Mean Girls Triumphant

I really appreciated Naomi Wolf’s piece on popular fiction for teenaged girls in the last New York Times Book Review. I appreciated it because I have always wondered just how bad those Gossip Girl books are but I couldn’t quite bring myself to read one, and I appreciated it because Wolf offered more than a shrill jeremiad. She didn’t just freak out about all the sex and drugs and shopping in these books; she explained how, in their valorization of the rich and popular crowd, these books invert the philosophy of young adult fiction as we have known it, not to mention the philosophy of Austen and Alcott.

However, there was one line that gave me pause: “They carry no rating or recommended age range on the cover, but their intended audience—teenage girls—can’t be in doubt. They feature sleek, conventionally beautiful girls lounging, getting in or out of limos, laughing and striking poses. Any parent—including me—might put them in the Barnes & Noble basket without a second glance.”

Is she high? It’s true that the A-List and Clique books have a fairly innocuous appearance—although, I’ve got to say, all those girls look supremely bitchy—but I knew those Gossip Girls were trouble without ever reading a word. The covers are so much scarier than anything presented by grown-up chick lit. Well, I suppose there’s something at least a little bit scary about the idea that adult women think of themselves—or want to think of themselves—as cartoon characters, but I find the glossily eroticized photos that adorn the Gossip Girl jackets to be disturbing in a much more visceral way.

The photos are always cropped in such a way that the model loses all identifying—all humanizing—features. Now, given that these books are, to quote author Cecily von Ziegesar, “aspirational” (saints preserve us), it makes sense to make the girls on their covers as generic as possible; it’s easier for readers to project themselves into the glamorous world of the novels. On the other hand, it’s hard not to notice that these young women are reduced to nothing but open mouths, pubescent breasts, and lanky legs. It’s hard for me to imagine, looking at these images, that anything wholesome or redeeming or even thoughtful might lie behind them. It seems that my imagining was not too far off the mark.

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