Elevate Difference

The Modern Girl Around the World: Consumption, Modernity, and Globalization

The propagated image of the "modern woman" is usually White and lithely strutting the streets of New York or Paris. Hollywood films as well as vintage prints in hip clothing boutiques give us the familiar image of a short-cropped brunette in smart dress. The Modern Girl Around the World Research Group (comprised by the book's editors) has collected a group of essays suggesting that this fabulous 1920’s to 1930’s woman was an international phenomenon, and not merely a Western emulation. What we know as "flappers" were also labeled garconnes, moga, modeng xiaojie, kallege ladki, schoolgirls, vamps, and neue Frauen. In The Modern Girl Around the World: Consumption, Modernity, and Globalization, "girls" are defined as "young women with the wherewithal and desire to define themselves in excess of conventional female roles and as transgressive of national, imperial, and racial boundaries." Here, we can understand the modern girl not only as a consumer or mannequin, but rather a woman challenging convention and limitations.

Although The Modern Girl Around the World is published by an academic press, it is wonderfully accessible, and should be of interest to anyone interested in sociology, fashion, sexuality, and the development of the public image of women. There are sixteen essays besides the Research Group's own chapter on methodology. Geographically, the essays look at France, South Africa, India, China, and beyond. Personally, my favorite essays are Liz Conor's "Blackfella Missus Too Much Proud: Techniques of Appearing, Femininity and Race in Australian Modernity" and Kathy Peiss' "Girls Lean Back Everywhere," but all the essays have something valuable to say. Overall, the authors demonstrate that modernity is not a Western creation with foreign copycats, but rather a simultaneous movement.

From a practical point of view, this is a Women's Studies student or professor’s dream. Finding all of these essays in one compilation and including an extensive bibliography opens up the possibilities for transnational study without relying on an archive. For readers who seek an in-depth history of these movements, it is wise to note that The Modern Girl Around the World focuses instead on commodity and cultural flows as they occur. This is not a study of underground political movements, but rather women pushing the public and visible limits of agency.

It’s a shame that a book on image only has pictures in black and white, but I’m so grateful that a compilation like this finds a publisher at all. As a woman, teacher, and reader, I find The Modern Girl Around the World to be interesting and provocative. We live in a global world, and this compilation recognizes transnational trends. Points of disagreements within the essays and overall project only instigate productive dialogue.

Written by: Claire Burrows, April 4th 2009

Just to respond to Nikki O'Leary's question about how I define "modernity." Modernity here is not a generic statement about women achieving agency, but rather a specific moment in time (roughly 1860-1940). It is not just a movement to freedom, but rather a time of cultural, artistic, and stylistic innovations for women.

And I agree with Mandy, and hope this was conveyed in my review, that it is completely wrong minded to think that female agency is only achieved through Western thought. This is arrogant, condescending, and just plain wrong. The book I reviewed was attempting to show that cultural movements do not rely on on national superpower to motivate the rest of the world.

Transnational movements are important, but should not be oppressive.

Wow. Talk about dangerous. I find your comments highly ethnocentric at best... and ignorant, colonialist, and racist at worst."is it possible that this movement could have happened independently of Westernization? Is it possible for women in other countries to realize their worth without the encouragement of western thought and popular culture?"Um, yes. WOC don't need white people fighting their battles for them or "enlightening" them about their own freedom. The spread of Western democracy is just another form of bondage. Just ask the Indians how it felt to be "liberated" by the British. Ask black South Africans how apartheid worked out for them. Ask the women of Afghanistan if they're better off today than they were eight years ago. Come on now. Girl, pick yourself up some Chandra Talpade Mohanty, Gloria Anzaldua, Ella Shohat, Arundhati Roy, Zillah Eisenstein, and quick! And btw, the women who edit/write this blog aren't just from or located in the West. We're also located in India, Argentina, Mexico, Colombia, and many other places around the globe.

Thank you for posting an article regarding such an interesting publication, and for acknowledging the fact that while this was printed by an academic press, its appeal stems to anyone interested in gender related studies. In this age where gender equality is fast growing as a global discipline, it is crucial that popular culture joins in this global movement. You mention in your review that, “the authors demonstrate that modernity is not a Western creation with foreign copycats, but rather a simultaneous movement.” While I have yet to read the book to understand this comment, it seems that such a statement is broad and seemingly dangerous. How do you define the modernity to which you are referring? If this modernity entails women coming into the public eye, opening their mouths, and stepping away from tradition, is it possible that this movement could have happened independently of Westernization? Is it possible for women in other countries to realize their worth without the encouragement of western thought and popular culture? While I do agree that it may be possible that the modern feminist movement is independently expanding in other countries, I have to argue that popular culture and the spread of Western democracy is essential in planting the seeds and ensuring that women are supported in the global arena. Without the constant reminder that women in other countries are struggling through this battle as well, it would seem that the goal might be lost in discouragement. It is through publications like this one, as well as more subtly through TV shows, films, newspaper articles, and the Internet that women are empowered to move into the modern. I was, however, pleased with your recognition of the extreme interconnectedness that defines our present world. You state in your post that, “We live in a global world, and this compilation recognizes transnational trends.” It is important for scholars in any discipline to recognize that the situations are widespread that have truly domestic implications without some sort of international ripple. With media readily accessible to wide numbers of people through the Internet, television, and radio, these “transnational trends” support each other. Thank you, again, for reviewing such an interesting and currently relevant publication.

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