When I asked my Mom what she remembered most about media in the 1970’s when she was a teen, she answered: “The herbal essence girl!” I can’t say I wasn’t surprised that my feminist mother saw a poster girl for shampoo as a representative figure of her childhood media consumption.
When I inquired about her answer further, she explained that media was never a large part of her life because her siblings and peers were so active. They played sports after school, played outside until dinner, occasionally watched a family sitcom, and did homework until bed. She also pointed out that the representations of, and for, teen girls in the media were sparse, which deterred her from seeking various media texts. As discussed in the reading, my mom’s reference to this trend was an indicator of the post-war “masculinity crises” that caused a decline in female teen culture throughout the media in the mid 1950’s. Although Kearney regarded this decline in female characters and increase in male characters as the media had “masculanized the teenager” (116), my Mom found this lack of representation to be a progressive force by forcing her create a feminine and sexual identity through her peers and mother. She discussed not feeling restricted by her gender as a child because she was never being told all the ways to be a girl, instead she learned from her working mother and grasped basic elements of femininity through television programs and advertisements.
The stream of advertisements on television function to sell products, but the ideologies conveyed through these advertisements functioned to set the parameters of acceptable gender norms and behaviors. With brothers and sisters in the household, my Mom found advertisements for male and female specific products had the greatest impact on perception of gender norms. For example, my mom and her sister sought beauty enhancers like shampoo, creams and perfumes as advertised in commercials, because the angelic models represented idealized femininity through physical perfection. Her brothers jumped at the chance to buy cologne from ads that promoted the product as a literal representation of masculinity. A study in Media Gender and Identity found ads aimed at females “were found to be more concerned about beauty, cleanliness, family and pleasing others” at the time (59). My mom referred back to the Herbal Essence Woman because she felt female product advertisements incorporated the elements of femininity most girls were taught to desire.
My mom described her as “beautiful”, “natural”, “pure” and “happy”. Essentially, the images indicated beauty could be gained, purity was to be maintained, and happiness was to be sustained. Women in ads were virginal, innocent, and sex was completely avoided in advertisements. My mom commented, “Everyone knew that there were good and bad girls, like sexualized Playboy women, they were the “bad” type of female whereas blonde and blue eyed “virgins” or housewives were the “good” example.”
Even when men were a part of the advertisement, females were confined to a bubble void of sexuality. Instead, the romance narrative found a place in commercials like Tide and Barbie.
– Tide and Mr. Clean
My mom mentioned Mr. Clean saving housewives from cleaning problems and Ken whisking Barbie away in ads that inspired her, along with most girls, to reenact similar scenes of fairytale romance at home. The romance narrative featured an active male finding a [passive] female he can sweep away through a gesture of romance, ultimately to make her his wife. In the early 1970’s, “of all ads featuring women, three-quarters were for kitchen and bathroom products,” (59) women occupied a one-dimensional, domestic, passive character that my Mom considered “insubstantial”. She described the idea of romance as one that she yearned for, but the domestic life was the less appealing aspect of femininity. My Mom’s mother was a working mother so the constant stream of domestic female characters did not have a lasting impact on my Mom’s feminine identity. Although female behaviors and roles were constrictive in the media in the 70’s, girls didn’t always identify with the domestic female adults because they had more present models of gender representation that showed great flaws in the picture perfect woman.
Lucille Ball was one of the women my mom felt made a “big and bold dent” in the pristine housewife image that most television shows featured, I Love Lucy was a family favorite because “Lucy was a pistol, she was mischievous, funny, unafraid and had so much more substance as a character than the simple “good” wife.” My mom may have had a atypical upbringing, but her desire to see women progress beyond media and societal gender ideals gestures towards Schrum’s idea that there were “multiple teenage girls’ cultures” in the post-war era. This concept was further exemplified by my Mom’s description of music as a source of leisure. While images of rock and roll-loving girls and the characters in Grease (1978) conveyed a unified vision of the teen girls’ lived experiences (113), my Mom discussed being a part of the boy-band fandom, but that the phenomenon was mixed gender. She described listening to Joni Mitchell and James Taylor records with all of her siblings, calling new emergent music a “joy of the generation”.