Thiel-Stern, Shayla (2014) From the Dance Hall to Facebook


sternARGUMENT

Society punishes girls who don’t properly perform femininity based on dominant cultural ideologies and expectations. Thiel-Stern’s research highlights the particular threat posed by teen girls who emerge from the “safety” of the domestic space to partake in public leisure. Whether drinking in public dance halls, screaming at an Elvis concert, or posting selfies to Facebook, Thiel-Stern illuminates the timeless, overarching narrative constructed by the media: “girls could become prostitutes or juvenile delinquents, enter a life of promiscuity and violence, become lesbians, lose their ability to marry and reproduce, or be murdered or sold into slavery” (7). Instead of highlighting teen girls’ civic participation or cultural production, media have consistently represented teen girls as victims or whores. The same grand media narratives that developed in the early twentieth century persist today and, while media technologies have changed, journalistic devices have not. Media enlist the help of “experts” and advocates to generate mass concern about teen girls’ behaviour and, doubly marginalized based on their subordinate status both as youth and as females, teen girls themselves are silenced. When girls’ voices do appear, quotations are selected to emphasize their foolishness and immaturity while accentuating subordinate race and class status.

SUMMARY

Moral panic around girls is driven by an underlying need to maintain the hegemonic status quo regarding gender, femininity, and heteronormativity. Performing Gender

  • Femininity is a hegemonic cultural construct.  When girls don’t perform gender “properly” the media reacts by either victimizing or sexualizing girls (pg 3).
  • The domestic sphere is the acceptable place for girls and girls in public places are punished, harassed or otherwise viewed negatively.
  • Girls primary power is as a consumer and a popular culture taste maker. (see Rosalind Gill 2008)

Representation in the Media

  • Teen girls are usually placed at the margins of society.  They are talked about in the media but not often given a voice to express themselves.
  • Victim vs. whore dichotomy (pg 6)

Chapter 1 – The Dance Hall Evil

This lively chapter examines early twentieth century media coverage and representations of public dance halls between 1905 and 1928.  There were few media **standards** at the time so headlines were often sensational and the corresponding stories did not strive for objectivity.  Coverage of dance halls generally focused on girls’ attendance at the halls and the evils that girls could be exposed to including drinking, smoking, and inappropriate touching into all hours of the night. While women were not able to vote or act in any official political capacity, middle-to upper- class women formed societies and organized outreach groups to “help” the disadvantaged while acting as the moral arbiters of society.  These women were frequently interviewed in media coverage and they often called upon mothers to protect their daughters from the evils of the dance halls.  When newspapers did include the voices of dance hall patrons, media portrayals used images and direct quotes to reinforce the working class status of the girls.

Chapter 2 – Girls Track and Field

Chapter 2 shifts the focus to sports and recreation associations designed to provide suitable leisure activities for lower-class, immigrant, and African American youth in the interwar period.  Journalism had developed as a profession and reporters strove for more objectivity and ethics to establish themselves within the industry. Despite the many positive health and social benefits of sports, reformers’ main concern focused on the unladylike effects of running and sweating and the dangers of girls developing a “tomboy” appearance. Doctors warned against the strains of physical activity on teen girls’ developing bodies which could potentially threaten their future ability to reproduce and advised girls to refrain from sports entirely while menstruating. After widespread media reports of women collapsing after intense track events, colleges and universities cancelled their women’s track and field teams altogether and the International Olympic Committee removed the women’s 800 meter race from the games between 1932-1960.

Chapter 3 – The Elvis Problem

News reports characterized Elvis’ screaming fans as silly, irrational, and out of control and often relied on music experts to mocked teen girls’ lack of taste. The dominant discourse suggested that frenzied girls, as young as thirteen, who screamed uncontrollably at Elvis appearances were likely to lose sexual control in private. This hypersexualized girl is both a victim and a whore, who is helpless to defend herself against Elvis’ sexual magnetism.

Chapter 4 – Punk Rock

Thiel-Stern links the rise of Punk culture in America to rebellion against conservative social and political changes championed by “Reganomics” and the Moral Majority.  Both Dick Hebdige’s and Stanley Cohen’s key texts on subculture focus primarily on teen boys and treat girls as ancillary or peripheral to their boyfriends activities.

Punk rocker girls generated concern based on the unfeminine qualities of the punk aesthetic such as shaved hair, body piercings, and safety pins. While punks described their desire to be different and not to conform to society’s expectations, media focused disproportionately on their appearance and linked punk culture with drugs, violence and crime. At the very least, punk girls’ extreme appearance prohibited them from having “normal” lives, attending college, or securing jobs.

Chapter 5 – Policing Teen Girls Online

 

 

 

THEORY/METHOD

The primary research draws mainly from news reports and is supplemented by a variety of popular and private sources including magazines, television shows, diaries, letters, oral histories, and personal interviews. While the majority of these media are created by and targeted at a white, middle- to upper-class audience, Thiel-Stern offers an original analysis of the African American press and its contrasting coverage of teen girls’ leisure which focused more on the benefits of exercise and music over the evils of dance and public display.

While key texts on teen subculture and moral panics focus primarily on teen boys and treat girls as ancillary or peripheral to their boyfriends’ activities, Thiel-Stern’s research is grounded in the Cultural Studies approach developed by Angela McRobbie that places girls’ experiences at the centre. Girls’ Studies has moved away from portraying girls as “victims” of the media, and Thiel-Stern expertly exposes the victim narrative as one that is a media construct, and not the lived reality of actual teen girls. From Elvis dog tags to body piercings, the research gestures to cultural artifacts, letters, scrapbooks, clothing, and hairstyles both as forms of girls’ cultural production and as examples of girls’ active resistance to dominant cultural norms.

This book will prove informative to scholars in the fields of Media Studies and social History, but Thiel-Stern’s contribution is most impactful within Girls’ Studies. This unique socio-historical inquiry into moral panics around teen girls provides the necessary provenance to prove that new media technologies have not created new problems, risks, or threats for girls. The problem rests in our cultural expectations for girls to behave in prescribed, ideologically-appropriate ways that reinforce the patriarchal status quo. As teen girls continue to resist these constructs, society will continue to panic.

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