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Revising Ophelia


True story: Abby, age ten, is on the playground after school, reading out to some of us mothers bits of her essay on why single-sex education is good for middle school girls.

When I ask her if girls might not be better off mixing it up academically with boys, just as they’ll have to one day in the real world, I am beset. Don’t I know that girls suffer a precipitous drop in self-esteem the moment adolescence hits? Don’t I know boys harass them in the halls and intimidate them in the classroom? Don’t I know science and math teachers ignore girls and call only on boys?

I should keep my mouth shut, but I can’t resist. “Omigod, are we still picking on those poor science teachers? That is so ’90s!”

Nobody laughs. I think someone actually puts her hands on her hips. “Didn’t you read Reviving Ophelia?” she demands.

Ah, Ophelia.

It’s been ten years since child psychologist Mary Pipher published Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls. In that decade, “Ophelia” has become universal shorthand not for Hamlet’s mopey girlfriend–though that’s who we see floating on the cover in a sea of water lilies–but for a soul-destroying culture that “limits girls’ development, truncates their wholeness and leaves many of them traumatized,” as Pipher wrote in her introduction.

But here’s what’s disturbing: ten years after its debut–the lifetime, as it turns out, of an adolescent girl–Ophelia still sells between 45,000 and 50,000 copies each year. That’s fifty thousand new copies to parents who presumably wouldn’t dream of relying on an old edition of What to Expect… or a Penelope Leach book from another millennium.

This is dangerous business, I think. It’s undeniable that Reviving Ophelia played the pivotal role in inspiring teachers, parents, health advocates and others to fight back against gender bias, sexual harassment, and “girl-poisoning” popular culture.

But it’s equally undeniable that we shouldn’t be reading it–or is that obsessing on it?–anymore. Read the actual book, as I did recently, and you’ll find it’s badly dated and, in places, needlessly inflammatory, and we can’t help today’s teens of either gender by relying on old information. It’s time to thank Ophelia for all her good work and come back to our own decade.


Mary Pipher says she never expected Ophelia to be a hit. It wasn’t until the paperback was issued in 1996 that sales truly took off. “It was a slow-building book. Nobody expected it to do much of anything,” Pipher recalls, speaking from her home in Nebraska, where she still maintains a clinical practice, teaches part time, and updates a web site ( to apprise fans on her latest writings.

Instead, the book did something big: it hit No. 1 on the New York Times bestseller list and went on to spend three years there. Almost two million copies of the paperback edition alone are in print.

Drawing on and expanding upon earlier work on girls like Carol Gilligan’s Meeting at the Crossroads and the American Association of University Women’s 1992 study How Schools Shortchange Girls, Reviving Ophelia kick-started a wave of girl-centric activism that’s still going strong.

Reviving Ophelia started a dialogue about adolescence that wasn’t there before,” says Rachel Muir, who was inspired by Ophelia to form Girlstart Inc., an Austin-based program dedicated to narrowing the digital divide between boys and girls in the classroom. “Ophelia validated an entire girls’ movement by asking us to take a look at how we shape society for girls, to look at the pressure girls are under.”

But Ophelia the book, as distinct from Ophelia the movement, hasn’t kept pace with the changes it brought about.

Reviving Ophelia was never strong on facts to begin with–the book has no footnotes and little attribution–and those facts are now twelve or more years out of date. To cite just two of many examples, Pipher claims at one point that “sexual and physical assaults on girls are at an all-time high,” but references no statistics. Surely–taking into account ages past when women and girls were considered property and incest and rape weren’t crimes–surely Pipher meant reports of sexual assault were on the rise, which can even be a good thing if that means girls and their advocates are gaining the courage to speak up and out against sexual crimes.

Elsewhere, Pipher casually lets drop that girls are “growing up in a world where one in four women will be raped in her lifetime.” Again, the number isn’t referenced, and ten years on, when asked, Pipher can’t recall where it came from (and shouldn’t, in all fairness, be expected to remember now).

But if that statistic, shocking as it is, were ever true, it’s not true now. The Department of Justice and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention puts the number at one in six, and that’s for sexual assault and attempted assault combined, which means the number of actual rapes is even lower.

I’m not suggesting the girls’ movement has run its course–in the week this article was written, two football players in Massachusetts were charged with raping a fifteen-year-old classmate; voters in Ohio told pollsters they couldn’t vote for John Kerry because his wife was not sufficiently “ladylike”; and a teenaged actress rumored to have already had breast implants posed with shirt up and thong pulled down past her pubic bone for the cover of a magazine read by men in their thirties and forties.

Yes, we still have work to do. But wallowing in outdated and possibly inflammatory numbers won’t help us make our daughters any safer or secure; it only makes us, and them, feel hysterical, or paralyzed, or both. And that paralysis can stop us from acknowledging the very real progress we’ve made in the past decade and being able to meet head-on a changing crop of girl-relevant issues as they emerge today.

Progress has been significant. Girlstart and programs like it across the country mentor girls in math and science. Bullying and sexual harassment education raises awareness among teachers, administrators, and students in middle school and high school. Health services reach out to girls who otherwise have little or no access to information about their changing bodies. And publications like New Moon, an advertising-free magazine written by girls for girls, presents girls in their most formative years with an alternate view of themselves from what they see in the mainstream media.

Experts on adolescent issues that I spoke with–Andrea Prejean, the National Education Association’s specialist in mathematics/science student achievement, and Angela Diaz, MD, director of the Mt. Sinai Adolescent Health Center in New York City, to name just two–agree that, while we still have a long way to go, we’ve made dramatic headway in bettering girls’ lives the past ten years.

Many more girls are taking math, science, and computer science in middle and high school. Mortality, deaths from firearms, cigarette use, binge drinking, and illicit use of drugs are all on the decline among adolescents in the 1990s and into the early part of the new century.

On the downside, very young teens are becoming sexualized at an earlier and earlier age, says Diaz, and many teens of either gender lack adequate access to health services close to where they live and go to school. And while there’s been little decline in eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia in the past decade, there’s been an increase in childhood and adolescent obesity so sharp it’s been labeled an epidemic.

None of this news, good or bad, will get through to the fifty thousand people who buy Reviving Ophelia this year, simply because none of it’s in there. Pipher has never revised the book; she has turned her scholarly attentions elsewhere, publishing books on elders, refugees, and psychotherapy itself.


So why can’t we turn our attention elsewhere? Why can’t we stop reading Ophelia? Because the book, in its enormous popularity, trained us a bit too well to pathologize teenage girlhood, to view every adolescence as an ongoing, irrefutable crisis. Wrapped inside Ophelia‘s “empower and protect” message is a darker theme, one that appeals in a forbidden kind of way to moms who aren’t ready to let go: your girl is helpless and under attack. A healthy, normally developing teen, after all, will naturally begin to turn away from her parents–even her loving mom–in favor of her friends and her teen-girl culture. But a girl in crisis, well, she still needs you, doesn’t she!

Intentionally or not, Pipher repeatedly reinforces this message. “[Vegetarianism] is popular with girls because they so easily identify with the lack of speech and powerlessness of animals,” she writes in Ophelia. Oh, dear, it’s the teen girl as veal calf, boxed up helplessly in her pen and set upon by enemies of every stripe–boys/men, society/culture, advertising/media, divorced/working parents and those awful, unenlightened science teachers.

This isn’t to say there aren’t plenty of girls in our country who aren’t yet hearing the Girl Power message–read Adrian Nicole LeBlanc’s Random Family for an account of one such untouched neighborhood and the trials of the teen girls who live there. But inner-city and rural/poor moms aren’t the ones buying Ophelia, I suspect, nor the aftermarket of books by other authors that followed in Ophelia‘s wake–Ophelia Speaks, Surviving Ophelia, Ophelia’s Mom, and so on.

No, these book buyers are much more likely educated, hands-on parents out to give their girls every advantage–even if that means schooling them in potential disadvantages before they’re even out of American Girl dolls. Thus we get the specter of Abby on the playground, precociously reciting all the woe that awaits her with the same efficient good cheer that she tackles dance lessons, piano, tennis, and debate club.


As Pipher’s original call to arms has morphed into something more fetishistic, the teen-girl book market has only picked up speed, minus the activism. The second wave of books center not so much on the sexist indignities of the world as on the slings and arrows girls suffer at the hands of other girls–a phenomenon known in the industry as “girl-on-girl aggression.”

Odd Girl Out by Rachel Simmons (2002); Mean Girls by Hayley DiMarco (2004); Mean Chick, Cliques and Dirt Tricks by Erika V. Shearin Karnes (2004), and the queen bee of the genre, Rosalind Wiseman’s Queen Bees & Wannabes (2002), all document the carnivorous ways those poor veal calves are able to tear one another to shreds.

In Queen Bees & Wannabes, and in the Empower seminars that she conducts at middle schools and high schools, Wiseman delineates in anthropological detail the seven kinds of teen girl and their supposed behaviors. “Queen Bees,” for example, use fear and control to rule their cliques. “Bankers” create chaos in the hierarchy by hoarding and then strategically releasing information about other girls. “Wannabes,” “Targets,” “Torn Bystanders” . . . you might be able to guess at their roles; if not, Wiseman is right there with pages of description on each, the better to help you figure out which role your daughter plays in her school.

To go with these girl types are nine varieties of boys (from “Desperate Annoying Guy” to “Good-Boy Jock”), and as for you, hapless parent that you are, Wiseman lists off a whopping twelve different kinds of parenting styles, only one of which, alarmingly, passes muster in her opinion. (Congratulations, all you “Loving Hard-Ass” parents.)

At first read, this seems like just the book a teen and her mom could use to figure out why she’s on top of the world one day and cast out the next. So mesmerizing is Queen Bees, in fact, that it takes awhile to realize how deeply cynical and sexist this book is. Wiseman’s willingness to rigidly categorize people, her unapologetic enumeration of ages-old attributes of social acceptance, and her laser-like dissection of the smallest of social interactions is all very, well, high school. It’s a book about queen bees written in the style of a queen bee–authoritative and unquestioning–maybe even by a queen bee, that winds up validating the importance of the social hierarchy it claims to debunk.

You might very well be able to steer your daughter through the treacherous waters of adolescence following Wiseman’s morally relativistic advice, but what kind of young woman she’ll be when she reaches the far shore is still very much up for grabs.


While we’ve spent the past decade chasing the bogeyman in the science classroom and unraveling the mysteries of teen tribes under Wiseman’s tutelage, another group, a mammoth, well-organized, deep-pocketed, truly scary and worthy opponent has been working with tireless efficiency to mess with the heads of teen girls and create strife in their homes.

They’re marketers, and if you think you’ve already heard the yadda yadda about the evils of Barbie and Seventeen magazine, it’s time to take another, closer look. Since 1992, marketing aimed at children, including teens, has increased by two-and-a-half times. It now amounts to some $15 billion annually, according to the New York Times.

Pipher complained about marketing’s ill effects on teen girls in Ophelia, and today says she believes it’s the single most significant element of girls’ lives that’s gotten markedly worse since she published her book. “If anything, girls are even more targeted by vicious consumerism, branding, and marketing. The message is, if you don’t own these products, you cannot love yourself,” says Pipher.

“I think it’s a terrible thing to do to young people.”

As always, there are people who want to sell anxious parents books about this burgeoning threat, and indeed, the past eighteen months has seen the advent of tomes like Branded: The Buying and Selling of Teenagers by Alissa Quart (2003), Born To Buy: The Commercialized Child and the New Consumer Culture by Juliet Schor (2004) (excerpted in Brain, Child’s Summer 2004 issue) and Consuming Kids: The Hostile Takeover of Childhood by Susan Linn (2004).

We’ve all heard by now that teenaged girls are particularly vulnerable to the effects of advertising, marketing, and media messages, but in Linn’s book at last we find the answer to why that’s so. The chain of vulnerability goes something like this: Children are being exposed to material ostensibly intended for adults earlier and earlier in their lives–c.f. the Coors twins, Sex in the City reruns, and thongs for ten-year-olds. Meanwhile, physically, girls are going into puberty at a younger age, but their emotional development isn’t keeping pace. When they look to the culture around them for cues on how to act, they find MTV, Abercrombie & Fitch, and Maybelline ready and waiting.

Linn’s book doesn’t focus solely on girls, or teens, but chapters on food marketing, the alcohol and tobacco juggernauts, and sex as a commodity strike at the heart of the pressures teenaged girls feel to simultaneously conform and rebel. Linn explains just why Barbie has the influence she does over the way girls feel about their bodies; makes the connection between obesity, anorexia/bulima, and food marketing; and exposes the subtle ways the tobacco industry gets the message out to girls that smoking will keep their weight down.

Perhaps most tragically, marketers have benefited handsomely–and cynically–from the girls’ movement, co-opting its message of hope and empowerment to move products off the shelves.

“The media is worse, more sexist, more limiting in how it portrays girls than it was even ten years ago,” asserts Nancy Gruver, who founded New Moon magazine in 1992. “Before, we had benign neglect. There was not a lot of focus on girls. Now they’ve co-opted our message. Now girl power is about what kind of lip gloss you wear.”

There we have it. In ten short years, we’ve leapt from girl-as-victim to girl-as-power-shopper. Linn’s call to arms–that all marketing toward children should be banned–is of particular import to people who care about girls, because girls can’t and won’t flourish without space to make their own creative decisions apart from the impervious, insistent marketplace.

What Ophelia helped to start–a movement to empower girls–has been hijacked by marketers who are a more potent threat to girls’ developing creativity and self-esteem than some bumbling science teacher will ever be. IM to Ophelia: Get out of that weed bath, girlfriend, we’ve still got work to do.

Author’s Note: The more pop/psych/parenting books I read, the more deeply I am coming to mistrust the whole genre. At best, they rob you of perspective; at worst, they induce parental paranoia. As an antidote, try a broader take on girls in the world, like Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran, Adrian Nicole LeBlanc’s Random Family, or Catherine Hardwicke’s 2002 movie, Thirteen.

Brain, Child (Winter, 2005)

About the Author: Tracy Mayor is a long-time contributor to Brain, Child. She is the author of the parenting-humor book Mommy Prayers. Follow her on Twitter@mommyprayers. Stacey Evers contributed research for this article.

Want to read more thought-provoking essays? Subscribe to Brain, Child: The Magazine for Thinking Mothers and see why we’ve been receiving awards for literary excellence since 2000.

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This entry was written by Tracy Mayor

About the author: Long-time contributor Tracy Mayor has written for Brain, Child about armageddon parenting, birth control for mamas, soccer mom stereotypes and — for the very first issue — swearing in front of the kids. Her essays and journalism have appeared on the New York Times Motherlode blog, The Rumpus, and in Boston Magazine, The Boston Globe, Child and Wondertime. She lives in Massachusetts with her husband, two sons and crazy beagle.

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