Exploring different media and using varied methodological approaches, the three documentary films reviewed here unpack the complex relationship between gender identity and popular culture. Dreamworlds 3 analyzes representations of women in music videos in an effort to examine the narratives girls learn about what it means to be a woman. Also focusing on the question of what it means to be a woman, Barbie Nation explores the doll that may be America’s most egregious representation of womanhood. However, rather than turning a critical eye on the representation itself, Barbie Nation examines how users make sense of Barbie and integrate her lessons about gender into their everyday lives. Finally, Girls Rock!, a documentary about a music camp where girls learn to play instruments and express themselves vocally, looks at what happens when production switches hands and girls have control over their own representations. All three films serve to generate meaningful and important conversations in the feminist classroom.
Dreamworlds 3 is a powerful update to the previous two versions of the film (released in 1991 and 1995, respectively). Using current footage and well-developed arguments, director Sut Jhally returns with the same message: When we look at representations of men and women in music videos, which reveal what our culture communicates to us about sexuality and gender identity, we discover that these images are tied up in an adolescent male fantasy that is limited and limiting.
Jhally, a critical scholar in media studies, guides students to ask the right questions: What stories do these videos tell? How are these stories told? Whose fantasies are at the core of this pornographic imagery? And perhaps most significantly, what effect do these images have “on the real lives of men and women”? Supporting his thesis with footage of today’s most popular U.S. performers, Jhally argues that music videos create a narrative in which women are always sexually available, aroused by male aggression and violence, and performing for a male gaze. Importantly, Jhally looks not only at videos produced for male artists but also those for female artists and examines how women (such as Christina Aguilera) who may at times appear powerful and self-determined also fall under pressure to conform to the “conventions of the pornographic imagination.”
As a teaching tool, Dreamworlds 3 has moments that shine. Jhally is prepared for the potentially defensive responses of students that he is moralistic. He is clear to point out that his critique is not against sexuality, sexual desire, or even the objectification of the body, but against the narrowness of the imagery that detracts from understanding women as “real people.” Additionally, Jhally is skillful in depicting the connection between the cultural and the social. With hip-hop music in the background, he intercuts actual footage of sexual assaults that occurred at the New York City Puerto Rican Day Parade in 2000 with music videos depicting similar images. The central difference between the two sets of images is, of course, that in the former the women are seen resisting and in tears while in the latter women appear to enjoy the encounters. Yet while Jhally demonstrates media’s social impact, he cannot and does not make the case that it is media that causes violence against women, or women’s seeming participation in their own objectification, as much media effects research is prone to do.
However, the film leaves out some significant questions about music videos: How do audiences read these videos? What do audiences do with the narratives they encounter? What are the various reading positions that audiences take? This is complicated stuff that Jhally tries to simplify in his visual parallels between mediated and real violence.
While Jhally skims over questions regarding audience interpretation of media texts and how audiences use and integrate mediated representations into the construction of their own gender identities, in Barbie Nation: An Unauthorized Tour, feminist journalist Susan Stern turns the camera directly onto audiences and explores various social experiences of the cultural phenomenon that is Barbie. As the subject of many a critique, Barbie has become a pariah in some feminist classrooms and a scapegoat in others.1 As a tool of cultural transmission, Barbie is not just a plaything but an “invitation to anorexia”; she is a symbol of a rigid female perfection that mandates whiteness, thinness, and blondeness as well as impossibly large breasts.2 While Barbie is in one sense just molded plastic, she also serves as a symbol for dominant ideologies about gender, race, class, and consumption.
Refreshingly, Barbie Nation: An Unauthorized Tour begins with a different premise: “Everybody has a Barbie story and the stories are about us.” As Stern narrates the film with an astute critical eye as well as with humor, she introduces viewers to individuals’ experiences with Barbie: Not only are we welcomed into the world of two young girls as they play with Barbie but also into the world of two adult women whose Barbie play entails creating lesbian group sex and S/M scenes with the dolls; we meet Franklin, a Filipino Barbie dress designer, and Kerry, a recovering bulimic who takes ironic photographs of Barbie as a therapeutic exercise. Equally important, we hear the story of Barbie’s creator, Ruth Handler, whom Stern interviewed on three occasions.
Though she does not use theoretical language, Stern aims to demonstrate that popular texts are polysemic; that is, they have multiple meanings and can be read through varied subject positions. As she captures moments in which Barbie serves to reify normative femininity beside moments in which Barbie is used to subvert oppressive gender roles and behaviors, Stern offers an implicit rejection of effects theory, denying the simplification of Barbie as instrument in the internalization of gender oppression.
In my own classroom, Barbie Nation has worked well as an accompaniment to Stuart Hall’s essay “Encoding/Decoding” and to selections from Janice Radway’s Reading the Romance.3 As a pre-viewing activity, students wrote about their own experiences with Barbie. Barbie Nation, accompanied by these personal narratives, served to concretize larger theoretical discussions of polysemy, meaning making, and interpretive communities.
At the Portland, Oregon, Rock ‘n’ Roll Camp for Girls, the subject of Arne Johnson and Shane King’s documentary Girls Rock!, girls aged eight to eighteen come together for five days to learn an instrument, form a band, and perform in a showcase before 750 people.4 Like their peers in children’s pageants, these girls end up on stage and learn how to, as one drum counselor says, “take up space.” But at Rock ‘n’ Roll Camp, the cultural mandate that girls be “perfect” is turned on its head. Indeed, another counselor tells the girls they might sweat and cry when they sing and that they should not expect to always look like princesses.
Where Jhally analyzes representations in media texts and Stern analyzes how audiences use media texts, Johnson and King take yet another important analytical approach as they explore the connection between gender identity and media: they analyze what happens when girls make media. The filmmakers capture some of the social and emotional struggles girls face during girlhood and adolescence. At Rock ‘N’ Roll Camp, girls learn to confront their imperfect lives as the camp’s young feminist counselors use music as a tool to share lessons in self-esteem, confidence, expression, and group interaction. The camp’s organizers, who are all part of the riot grrrl punk music scene, are well versed in the girls’ psychosocial development literature of the 1990s, and campers quickly learn to discover the importance of their voices.5 The girls at Rock ‘N’ Roll Camp are learning to put themselves—their struggles, their mistakes, and their pimples—in the lead role, not play the hyper-feminine role that is typically expected of girls their age.
Interspersed throughout the story of Rock ‘n’ Roll Camp’s 2005 summer program is a brief history of the riot grrrl movement as well as facts and statistics about girls’ development, self-esteem, and media representations. But the strengths of the film are those moments in which we glimpse the girls transcending normative femininity and enacting the kind of empowerment that feminist classrooms often talk about in abstract terms. Johnson and King demonstrate that the girls not only learn how to be loud, they also learn to write lyrics about their gendered experiences and to give voice to their own needs while also compromising for the good of the group. When Laura announces with a smile, “I’ve been waiting for so long to finally, you know, admit to myself that I’m amazing and I really am,” we truly believe that Rock ‘n’ Roll Camp has a positive impact on these girls.
Girls Rock! is a moving film that will serve as a strong teaching tool. As feminist scholars we want our students to understand gender oppression but also to fight it and to imagine a different world. Girls Rock! celebrates resistance against oppression; it celebrates the shifting of power relations that occurs when girls are not only making meaning of commercial media texts but are at the center of their own productions. While the film is not a longitudinal study into the ways that interventions such as Rock ‘N’ Roll Camp affect girls and their sense of themselves as feminine and feminist, it is useful for classroom discussions of empowerment, resistance, feminist mentoring, and voice.
Covering varied media forms, all three of the documentaries reviewed here can be used to effectively ground students’ critical thought about the relationships between culture and society, media and gender, and popular culture and identity. While Jhally’s Dreamworlds 3 may be the least engaging, all three films are provocative and will inspire critical discussion and writing.
Emilie Zaslow is an Assistant Professor in Communication Studies at Pace University in New York City. Her research centers on the relationships between identity, gender, and media. Her recent focus is on the ways in which girls come to understand what it means to be feminine and feminist through their engagement with media and society. Her book Feminism, Inc: Growing Up in Girl Power Media Culture will be published in November 2009.
1See Marilyn Ferris Motz, “‘Seen through Rose-Tinted Glasses’: The Barbie Doll in American Society,” in Popular Culture: An Introductory Text, ed. Jack Nachbar and Kevin Lause (Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1992), 211-34; Ann Ducille, “Dyes and Dolls: Multicultural Barbie and the Merchandising of American Culture,” differences 6 (1994): 46-68; Jacqueline Urla and Alan C. Swedlund, “The Anthropometry of Barbie: Unsettling Ideals of the Feminine Body in Popular Culture,” in Deviant Bodies: Critical Perspectives on Difference in Science and Popular Culture, ed. Jennifer Terry and Jacqueline Urla (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995). 277-313; and Shirley R. Steinberg, “The Bitch who Has Everything,” in Kinderculture: The Corporate Construction of Childhood, ed. Shirley R. Steinberg and Joe L. Kincheloe (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1997), 207-18.
2Barbara Mackoff, Growing a Girl: Seven Strategies for Raising a Strong, Spirited Daughter (New York: Dell, 1996).
3Stuart Hall, “Encoding/Decoding,” in Culture, Media, Language: Working Papers in Cultural Studies, 1972-79, ed. Stuart Hall, Dorothy Hobson, Andrew Lowe, and Paul Willis (London: Hutchinson, 1980), 107-16; Janice A. Radway, Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1984).
4Though the film says campers are eight- to eighteen-year-olds, it also says one camper, Palace, was seven. More information about Portland’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Camp for Girls is available at the camp’s Web site, www.girlsrockcamp.org.
5See American Association of University Women, Shortchanging Girls, Shortchanging America: Executive Summary: A Call To Action (Washington, D.C.: American Association of University Women, 1991); American Association of University Women, How Schools Shortchange Girls (Washington, D.C.: American Association of University Women, 1992); Lyn Mikel Brown and Carol Gilligan, Meeting at the Crossroads: Women’s Psychology and Girls’ Development (New York: Ballantine, 1992); Peggy Orenstein, Schoolgirls: Young Women, Self-Esteem, and the Confidence Gap (New York: Random House, 1994); and Mary Pipher, Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls (New York: Ballantine, 1994).