Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific
Issue 25, February 2011
The Modern Girl Around the World Research Group
Alys Eve Weinbaum, Lynn M. Thomas,
Priti Ramamurthy, Uta G. Poiger,
Madeleine Yue Dong and Tani E. Barlow

The Modern Girl Around the World: Consumption, Modernity, and Globalization

Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2008.
ISBN-10: 0822343053, x, 435 pp.

reviewed by Jan Bardsley

  1. The Modern Girl Around The World offers a multifaceted view of the colorful figure of the 1920s and 30s known in English as the Modern Girl, and in other languages as garçonnes, moga, moden xiaojie, kallege ladki, and neue Frauen. The Research Group's enthusiasm for their subject and for understanding the Modern Girl as a local and transnational phenomenon animates every aspect of this volume. As the editors remark, 'Overall, our research has led us to one conclusion above all others: the Modern Girl, perhaps like no other figure of the twentieth century, reveals the complexity of global economic and cultural processes (p. 52).'
  2. But how to do justice to a phenomenon of such scope? Not only is the Modern Girl global, but she most often comes alive in the low-brow mass media of advertisements, magazines, popular novels, and movies. One of the most valuable aspects of The Modern Girl Around The World owes to the collaboration of scholars, each of whom has depth in the language, history, and visual culture of a particular geographical location. This collective expertise enables the Research Group's broad field of inquiry. Moreover, the fact that the group actively worked together on the project over some years has ensured that the volume coheres.
  3. The result is a vibrantly diverse conversation. Among the locales discussed one finds sites in Australia, China, France, Germany, India, Japan, Okinawa, South Africa, and the United States. Such geographical variety encourages readings that consider the production of race, modern femininity, New Women ideology, and the commerce in cosmetics, for some examples, as phenomena grounded in specific locales that are simultaneously engaged with trends abroad. As the authors explain, at times the influence from abroad came via the concerted effort of cosmetic advertising campaigns. In other cases, however, Modern Girl roles were created by women curious about those of other ethnicities or nations, whom they imagined as living exotically different lives, an interest that could give rise to such different activities as racial masquerade and hopes to study abroad.
  4. The Modern Girl Around The World takes on the challenge of analysing the Modern Girl as a fantasy—the girl in the advertisement, the character in a short story, the upstart engendering moral panic in newspaper reports—as well as considers evidence of actual women deliberately taking on the role in some fashion. Rather than make a hard line between reality and fantasy, the book points to the circularity of representations, chains of influence, and the pure fun of creative play with images. Accordingly, The Modern Girl Around The World argues that the Modern Girl must be studied with an appreciation for her place in visual culture. Photographs, pages from magazines and novels, and other graphics not only enliven the book, but demonstrate the Modern Girl's close connection to the proliferation of print media and advertising graphics in the 1920s. Each chapter describes the importance of the images selected and gives interpretations of them; no image is tacked on as mere decoration. Yet, even flipping through the book, one can make connections among the illustrations, recognising the characteristics of the transnational Modern Girl look such as the short, permanent wave and rouged lips.
  5. The Modern Girl Around The World is an eminently readable book that will work well in any number of classes and attract a broad readership, too. Clearly, the six editors have made every effort to make the book approachable. One way is by being explicit about the nature of writing a book as a group. The editors describe the initial serendipitous discovery made by two of the researchers, the late Miriam Silverberg, to whom the book is dedicated, and Kathy Peiss, when they realised in meeting each other that there were Modern Girls in places in the world outside their own geographical areas of expertise (Japan and the U.S. respectively). In the book's initial chapter, the editors, writing ultimately in one voice, discuss the work of gathering together researchers from different disciplinary homes, and detail how their meetings produced, through much internal debate and discussions following public presentations, a methodology for the project.
  6. The editors' two introductory chapters thus guide the reader to the scope, methodology, and goals for the book. Chapter One, 'The Modern Girl as Heuristic Device: Collaboration, Connective Comparison, and Multidirectional Citation,' cites an intriguing discovery, claiming that one of the group's 'most important findings' was that 'the Modern Girl was distinguished from other female figures and representations by her continual incorporation of local elements from those drawn from elsewhere' (p. 4); the group calls this incorporation 'multidirectional citation.' Chapter One also succinctly defines the basic themes employed in the book: the modern, the girl, visual economies, nationalisms, and commodities. It concludes with brief discussion of 'Consumption and the Question of Agency.' In Chapter Two, 'The Modern Girl Around the World: Cosmetics Advertising and the Politics of Race and Style,' the editors 'explore the global prevalence of the Modern Girl in cosmetics ads and suggest ways that capitalist enterprises created and transmitted representations of femininity and race' (p. 26). Much of the discussion in Chapter Two centers on technologies of the self and examines the ways cosmetic ads presented skin color and 'modern, scientific' products to alter the skin through makeup, tanning, colouring, and whitening. Both editors' chapters weave the many locales treated in the succeeding individual chapters into their analysis, providing a model of how to approach the Modern Girl from multiple perspectives to create and test overarching hypotheses.
  7. Twelve chapters are contributed by individual authors, and while all focus on the Modern Girl, much difference emerges that tracks the influence of class, race, colonialism, and other kinds of local politics. Chapter titles suggest geographical specificity and hint at the issue at the forefront of each particular iteration of the Modern Girl. Many examine the tension between representations of new models of feminine glamour played out against conservative regimes and cultural mores. I cite some of the chapters below to give a sense of this. The Indian case, for example, is discussed by Priti Ramamurthy mainly in terms of nationalism, highlighting 'the interplay between colonial and nationalist intellectuals on moral and market grounds from the late 1920s on' (p. 169) through focusing on the provocative case of 'worldly and wicked' Modern Girl movies, their fashion influence, Mohandas Gandhi's disapproval, and the specific example of Sulochana, 'Indian cinema's first "sex symbol."' Uta G. Poiger, centers her investigation on the meanings Germans attached to changing representations of Modern Girls in Weimar and Nazi Germany, delineating the 'appearance and disappearance' of a 'cosmopolitan aesthetic' that she argues testifies to 'fantasies of universality' which were 'visions, textual or visual that imagined different people in different parts of the globe reaching identical or nearly identical ways of living and looking' (p. 320) in the 1920s. Davarian L. Baldwin, also takes up issues related to the cosmetic industry and new forms of beauty, writing about the African-American cosmetics entrepreneur Madam C.J. Walker and the relationship of the creation of black beauty culture to activism and the struggle of working-class migrant women for 'spaces of personal agency' (p. 59). Looking at race and modernity in the U.S. from another angle, Alys Eve Weinbaum investigates the fad for 'racial masquerade' as a consumer practice in the 1920s and early 1930s, explaining how 'race was treated less as a biological posit than as a performance, posture, gesture, facade, or surface appropriable by she who possessed access to consumer culture—she who possessed the power to not only purchase but also to put on and take off the mask' (p. 131).
  8. Much of the fun of reading The Modern Girl Around The World comes from the dazzling urban settings frequented by the Modern Girl and her surprising, often skimpy or sporty garb. Although many Modern Girl outfits communicate a kind of brazen or jaunty attitude, none appears politically neutral. Many reveal the desire of individual women from all classes to participate in modernity through their sartorial choices and by consuming images of chic in magazines and films. Thus, this volume should also be seen as a significant contribution to fashion history and theory. Mary Louise Roberts' chapter on the French case features Marguerite Durand boldly posed in 1910 with her lion named 'Tiger (p. 83).' Anne E. Gorsuch, in her discussion of Russian magazines, makes note of outfits for the Modern Girl as tennis player, car driver, and aviator, all gear out of step with the 'modest, working-class lifestyle advocated by Bolshevik authorities (p. 181).' Madeline Y. Dong, writing about male perspectives on the Chinese Modern Girl in the post-May Fourth period, traces men's views of women's appearance, but also finds that impoverished women workers living in shacks would forgo food to be able to afford a permanent wave. Liz Conor's chapter turns attention to Australian Aboriginal young women's donning of Modern Girl clothes and what this meant in terms of their position within their society's visual and racial hierarchies. Similarly, Lynn M. Thomas analyses what it meant for black South African women to enter a photo-beauty competition sponsored by the newspaper Bantu World.
  9. The Modern Girl Around The World concludes with three short commentaries by leading scholars Timothy Burke, Kathy Peiss, and Miriam Silverberg that include some challenges to the overall discussion of the Modern Girl. Burke, who writes on Zimbabwe, argues against trivialising or vilifying consumption, observing that 'access to the capitalist marketplace has been an important part of the Modern Girl's identity wherever she has appeared, and sometimes the only part of her self-definition over which she had some significant degree of meaningful agency' (p. 368). Considering the 'unpredictable encounters and the rapid movement of images, people, and products across national lines' as giving rise to the Modern Girl, Peiss recommends that the 'timing of the Modern Girl merits a closer look,' asking if advertising campaigns in the 1920s and 1930s in Asia and South Africa 'might be understood as a response to the early presence of the Modern Girl' (p. 349). Silverberg, writing in her characteristically witty and astute way, is moved to revise her original (now famous) essay[1] on the Japanese modan gaaru by agreeing 'to place the Modern Girl squarely within consumer culture' and broadens the category to include 'those whose commitment to change was limited to a change of clothing, those who were activists, and those who everyday actions were a challenge to the order' (p. 357).
  10. Discussing The Modern Girl Around The World with graduate students in history this spring in a colleague's seminar produced other questions that I would like to add to the commentators' challenges above. Were there places in the world where the Modern Girl did not arise, and if so, what conditions worked against her debut? Did the Modern Girl disappear simultaneously around the world with the advent of the Second World War? Is the current post-feminist rhetoric found across the globe that conflates access to chic fashion, sexual adventure, and glamorous careers a reappearance of the Modern Girl or differently post-modern?
  11. In my own research and teaching on Japan, I find The Modern Girl Around The World valuable for what it tells me about the Japanese case. Teaching Modern Girl short stories this spring, I referred to Barbara Sato's chapter on consumerism, especially her point about how the advent of mail-order catalogues 'connected the urban to the rural and intensified an interest in consumer commodities for women who lived on the periphery' (p. 282). Although Ruri Ito's chapter also discusses a short-lived Modern Girl phenomenon in Okinawa, it is particularly interesting for the comparison of the relatively privileged New Woman writers in 1910s Japan, an earlier topic in the class, and the intellectual women in Naha who were also passionate about 'their pursuit of modernity' (p. 250). Yet, after reading The Modern Girl Around The World, I found myself reading the short stories anew in light of the book's other chapters, too. References to skin color in this fiction took on new meaning as did references to the imported European vanity table, a feature Tani E. Barlow's chapter on the Modern Girl in Shanghai points to as an advertising cliché. Japanese women writers' use of cosmetics and masks in their fiction stood out even more strongly. The connections to Modern Girls elsewhere were now unmistakable to me. Teaching the Japanese modan gaaru in view of The Modern Girl Around The World both enriches this unit in class and aids me in presenting Japan, too, in a transnational framework.
  12. What does The Modern Girl Around The World suggest for future research? The study provides a model for collaborative research, most notably by showing how a group can work to hammer out themes and methodology. The Modern Girl example offers possibilities for thinking of other representations of women that have a transnational scope such as the New Woman, and more recently, the heroine of 'chick-lit,' the hapless but loveable character found in contemporary novels and films for women around the world that stress consumption, romance, and a fashionable appearance. One thing for certain—The Modern Girl Around The World has ensured that the Modern Girl herself will continue to be the subject of much research and teaching.


    [1] Miriam Silverberg, 'The Modern Girl as Militant,' in Recreating Japanese Women: 1600–1945, ed. Gail Lee Bernstein, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991, pp. 239–66.


Published with the support of Gender and Cultural Studies, School of Culture, History and Language, College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University.
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Last modified: 24 February 2011 1226