"Girl Culture Book Review" - Christian Perring, Ph.D, March 27, 2003
Photographer Lauren Greenfield makes clear her perspective in her essay at the end of Girl Culture. She writes, "Most of all, I am interested in the element of performance and exhibitionism that seems to define the contemporary experience of being a girl." She explains her work is influenced by Naomi Wolf's The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women and Joan Jacobs Brumberg's The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls .Her sensibilities are solidly feminist, and her photographs illustrate the ways the bizarre and cruel ways that female gender roles available to girls lead them to sacrifice their welfare for social approval. Many of the photographs are accompanied by text written by the subjects of the photos, reflecting on their lives.
It's clear that Greenfield finds much to disturb her in modern gender roles. Some of the most powerful images in Girl Culture are from a weight loss camp for children and teenagers in the Catskills, New York. The girls look unhappy and preoccupied. Other pictures show women at an eating disorders clinic, desperately thin, but still struggling with their feelings that they are overweight. Greenfield clearly finds much of contemporary femininity to be absurd - one photograph of contestants in the Fitness America competition in particular stands out: all the women are waving with their right hands, presumably to a camera out of the picture, bending at the knees slightly with their left hands on their left thighs, all wearing fake smiles. As with any feminist critique of gender roles, there's a fine line between targeting the roles and targeting the women who take on those roles. The women at the competition look ridiculous and sad. In other images, such as those of 13-year-old girls in Minnesota posing in nice dresses before the first big party of the seventh grade, the girls look confident and mature, although there may be some underlying anxieties beneath the surface. These images show girls and women preoccupied by their looks, and some show great anxiety about looking good, while others enjoy the process of dressing up and being flirtatious. For the most part, Greenfield shows great compassion for the girls and women in her images, although occasionally she seems to exhibit a bewildered fascination about how they participate in their own exploitation. This is especially clear in the case of women who get breast implants or college girls pandering to groups of men at Spring Break in Florida.
Greenfield's images are full of saturated colors. They are sometimes posed for the photographer, but more often they are journalistic, with the subjects largely oblivious to the camera. Even when they are not posed, though, the women and girls are aware of their looks and always seem to be posing for some audience. Greenfield's message and themes are plain, and the images lack subtlety and complexity. There are no layers of meaning here; the photographs wear their messages on their surface. There's no sense of artfulness or an aesthetic stance in these pictures. They could easily serve as a focus for discussion in trying to raise awareness about the pressures on girls in modern society. Girl Culture may give its readers reasons to reflect on the experience of girls, and it has enough variety to avoid a simplistic or reductionist view. Nevertheless, it is not clear whether Greenfield's work sheds any new light on gender beyond what has already been discussed by a great many feminists.
The most powerful images of Girl Culture are those accompanied with personal stories, and the book would have been more effective if it had focused more on the lives of the girls and women Greenfield shows. The text accompanying the images do provide some context for readers to understand the emotions of the subjects, but still, in many of the pictures, one is left wondering what exactly is going on and what else is going on apart from the obvious. So this is an interesting and worthwhile project, and some of the images are especially strong, but as a whole it lacks the incisiveness of the best social commentary in photography.