Elevate Difference

Unruly Girls, Unrepentant Mothers: Redefining Feminism on Screen

Unruly Girls, Unrepentant Mothers: Redefining Feminism on Screen by Kathleen Rowe Karlyn is a fascinating look into the movies and television I watched as a kid. As a woman in my mid-twenties, I can safely say that my age group, for the most part, was the target audience when the films and television shows mentioned in the book were being produced. Or, at least, one of the target audiences. Unruly Girls, Unrepentant Mothers is a companion volume to Unruly Women, published in 1995 by the same author. (I have not read Unruly Women, so some of my thoughts about Unruly Girls, Unrepentant Mothers may have responses in the earlier work.)

According to the back cover and introduction, Karlyn’s purpose in writing this companion volume is to “ask whether today’s seemingly materialistic and apolitical girls, inspired by such real and fictional characters as the Spice Girls and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, have turned their backs on the feminism of their mothers or are redefining unruliness for a new age.” The book is more than 250 pages long, plus twenty pages of endnotes, eighteen pages for the Works Cited, and an index for ease in looking up specific information. It’s clear in reading that Unruly Girls, Unrepentant Mothers is an academic work, but the author thankfully did a good job of keeping my attention with her writing style, relevance of the subjects, and accompanying photographs.

The book is split into an introduction, an afterward, and eight chapters which comprise the bulk of her argument. The first few chapters delve into the worlds of Clueless, Titanic, American Beauty, the Scream trilogy, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Mean Girls, and The Devil Wears Prada. It really helps to have seen the aforementioned movies (and the others Karlyn discusses later) or some of the series in the case of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. For example, I could really engage in the parts about Titanic, American Beauty, Buffy, and The Devil Wears Prada because I’d seen those multiple times, remembered details, and could grapple with Karlyn’s assertions about each piece. (She says American Beauty has a strong incest motif, and since I’d seen the movie multiple times I was able to disagree at first and then maybe see where she was coming from.) But for the others I mentioned—especially the Scream trilogy, which I’ve never seen—it was much harder to understand what she was even talking about; I had to take her at her word that one character did something and then another did something else, etc. It wouldn’t be unthinkable, I suppose, to sit down and watch (at least some of) the pieces mentioned in Unruly Girls, Unrepentant Mothers to have a basic understanding of the author’s starting point, but until I have time to do that, I can’t fully engage with some of the text. I suspect other readers will have similar issues.

Nonetheless, the movies and characters with which I was familiar provided me with plenty of brain fodder. There’s an entire chapter on Reese Witherspoon’s ability to “walk the line” between feminine and feminist in her film portrayals, and in real life, a chapter about teen melodrama that focuses on My So-Called Life and Thirteen, and a chapter about girls and women of color in film. I’m not sure how I feel about having only one chapter about girls and women of color; I don’t know if Karlyn could only work with the movies she had and most of them just leave out people of color (i.e., the entertainment industry is racist) or if she picked and chose the films that fit her thesis and the ones that most easily fit didn’t include people of color in important roles, or some combination thereof. (I suspect it’s the third option.) That said, someone could write an entire book about just girls and women of color on screen, so I’m not sure how I’d have written it differently in this book.

Overall, I’d say that Unruly Girls, Unrepentant Mothers is a great reference text; it has a lot of relevant, useful information for Third Wave feminists (and parents of said), and it may open up someone’s eyes when they ascribe to feminist beliefs that begin with, “I’m not a feminist, but…”

Written by: Viannah Duncan, March 29th 2011