ReImagining Women. Representations of Women in Culture. Edited by Shirley Neuman and Glennis Stephenson. Toronto, Buffalo, London: University of Toronto Press, 1993. Pp. 334. ISBN 0-8020-6825-1.
Representations of Motherhood. Edited by Donna Bassin, Margaret Honey, and Meryle Mahrer Kaplan. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1994. Pp. 294. ISBN 0-300-05762-8
A recent article published in the Italian newsmagazine Panorama, warns of the demographic threats that are endemic in the world-wide continuing discrimination against women throughout the world. But in a thinly veiled criticism of First World feminist attitudes, Elisabetta Rasy writes that if the term empowerment (rather that the previously revered equality) acts as the major propelling incentive for feminist discourse today, then we must immediately realize that this word has significations that are astronomically distant when pronounced in the streets of Manhattan, or in a small village of India or in a female orphanage in Hong Kong. In the latter two cases, according to Rasy, empowerment means first and foremost the right to stay alive. (Panorama 7 September 1995, p. 118). In the three studies being discussed here, the semiotic subtleties of the terminology that informs women's struggles for validation are brought to fore in the the same binary opposition implied by the Italian journalist, i. e. empowerment vs. equality. Contrary to the overgeneralized view purported by Rasy that North American women are privy to an "easier" form of feminist struggle, all three volumes look specifically at the victories and defeats of First World feminism, with emphasis on North America. All three studies question the progress that has been made by women striving toward equality. All three redimension the way "empowerment" has been heretofore conceptualized.
The first study, by media and American Studies professor Susan J. Douglas, is entitled Where the Girls Are. Growing Up Female with the Mass Media. From the outset, Douglas assumes that her readers have a complicitous interest in what she has to report. She adopts a rather personal, friendly, conversational tone that presumes the reader to be a baby boomer, North American if not more specifically American, certainly TV literate, probably middle class, definitely female and most importantly as having a well developed sense of postmodern irony. Her premise is that "we love and hate the media, at exactly the same time, in no small part because the media, simultaneously, love and hate women". (12) The study develops this dichotomous relationship between the media and women with a careful eye to reinforcing the binary oppositon media/women as being equivalent to aggressor/oppressed.
In the twelve chapters of the book, which are arranged more or less chronologically, she reports first on how, between the mid-1950's and the early 1990's the media envisaged women and, secondly, how the media have aggressively sought to redefine womanhood by establishing the qualities (and virtues) that are "proper" to the modern, media literate woman. On the other hand, if women are oppressed as a result of their affection for, and belief in, the image of themselves presented to them by the media, it is also valid to observe that they are knowingly oppressed. This is clearly not to say that women wish to remain so; on the other hand, according to Douglas, women have at one time or another bought into the fact that the media have deliberately chosen to portray them as totally dependent on the products, services and ideals that the movies, TV, the radio, magazines and newspapers offer. In a chapter entitled "Mama said", she cites the following example:
A burgeoning consumer culture needs one big thing--consumers. Consumers, of course, need money. But America's consumer culture was predicated on the notion that women were the major consumers of most goods--that was their job, after all--and that, to sell to them, you had to emphasize their roles as wives and mothers, because it was in these capacities, not in their capacities as secretaries or nurses, that women bought. So, to buy more things, many of our mothers had to work. To sell to them, advertisers erased and diminished this fact, and stressed how many more products they needed, and how many more tasks they had to undertake with those products to be genuinely good wives and moms. 
In subsequent chapters, Douglas traces the vicious circular trap into which middle class American womanhood had been attracted: work harder away from home in order to enable your purchasing power for products that will help you work at home. She not only focusses her observations of this paradox on grown women whose identity as wife/mother/out of home worker had already been established, but includes as well the younger generation of female teenagers. As a group, teenagers in the 1950's were for the first time being addressed directly for their ability and willingness to become able consumers, and for the fact that they had the financial possibilities to do so. According to Douglas, the commercial media were particularly solicitous to young women. The parameters of material, commercial products which every teenage girl "needed" in order to be fulfilled in her role went hand in hand with the contradictory messages contained in commercials and in film regarding the desired sociocultural status for teenagers. The author illustrates her thesis with an example taken from the recording industry. In a chapter entitled "Why the Shirelles Mattered", she points out that while, on the one hand, girls were being told in popular songs that they should wait, Cinderella-like, in silent suffering for their true love, they were also being advised, at the same time, to initiate relationships with the opposite sex, "to abandon the time-wasting and possibly boy-losing stance of passively waiting for him to make the first move. " The new beats of rock and roll cooperated in the collusion to confusion. Douglas perceives in this dichotomous identity-search the beginnings of the acceptance of feminist rebellion. "The main purpose of pop music is to make us feel a kind of euphoria that convinces us that we can transcend the shackles of conventional life and rise above the hordes of others who do get trapped. It is the euphoria of commercialism, designed to get us to buy. But this music did more than that; it generated another kind of euphoria as well. For when tens of millions of young girls started feeling, at the same time, that they, as a generation, would not be trapped, there was planted the tiniest seed of a social movement".
Nevertheless, the fragmentation to which teenage women were submitted in the name of commercial well-being was not erased by their eagerness to be freer in their thoughts, mores, attitudes than the women of preceding generations. Again, in a most contradictory vein, the mass media began promoting and exploiting commercialized androgyny in the unisex fashions and hairstyles that prevailed in the wake of Beatlemania. Douglas points out how Madison Avenue advertising agencies answered the affront to their power in the burgeoning political awareness that young women were displaying in the late Sixties with appeals to the "natural" look in fashions and makeup. 
By 1970, the women's liberation movement was receiving extensive, if biased, coverage in the media. But, as Douglas is keen to point out, "there is no doubt that the news media of the early 1970's played an absolutely central role in turning feminism into a dirty word"  and encouraged an ideological backlash, aptly described in the chapter entitled "The Rise of the Bionic Bimbo". Advertisers were pleased that such a role model, as she was portrayed in the TV shows Charlie's Angels or in The Bionic Woman melded well with the self awareness, the narcissism (according to Douglas) which characterized the 1980's in general. "The narcissism as liberation campaign found its happiest home in certain television ads, such as those that sponsored shows like Dynasty, and in women's magazines like Vogue, Harper's Bazaar, Mademoiselle, Glamour, Cosmoplitan, and the aptly named Self. These magazines, with their emphasis on clothes, makeup, and dieting, were much more hospitable than Ladies' Home Journal or McCall's, which acknowledged that women couldn't be completely self-indulgent since they still were the ones responsible for pureeing bananas for the baby and getting dinner on the table at night. Vogue et al...created a narcissistic paradise, a luxurious daydream, in which women focused on themselves and their appearance, and in which any change was possible, as long as it was personal". 
As she writes, Susan Douglas imbues her observation with a sense of regret that despite the years, despite the feminist experience, women, as a whole, still remain a malleable entity for the advertising media to consider and repropose, as they see fit. In her chapter, "I'm Not a Feminist But.... " she expresses exasperation that, in fact "the media environment that surrounds us is very similar to the one that surrounded our mothers" The expectations set for women by the media remain impossible and lead to feelings of guilt. Douglas attempts to describe Madonna as a major media figure who is aware of the manipulation for the sake of advertising, and who, indeed is brave enough to parody this; it is nevertheless ironic that there are so many Madonna wannabe's precisely because of media exposure, and because Madonna adulators have the possibility of buying products that will allow them a wannabe role.
Douglas' epilogue reinforces her own frustration as a woman who is also a babyboomer, and has been preyed upon by unabashed media intrusion. While she realizes that she cannot keep her own daughter immune to media influence, she also expresses the hope that her child will be far more aware of media manipulation.
Where the Girls Are is, to use the media jargon that it undermines, a reader-friendly study that engages the media/aggressor by offering numerous examples of the central anti-woman stance adopted by advertisers. For the latter, women remain forever "girls" to be led, advised, counselled, molded.
The second study on which we focus in this review is much more academically sophisticated in its presentation of similar ideas.
ReImagining Women, edited by Shirley Neuman and Glennis Stephenson is subtitled Representations of Women in Culture, wherein culture is not to be understood as a popular phenomenon. The study is an anthology of 18 essays written by women academics in the field of critical feminist theory; the collection represents the selected proceedings of the Imagi(in)ing Women conference held at the University of Alberta in early 1989. While editor Neuman admits that there is today a tendency in feminist studies to move beyond what she term 'images of women' criticism, she asks us to consider another perspective, namely that there is a "political urgency of carrying on the task of dismantling the 'images' of women promulgated in misogynist culture..."
The anthology opens with a fascinating study by Rose Marie San Juan of the historical appropriation and reappropriation of the body of Queen Christina of Sweden, whose abdication in 1654 had led to the creation of various 'myths' by way of explanation, including the fact that she might have had hermaphroditic characteristics. She is contrasted to Elizabeth I of England who, as monarch, assumed an openly female orientation in her appellation as the virgin queen. As San Juan points out, the affinity with the Virgin Mary is not coincidental . The essay meticulously analyzes the various portraits of Queen Christina, and shows how in them her body was mediated by the chain of ideas that derived from the visual and word images that constitute the portraits. San Juan proposes that, in effect, the male political strategists who surrounded the Queen availed themselves of seventeenth century strategies of representation in order to identify themselves as being independent politically and militarily from a female power figure.
Isobel Grundy, in her essay "Against Beauty: Eighteenth Century Fiction Writers Confront the Problem of Woman as Sign" addresses the representation of women in novels by, among others, Aphra Behn, Anna Maria Bennet, Sarah Fielding, Laetitia-Matilda Hawkins and Sarah Scott. Her point of departure that "heroines must be beautiful because unlike heroes they exist as signs to be read"  soon leads her to the observation that such a "classic fictional formula was open, however, to negotiation and renegotiation". She exemplifies this premise with examples from eighteenth century novels in which women's beauty is problematized as it is with Henry Fielding's character Amelia or Bennett's Ellen or Hawkins' Gertrude. Each of these is portrayed as physically undesirable or even repugnant, yet the fact remains that they are the heroines of their respective stories. Grundy ends her essay with an image reversal. She cites examples of eighteenth century novels in which men were read as embodiments of physical beauty. Grundy interprets this new attitude, exemplified in Eliza Fenwick's Secresy, as an acknowledgement on the part of the author of a "passionate idealizing romantic sensibility expressing itself in sexual terms".  She concludes, however, that in this new attitude, the female heroines often fall prey to the same delusion as their male counterparts in visually embracing "the materiality of the Other". 
In another essay, Patricia Prestwich deals with "Women and Madness in a Nineteenth Century Parisian Asylum. " Applying the lessons learned in Gilbert and Gubar's The Madwoman in the Attic (1978) and Showalter's The Female Malady (1985), the author describes the biased medical constructs that inform the two paintings with which she deals, namely the portrait of Philippe Pinel unchaining the lunatics of the Salpêtrière (the women's hospital in Paris) and that of Jean-Martin Charcot lecturing on hysteria to his students. While she admits the fictionality of both works as representational reality, she also stresses that the idea that women were far more disposed to mental maladies than men is reinforced rather than discounted in such portrayals. Dr. Paula Caplan (1995) has also recently observed in her study of how mental diseases are classified and categorized that such an attitude informs the psychiatric profession to this day. Prestwich's careful examination of the records of Saint-Anne's Asylum shows that, as far as women were concerned, mental illness and the predisposition to it were rather nebulously defined and included old age, depression, poverty, and 'domestic worries' such as abuse. Prestwich concludes her article by writing that in each case the interned women's "fears, their problems even their symptoms will always be filtered through the gaze... of a male medical profession". On the other hand, one cannot overlook the fact that male psychiatric patients are subject to the same gaze as works such as I, Pierre Rivière..., or even fictional works such as Timothy Findley's Headhunter clearly point out. Prestwich does not stop on this point, however, neither in her endnote observation of the large numbers of historical literature on asylums and psychiatrists, nor in her opening nod to the anti-psychiatric attitude that the writings of Michel Foucault have encouraged.
Still another noteworthy inclusion in this anthology is Linda Hutcheon's essay "Splitting Images: The Postmodern Ironies of Women's Art. " Hutcheon focuses on the effects of ironic allusion, at once a subversive strategy but also, simultaneously, a stance of continuity. Basing herself on Alicia Suskin Ostriker's ideas of dualities of culture, Hutcheon describes examples of such 'splits' that provide ample opportunities for irony in the works of some Canadian women writers and artists, including Lola Lemire Tostevin, Margaret Atwood, Joyce Wieland and Joanne Tod. According to Hutcheon, "Canada's multiple dualities make the nation ripe for irony; add to this the particular condition of women in many Western societies--working within but contesting, a patriarchal dominant order--and you often get the specific 'splitting images' of ironic expression. " Journalists such as Elisabetta Rasy, mentioned above, would thoroughly disagree; her Panorama article clearly ascribes to the women of North America a certain exclusive ease in their feminist struggle. Unlike Hutcheon, however, Rasy speaks from the point of view of a homogeneous Italian culture. In a sense, she is trapped in the blindspot that De Man has described in his writings and is unable to see the irony of the binary oppositions that inscribe a culture such as that which Canadian writers and artists try to interpret. In Hutcheon's words, Rasy understands gendered doublings, but not those doublings that are found in nationality.
This review has focused on but four of the eighteen essays, each a substantial contribution to how women are represented and represent themselves. The approach here has been a chronological one: the essays by San Juan, Grundy, Prestwich and Hutcheon point to how women were/are imaged and imagined in the seventeenth, eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries, respectively. The remaining studies which include the contributions of Patricia Demers, Glennis Stephenson, Patricia Yaeger, Bridget Elliott and Jo-Ann Wallace, Nicole Dubreuil-Blondin, Elizabeth Grosz, Mary Nyquist, Dianne Chisholm, Pamela Banting, Uzoma Esonwanne, Kateryna Olijnyk Longley, Jeanne Perreault, Aruna Srivastava and Catharine R. Stimpson are all evidence of the myriad of questions that arise when women begin to represent and re-present their image.
Catherine R. Stimpson's contribution to the anthology is an appropriate closing essay for it focuses on the role of woman as mother, questioning how the media deal with substance addicted mothers. The image is not a positive one, as one can well imagine. A similar concern with the imaging of all mothers, addicts and not, is the premise of another collection of essays. Entitled Representations of Motherhood, and edited by Donna Bassin, Margaret Honey and Maryle Maherer Kaplan, this study aims to show that in our reactions to representations of motherhood, we are unconsciously revealing the complexities of our own maternal bonds. The volume is divided into three parts: The Acknowledgment and Appropriation of Maternal Work, The Paradoxical Nature of the Maternal Position, and The Cultural Construction and Reconstruction of the Maternal Image. It draws on the experiences of many women placing them as gendered subjects in the oppositions constituted by mother/popular culture, mother/judicial systems, mother/medical authority and mother/psychiatry.
In the opening essay on "Thinking Mothers/Conceiving Birth," feminist studies and philosophy professor Sara Ruddick, had observed how the mother's voice is absent in psychoanalytic tales, "worse, the child that psychoanalysts reveal is often a stranger to her mother. ". By contrast, in the stories told by mothers, children, at all stages of their lives are of fundamental importance. This, according to Ruddick, is how mothers think, how they work. "To be a "mother" means to "see" children as demanding protection, nurturance and training and then to commit oneself to the work of trying to meet these demands. There is nothing inevitable about maternal response...Nor does maternal commitment guarantee success: it is the continuing effort to respond to children, often in appalling and outrageous conditions, that marks maternal work. "  As a corollary to her definition, Ruddick acknowledges that the work of motherhood is not exclusively a feminine domain. Susan Douglas would have a cynical observation to make on Ruddick's definition, noting that the latter has not taken into serious consideration how that work is undermined by external sociocultural forces, especially the advertising media. And while Ruddick argues that mothers differ from each other but are united in their work in responding to a human child, Douglas would counter that the advertising media have made of motherhood a homogeneous entity, that has impossible expectations. But finally, both Douglas and Ruddick focus on the hope that motherhood represents: "Often, these efforts of self-(re)presentation, [mothers] find themselves invoking the promise of birth: this body counts; each birthgiver's bodily labor, each new body she creates, is a testament of hope. To war against any body, to neglect, abandon, terrorize, or injure bodies, is to break birth's promise. To become a mother, whatever one's particular relation to individual acts of birth, is to welcome, shelter, protect, and nourish birth's bodies and thus to undertake a work of peace. "
Ruddick's optimism is soon put to the test. The second essay, "Fictions of Home" by Jane Lazarre uncovers the problematic aspects of a mixed race child and his white mother as they minister to the homeless of New York City. And then, Patricia Hill Collins, in her essay "Shifting the Center: Race, Class and Feminst Theorizing About Motherhood" explains that for"Native American, African-American, Hispanic, and Asian-American women, motherhood cannot be analyzed in isolation from its context", as, in fact, Rasy had done in her dismissal of American feminism. Collins shows how women in marginalized, often voiceless sociocultural communities within the American culture have performed their mothering in ways that challenge the assumptions of the dominant culture. For racial ethnic women in America, motherhood is as much about survival as it is for Rasy's Indian or Chinese women, as Collins' statistics show. It is also a search for self-identity and a struggle for maternal empowerment. Collins does not wish to promote one group's motherwork over another, instead she feels that "shifting the center to accommodate...diversity promises to recontextualize motherhood and point us toward feminist theorizing that embraces difference as an essential part of commonality. "
The essays of Part II, include "Being a Mother and Being a Psychoanalyst: Two Impossible Professions" by Janine Chasseguet-Smirgel, "The Omnipotent Mother: A Psychoanalytic Study of Fantasy and Reality" by Jessica Benjamin, "Mothering, Hate, and Winnicott" by Elsa First, "Maternal Subjectivity in the Culture of Nostalgia: Mourning and Memory and the fictional contribution by Myra Goldberg entitled "Rosalind: A Family Romance". Bassin's essay is a particularly interesting one in light of recent theories of nostalgia presented by postmodern critics such as Gianni Vattimo, Baudrillard and Michel De Certeau.
Part III of the study brings us a full turn back to Susan Douglas's work; no longer are there only girls being represented and misrepresented; now they are mothers with far more at stake if they unwittingly allow themselves to be disempowered by the predominantly male sociocultural constructs within which they find themselves . The interview with artist and feminist activist Barbara Kruger warns of the attempt to embrace neotraditional values imitative of those of the family in the 1950's, because such a family is largely a fictional entity. Kruger sees in shows such as Roseanne, Married With Children and The Simpsons the recognition of the fictionality of the perfect "traditional American family'.
In her essay Ryna Rapp deals with "The Power of "Positive" Diagnosis: Medical and Maternal Discourses on Amniocentesis". As her essay, based on the experiences of various women, reveals, there is a binary opposition immediately created by the terms "medical" and "maternal". It has been my own observation that "medical" is the privileged, empowered term. In a major metropolitan hospital facility, while awaiting a consultation for amniocentesis for my third baby, I was treated like a small child, and asked point blank whether I really thought my spouse would agree with my decision not to undergo the test. Finally, I observed that the translations into Italian and Spanish for the consultation questions all used the familiar form of address to the patient, ironically reinforcing this doctor/child relationship in a language with which the doctor was not even familiar. Sociolinguistic convention would not permit the same familiarity to the patient.
The remaining essays of the collection present a discourse centered in a technocultural environment, that as Margaret Honey claims, is a male gendered one.  (Let us recall here that in the Romance languages, which are marked by gender, vocabulary referring to technological innovations is predominantly masculine). Another study, "Sex, Work and Motherhood" by E. Ann Kaplan deals with the maternal experience as it is presented in film.
Several interesting questions are posed by the perspectives taken in the three volumes. First , if woman is a signified to be read, presented, re-presented, then who is doing the reading/misreading? Is it only men? Are men synonymous with the (mass) media through which women are represented and offered as signifieds? Are the media truly "gendered" as Margaret Honey claims that technology is? The answer that is suggested in the three studies is that the signification is taking place through interpretive agreements made among women. Not one of the essays or chapters in the studies discussed is written by a man; the impression, whether deliberate or not, is that men are indeed synonymous with the media/aggressors and dichotomous to women/oppressed. Yet, by the same token, there are contradictions to this in the books themselves. Douglas shows how the pop star Madonna has willingly been a media manipulator, but has also not taught women to read her manipulative control as such, resulting in Madonna imitators. Douglas wonders: "is Madonna a feminist or not a feminist? Is the way she plays with sexist imagery good for women or bad for them?....What has intrigued everyone, academic and nonacademic alike, is whether, and for how long, she'll be able to get away with having it both ways?". In her essay on Queen Christina of Sweden, Rose Marie San Juan discusses the same kind of representional awareness on the part of Queen Elizabeth I. Furthermore, several of the essays in the two anthologies have cited Naomi Wolf, a theorist who has had a high media profile in undermining of the mass media. Recently we have seen the blatant media exploitation by Princess Diana in her interviews (on television) with the BBC and then some two weeks later with the tabloid press. In these interviews she has used/mis-used clothing, make-up, body language, rhetoric and technical strategies (lighting, set), to present herself as the wronged, victimized princess, considerate of "her boys", respectful of the monarchy, and the woman who generously let her husband go (but will not divorce him), because with three people, their marriage was a "bit crowded". In short, women may be receivers of mediated, pre-formed, biased representatations, but like Diana and Madonna, they are also not averse to using various media to their own advantage.
A second point to be considered has been already implied in the Elisabetta Rasy article mentioned previously. She points to a rift within feminist ideology. The same divisive discourse is also found in the studies reviewed here. In "The Mothers of the Disappeared: Passion and Protest in Maternal Action", an essay by Jean Bethke Elshtain in Representations of Motherhood, the 1986 split between Las Madres and the Linea Fundadora,both groups of Argentinian mothers demanding explanations for their disappeared children, is reported verbatim through interviews with members of the latter group only and then repeated in the author's footnote. In the same volume, Janine Chasseguet-Smirgel uses her essay as a vehicle to distance herself from and to chastize one of her female critics. Also in Representations..., Margaret Honey, in "Maternal Voice in the Technological Universe" openly admits to seeking a divided discourse when she interviewed women working in areas requiring high technological expertise : "These were women who had gained access to a technological domain and entered a universe that required hard-core knowledge. Although we were not altogether sure what these women would sound like, we were fairly certain they would not sound like women. We thought we would hear them engage in a kind of hyperlogical talk; we imagined they would stride efficiently through our interviews in a clean and concise manner. We were thus surprised when we began to hear echoes of a different kind of discourse, one that was distinctly maternal in tone" The observations made here are reinforced in the excellent essay by Elizabeth Grosz in ReImagining Women entitled "Irigaray's Notion of Sexual Morphology" in which the author outlines the controversies that arise in the conflicting attitudes towards the body in feminist theory.
All three works discussed here repropose the representation of feminist discourse through the various mediated perspectives (television, psychoanalysis, medicine) that see us as girls or women or mothers. All three make a valuable contribution to feminist critical studies.
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Caplan, Paula. They Say You're Crazy. How the World's Most Powerful Psychiatrists Decide Who's Normal. Toronto: Addison-Weley, 1995.
Certeau, Michel de. The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press, 1984.
de Man, Paul. Blindness and Insight: Essays in the Rhetoric of Contemporary Fiction. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983.
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Findley, Timothy. Headhunter: a novel. Toronto: HarperCollins, 1993.
Foucault, Michel. I, Pierre Rivière, having slaughtered my mother, my sister and my brother...: a case of parricide. New York: Pantheon, 1975.
Gilbert, Sandra, and Susan Gubar. The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1978.
Hawkins, Laetitia-Matilda. The Countess and Gertrude; or, Modes of Discipline. 4 vols. London: Rivington, 1811.
Ostriker, Alicia Suskin. Stealing the Language: The Emergence of Women's Poetry in America. Boston: Beacon, 1986.
Showalter, Elaine. The Female Malady: Women, Madness, and English Culture 1830-1980. London: Virago, 1985.
Vattimo, Gianni. The Transparent Society. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992.
Anne Urbancic teaches in the Department of Italian Studies and in the Program in Semiotics and Communication Theory at the University of Toronto. Her recent publications include articles and reviews in Semiotica, Signifying Behavior, Romance Languages Annual and Rivista di Studi Italiani.