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by Valerie Walkerdine, Helen Lucey and June Melody
New York University Press, 2001
Review by Janis S. Bohan, Ph.D. on Sep 26th 2003

Growing Up Girl

Growing up Girl is a sociological analysis of gender and class, interwoven with commentaries drawn from the authors' applications of psychoanalytic theory and (primarily) Marxist class analysis.  This discussion is couched largely in postmodern terms.  The result of these many perspectives is a rich but occasionally cumbersome depiction of the "subjectivities" of these girls and women.  Sociological writings often presume a comfortable familiarity with postmodern perspectives on identity.  For most psychologists, however, this discourse is less familiar.  Those who are not deeply versed in postmodern renditions of identity might find it helpful to review psychological writings that take explain this perspective, such as the work of Philip Cushman and Edward Sampson.

This book provides a deeply thoughtful and complex perspective on the role of class and gender in the experience of girls and young women in Great Britain.  The analysis is based on data gathered from three groups of participants, representing a range of ages and class backgrounds; some were initially interviewed for other studies and some were interviewed specifically for this book. 

The authors describe the girls' identities as constituted by the needs of a deeply classed society, albeit one trying to erase class from its national identity.  They are further constructed in and by an economic system in the throes of major change--from a (quasi) welfare state toward one in which individual ownership and personal responsibility are the goals prescribed for all in this changing, post-industrial economy.  The resulting expectation that everyone should be an autonomous citizen, constantly open to reinventing herself, is seen as both the boon and the bane of girls, whatever their class—although the meaning and impact of this expectation is profoundly shaped by class. 

Those in the middle class, who have certain of the resources to achieve this state of self-creation, are driven by the demand that they create identities that, above all, protect them from slipping into the lower classes.  Those in the working class, on the other hand, are trapped in the realization that the work of the men in their lives has steadily diminished through deindustrialization so that they are increasingly expected to sustain the work ethic that threatens to slip away—indeed, to strive via employment for an elusive status whose possession yields only tentative grasp on "respectability."

To elaborate this complex dynamic, the authors call upon extensive scholarly work as well as the voices of participants, and they address a wide scope of topics including not only matters related directly to work, but also issues around housing, education, mothering, the meaning and impact of pregnancy, relationships with parents, and a variety of other issues that arise in the discussion of these central matters.  

The book is sometimes difficult to follow (at least for this U. S. reader) by virtue of its use of distinctively British turns of phrase and references to British social programs, housing arrangements, and so forth.  However, the underlying messages come through and seem pertinent even in the very different economic system of the United States. 

I found this book challenging, both intellectually in the difficulty of grasping its complex analyses and politically in its challenge to how we understand the intersection of gender and class.  I greatly appreciated the deconstruction of class that the authors provided, a deconstruction that dismantles the usual notions of how class is defined and what is the role of work (women's work, in particular) in that definition.  The degree to which this commentary is packaged in jargon and esoteric analysis may discourage some readers from staying the course.  For those to whom this level of analysis is comfortable, the book should be a very valuable and thought-provoking read.  For those to whom the level of discourse is foreign, the key points that one can extract in any case are well worth exploring.

My one major criticism of the book is directed toward its use of psychoanalytic concepts.  As a psychologist, I found the use of these notions disconcerting--sometimes simplistic, sometimes inappropriate or even erroneous, sometimes helpful.  Perhaps the disciplinary and cultural gaps between their writing and my reading interfered with my gleaning as much as I might have from these sections.  In any case, I offer this caution to other readers who might be similarly situated.

In summary, Growing Up Girl unpacks the meaning of gender and class in a time and place where both are contested and manages to do so in a manner that teaches a great deal.  I would be very interested to see a similar analysis of the gender/class system in the United States, where a different economic ideal might lend different nuances to the situation.  But I believe the bottom line would be similar even if the specifics varied: gender and class intersect hugely, and it is impossible to understand one without taking the other into account.


© 2003 Janis S. Bohan

Janis S. Bohan, Ph.D, is Professor Emerita (retired) at Metropolitan State College of Denver.  She has published widely in the areas of gender, psychology of sexual orientation, and history of psychology. 


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