The Literary Horizon: American Sweethearts

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American Sweethearts: Teenage Girls in Twentieth-Century Popular Culture by Ilana Nash

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Teenage girls seem to have been discovered by American pop culture in the 1930s. From that time until the present day, they have appeared in books and films, comics and television, as the embodied fantasies and nightmares of youth, women, and sexual maturation.

Looking at such figures as Nancy Drew, Judy Graves, Corliss Archer, Gidget, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Britney Spears, American Sweethearts shows how popular culture has shaped our view of the adolescent girl as an individual who is simultaneously sexualized and infantilized. While young women have received some positive lessons from these cultural icons, the overwhelming message conveyed by the characters and stories they inhabit stresses the dominance of the father and the teenage girl’s otherness, subordination, and ineptitude.

As sweet as a cherry lollipop and as tangy as a Sweetart, this book is an entertaining yet thoughtful exploration of the image of the American girl.

via Amazon

Kate Beaton mentioned this book on tumblr on Sunday and I knew I had to have it. As a pop culture junkie and firm defender of the agency of our young ladies, this is a perfect dovetailing of interests. Plus, I have a sneaking suspicion Beatlemania will crop up at least once, and those girls were ferocious. Some of my favorite fannish foremothers to look back on. Okay, that might be more for a book about actual teenage girls of the twentieth century but still. I got a hunch. Our mainstream narratives can tell us volumes about our culture: let’s see what we thought (and continue to think) about teenage girls.

Bridget Hoida, writing for a women’s studies journal, found it quite readable. Elizabeth Marshall, at Humanities and Social Sciences Net, points out Nash’s focus on white teenagers and, especially, Nancy Drew, even as the cover copy makes it sound like it’ll give newer teenage girls of pop culture the same consideration. Margaret Foley, at the Mothers Movement Online, enjoyed Nash’s dissection of the narrative cycle of the archetype of the supposedly empowered female teenager. Benjamin Lefebvre, in Children’s Literature Association Quarterly, enjoyed it, but points out that Nash is building, and not terribly high off the ground, on a lot of other scholars’ work.

American Sweethearts was published in January of 2006.

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