Framing the First Daughters…
Shayla Thiel-Stern / University of Minnesota

Framing the First Daughters: party girls, ugly ducklings, and graceful wives who grew up in the White House

Bristol with Baby

Bristol garners national attention as the pregnant daughter of Sarah Palin

When Bristol Palin stood on the stage of the Republican National Convention in a clingy gray dress that did not hide her bump, a not-so-subtle narrative centering on her and her conservative family played out before the world’s eyes. Although the media scrutinized the announcement a few days before, coverage of Bristol Palin’s pregnancy seemed to change that night when her teenage boyfriend-turned-fiancé appeared on stage holding her hand. It seemed that since the narrative of the pregnant teen had resolved itself with the promise of marriage, the subject could be dropped.

Arguably, the subject should have been dropped in lieu of more important matters, like whether Bristol’s mom had enough political, financial, and foreign policy experience to warrant voting her into the second highest office in the country. However, the fervor surrounding Bristol’s condition dissipated the moment that she was represented as a young engaged mother-to-be—rather than a pregnant teenage girl—who had embraced married domesticity.

The framing of Bristol Palin’s pregnancy—both by the Republican presidential campaign and the media—is unsurprising. Daughters of vice presidents and presidents have entered prominently into the media landscape throughout the past 40 years, always in a very gendered context.

Bristol with Levi

Bristol’s story: from pregnant teen to wife-to-be

Tricia Nixon, who occasionally accompanied her father on presidential trips, is mostly remembered for having an elaborate, beautiful wedding ceremony on the White House lawn. There is also Ronald Reagan’s daughter, Patti Davis, who was often referred to in the news as the “black sheep” of the family. Known for dating rock stars and publicizing her liberal views on abortion and gay rights, Patti’s liberalism was always tied to her “wild” nature in media frames. ((Davis, P. (1992). The way I see it. New York: Putnam Publishing.)) The American media was only able to frame the resolution to her rebellious daughter story when she appeared, contrite and conservative, at her father’s funeral many years after he left the White House.

Amy Carter was represented as an outspoken teen who expressed her political views and later, was arrested in student protests at Brown. Amy’s narrative feels somewhat incomplete compared to the other first daughters, but this could be attributed to her retreat into private life—as a wife, mother, and board member for the human rights-focused Carter Center. ((Steindorf, S. (2000, Feb. 17). “What ever happened to … Amy Carter?” Christian Science Monitor.))

However, we should question the way that first daughters, past and present, are incorporated into the public conversation through the media. While first and second daughters deserve their privacy—after all, they are not running for office—at times they are thrust into the spotlight for political purposes, often to serve as reminders that our candidates are parents – regular moms and dads that the public can relate to. By bringing their children to the convention stage with them or asking them to ride along on the campaign trail, those children become a part of the public discourse on American family values.

Jenna drunk

A National Enquirer story on Jenna Bush

The American public has not been presented with a first son who was college aged or younger since the Kennedy Administration, but over the past 30 or so years, Amy Carter, Chelsea Clinton, and the Bush twins figured prominently into their parents’ lives in the White House. The media attention devoted to these presidential daughters occurred simultaneously with an overall interest—media and otherwise—in girls and girlhood.

During the past 15 years in particular, an entire “girls-in-crisis” movement has come to the forefront of American culture through best selling books—from the troubled girls portrayed in Mary Pipher’s Reviving Ophelia to the mean girls represented in Rosalind Wiseman’s Queen Bees and Wannabes. It is fascinating to note how media portrayals of these four presidential daughters intersect with similar discourses of girlhood operating during this period of increased reflection about girls’ place in American culture.

Jenna Wedding

The transformation of Jenna Bush: from college drunk to domestic wife

Two particular cases illustrate the types of narratives foisted upon the first daughters. The media’s fascination with Jenna Bush and Chelsea Clinton specifically—now young women in their 20s—has led to the circulation of very specific, traditionally feminine, narratives about these young women. In some cases, the daughters have facilitated such representations through their own actions. But in general, most of the storylines revolving around Bush or Clinton framed the girls’ narratives in highly gendered ways, often through the use of carefully crafted language, images, and disclosed details of the daughters’ lives.

The cultural representation of one of the current first daughters, Jenna Bush, provides a striking example of how gendered storytelling works within media discourses. Jenna’s early brushes with the law for underage drinking were well-documented. Late night talk show hosts loved to joke about her rebellious streak and seemingly poor judgment. She was painted as the out-of-control blonde bombshell, and even though she brought on the scrutiny herself in many cases, she was cast as a staggering embarrassment to her family. However, over the past eight years, Jenna graduated from college and seemed to give up her wild ways. Jenna’s past discretions, once fodder for late night talk show hosts, are not mentioned nowadays when she appears on those very shows to discuss her work as a children’s author and former grade school teacher. Today Jenna Bush has been redeemed through her work with children and her life as a new blushing bride. Ultimately, the media narrative surrounding Jenna was reframed as one of forgiveness and the resolution of the wild girl now tamed.

Chelsea with Arnold

Chelsea Clinton during her stay at the White House, posing here with Arnold Schwarzenegger

A different kind of story has been constructed to represent Chelsea Clinton, who was often chided for being an awkward-looking tween early on in her father’s presidency. ((Corn, David. (2008). “A Joke too Bad to Print?” Salon, June 25, 1998. Retrieved Sept. 24, 2008.)) Recently the press has congratulated Clinton for somehow developing a sense of grace and beauty. Despite graduating from Stanford and earning a high-paying consulting job in New York, all of the recent coverage of Chelsea has in some way centered on this ugly duckling narrative. In February 2008, ABC News profiled her turn in the spotlight while on the campaign trail for her mother, leading off with the words “Chelsea Clinton has changed dramatically from her days as an awkward teenage first daughter.” New York magazine referred to her as “Chelsea, who’d been sometimes seen but hardly ever heard since she’d moved into the White House as a gawky 12-year-old” in an article titled, “The Evolution of Chelsea Clinton,” that also appeared in February. In describing a campaign event for her mother’s presidential run last year, the author primarily describes the final result of Chelsea’s transformation into a fashionable “mascaraed” woman:

When Chelsea strode onstage, almost an hour behind schedule, the crowd erupted in applause. She waved and smiled—a full-lipped, camera-ready (Bill) Clintonian grin. She is tall and slim, with darkly mascaraed lashes framing blue-gray eyes, and glamorously straightened blonde hair. Her outfit—shiny black boots with spiky heels, jeans, and faux-military jacket, replete with epaulettes, over a black T-shirt–was appropriately fashionable. She allowed herself a theatrical grimace, punctuated by a comic eye-roll—provoking giggles—when Hillary youth-outreach director Emily Hawkins, Chelsea’s eighth-grade classmate from the Washington private school Sidwell Friends, encouraged the audience to “ask Chelsea whether it was her idea or her mom’s idea that Chelsea go to math camp.” ((Grove, L. (2008). “Chelsea’s Morning: The Clinton heiress finally steps up to the mike.” New York Magazine.))

That Chelsea was not a particularly rebellious daughter could account for the difference between the media narratives of the other first daughters and the media narrative circulating around Chelsea. Without the rebellious streak, the media could not spin a narrative about how Chelsea has become a sweeter, gentler young woman. It could also be that her life both in and beyond the White House has been conducted privately and as a result there is little information other than physical transformation for the press to focus on.

Chelsea campaigning

Chelsea’s image while campaigning for her mother, Hillary Clinton

However, dominant narratives expressed about these daughters (from Chelsea to Jenna, to now Bristol) are all connected in the sense that they deal in the language of transformation—and in these cases, a gendered transformation. In fact, this type of narrative arch is often linked to the Cinderella story, in which a girl is deservingly transformed into a princess. Cinderella stories provide comfort in their ability to show that even girls who are wild and rebellious enough to break the law (of their upbringing, as in Bristol’s case, or the actual law, as in Jenna’s case) can be tamed or groomed out of these ways and ultimately, star in a media-constructed fairy tale.

Like Tricia Nixon, Chelsea and Jenna became culturally palatable after they were seen as feminine, graceful, and most importantly, controlled—in Chelsea’s case, in control of her appearance and in Jenna’s case, in control of her behavior. Neither young woman is afforded much agency in this process of transformation, bringing up the question of whether this is self-control or something else all together. In fact, Jenna’s transformation is often discursively linked to her marriage, which is a particularly troubling representation because it connects femininity and domesticity in a way that has not changed since the Nixon Administration. Because of their parents’ prominence, these first daughters have been thrust into the role of cultural icon; when the media tells outdated, sexist narratives about these icons, they reproduce harmful patriarchal stereotypes that seek to push girls further to the margins of the public sphere.

Obama Daughters

Malia and Sasha Obama with their father Barack

The current presidential election has brought us a number of new potential first daughters, from the elementary-school-aged Malia and Sasha Obama to the 20-something Meghan McCain, and already narratives are being laid out in the pages of human interest stories from the campaign trail. The current narratives represent the Obamas as brainy and precocious, while Ms. McCain is represented as a hip fashionista with a blog about her dad. Granted, these narratives are not as dramatic as the ones about unwed teenage mothers keeping their baby and marrying the baby’s father, or a party-girl-turned-child-oriented wife, but if history plays itself out in the same way, then undoubtedly more dramatic and sensational narratives will emerge over time.

Instead of buying these narratives outright, we should continue to question both the political motives of those releasing information about these girls and young women. It seems unbelievable that an unwed 17-year-old mother could be thrust into the public eye as a shining beacon for the far-right-leaning conservatives who derided unwed single mothers in the mid-1990s for their lack of values and reliance on the welfare system. However, this clearly has happened in the past eight weeks as Bristol Palin has become the most talked about teenage girl in the public sphere. Even beyond this, we should simply stop accepting the dominant media narratives masquerading as inspirational transformation stories. After all, first daughters clearly have more to offer our culture—and the young girls who follow their lives—than Cinderella stories.

Image Credits:
1. Bristol garners national attention as the pregnant daughter of Sarah Palin
2. Bristol’s story: from pregnant teen to wife-to-be
3. A National Enquirer story on Jenna Bush
4. The transformation of Jenna Bush: from college drunk to domestic wife
5. Chelsea Clinton during her stay at the White House, posing here with Arnold Schwarzenegger
6. Chelsea’s image while campaigning for her mother, Hillary Clinton
7. Malia and Sasha Obama with their father Barack

Please feel free to comment.

Familiar Zipcode, New Bodies: A Critical Analysis of the Feminine Body in 90210
Shayla Thiel-Stern / University of Minnesota

New 90210

The cast of the new 90210

When Beverly Hills, 90210 premiered, I was still in high school, and I still remember my initial reaction to the show as the film rolled on the actors in West Beverly High:

Who in the world are these really old people?

Indeed, being from small-town Midwestern America, I had not seen teens the bleach-blonde likes of Tori Spelling, who was actually a younger than I was despite looking far older, but all of the “teens” on this show just looked at least 25 to me – way too old to be playing high schoolers. (And in fact, it turned out some were. Luke Perry, who played Dylan McKay, and Ian Ziering, who played Steve Sanders, were in their mid-20s when the show first debuted, and Gabrielle Carteris, who played Andrea Zuckerman, was actually 29.)

So it felt like déjà vu when I saw a promo announcing that 90210 – a latter-day spin-off of Beverly Hills, 90201 would debut on September 2. The girls in the advertisement — certainly the one sitting in a Jacuzzi between a pair of male legs — had to be fairly close to 30. (I’d like to hope that hot tub parties aren’t starting in the middle teens now, though I’m sure I’m still a naïve small-town Midwesterner at heart.)

Brenda and Dylan

Brenda and Dylan

If you have never heard of 90210 in either form, I’ll quickly get you up to speed: The Aaron Spelling-produced show (yes, he was Tori’s dad) premiered on Fox in the fall of 1990 as one of the first-ever teen soaps, and initially centered on Brandon and Brenda Walsh, twins whose parents uprooted them from Minneapolis, Minnesota, to flashy Beverly Hills, California, where they befriended surfers and children of Hollywood execs and former stars, and wormed their way into the intricate social scene while dealing with issues like drug abuse, accidental gun violence, racism, teen pregnancy and date rape. The wildly popular show, which was geared toward the teen and 20s demographic, lasted 10 seasons.

Beverly Hills, 90210 was one of the first of a genre of soap operas featuring beautiful teens living in a fantasy environment, and arguably, a cultural touchstone. ((“Even on Television, Puberty Can’t Last Forever.” New York Times May 3, 2000. Retrieved Aug. 10, 2008.))

It also seemed to spawn a genre of shows casting beautiful young people, who are supposed to be teens, but actually look 10 years older than your average teen. Think about James Van Der Beek on Dawson’s Creek, Scott Wolf on Party of Five, Kristin Kreuk on Smallville, Charisma Carpenter on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and every single “teen” character on One Tree Hill. Even though they might have been adolescents at the time they started playing their signature roles, they did not look it.

The question then becomes, why do producers repeat this casting tactic, when it could serve to make the shows even less realistic in the eyes of the viewers they hope to attract?

This is a complicated question, but I believe the answers are less complicated. First, in the new 90210 debuting next month, consumerism is a clear motivation. Notice how Dior, Dolce and Gabbana, and Tiffany appear almost subliminally in the trailer:

If you are wearing Dior and Dolce, you are probably not an average 16-year-old girl, even a girl from the 90210 zipcode. These are sophisticated clothes, designed to look good on very thin women in their late 20s and older … apparently like the “girls” on the new 90210. These particular actresses can succeed in selling a lifestyle and a luxury brand name in their 20-something bodies so much better than they could have in their 16-year-old bodies. (As a counterpoint, imagine Lane from the early Gilmore Girls shows in similar fashion.)

Second — and others (Katherine Sweeney in Maiden USA, M. Gigi Durham in The Lolita Effect, and Emily White in Fast Girls, to name a few) have made this point previously in more scholarly terms: It would be downright creepy to see average-looking 14 to 18-year-olds placed in the sexualized world that is a teen soap opera. Imagine girls – such as your 14-year-old niece, or if you need to envision a more famous high school freshman, Dakota Fanning perhaps — cavorting in a Jacuzzi, seducing older men, wearing stilettos and micro-minis. In order for audiences to derive (guilty) pleasure from watching these situations in 90210, producers must represent adolescent girls as women in their mid-20s. While our culture has seen (and in some cases, embraced) the sexualization of increasingly younger starlets over the past 10 years, we still might not be at that extreme point.

However, I would argue that this is just a fairly easy critique of media representation of the adolescent girls. There is a more troubling underlying current here to examine, and that is the realization of how the feminine body, and specifically the adolescent female body, exists within cultural discourse, and how it has changed over a relatively short span of time. We can see this clearly in the two versions of 90210. It is absolutely striking to note how different the young women cast in the roles in the 2008 version of 90210 look than their predecessors in 1990. Granted, fashions and trends change. But put the high-waisted, baggy acid washed jeans aside and focus on bodies and faces. Notice how the bodies of the 1990s females in the cast are proportioned. They have hips, wider thighs, vaguely pronounced muscles and heads that appear to belong on top of their bodies. By the standards of 1990, these actresses were thin and pretty.

Original 90210 Cast

The original 90210 cast

Without the aid of Photoshop (which was released just after the first 90210 episode aired), these young women – old as they looked to audiences at the time – probably would have looked ridiculous decked out in the clothing we see on the stars of the new 90210. They would not have been good for the consumerist, fashion-fetish aspect of the program at all. Furthermore, despite the “racy” episode in which Brenda loses her virginity to Dylan, members of the original cast were hardly sexualized at all; this episode pales in comparison to even the trailer for the new 90210, where the actresses appear to be lounging in a dark bedroom with another (male) character making out with an unseen partner behind them.

And it is not only the adolescent girls from Beverly High who must undergo a cultural aging process to become culturally intelligible to the 2008 teen soap audience. The mothers, teachers and other adults in their lives must as well – though theirs is reverse-aging. Cindy Walsh, the mother from the original series who was played by Carol Potter, appeared to be in her middle to late 40s, and dressed modestly enough for audiences not to even wonder whether she had a yoga-body underneath. Lori Loughlin, who plays Debbie Wilson, the mother of the Kansas-transplanted teens in the new series, is actually 44 in real life, but she looks nearly as beautiful and thin as the high school girls, making most of the women on the show appear to be close to age 30 in the promotional materials.

90210 Moms

Lori Laughlin as 90210‘s new mom, Debbie Wilson

In borrowing from the theory of Susan Bordo, the women from both shows demonstrate how in a very short but increasingly mediated point in history, women’s and girls’ bodies are shaped and inscribed by the culture surrounding them. ((Bordo, Susan. 1993. Unbearable weight: Feminism, Western culture, and the body. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.)) Through pilates, cosmetic surgery, low-carb diets, hair straightening, skin lightening, Botox, and so many other means, women have mirrored media representations of “perfect” women and shaped their bodies to fit the representation. While Photoshop almost certainly plays a role in the perfection process of promotional photos, however, it does not stop women and girls in reality from attempting to alter their bodies and faces to conform to this fantasy portrayal.

The old and new versions of 90210 exemplify this idea perfectly. And in the new version, all of the female bodies portrayed must be old/young/perfect enough for this cultural moment to enable a plot that allows audiences to feel enticed without feeling dirty, guilty or simply disgusted.

Glamorous 90210

Upping the glamor in the new 90210

Of course, it is important that we not discount the notion of agency – the notion that audiences can make what they will of this new show. Many of us found the original to be campy and ridiculous, and we reveled in the ridiculousness. Certainly audiences have the power to do the same with the next, and in our brave new media-ted world, we might even enjoy the recaps of this new version on Television Without Pity more than watching the actual program. However, Bordo’s point cannot be lost in the argument for media pleasure or resistant readings of cultural texts like 90210. When dominant cultural discourses that relegate girls and women to the passive, stereotypical roles of consumer and sex object actually lead to both physical and cultural change, we should take notice.

Image Credits:
1. The Cast of the New 90210
2. Brenda and Dylan
3. The original 90210 cast.
4. Lori Laughlin as 90210’s new mom, Debbie Wilson
5. Upping the glamor in the new 90210
6. Front Page image

Please feel free to comment.

Interpreting Exile in Guyville’s Legacy…
Shayla Thiel-Stern / University of Minnesota

Interpreting Exile in Guyville’s Legacy: 15th Anniversary of Liz Phair’s Seminal Album Conjures Questions About the Packaging of Sex, Girl Culture and Feminism

Liz Phair’s Exile in Guyville

Liz Phair’s Exile in Guyville

In the summer of 1993, I was too busy hitting the “repeat” button on my CD player for whatever major hit Pearl Jam was cranking on at the time to even notice Liz Phair was quietly singing her way into the consciousness of all my college friends. When all my girlfriends made it back to campus that fall, we were all able to sing along to “Flower” and “Dance of the Seven Veils” before Thursday night outings to the bar – f words, c words and all.

One of the hooks of the album was that it was a song-by-song response to the Rolling Stones’ (brilliant) Exile on Main Street. But never mind that; with the exception of “Happy” on classic rock radio, most of us didn’t know much about the original Exile. Rather, like the rum-and-Cokes we downed before going out, Liz (as we called her) and Guyville were dear friends who our parents probably would not approve of.

Many of my college friends had grown up in the same kind of well-to-do Chicago suburbs as Phair and felt a special connection to this foul-mouthed guitar-wielding waif. But you didn’t have to have anything in common with Liz Phair to revere Exile in Guyville. It was the first time that as 19 and 20-year-old women, we had our own rebellious anthems to sing along with, and it was the first time most of us had a taste of what later became referred to (mostly by male cultural critics) as “do-me feminism” – and it was exhilarating and powerful. This was years before “The Vagina Monologues” and Alanis Morisette’s explicit “You Oughtta Know” made their way into the mainstream, and Guyville was completely original and cool.

Liz Phair on the cover of Rolling Stone

Liz Phair on the cover of Rolling Stone

Flash forward 15 years to my 35-year-old self, a college professor whose research focuses primarily on girls and media, and who played in a Chicago rock band for a number of years herself in some of the same bars once frequented by Phair. It was with more than a little trepidation that I went out to my local record store to buy the 15th anniversary re-release of Guyville. I still break out the original from time to time, but the new release touted some previously unreleased b-sides and a DVD featuring Phair herself revisiting the early 90s and the Guyville era, which was intriguing. Moreover, something in me still wants to support that part of her career.

So why the trepidation?

Let’s start with the “do-me feminism,” a reaction to anti-pornography feminism that suggests feminists can also embrace sexuality, that some have reappropriated to symbolize women’s growing love of sex and sexiness. Back in 1993, grunge was god and my peers and I lived in sexless baggy flannels, cut-offs over long underwear, and Doc Martens. We wouldn’t have dreamed of micro-minis and half-shirts that you see on a lot of college-aged women today, and the stars we saw on TV weren’t dressing that way either. The sexiest youth-oriented show on television was Beverly Hills 90210, which is quaint and tame by today’s standards (case in point: a recent preview of the CW’s Gossip Girl featured two of the heroines and classmates in various states of undress and a flash to the text-style acronym/swear, “OMFG!”).

As the decade progressed, the mediated messages about female sexual empowerment shifted from targeting young women in their 20s to young girls in their teens to tweens and younger, and the messages were no longer necessarily about sexuality but instead about sexiness. Disney characters like “Pocahontas” raised eyebrows in 1995, but eventually were overtaken in tween popularity by Bratz dolls. Today, The Girls Next Door, a reality show featuring Hugh Hefners’ three Playboy Bunny girlfriends, is very popular with young women and girls under 18. ((World Screen Weekly September 6, 2007.) In music, the mediated pro-sexuality messages also skewed younger: 17-year-old Britney Spears’ iconic sexy-schoolgirl video for her hit, “Baby, One More Time,” was only the start of it.

Girls Next Door

Girls Next Door

As a feminist scholar, it is sometimes difficult to reconcile my own pro-sex feminist views with my disdain for stereotypical patriarchal representations of young women’s sexuality. (And as a music snob, it’s difficult to link early Phair to Spears at all.) However, to paraphrase the old cigarette ads, the re-release of Guyville serves as a sad reminder of some backward cultural movement with regard to the cultural representations of girls and women. To me, the Guyville era began with young women taking ownership of their sexuality in terms once deemed unladylike; now, far too often, young women instead take part in a heteronormative male fantasy in which they have no ownership at all. The new female music industry darlings – Rihanna and The Pussy Cat Dolls, for example — are all about looking hot and using cute double-entendre lyrics instead of just calling it fucking, Phair style.

The legacy of Guyville – and women rockers in general — are almost nowhere to be found in this manufactured world of pop we live in today. Feist, Amy Winehouse, and Lily Allen have found success and credibility in this world, but none have impacted culture – and specifically, girl culture – like Liz Phair did in 1993. Furthermore, we have to question what Liz hath wrought: Through her low-fi rocking out and embracing her sexuality in confessional, intelligent post-feminist lyrics, did she also fuel this new, troubling phase of women and girls in music? Did her raw style, her words and music, give countless recording execs the idea that women overtly embracing their sexuality – in the “do-me feminist” style – would sell across gender and age groups? The idea that sexual empowerment could be used as a marketing tool for girls is troubling, but it’s not necessarily surprising given the way the media industries work.

Milf article

Milf article

This brings up an interesting point about the “legacy” of Guyville. The following years showed in so many ways, that even Liz Phair, Ms. Indie-rocker herself, was not immune to slick record company packaging and marketing. When her third album, whitechocolatespaceegg, was released in 1998 most reviews mentioned she had a baby and that she wasn’t swearing or talking about sex so much (after all, a self-proclaimed “blowjob queen” could not also be portrayed as a newlywed mommy). Phair’s next album, released in 2003, featured her on the cover, naked, pornstar-like, straddling her phallic guitar, and all the marketing materials released with it (and all the ensuing articles and reviews about it) cast her as a recently-divorced “milf,” feeling sexually empowered again. This older version of sexual empowerment showed through a completely un-ironic, un-funny song about hooking up with an X-Box playing college kid, and this time, she cranked out a bonafide hit, “Why Can’t I…?” which was co-written with The Matrix, a song-writing team that penned hits for the likes of Avril Lavigne and Hillary Duff. Later, her very non-indie-rock-ish track “Extraordinary” would be heard as a background on all kinds of TV commercials.

In other words, it seemed through the years that Liz Phair was less and less the sexually empowered post-feminist who rocked my world, and the worlds of so many other young women in the early 90s, and more and more another manufactured pop star packaged and sold by a male-dominated recording industry.

Last Phair album

Last Phair album

However, another revelation has become increasingly clear to me over the past 15 years: Exile in Guyville’s Phair was also manufactured and packaged – and even as a “do-me feminist,” which was also clever corporate marketing since Phair doesn’t bill herself that way, she was also sold as an indie-rock guy’s dream girl. My female contemporaries look back on Guyville as transforming, and my male contemporaries do the same. They respect her music and genius, but a lot of them will also bring up the fact that she was a totally cool, hot babe. They’ll bring up the Rolling Stone cover she posed for in 1994 and also remind me that the very tip of her nipple shows in the shot on the cover Guyville, and that it was designed by former Urge Overkill frontman Nash Kato.

Which brings me back to the special re-release of Exile in Guyville. We learn in the DVD accompanying the re-release – a lengthy, low-fi documentary seemingly shot by Phair herself – that Kato was the inspiration for a lot of the songs on the album. She includes long conversational interviews with old bandmates, producers, record company guys, movie and rock star friends of hers from the Chicago days (all men, even though there certainly were a few women in the Chicago rock scene in the early 1990s – D’arcy Wretzky and Veruca Salt, for example, who I would liked to have heard from). In the interviews, the various guys regale Phair with tales of recording and promoting Guyville – how she used to try to bum beers from hipsters at Chicago’s Rainbow club, how she refused to make certain changes her producers suggested – and Phair often replies, “I did that? I was like that?” She seems shocked by her own audacity and gumption.


A trailer for the DVD included in the 15 anniversary reissue of Guyville

It strikes me as a little bit sad that this potential feminist icon has no idea about her audacious brilliance as a younger woman nor does she realize exactly the impact she’s had on other women. This point is further emphasized at the end of the DVD, which does feature a number of women talking specifically about how they were affected by Guyville – from personal stories about ex-boyfriends to the same kind of stories about getting ready to hit the town with girlfriends. It’s impossible to tell whether Phair even conducts these interviews because, unlike the other parts of the video, she does not comment or participate in the conversation, and women don’t appear in the video until after a point when producer Steve Albini comments that the album meant so much to girls at that time.

Despite all this, and in spite of Phair’s more current representation in mainstream music, Guyville represents a cultural turning point – not only for young women who loved rock but also for girl culture itself. The album made it OK for us (girls) to talk explicitly about sexuality in terms that only guys were allowed to use, and it made it fine to acknowledge both the vulnerability as well as the fun and vulgar aspects of sexuality, even if it was in the form of singing along. That singing along sparked our own audacity and gumption, and I think in many ways shocked a lot of us into better understanding gender politics, sexuality, and ultimately, feminism. Not the packaged kind of “do-me feminism” marketed today, but the real thing. That particular aspect of the album’s legacy – and the memories of my college friends jamming out to “Liz” – make me most thankful for the opportunity to revisit Guyville.

Image Credits:
1. Liz Phair’s Exile in Guyville
2. Liz Phair on the cover of Rolling Stone
3. Girls Next Door
4. Milf article
5. Last Phair album

Please feel free to comment.