The Philadelphia Weekly

The Philadelphia Weekly

Not So Pretty in Pink, Katie Haegele - November 27, 2002

It was hard to find, tucked coquettishly as it was beside garish old Victoria's Secret. But eventually I made it inside Pace/MacGill on Manhattan's East Side for Lauren Greenfield's new photography show, "Girl Culture."
The culture Greenfield captures is a preening, primping, getting-ready-for-guys girl culture. And that's no post- feminist reclamation of the word "girl," either. Greenfield portrays actual girls--children, young adults and somewhere in between--engaged in various ultra-feminine pursuits. There's a 13-year-old on a tanning bed, a very young woman posing for a lingerie catalog and a taut spring break reveler being contorted in a grotesque way by her bulky male counterparts.

Greenfield's photos are fine examples of gritty but vivid realism, some of them even resembling weird class portraits. Others, like the three wan teenagers hanging on each other on the last day of weight-loss camp, look more like war footage. As a whole, the collection is fairly bleak.

The same evening I attended a book party where I met a woman who represented authors for a large publishing company. When I told her my reason for visiting the city, her eyes lit up. Her house had just put out a book I'd love, she said.

"It's all about, like, how crazy the rules were for women in the '50s," she said. Then she congratulated me on my order, a gin and tonic, which used to be "a total lady's drink!"

Inwardly, I groaned. That post-feminist haven't-we-come-a-long-way-baby sentiment has always struck me as a little prematurely self-congratulatory. Shouldn't we wait until things actually change before we start laughing at the way they used to be?

By the end of the week, as promised, I received Lynn Peril's Pink Think from the rep, complete with a commendation from premier post-feminist Debbie Stoller, editor of Bust magazine. The idea is that pink--the color and all it symbolizes--is an oppressive state of femininity foisted on women via fashion magazines from the '40s through the '70s, from adolescence (a time to hone those useful feminine charms) to marriage (a career choice).

But Pink Think turned out to be delightful, not all fluff and attitude like many books of its ilk. Dense with references, quotes and contextualizing details, it reads like a witty anthropology thesis. I was soon laughing out loud and calling friends to read them some of the scarier stuff, like the declaration that a married woman who didn't attend scrupulously to her appearance was delivering "a powerful blow to her husband's ego."

For years Peril's been collecting women's things that struck her as outmoded and curious, including pregnancy girdles and ads promoting Lysol as a douche. Her studies--which I suspect she conducted mostly for fun--helped her draw a picture of the female culture construct of the last several decades.

Her book is deliciously horrifying, where Greenfield's photo essay is simply unsettling, most likely because Pink Think works on the premise that all the old double standards are dead and gone. "Girl Culture" is a little more realistic.

During my childhood family vacations in Maine, we'd make a yearly trek to Moll Ockett, a Yankee antiques dealer that seemed to serve as the (almost) final resting place for every decorative glass bottle and terrifying ancient farm implement in North America.

The summer I was 12 my big Moll Ockett find was an archive of women's magazines from the '40s to the '60s. I'd recently discovered their modern-day counterparts--the guileless Teen, my mother's more mature Redbook, the illicit Cosmo--and I was hooked. I carried a stack of the moldering things back to our little cottage and pored over them.

As I alternated between the glossy monthlies from the drugstore and my Moll Ockett purchases--some of them 50 years old and crumbling under my fingers--I realized the two were nearly indistinguishable. Although some references in the older magazines were inscrutable ("Mom, what's a Jell-O mold?"), it seemed they both had the same thing to offer: inclusion into the complex, rules-based world of femininity.

As I was only starting to discover, there's a lot to learn about how to be a woman. And even as it made me queasy with self-doubt, it was somehow pleasurable to read.

Peril plays with the prescriptivism of pink culture in her book's subtitle: Becoming a Woman in Many Uneasy Lessons. It's that very sensibility--becoming a woman and the accompanying uneasiness--that underlies Greenfield's ironically titled Girl Culture. Ironic because although there are almost no guys in these pictures--the duties her subjects attend to are all men-centric. Photographer Greenfield is a woman, but men are the real "watchers" here. Like Janet Jackson says, it's all for you.

There's one chapter in Pink Think about etiquette books and dating guides for young men, a genre Peril has dubbed "blue think." They stand apart from the manuals for girls in one significant way: Romantic love is viewed as just one part of a man's life, which should also include education, a career and sports.

Peril expresses surprise that 1963's Fascinating Womanhood, which set forth rules like "Make him Number One," is still in print. Certainly the language of women's culture has changed ("'Jeepers,' says Chuck, 'I like to date the Eye Tonics'") and the scare-tactics are less harsh ("Forgotten anniversary? Could be your fault!"). But the focus of the messages--well-roundedness for men, attractiveness for women--hasn't shifted all that much.

While thinking about Peril's book, I thought back to the photo exhibit, how I'd caught my own reflection in one of the glass frames and was distracted by worries about my own appearance. I was the only one in the room.

To look at Pink Think in light of "Girl Culture" is to appreciate our options. Years ago pink culture was the only culture for the fairer sex. Still, the messages women hear today are sometimes much more brutal. Greenfield's picture titled A plastic surgeon performs a breast augmentation shows that plainly.

"Girl Culture" shows that maintaining an identity that's not "feminine" but simply human is a constant struggle.

And that means we still have a long way to go, baby.