing up Girl is a
sociological analysis of gender and class, interwoven with commentaries drawn
from the authors' applications of psychoanalytic theory and (primarily) Marxist
class analysis. This discussion is couched largely in postmodern terms. The
result of these many perspectives is a rich but occasionally cumbersome
depiction of the "subjectivities" of these girls and women.
Sociological writings often presume a comfortable familiarity with postmodern
perspectives on identity. For most psychologists, however, this discourse is
less familiar. Those who are not deeply versed in postmodern renditions of
identity might find it helpful to review psychological writings that take
explain this perspective, such as the work of Philip Cushman and Edward
This book provides a deeply
thoughtful and complex perspective on the role of class and gender in the
experience of girls and young women in Great Britain. The analysis is based on
data gathered from three groups of participants, representing a range of ages
and class backgrounds; some were initially interviewed for other studies and
some were interviewed specifically for this book.
The authors describe the girls'
identities as constituted by the needs of a deeply classed society, albeit one
trying to erase class from its national identity. They are further constructed
in and by an economic system in the throes of major change--from a (quasi) welfare
state toward one in which individual ownership and personal responsibility are
the goals prescribed for all in this changing, post-industrial economy. The
resulting expectation that everyone should be an autonomous citizen, constantly
open to reinventing herself, is seen as both the boon and the bane of girls,
whatever their class—although the meaning and impact of this expectation is
profoundly shaped by class.
Those in the middle class, who have
certain of the resources to achieve this state of self-creation, are driven by
the demand that they create identities that, above all, protect them from
slipping into the lower classes. Those in the working class, on the other
hand, are trapped in the realization that the work of the men in their lives
has steadily diminished through deindustrialization so that they are
increasingly expected to sustain the work ethic that threatens to slip
away—indeed, to strive via employment for an elusive status whose possession
yields only tentative grasp on "respectability."
To elaborate this complex dynamic,
the authors call upon extensive scholarly work as well as the voices of participants,
and they address a wide scope of topics including not only matters related directly
to work, but also issues around housing, education, mothering, the meaning and
impact of pregnancy, relationships with parents, and a variety of other issues
that arise in the discussion of these central matters.
The book is sometimes difficult to
follow (at least for this U. S. reader) by virtue of its use of distinctively
British turns of phrase and references to British social programs, housing
arrangements, and so forth. However, the underlying messages come through and
seem pertinent even in the very different economic system of the United States.
I found this book challenging, both
intellectually in the difficulty of grasping its complex analyses and politically
in its challenge to how we understand the intersection of gender and class. I
greatly appreciated the deconstruction of class that the authors provided, a
deconstruction that dismantles the usual notions of how class is defined and
what is the role of work (women's work, in particular) in that definition. The
degree to which this commentary is packaged in jargon and esoteric analysis may
discourage some readers from staying the course. For those to whom this level
of analysis is comfortable, the book should be a very valuable and
thought-provoking read. For those to whom the level of discourse is foreign,
the key points that one can extract in any case are well worth exploring.
My one major criticism of the book
is directed toward its use of psychoanalytic concepts. As a psychologist, I
found the use of these notions disconcerting--sometimes simplistic, sometimes
inappropriate or even erroneous, sometimes helpful. Perhaps the disciplinary
and cultural gaps between their writing and my reading interfered with my
gleaning as much as I might have from these sections. In any case, I offer
this caution to other readers who might be similarly situated.
In summary, Growing Up Girl
unpacks the meaning of gender and class in a time and place where both are
contested and manages to do so in a manner that teaches a great deal. I would
be very interested to see a similar analysis of the gender/class system in the United
States, where a different economic ideal might lend different nuances to the
situation. But I believe the bottom line would be similar even if the
specifics varied: gender and class intersect hugely, and it is impossible to
understand one without taking the other into account.
© 2003 Janis S. Bohan
Janis S. Bohan,
Ph.D, is Professor Emerita (retired) at Metropolitan State College of
Denver. She has published widely in the areas of gender, psychology of
sexual orientation, and history of psychology.