Lost in Lolitaland
STEPFORD-BOUND: Impressionable girls respond to pop culture in frightening ways.
by Heather Joyner Spica
Despite living in a youth-obsessed culture, being a teenager these days is no picnic. Let’s say we use a numbers-based approach to summarize the “value” of a fictional 16-year-old girl named Ashley. Starting with 100, we can add 100 points simply because she’s young, but we must subtract 50 points to account for raging hormones that lead to foolish behavior resulting in loss of self-esteem. Subtract another 50 points each for bulimia, occasional self-mutilation, and debt incurred for prescription medication and/or the purchase of sleazy clothing, and we’re left with 0 points.
To continue in this vein, we can add 75 points for Ashley’s not contracting any STDs or becoming pregnant. The positive effects of living with an educated, sympathetic mother—worth another 75 points—are negated by Ashley’s fascination with Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera. With a tally of 75, we can either add or subtract 25 points for tattoos and piercings, depending on their location and whether or not they’ve become infected. At this rate, Ashley’s very survival seems in question.
In all seriousness, the above adolescent issues are very real, and photographer Lauren Greenfield addresses them with insight and sensitivity. “Girl Culture,” her exhibition of 58 color images currently on view (alongside selected excerpts from interviews in text form) at UT’s Ewing Gallery, is moving. But it’s also quite disturbing. According to the show’s press release, the pictures “...provide a window into the secret worlds of girls’ social lives and private rituals, the dressing room and locker room, as well as the subcultures of the popular clique: debutantes, actresses, cheerleaders and models.”
Yet Greenfield’s window—the result of her spending more than five years photographing young women in a variety of places—is more often like a peephole. Looking at pictures of a breast augmentation procedure, awkward girls at “fat camp,” and an anorexic female being weighed at an eating-disorder clinic, we glimpse lives we might rather not see in such detail. We sense helplessness and frustration bordering on despair in girls trying to live up to societal expectations they cannot begin to truly comprehend. In a review of a Greenfield show for the Boston Globe , critic Cate McQuaid wrote, “Our image-saturated society teaches girls that their power lies in their looks...[rather than in] intelligence, grit, or soul.... While these girls often wear a mask of premature world-weariness, in fact they’re deploying parts of themselves they know little about.”
Of interest is the fact that Greenfield focuses on women as well as girls in “Girl Culture.” In addition to prepubescent girls and teenagers, the exhibition includes photographs of strapping 20- and 30-something Fitness America contestants in Redondo Beach, Calif., Las Vegas women called showgirls, the mature Internet goddess Cindy Margolis, and porn stars and playmates of legal drinking age. Although one gets the feeling that subjects more accurately called girls are what Greenfield finds most captivating, her documentation of older women makes a salient point regarding an ongoing need in females for attention, admiration and approval. Her images of not-so-young “girls” are as jarring as photographs of 4 and 5 year olds primping and applying makeup in that they reveal an arrested development encouraged by mass media and advertising.
Responding to an interviewer’s question concerning what the dialectic might be between the extreme—i.e., a stripper—and mainstream teenagers wearing thongs and baring their stomachs, Greenfield says, “I started ‘Girl Culture’ very intuitively...[consider-ing] the idea of performance and exhibitionism, and the way that a girl, at a certain age, [begins having] the outside start to matter...I was photographing a huge cross-section of girls and women—from schoolgirls in Chicago to strippers in Las Vegas. And I started thinking about how icons, like the actor and the model and the stripper and the showgirl, live in the minds of mainstream girls.” In Greenfield’s photographs, the line between popular culture and individual circumstances—no matter what one’s existence in economic, racial, or religious terms may be—begins to blur before our very eyes.
Educated at Harvard, Greenfield now lives where she was raised, in Los Angeles. Her photography, collected by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the International Center of Photography, and the Cleveland Museum of Art, among other institutions, can best be described as “fine-art photojournalism” (that is, appearing in print publications including TheNew York Times Magazine , TheNew Yorker , National Geographic , and the London Sunday Times Magazine , as well as in pristine gallery settings). Her first book, Fast Forward: Growing Up in the Shadow of Hollywood , was published by Knopf in 1997; the product of a documentary grant, the book has been optioned by a major studio for development as a feature film. Greenfield’s documentary THIN was recently completed for HBO. Her book Girl Culture was published by Chronicle Books in 2002, and she has since been named “one of the 25 most influential photographers working today” by American Photo magazine.
As for the fine art photojournalist tag, what’s unusual about Greenfield compared to other photographers who’ve explored similar subject matter (Sally Mann and Mary Ellen Mark spring readily to mind) is her version of the “bait and switch” approach. Whereas that term generally describes a seller’s scheme to lure buyers with one thing, then sell them other (more expensive) items, in Greenfield’s case, viewers are drawn in via the same seductive means employed by advertising.
Greenfield’s creation of a surface reality—represented in slick prints with punched-up color—emphasizes in very concrete ways the power of media to distort and to corrupt impressionable girls’ notions of self-worth. Such young women are, as the Ewing Gallery states, “manipulated and exploited by the expectations and commercialism of American culture.” And Greenfield’s show helps us see through a veneer into what indeed amounts to treacherous passage.
What: Girl Culture: Photographs by Lauren Greenfield When: Thru Nov. 10 Where: UT’s Ewing Gallery, 1715 Volunteer Boulevard. Call 974-3200 or visit www.ewing-gallery.org for info.