Women and Femininity in U.S. Popular Culture

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Before the women's movement and deconstruction, the term femininity was understood as the opposite of the more obvious masculinity. Femininity represented those traits, characteristics, behaviors, or thought patterns not associated with a given society's expectations of men. Until the cultural upheaval of the late 1960s in the United States and elsewhere, the sweetly patient "angel of the house" persisted as the womanly ideal. Women learned to be feminine "in the image that suited the masculine desires" (quoted in Costa, p. 222), an image that included deference, respect, and obedience to males. In compensation, the woman held the passive power of the dispossessed. Submissive, soft-voiced, empathic, and maternal, the feminine woman would be willing to subordinate her own needs in order to better please others.

Femininity as a principle or "exquisite esthetic," as Susan Brownmiller puts it in Femininity (1984), "pleases men because it makes them appear more masculine by contrast conferring an extra portion of unearned gender distinction on men, an unchallenged space in which to breathe freely and feel stronger, wiser, more competent, is femininity's special gift" (p. 16). This gift, however, costs the giver. Girls and young women learn they must adhere to standards of comportment, physical presentation, and appearance according to the demands and currency of their respective cultures and classes or face disapproval, even social failure, ostracism, rejection.

In a postbinary world, however, definitions of femininity as well as masculinity have blurred. Definitions of femininity are no longer standardized and are therefore seemingly open, writes Maggie Mulqueen in On Our Own Terms. They arise "only from the culture, not from theory. In reality, though, the cultural prescriptions about femininity (and masculinity) are very narrow and influential" (p. 13). These influential prescriptions consist of social expectations and the pressure to conform, particularly in adolescence. A girl's sexual awakening and turbulent maturation eventually steer her toward pleasing boys and winning admiration, envy, and acceptance from her peers.

Beauty and Class

In addition, the reigning elements of femininity and their effect on women resonate according to one's class and race, criteria that can locate a woman along the continuum of behavior and attractiveness. Class is a fluid or changeable category; race is generally not, though beauty treatments can "standardize" ethnic features like hair color and texture (see below) or influence acceptable limits of body size.

Related to class are the awareness of and access to proper nutrition as well as the availability of leisure time for exercise, factors associated with the maintenance of lean body mass. The proportion of lean mass to body fat contributes to the impression of overall girth and therefore health. Few men, young or old, strive to be gaunt, and fewer men than women are dissatisfied with their bodies even if they are somewhat overweight. Instead, they value size especially if the bulk is muscle rather than fat. Men's "perceptions serve to keep them satisfied with their bodies, whereas women's serve to keep them dissatisfied," writes Sarah Grogan (pp. 144145). American women of any age, however, find thinness the only tolerable size, despite evidence that men prefer somewhat rounder female bodies than women think they do.

Preferred body size and proportion reflect class-related tastes or expectations. Researchers have suggested that different social classes have distinct ideas of attractiveness, and magazines gear to these readers. The fleshiness of magazine models varies according to the social class of the targeted audience, be it male or female. Magazines for upwardly mobile homemakers have trim but not skinny models. Family-oriented magazines present more modest images typical of pleasant-looking housewives. So-called pulp magazines feature curvier bodies: "the lower the social class ranking of the magazine the bigger the chest and hip measurements of the models," observes Nora Scott Kinzer (p. 165). Magazine models are rarely if ever overweight; in fact, compared with their counterparts from the 1950s, they generally weigh less and have smaller measurements.

Viewing and Being Seen

Because she frequently feels on display, a woman monitors her physical appearance in mirrors, in store windows, and in the eyes and expressions of people who see her. Self-criticism originates not only in the woman herself but also from the internalized voice of male culture and the parents who teach her how to dress and present herself. John Berger's Ways of Seeing (1972) articulates the concepts of viewer and viewed by noting that the observer is generally male and the object observed, female. Though intended as an assessment of the subject in Western European painting, Berger's remarks apply equally to contemporary representations of women in the media: "Women watch themselves being looked at. The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female" (p. 47).

Women internalize femininity's burden of self-monitoring along with this same male gaze as they compare themselves, usually unfavorably, with the ideal face and body that they imagine the male conjures up in his mind's eye. In her article "The Persistence of Vision," Donna Haraway rejects the power that the male gaze assumes as it "mythically inscribes all the marked [e.g., female] bodies, that makes the unmarked category claim the power to see and not be seen, to represent while escaping representation. This gaze signifies the unmarked positions of Man and White" (quoted in Conboy, Medina, and Stanbury, p. 282). White males, the cliché goes, see a generic human being when they view themselves in the mirror; everyone else sees the markings of gender, race, or both.

Femininity, Attractiveness, and Science

Scientifically measurable differences in male and female prenatal hormone levels and in brain development, among other areas, have rekindled questions of the origins of, tendencies toward, and social reinforcements of masculinity and femininity as well as gender identity. Because the data lend themselves to different conclusions as to whether or not physical attractiveness has a scientific basis beyond its aesthetic component, studies from social theorists could lead to one set of interpretations; studies by sociobiologists and evolutionary psychologists to quite another.

Genetic survival, or maximizing the number of genes passed on in successive generations, is consistent with the latter's viewpoint regarding physical attractiveness. Sociobiologists and evolutionary psychologists would associate good looks with reproductive fitness and health. Traits like waist-to-hip ratio (WHR) and signs of overall health (luster of hair, vigor) attract attention from the opposite sex presumably because they indicate reproductive vigor. This paradigm, though, does not explain popular culture's preference for thin women rather than voluptuous or even overweight bodies with the optimal WHR; nor the preference for larger breasts, despite the irrelevance of breast size to milk production.

Moreover, while a wide pelvis should indicate a desirable mate for childbearing capacity, such was not the case in the last quarter of the twentieth century. Since the exaggerated thinness of the English model Twiggy, the ideal female figure of international supermodels resembles more the body of a twelve-year-old boy with long, slim limbs and small hipsandrogynous rather than womanly. This preferred body type, however, seems unconnected to carrying and suckling an infant. The trend for a flat torso and stomach has replaced the breast as the focus of the female body. So prevalent are breast implants that one no longer can assume that a generous bra size is natural. A flat, well-muscled abdomen, on the other hand, indicates controlled food intake and a fitness routine. One anthropologist terms it "a modern-day virginity symbol" that suggests "a woman who has never borne children and thus has all of her years of fertility in front of her" (quoted in Bellafante, p. 9).

The American author Kim Chernin has discussed the relationship of female slimness to the power of the mother over infant sons, a power which a more robust-sized woman would recall unconsciously in men and which would threaten them. In fact, potential mothers are expected to be physically smaller and more delicate than menthinner and less well-muscled than their protectorsbut at the same time tall enough and long enough of bone to indicate good childhood nutrition and thus reproductive vitality. Today, particularly in puritanical America, slimness suggests self-control and mastery of sensuality in a society when fattening food is readily available and sex as much a sport as an erotic or intimate experience. Yet historically, a well-padded body was considered ideal as it indicated health and prosperity in centuries when starvation and illness were a constant threat.

Sociobiologists and evolutionary psychologists would identify reproduction as the main source of aggression and display in males and females. Despite social variations in these areas, reproductive rivalry, assertive courtship behaviors, and conflicts seem universal among males as they compete for potential mates. Feminine behavior appears to confer a further advantage in public by not threatening strangers. Women displaying such qualities as compliance, warmth, receptivity, and responsiveness can disarm interpersonal tension. The Norwegian social scientist Tore Bjerke notes that "the woman who looks and acts the most feminine (stereotypically speaking) is least likely to provoke an aggressive response after intruding on others" (Van der Dennen, p. 118).

Social constructionists could argue, however, that these trends become exaggerated by class, race, status, and any given society's standards of a pleasing physical appearancewhat one could label an attractiveness quotient. This quotient differs for males and females according to their biological imperatives: for men, the need to inseminate as much as possible; for women, the need to choose the male who promises the greatest stability and capacity to provide materially for offspring.

Bionic Beauty and Distorted Views of the Self

In a culture saturated with idealized and retouched photos of models, comparisons of "ideal" and ordinary bodies seem inescapable, whether by others or by oneself. The American sociologist Leon Festinger's Social Comparison Theory of self-evaluation based on external models "would predict that people might use images projected by the media as standards for comparison" (Grogan, p. 100). Constant bombardment with an unattainable ideal of "models' bodies (slim and carefully arranged in the most flattering poses) would be expected to lead to unfavorable evaluation of the body of the perceiver" (Grogan, pp. 100101). Some women do indeed report greater dissatisfaction with their own appearance than before exposure, others "no change," and some even report increased satisfaction. Grogan cites another study that correlates exposure and more negative body image to pre-test attitudes about the body. Clearly, studies of women exposed to media images have yielded mixed results.

In any case, such comparisons increase a young woman's sense that her appearance is substandard and urgently in need of repair. Forgotten is the reality that hair and makeup artists spend hours preparing models for these photos. Even then, the images can be airbrushed and pasted together. One actress (Julia Roberts) found magazine photos of herself to be a composite of different shots. Another (Kate Winslet) was displeased to find that her thighs had been slimmed in a picture air-brushed without her permission.

In their real lives, not even models or media stars resemble their carefully staged professional photos. How, then, can any woman without such resources escape disappointment with her appearance? Media images are partly to blame for the wounding and deflation so many feel in our narcissistic culture. Psychologists "argue that a failure to match the ideal leads to self-criticism, guilt and lowered self-worth"; this effect is stronger for women than for men because of more frequent exposure to photographs and the "cultural pressures on women to conform to an idealized body shape are more powerful and more widespread than those on men," says Grogan (p. 100).

In addition to this psychological need to repair perceived flaws, consumerism creates appetites for products that respond to the newly-awakened need to improve one's appearance. If not born beautiful, one can own the paraphernalia of beauty. Thus marketing in tandem with industry and the media motivate women to try to remedy their disappointment in their looks. Sandra Lee Bartky refers to this in Femininity and Domination as the "fashion-beauty complex" (p. 42), parallel to the "military-industrial complex" in that both are "major articulation[s] of capitalist patriarchy a vast system of corporationssome of which manufacture products, others services and still others information, images, and ideologies" (p. 39). The fashion-beauty complex, argues Bartky, has replaced the family as the regulator of femininity.

The American feminist Naomi Wolf addresses the conflict between social and biological requirements for attractiveness in The Beauty Myth. The Professional Beauty Qualification, or PBQ as she terms it, reflects the demands of a capitalist economy and the exploitation of sex and fantasy as incentives to consume and as criteria for hiring in the job market. The connection between publicity and success, status, sex appeal, and the admiration of others has long directed print and other forms of media.

Real-life achievements, based on talent, discipline, frustration, and hard work as much as on luck, seem disconnected from these images. Competency does not always help to secure or keep employment, according to widely publicized lawsuits of wrongful job termination for reasons other than weak performance. Some women have been fired because they were neither pretty enough nor slim enough to sell products in department stores, to read the news as television anchors, to work as flight attendants, or even to sing in the operaan art form traditionally dependent on talent rather than appearance. The internationally respected soprano Deborah Voigt was dropped from a scheduled production of Richard Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxos because her weight strained both the costume and her credibility in the role. "Tenorissimo" Luciano Pavarotti, in contrast, was not fired for his enormous body. Rather, he chose to retire because he no longer could move on stage.

Of particular concern is the early-twenty-first century phenomenon of "makeover" programs (What Not to Wear, How Do I Look, Date Patrol, Style Court, and Extreme Makeover ). The last is the most serious challenge to women's (and men's) health and well-being, fostering the fantasy that with enough money and cosmetic surgery or other procedures, anyone can have Hollywood-style glamour and, in fact, should. The program features multiple surgical procedures over a period of many hours and with good results. No information emerges about how the potential candidate's health history, suitability for extreme surgery, or physical condition are evaluated before selection is made. Minimal attention is spent on pain or complications of recovery. Television programs on stomach stapling (gastric bypass surgery) provide more information on the potential dangers of this last-chance solution to morbid obesity. Indeed, either way the patient is at serious risk. The problems with silicone breast implants are better publicized, but still women of all ages continue to desire large breasts that change the proportions of their bodies. Younger and younger adolescents ask for cosmetic surgery, a phenomenon that should not surprise a society with ever-growing numbers of young women suffering from eating disorders and body dysmorphic disorder.

"How healthy is the Surgical Age?" asks Wolf (p. 229), citing deaths caused by smoking, fasting, and other extreme methods of weight control and cosmetic surgery known as "body sculpting." She correctly aligns such practices with an intense stress that, she suggests, can contribute to mental instability. "Narcissists feel that what happens to their bodies does not happen to them" (p. 230). In other words, paying attention to various body parts or facial features contributes to a fragmented and fragmenting view of the self, a distorted sense of the body as abnormal or diseased. "The Surgical Age's definition of female 'health' is not healthy" (p. 231).

Wolf's Surgical Age goes hand-in-hand with "body dysmorphic disorder" (formerly "dysmorphophobia"), a somatoform disorder described in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-IV) (number 300.7 in the International Classification of Diseases ). Intense preoccupation with minor flaws, real or imagined, in facial or body features can lead to excessive, almost compulsive grooming rituals to try to undo or control one's "deformity." Symptoms range from both avoiding and seeking out one's reflection in mirrors or windows to "significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other areas of functioning [and] may be underrecognized in settings in which cosmetic procedures are performed" (DSM-IV, p. 467). Short of calling the Surgical Age pathological, this statement infers that genuine psychological disorders may be masked in a society that promotes an exaggerated level of self-scrutiny.

A woman who chooses to submit to multiple plastic surgeries over a period of years in order to achieve a "Barbie-doll" look for her face and body may be determined to enjoy the attention, success, and glamorous social life she thinks beauty will bring. There may be a relationship between good looks and social success, in that attractiveness increases self-confidence, an appealing trait that draws people's attention. Self-confidence can be learned, however, and does not result from physical appearance alone.

Beauty and Race

Variations of the elements of female attractiveness have entered the beauty discourse through the popular media over the last decades. Audiences are exposed to a more inclusive standard of good looks represented by models, actresses, or contestants in international beauty pageants from various ethnic origins. Young women of color have seen more fashion icons, celebrities, and video artists of their own ethnic backgrounds in mainstream media, particularly in rap and hip-hop culture and, in some North American cities, in soap operas and talk-shows on Spanish-language television. Some of these figuresLil' Kim, Foxy Brown, Queen Latifahpresent images of beauty and sexuality different from the dominant culture's version of attractiveness or "vanilla" sex appeal. Others, like Tyra Banks, Salma Hayek, and Halle Berry, blend anglicized and ethnic features. These contrasting aesthetics bespeak an ongoing conflict between the preference for the silky blond hair and light skin or skin darkened only with a tan and of traditional Western culture with the "exotic" appearance of women of color. A mixed message underlies these images: on the one hand, a superficial acceptance of a broader range of beauty and sexual desirability; on the other, a limit to the degree of identifiable ethnicity that impinges upon the Anglo norm. Thus, in order to be considered beautiful, the faces and bodies of multiracial women must display only minor departures from the standard white Western European look.

This fusion of facial features has long been the subject of psychological studies of female appearance. German researchers at the Universities of Regensburg and Rostock have tested various theories of female facial attractiveness, including the "attractiveness is averageness" hypothesis; the "facial symmetry" hypothesis; and the theory of "multidimensional beauty perception," which suggests that faces combining childlike characteristics with more mature features are judged most attractive. Their results partially confirm the averageness hypothesis: computer-generated composite faces are considered most beautiful, but only if the features to be morphed are not unattractive to begin with.

The question of hair resonates in particular for women of color. Madame C. J. Walker (18671919), born into slavery, invented and marketed her hair-straightening method in the early twentieth century. Ironically, African-American women have seen curls, Afros, corn rows, and dreadlocks appropriated by white women while they themselves still turn to chemical treatments, hot irons, hair weaving, and extensions to recreate the impossible and unforgiving image of the "good hair" of the dominant culture.

The very concept of "good hair" represents another battle in the beauty wars. Kasey West, in an article about hair and identity titled "Nappy Hair: A Marker of Identity and Difference" (for the Web site Beauty Worlds ), writes:

A return to African-based hairstyling practices by many black women in the 1960s marked an assertion of national identity and heritage in the face of oppressive Western ideals of beauty and continuing disenfranchisement. Although the popular Afro was achieved by blowing hair out to straighten the curls, it was representative as an expression of beauty ideals centered on an African identity. In other words, hairstyling became a political statement of connection to the black community. [B]lack hairstyles retained a cultural and political significance.

Noting the "political complexities of African-American hair and beauty culture," West quotes the sociologist Ingrid Banks, who interviewed more than fifty black girls and women between 1996 and 1998 for her book Hair Matters (2000) and who concluded that "hair shapes black women's ideas about race, gender, class, sexuality, images of beauty and power."

Other African-American women writers address the issue in fiction and nonfiction. Toni Morrison's novel The Bluest Eye exposes these conflicts through the young heroine's poignant resentment and despair as she realizes she never will attain her dream of waking up blond and blue-eyed. bell hooks' article "Selling Hot Pussy" continues the examination of bodies and race. Black women still find themselves represented as savage, primitive sex machines and are objectified and dehumanized by this image. The "black female body gains attention only when it is synonymous with accessibility, availability, when it is sexually deviant" (in Conboy, Medina, and Stanbury, p. 117; see also Gilman). In this context, beauty and racism conflate to doubly oppress women, whatever their background.

Some American women of color, Latinas among them, trace their ethnic heritage to cultures whose ideal female body differs noticeably from the bony fashion icons of today's dominant white culture. A Mexican-American woman prized by her relatives for her rounded womanly body might be judged overweight in fitness-conscious California, for example. African-American culture embraces as beautiful a range of body sizes and shapes that would fall in the "full-figured" category in fashion advertising, despite the fact that models of color featured in the edgy, glamorous photos of high fashion publications possess the characteristic tall and ultraslim body. Kathryn Zerbe notes, "In comparison to white girls, fewer African-American girls report trying to lose weight. In cultures where plumpness is valued, eating disorders are rare" (p. 160). Additionally, curvy hips and ample bust lines, the hallmarks of a female figure, can fuel racist views of hypersexuality in people of color. In Face Value: The Politics of Beauty (1984), by Robin Tolmach Lakoff and Raquel Scherr, Scherr recalls her adolescence filled with taunts for resembling her Mexican-Indian mother rather than her white father. At first outraged, later she agreed with a friend's remark that "discrimination based on beauty is more prevalent than discrimination based on race" (p. 7).

At the other extreme is the very thin African-American model Gerren Taylor, who was twelve years old in April 2003 when the Los Angeles Times profiled her nascent modeling career: Taylor had the prepubescent and scrawny silhouette that dominates the catwalk and fashion shoots and becomes the standard to which girls and women aspire. "The debate over the sexualization of girls at younger and younger ages waxes and wanes; Gerren's mother understands that sexuality is a part of fashion and believes she can protect her child from exploitation," writes Booth Moore (p. E9).

Immigrant women of color cannot escape their adopted culture's view of body size. In order to be appealing and noticed, American women "are supposed to be thinand if they are not, the culture assumes they are unhappy, dissatisfied, lazy, slovenly, and ugly" (Zerbe, p. 159). Zerbe cites a study of African immigrants to Great Britain. Those "who have resided in Britain for only four years will have adopted the British viewpoint with respect to size and shape. These immigrants tend to desire a smaller physique than their African peers," who "in general enjoy their fuller figures" (p. 101). Zerbe offers examples suggesting that as immigrant women acculturate in a society that places a high value on thinness, they are likely to adopt "the more stringent eating attitudes of the prevailing culture" (p. 101).

Beyond Questions of Science

The body, writes the American feminist Susan Bordo, is a "culturally mediated form" (in Conboy, Medina, and Stanbury, p. 103), in that its appearance reflects the discourse of its society and the state of women's power or lack thereof in that society. Beyond aesthetics, the ideal appearance and female body exist in relation to the bondage of dependency, racism, and social roles. The body, in other words, is territory conquered by masculine spectatorship, the site of a struggle over ownership of resources.

Women's beauty rituals comprise part of this cultural mediation. Rituals are the repeated acts of grooming beyond basic hygiene that serve to embellish according to the tastes and standards she has internalized from her peer group, magazines, and other media. Rituals can be as innocent as preteen makeup parties, as painful as piercing or tattoos, and as life-threatening as eating disorders for weight control. Some girls choose rituals to feel good about what is asked of them; some to bind the anxiety they feel as they dodge threats to their still-formulating sense of self; and some to overcome perceived shortcomings of which they are constantly reminded by advertising.

Successful advertising seeks to address a consumer's pleasure-seeking tendencies before the reality principal dampens her impulse to buy. Along with products, companies sell fantasies of pleasure, excitement, or well-being that will arise from the act of buying and using advertised items. Scenes of arousal need not include a partner. Pampering oneself with soothing lotions satisfies the need for attention without the risks involved in a relationship. Contemporary television and print commercials feature women experiencing what looks like self-stimulation and sexual arousal from shampoo and soap use in the shower.

In addition to bath and skin treatments, creamy foods like yogurts are advertised as sensual indulgences enjoyed by oneself. But for women, eating is already overdetermined. Intentionally or not, advertising can contribute to "emotionally induced compensatory eating," says Suzanne Z. Grunert (quoted in Costa, p. 68), and thus heighten the dilemma between the immediate comfort of eating and the potential for weight gain. Perhaps in compensation, shades of lipstick, eye shadow, and nail polish often are named after food. Instead of ingesting chocolate or cinnamon, one can wear them.

Ads for beauty and grooming aids fuel self-consciousness and vulnerability by making women aware of flaws they did not know they had. They stimulate an often-panicky desire to improve and, not surprisingly, create markets for products that promise to remedy imperfections from acne to wrinkles. Magazine articles, infomercials, and niche-marketed television programs bombard young women with images and messages they ignore at their own peril. Well-socialized girls change their hairstyles and adopt fashion trends in part to conform to the standards of their peer groupsactions that indicate how well they understand and respond to peer influences as seen in their shopping patterns. Product boycotts or grassroots truth-in-advertising campaigns fight to expose the "marketization" of cultural expression, but cannot fully counteract the impact of advertising and mass marketing and their by-product, peer pressure.

Women at times can resist the expectation of prettiness by refusing to dress for the pleasure of the beholder. In renouncing what Bartky calls "institutionalized heterosexuality," lesbians, for example, can disengage from the "panoptical male connoisseur" who "resides within the consciousness of most women" (p. 72). Some remove themselves from the beauty game altogether and thus dislocate and interrupt the male gaze whether external or internalized. Comfort, serious athleticism, modesty, indifference to attention-seeking, and rejection of so-called female vanity lead others to free themselves from adornment. Young adolescents often respond to their own ambivalence about their developing bodies by dressing in shapeless t-shirts and baggy pants. This camouflage enables them to feel they can escape the judgmental stares of peers as well as surprised looks from family members unused to their daughters' emerging secondary sex characteristics.

Lesbian dressing evolved through the last decades of the twentieth century from a hard-core butch style to the appearance known as "lipstick lesbianism" and a greater repertory of looks, writes Barbara Creed in a 1999 essay titled "Lesbian Bodies." From the 1970s, when "the true lesbian" was expected to "reject all forms of clothing that might associate her image with that of the heterosexual woman and ultimately with patriarchal capitalism," to the "butch-femme renaissance of the 1980s," to the so-called heterosexual lesbians of 1990s queer culture, lesbians have renounced the "lesbian uniform" as well as "the patriarchal stereotypes of feminine dress and appearance" (pp. 122123). In so doing they reveal the sacrifice required of women who conform to feminine attractiveness.

The cult of beauty in women represents an attempt to counteract an externally imposed sense of inadequacy. Feelings of failure arise from "a context where body image is subjective and socially determined. A person's body image is not determined by the actual shape and size of that body, but by that person's subjective evaluation of what it means to have that kind of body within their particular culture," writes Grogan (p. 166). For women of any race, class, or gender identification, femininity becomes an investment of resources and discipline in order to gain fleeting attention "and some admiration but little real respect and rarely any social power" (Bartky, p. 73). Late-twentieth-century studies cited in Grogan (pp. 180192) suggest that positive body image is linked to self-esteem and a sense of personal control over one's environment, both of which are problematic for women in a capitalist patriarchy. As long as societies teach women to evaluate themselves principally in terms of their femininity and attractiveness, self-assurance will belong more often to those who successfully conform to the cultural ideal. If instead girls and young women learn to appreciate their bodies as healthy, well-functioning instruments that enable them to lead productive lives, they will be closer to changing the conditions that relegate them to objectification.

See also Body, The ; Feminism ; Gender ; Men and Masculinity ; Motherhood and Maternity .


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Susan Grayson

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Women and Femininity in U.S. Popular Culture

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Women and Femininity in U.S. Popular Culture