Reading and Re-Reading Models of Girlhood

in Girlhood Studies
Author: Erin Newcomb1
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  • 1 State University of New York at New Paltz


Sarah Rothschild. 2013. The Princess Story: Modeling the Feminine in Twentieth-Century American Fiction and Film. New York: Peter Lang.

Amy S. Pattee. 2011. Reading the Adolescent Romance: Sweet Valley High and the Popular Young Adult. New York: Routledge.

Rothschild’s The Princess Story: Modeling the Feminine in Twentieth-Century American Fiction and Film (hereafter The Princess Story) provides a sweeping overview of one hundred years’ worth of acculturation to princess stories; it pays specific attention to the Disney corporation in the latter chapters while demonstrating the persistence and ubiquity of stories as lessons in femininity. Pattee’s Reading the Adolescent Romance: Sweet Valley High and the Popular Young Adult (hereafter Reading the Adolescent Romance) provides a closer examination of a single franchise—Sweet Valley High and its spinoffs—but highlights many of the same principles about the ways in which popular fiction educates its readers in gendered behavioral expectations. One more macrocosmic and the other more microcosmic, both texts speak to the power of stories to shape readers for a lifetime as gendered subjects.

Rothschild traces the development of princess stories through five distinct phases: the first-wave feminist movement (epitomized by Frances Hodgson Burnett’s 1905 A Little Princess) and Disney’s mid-century princess films; the second-wave feminist movement’s countercultural narratives; Disney’s late-century pseudo-feminist films; and third-wave feminist stories that revise princess tropes. Rothschild defines “princess stories” as “different from fairy tales, meaningful in ways that intentionally send messages to girls and women” (1). Seeing the stories as reflective of the tense give-and-take between feminist movements and patriarchy, between “forces for progress and forces for tradition” (3) Rothschild asserts that such stories, “consumed by an almost entirely female audience, should be examined with an eye toward their inherent lessons and possible effects, especially as these effects may last into adulthood” (5). Though princess tales may seem to be the nearly exclusive terrain of childhood, Rothschild claims that “the many princess stories absorbed and unconsciously remembered, give us a way to think about our life stories” (5). Thus, just as Rothschild envisions a century-long flux of feminism’s visibility (or lack thereof) within mainstream culture, she likewise imagines a similar, personalized version of that flow in females’ lives. What her analysis lacks is a consideration of the ways in which audiences read and reread, revising textual interpretations as they revisit them at different junctures in their lives; the text, generated between author and reader, is unstable.

Still, the princess story subgenre exerts influence at the social and personal levels. Rothschild describes “periods of ‘gender intensification,’ stages in life when the person is more aware of and influenced by traditional gender stereotypes” (6); such reinvigorated interest in the princess tale corresponds to transitional periods in life (like early puberty or motherhood) that require females to construct or reconstruct the self. Rothschild suggests that some females turn (either subconsciously or through intentional narrative selection) to princess stories during such transitions. And princess stories, Rothschild says, are intended for just such instructive purposes: “the defining element of a princess story is the educative quality of the material … a heavy dose of princess lessons, which teach the reading audience as well as the fictional princess how best to become this exemplary girl” (15). Of course, there are no guarantees that any given audience will interpret or apply the lessons; there is always space for readers to revise and reject. At the same time, Rothschild recognizes and demonstrates through her historical perspective that the princess is not a singular or monolithic figure: “[t]here is no one depiction or idea of the princess in American fiction over time” (13). Ever the embodiment of ideal femininity, the princess reflects the collaborating creators as well as historical values of the moment (13)—not to mention a point that Rothschild neglects—the shifting and uncontrollable interpretations of the readers themselves who, unlike the girls featured in the princess stories, are unlikely to remain forever young.

In her first chapter, Rothschild makes the case for A Little Princess (1905) as a first-wave feminist tale that illustrates the possibility and reality of inter-class relationships in spite of its issues of race and class that may trouble contemporary readers (44). In her second chapter, she discusses Disney’s animated feature films Snow White (1937), Cinderella (1950), and Sleeping Beauty (1959) and the many alterations the films underwent from their source material—particularly the submission of female characters to both their fathers and male romantic leads and the heteronormative script of happily ever after. The didactic function of these Disney films emerges in the comparison between the titular character and her (always) female enemy: “the princesses, passive, end up happy. The wicked women, trying to take control, are destroyed. Emulate one; eschew the other: your chances of a happy ending increase” (85). Rothschild records the backlash against such stories in chapter three in which she catalogues the rise and demise of second-wave feminist princess stories; though some of these stories survive (notably, Robert Munsch’s 1980 picture book, The Paper Bag Princess), most were too overtly feminist to gain a wide audience, lacked support from film studios, and ultimately failed to gain traction against stories sponsored by the corporate tide of multi-nationals like Disney.

Yet even Disney responded to its audience’s call for more active princesses, a trajectory Rothschild outlines in chapter four in which she shows how “The Little Mermaid (1989), Beauty and the Beast (1991), Pocahontas (1995), and Mulan (1998) touted their new heroines as spunkier, more independent and more feminist … [b]ut these new Disney princess stories were burdened by the patriarchal traditions out of which they came” (135). In chapter five, she compares the novel and film versions of several princess texts to demonstrate that young adult texts in particular “provide their audience with princesses who have goals and desires of their own, and if they find romance, it never takes precedence over their other needs” (168). Still, the film adaptations of those stories are subject to Disney’s anti-feminist ideology as well, epitomized by The Princess Diaries (2001) movie wherein “a strong, independent character, who values education and has goals of her own, here is reduced to a nervous girl reformed by a makeover and redeemed by love” (219). While Rothschild spends too much time on speculation regarding the psychological motives of Walt Disney himself, and the book as a whole suffers from poor editing, the chronological review creates a compelling case for the persistent power of the princess story. Indeed, since the publication of Rothschild’s text, it seems that Disney has entered yet another phase of princess modification with its blockbuster Frozen (2013); here the princesses validate sisterly love, cast suspicions upon the love-at-first-sight narrative, yet still conform to the appearance and personality standards that are standard Disney fare, complete with magical makeover. I would be curious to see how Rothschild would analyze this pseudo-feminist transformation as part of a larger framework of tension between feminist movements and the corporate princess machine.

Although Amy S. Pattee does not tackle princesses per se in her 2011 text, Reading the Adolescent Romance, she, like Rothschild, examines the way in which works of fiction model girlhood. Pattee sets up her project on the first page of her book as being to study “the series’ history, content, structure and reception” to illustrate its role as “an influential marketing and literary phenomenon” and “the intersecting influences of history, audience positioning and readability that allowed ‘Sweet Valley High’ to flourish” (1). The Sweet Valley series is defined primarily by its popularity: “the 1985 appearance of a teen paperback on the Times’ list marked the first time in history that a young adult novel reached these best-seller heights” (1). As such, the texts’ own popularity works toward the goal of maintaining hegemony; Pattee writes that “its popularity also depends on its perpetuation of the social conditions that make it popular. To this end, popular texts are invested not only in their own production and presentation as preferred media, but also in the correspondence of their content with the social status quo” (3). Thus the texts teach an imagined audience of young adults (a category already a social construction) how to navigate institutions like school and gender in ways that support traditional femininity. One irony, of course, is that the novels themselves preach mainstream conservative values and institutions while at the same time draw suspicion from the adult representatives of those very establishments. The publishers’ concern is profit; the parents’, teachers’, and librarians’ concerns are moral and literacy education. Meanwhile, there are still the readers whose extra-textual contexts vary considerably, with some seeing nearly a mirror of reality in Sweet Valley, and some seeing an utterly impossible fiction.

In her first chapter, Pattee situates the Sweet Valley series within the larger context of young adult (YA) literature, showcasing the tension that so often defines that category of reading material. As she states, “[w]ith reading considered among the practices that could contribute to adolescent adoption of middle-class values and the ‘rules of respectable living,’ the nature and content of the material read by teens became increasingly important to adult collectors and gatekeepers of the same” (9). Pattee further demonstrates the added frustrations felt by parents and librarians who tended to view the series—steeped in the stereotypes of paperback romances, and for a young adult audience to boot—as “sub-standard” (20) in part because of its popularity. Thus the tension that seems to define YA literature persists in Pattee’s examination; the books selected by an adolescent audience too often provoke the ire of adults who mistrust and disdain both the texts and the readers themselves. Pattee, too, does what so few of those adults critical of YA tend to do in that she takes seriously the reading preferences and interpretive abilities of the intended audience; she does not (but certainly could) call out the grown-up hypocrisy of prescribing great books to youth when many adults subsist on the formulaic, more mature versions of Sweet Valley.

In chapters two and three, Pattee creates political and physical maps (respectively) of the Sweet Valley ideological terrain. These chapters discuss further “uneasiness” (30) regarding the subject matter of the novels, and Pattee makes the critical point that “while this representation of what one is supposed to do, be, or become to achieve a cultural ideal is compelling, especially as it resonates with the attitudes and ideologies that exist outside the text, this resonance does not make the text a weapon of causality” (56). This observation segues into Pattee’s fourth chapter, wherein she discusses interviews with readers and re-readers of the series and demonstrates a point that Rothchild seems to overlook in her argument, namely, that reading and re-reading are changeable processes subject to time, cultural context, and the ever-shifting perspectives of the readers themselves. Pattee notes that many anti-Sweet Valley writers take to the internet in “an attempt to un-do the messages they argue the texts espouse and that they admit to acknowledging and even accepting as young people” (135). Re-reading, then, becomes akin to a kind of consciousness-raising. That holds truth for Sweet Valley as well as for Rothschild’s princess stories in the reading of which readers can reimagine the texts even as they reinvent themselves.

Pattee’s fifth chapter outlines the many ways Sweet Valley revitalizes itself for new readers, even as once-loyal fans age out of the texts. And, in her conclusion describing the series’ legacy, she asserts, “[f]or each population, ‘Sweet Valley High’ has become a kind of touchstone, around which adult and young readers assume interpretive positions, and through which fans and anti-fans assert ironically divergent identities” (176). It seems, according to Pattee and her subjects, that we are not only what we read, but also what and how we re-read. As a scholar of YA literature and fairy tales as well as a mother of two small girls, I see every day how flexible and shifting interpretative practices can be. After reading a stack of fairy tales, I once cautioned my four-year-old not to put too much emphasis on pretty: “It’s not enough to just be pretty. You have to be something else, something more,” I said. “Yes,” she agreed, adding “I could be a bear or a wolf”—something else, indeed. Her remark reminded me of the transformative power of imagination, a force that enters into the stories as each generation of readers takes on princess stories and Sweet Valley High; girlhood, too, like the texts that seek to capture it, is always already subject to transformation—reading and rereading.

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