The Trouble with Pronouns

The Trouble with Pronouns

By Maureen Kelleher


As Bobby grew older, he became more insistent. “No, Mom, I’m a girl.”


My child has always struggled with pronouns. Back when Bobby was about two, when we first started going to Music Together, we learned a song called “Me, You and We.” It was very simple. Point to yourself and sing, “Me. Me. Me-me-me, me-me-me, me, me.” And so on. Then point to your mom, dad, grandparent or caregiver and sing, “You. You. …” And so on. Then enjoy the bliss of “We”—hold that long e note while holding hands or giving your loved one a hug. Then sing, “We are you and me.”

This helped, but after class, Bobby would still mix up who was me and who was you.

Bobby also had trouble with third person. “I’m she,” he would proudly announce.

“Uh, no, you’re he,” I would offer, trying to correct as gently as possible.

As Bobby grew older, he became more insistent. “No, Mom, I’m a girl.”

Digging deep into old, unhealthy habits, I would avoid the issue. Besides, I had a theory. Bobby’s first word was “agua.” His Papa is from Mexico City. Spanish doesn’t use pronouns as much as English—the inflected verb does all the work.

Quiero—I want

Quiere—He or she wants

No pronoun required.

It’s all linguistic, I told myself. Although my chatty, English-dominant child quickly mastered a huge vocabulary and spoke in full sentences early on, we still have these funny little moments when I know he’s learning two languages. I figured pronouns was just one of those moments.

But linguistics didn’t solve the problem of the nail polish. Personally, I hate nail polish. Can’t stand the smell. I got my nails done for my wedding and that was it for me and toluene.

Our babysitter, Nancy, a twenty-something Mexicana—thought differently about nails. It seemed like every couple of days there was a new color scheme on her hands. When they did art projects, Bobby started painting his nails with watercolor. Once day Nancy did his nails without asking permission first. I came home and Bobby eagerly waved his sparkly blue fingers at me.

I was less than impressed but chalked it up to life with a preschooler. My husband was less impressed—even worried—but in his usual fashion kept it mostly to himself. Eventually, I bought a bottle of quick-dry green nail polish and spilled some on my shorts while giving Bobby a manicure.

That Halloween was a close call. Bobby—who loved trains—wanted to be a Chicago subway line. But would he be the Pink Line or the Green Line? Both were his favorite colors. Fortunately, at Target we found matching green pants and a plain green shirt first. That satisfied him. My husband painted the Green Line map—all 28 stations—on the front of Bobby’s shirt.

*   *   *

Some boys—pink boys, girly boys, boys who like girl stuff—are unmistakable. They love Barbie. Pink everything. Sparkles everywhere.

Bobby wasn’t like that. He liked trains, dinosaurs and roughhousing with his Papa. He didn’t like any animated characters—not Barbie, not Batman.

But around age 3, he stopped wearing underwear. I worried about this until his preschool teacher told me her son went commando for a while. When she told me Mateo—who was the older, stronger, Peter Pan to Bobby and the preschool Lost Boys—didn’t wear underpants for a while, I just let it go.

Then Bobby wanted to grow his hair out. I refused. I like to think I wouldn’t have let a 4-year-old girl grow her hair past her collar either, on account of the tangles. But I did keep cutting back the hair over Bobby’s ears, and he didn’t like it.

“When I’m 18 I will grow my hair down to my feet,” he insisted.

“When you can brush it yourself every day, and put it in a ponytail on your own, you can do what you want,” I grumbled.

*   *   *

“Mom, I’m Roberta,” Bobby informed me, a few months into kindergarten. This happened right around the time we went to Target in search of school supplies and Bobby spotted a purple-rainbow-sparkly high-top atop a shoe box. In the girls’ aisle.

“Mom, can I get those?” he asked, awed by their splendor.

My stomach tightened. I didn’t want to set him up as a walking target for bullies. Sending him to school—even our lovely, diverse, maybe overly-nurturing public magnet school—with those shoes on felt like giving him a t-shirt that read: “Sissy.”

But then I thought a little harder. Why should I be a bully? They’re just shoes.

“OK,” I said. “Let’s get them. Some kids might tease you about them or say they are for girls. How do you feel about that?”

“I don’t mind,” said Bobby, emphatically.

We bought them and he wore them out of the store. As we left a sales clerk spotted them and said, “Nice shoes!”

The next day I worked late and a friend picked him up after school. When I arrived at her house, the friend described the buzz she had overheard about Bobby’s new shoes. A boy took one look and said, “Those shoes are for girls.”

Bobby’s teacher heard the comment and stepped up right away. “Girls and boys can wear them,” she said. A discussion ensued, involving Northwestern purple—the exact shade of the laces—and apparently when the teacher said, “Football players wear purple,” light bulbs went on over a few of the other boys’ heads. End of subject.

“Thank you for supporting my son’s right to self-expression,” I emailed her.

Not long after, I emailed again. “You will see the name Roberta on today’s homework. This is not a mistake. At home Roberto likes to pretend he has a twin sister. I didn’t want you to think he was misspelling his name.”

Around Veterans Day, I took Bobby with me on a business trip to Michigan. At the hotel he asked, “Mom, make me a dress.”

I took the white woven blanket off the top closet shelf and wrapped it around him like an evening gown with a train. For 45 minutes he danced and pranced and swished his long skirts around our hotel room. I danced alongside him.

*   *   *

In mid-December we had a surprise. Our first-choice school—a nearby charter with a dual-language program—called us to say they had a space. The commute to our lovely magnet school—an hour or so each way—was killing me. Bobby loved his school and did not want to switch.

What could make this bearable? I thought.

When I met with the teacher and assistant, I told them about Bobby. By then I knew the official term: gender non-conforming. “He says he is a girl and his name is Roberta.”

The teacher—a thirtyish man with poufy hair, shiny red sneakers and a husband—nodded. “If he wants to be Roberta and go in the girls’ line, we can do that,” he said.

My heart leapt. We could do this, I thought. But my husband will freak. As it turned out, my husband grumbled, but he didn’t freak.

Bobbi started wearing a skirt in public over winter break. She had a playdate with some new friends as Roberta. We all had trouble with pronouns. I could say her name but sometime “he” would pop out before “she” arrived in my mouth. No one cared.

During the playdate, the youngest child, a first-grade boy who played stomp rockets with Roberta and wrestled her to the floor while she laughed gleefully, called her “he.” “She,” he corrected himself.

*   *   *

When we went as a family to meet the teachers the day before school started again, the teacher asked Bobbi, “Which washroom do you want to use?”

“The girls,” my child replied, without hesitation.

“Hi, Roberto,” an administrator greeted her.

“I’m Roberta,” she corrected immediately.

Puzzled look.

“She’s Roberta,” I said.

“Oh, OK. Hi, Roberta,” said the administrator.

On Bobbi’s fourth day at her new school, she wore her favorite blue skirt and purple leggings with tulle flowers at the ankles. Despite the remains of an early January blizzard, she refused to wear snowpants. When Bobbi came out the door after school, the hood of her jacket hid all her hair, like a nun’s wimple. All I could see was her face, her blue jacket, blue skirt and purple leggings.

It was the first time I saw my girl.

Then we went walking in the snow. Bobbi got snow all over herself. “You’ll have to change when we get home,” I told her. At home, I handed her a pair of gray Toughskins and, bam! she was a boy again.

I’ll be having trouble with pronouns for a while yet.

Author’s Note: My child’s name has been changed to protect her privacy.

Maureen Kelleher is a Chicago-based freelance writer. Her work has appeared in Education Week and The Harvard Education Letter.

The Boy Luck Club

By Lauren Tom

I’m forty-three years old and pregnant with my second child. I waited a long time to have kids so that I could become the Not-So-Famous-Asian-American-Actress I am today, and to have more time to work on my “issues” so that I wouldn’t pass them on to my children.

I’m hopelessly in love with my two-year-old son, Oliver—to have another boy doesn’t feel threatening to me. But what if it’s a girl? I would never want my daughter to hate me the way I have at times hated my mother.

My due date is September 13th, my mother’s birthday.

“Why is Ollie so slow when it comes to potty training?” my mother asks. We’re standing in the kitchen of my home in the Hollywood Hills. She takes a swig of Diet Coke and runs her fingers through my son’s hair.

“What do you mean?” I say, wanting to scoop up my son like a football and run with him to safety into the next room. My stomach tightens.

“Well, I mean, he’s two years old. He seems to be doing fine with language, but why he is still in diapers at two? Is he slow?”

“Ollie, you’re fine,” I say, looking right at my son. “You’re right on schedule.” My face feels hot. I breathe deeply, take Ollie’s hand, and lead him into the next room. “Here, honey,” I say as I hand him a toy airplane.

I know that dropping the subject would be wise, but I walk back into the kitchen and say, “The doctor told me to wait until he turned two to start potty training him, Mom. He said that most boys don’t really get it until they’re almost three.”

“That’s ridiculous—you and your brother were both potty trained by the age of two. In fact, your brother learned faster than you did.”

“Whatever,” I say as I pick up the sponge and start to clean the kitchen counter. I scrub it hard.

It’s my mother’s birthday, 1966, and I’m seven years old, just home from school, breathless. I’m standing in the kitchen, holding my mother’s gift behind my back.

“Reach out your hands and close your eyes, Mom.” She unfolds her long thin arms and cups her large hands. Her fingernails are so long they curl in, taking up most of the space in the palm of her hand. I wedge the gift in. She looks like a praying mantis as she accepts it. She opens her eyes. I’m so excited I can hardly stay on the ground. “Do you like it?” I can feel my heart beating.

My mother smiles, her straight white teeth framed in frosty orange lipstick. She is wearing orange plastic earrings and a sleeveless orange dress with big white buttons running down the front. Her hair is puffy on top and flips up at the bottom like Laura Petrie’s in The Dick Van Dyke Show. But she’s not as cheerful and silly as Laura Petrie. She’s cooler, sleeker, more like Emma Peel in The Avengers.

I desperately want to show my mom that even though I may be short and chubby, I can make her beautiful things. I’ve been working on this piece of pottery for two weeks at school. I think maybe it’s a “masterpiece” because my second grade art teacher, Mrs. Benassi, used that word.

I shift my weight from side to side as my mother holds my creation up to the light.

“This is beautiful,” she beams.

“You really like it?” My face feels like it’s about to explode.

“Of course, honey. It’s nice.” She cocks her head to one side. She smiles harder. “What is it?”

I guess I would call it a ceramic blob with bumps—sort of like a soap dish but more like a jellyfish. It’s painted my mom’s favorite color—orange. Even our front door is painted orange.

“I don’t know, Mom. I guess it’s a soap dish. I’m just really glad you like it! Happy birthday!” I watch her carefully place it on the oval dining room table. I wrap my arms around her waist and give her a hug. I can feel one of her ribs jab my cheek. “I’m going upstairs to my room. Okay, Mom?” I want to get out of there before anything can ruin the moment.

“Okay, sweetie,” she says.

I race up the staircase, which is covered with white shag carpeting. A plastic strip runs up the center of it. I am careful to never step outside that strip.

“Come down for dinner when your father gets home,” she calls after me.

My mother has made our home a “real showcase,” as my father puts it. Our living room has white shag carpeting, a light green silk couch, and wallpaper with hand-painted Japanese flowers. Against the wall looms a locked cabinet with old ivory Japanese tchotchkes. My older brother Chip and I are not allowed in this room. Ever. In fact, I’ve never seen my mom and dad in there either.

An hour later I come down to see Chip and my father sitting at the kitchen table. The table looks beautiful. It is set, as it always is, with orange dishes and brown glass tumblers. I look for the soap dish/jellyfish but I don’t see it. We’re having Lop Chung, rice, and peas for dinner. Lop Chung is Chinese sausage that has large polka dots of fat in it. Chip and I like to dig the fat out with our fingernails and line the sides of our plates with it. My mom always shakes her head when we do this.

My father asks my brother to talk about current events taken from today’s newspaper. All I can think is, When is my mother going to tell my father about the gift I made her?

“What do you remember most from what you read today, Chip?” my father asks, pouring a can of Tab into his glass.

I don’t even hear what my brother says because I’m too worried about the soap dish. I wait all through dinner for her to mention it. But she doesn’t. Maybe she put it someplace special so it wouldn’t get knocked down. I’ll bet it’s in the locked cabinet in the living room with all the other tchotchkes. I’ll go look after dinner. I can see everything in the cabinet if I stand at the edge of the carpet. I gouge out the last pocket of fat and eat my sausage.

After dinner, I clear the plates and take them over to the sink. I open the cabinet beneath the sink to scrape the food into the garbage can.

And that’s when I see it.

My masterpiece is sitting right on top of a pile of garbage. I feel my heart drop to my stomach. I want to throw up. My mother doesn’t notice me looking at her; she’s sitting at the table talking to my father. I feel a tightness in my throat. I scrape my leftovers into the garbage, turning away my face so I won’t have to look at the food hitting the soap dish.

Either Mrs. Benassi is a liar, or my mom is a liar. I scrape the next plate. The food completely covers the soap dish now. I start to cry. Maybe my mom liked it at first but then changed her mind. Why would she throw it away? Who throws away a perfectly good soap dish? Or maybe it’s not so perfect or even good. Mrs. Benassi must be the liar.

My mom calls out over her shoulder, “Honey, get the Jell-O out of the fridge and bring it into the den. Bewitched will be on in five minutes.”

“Okay,” I say, keeping my head down so she won’t notice I’m crying. We sit and watch the show, just like we do every Thursday night.

Twenty years later, it’s the late eighties, and people across the country are in therapy, dredging up their pasts, blaming their parents for every imaginable woe. When I finally confront my mom, I feel the support of an entire nation.

We’re sitting at the dining room table in my rented apartment in West Hollywood. My mom still looks like a knock-out.

“What are you talking about, Lauren? I never did that.” Her eyes dart away.

“Yes, you did, Mom. I saw it sitting right on top of the garbage.”

“I really don’t remember, but you’re making such a big deal out of it. Really.”

Here it comes.

“You’re too sensitive. You make everything into a big problem.”

“Well, maybe that’s because you dismiss me and what I’m feeling as if it has no validity whatsoever.”

My mother leans forward. “But it usually doesn’t, Lauren—that’s what I’m trying to say. I don’t understand you. You don’t have any problems, not really. You don’t know what a real problem is.” She starts to pick dog hair off her black leggings.

“What do you mean by that?” I’m staring at her. Hard.

“That in the large scheme of things, a girl your age has no problems.”

“A girl my age? I’m twenty-nine years old. I’m a woman.”

She knits her brow and turns away her head. “You should see what I’ve had to deal with in my life.”

She’s right; she had a rough childhood. But we’re not talking about her. I was talking about me.

She lets out an exasperated sigh. “Is all this ‘therapy’ helping, Lauren? You know, your brother and I never seem to have these kinds of arguments. He gets me. He never says things like this to me. But you? I have had problems with you since the day you were born.”

I dig my front teeth into my lower lip and say, “Fuck you, Mom.” I have never said that to her before. I am shocked that that came out of my mouth.

She looks at me, her face expressionless. She takes a swig of Diet Coke. “You can talk all you want, Lauren. Go ahead and talk. Say whatever you want. Your words do not affect me. I’m not going to change.”

Three years of near-silence followed.

Then, on the heels of my featured role in The Joy Luck Club, a film about mothers and daughters—Chinese mothers and daughters—I telephone. I invite my mom and her mother, Helen, to the film’s premiere. My grandmother is so excited she calls all her Mahjong pals and tells them she’s going to see her “big-shot granddaughter in that movie, The Pot Luck Club.

I’m wearing a black, ankle-length, so-tight-it-looks-sprayed-on Spandex dress, my hair slicked back with greasy styling gel (big mistake) and enough make-up to last the rest of the year. I can hear my father calling out from the grave, “You look like a hooker.”

My mother is wearing a deconstructionist, see-through silk dress by designer Xandra Rhodes. My grandmother Helen, four foot ten, eighty-one years-old—the woman I call “Who-Who” (Chinese baby talk for Grandma)—is wearing a traditional red Chinese silk brocade jacket, black pants, gold sequined tennis shoes with a matching visor, and diamond rings on each finger.

As we’re walking into the theater, the ushers hand out little packets of Kleenex. Who-Who takes one and taps me on the shoulder. “Hey, Little Midget”—I’m five feet tall, Who-Who is four foot ten, and that’s her nickname for me—”why they give me this? They think I’m going to be some kind of crybaby?”

“No, Grandma,” I say, taking her hand. “No one thinks that—it’s just in case you need one.” She scrunches up her face as if she’s just tasted something sour. “It’s free,” I say. “Just put it in your purse.”

“Oh. Okay,” she says.

We settle into our seats as the lights go down. The curtains slowly open. A smile spreads across my face. My mom is sure to be proud of me now. Millions of people have read Amy Tan’s book; it’s already a success.

Twenty minutes have passed. We’re watching the scene in which one of the mothers is crying because she’s been beaten, when suddenly my grandmother starts yelling at the screen as if she’s hailing a cab, “Hey! Buck up!”

I whisper, “Shh! Grandma! We don’t talk in the theater.”

She turns and looks at me—as do several people sitting close to me. She turns back to the screen and yells, “What you think life gonna be? A gravy train?”

“Ma! Shh! Not now,” my mom chimes in.

She turns to my mom, “You shh, Moose!” (It’s her nickname for my mother because she thinks she has big bones.) They bicker in Chinese for a moment. I sink so low into my chair I’m almost lying down, my knees pressed against the seat in front of me.

Who-Who sneers and reaches for her purse. She pulls out a bag of mui, Chinese dried salted plums that have large pits inside them. She unwraps one, and the crackling sound and pungent odor produce more hairy eyeball stares from the people around us. She pops it in her mouth, reaches into her purse, and pulls out an empty plastic grocery bag. The sound is like deafening static over a microphone as she shakes it out and creates a makeshift garbage can on her lap. She rolls the pit back and forth in her mouth, trying to scrape it clean with her teeth. Click-clack, clack. Click-clack, clack. Patooey. She spits the pit into the bag. I settle in for what turns out to be the longest screening in the history of mankind.

The lights come up. The room bursts into applause. I look at my mother.

“What did you think?” I ask, feeling, once again, seven years old.

“Well, I have to say, I agree with Who-Who. I don’t know what the big deal is—all these women crying and whining about all their problems. I’ve seen a lot worse.”

I start to make my way down the row of seats to the aisle.

Okay, okay, I know that you and Who-Who have had to endure the long-held Chinese belief that women are valueless—heck, you’ve just witnessed a baby girl being drowned on the screen. Can’t you find some compassion for that girl, for yourselves, for me? If you can’t be supportive of me in this one moment . . . then just lie. I may have said that last part out loud. I’m not sure.

My mother, following me, calls out, “Why did you have the least screen time of all the women?”

“What?” I say, although I heard her. I stop, turn around, and look at her.

“Was your part cut or was it always that small?”

I keep walking. I try to slow my breathing. I open the double doors leading outside to a sea of photographers lined up along the edge of a long red carpet. “Uh . . . they may have trimmed a scene or two,” I say.

“Yeah, it definitely seemed like you had the smallest part,” she says.

A photographer yells, “Hey, Lauren, can we get a shot of you, your mom, and—is that your grandmother?”

“Sure,” I say, plastering a frozen smile across my face. Do not cry, do not cry. This is the biggest night of your life; don’t let anything ruin it. I stand between my mom and Who-Who, an arm slung around each of them. I can feel a large lump caught in my throat. I hope it’s not detectable in the photo.


Over the next ten years, my mom didn’t change much, but I’d started to realize that I wasn’t going to change her.

It’s two years after the opening, Ollie is a newborn, and my mom and I are talking on the phone. I’m picking dog hair off my silk-upholstered chair, thinking, Oh God, this is exactly what my mother does. We’re talking about how Ollie and my brother have the same shaped head and I look down at my son. He’s lying in a Moses basket, swaddled in a soft orange blanket. His large blue eyes, like pools of deep water, look up and to the left. He pulls one arm free, waves his hand and coos as if he is conversing with other beings, angels perhaps. I look at him and I’m so in love, my heart pounds faster and harder than it ever has, and suddenly my mom says,

“And don’t forget, Lauren, I love you as much as you love Ollie.”

When I’m twenty-four weeks into my second pregnancy I discover a new space within me—a space that can hold the idea of having and raising a baby girl. A girl, who will descend from a long line of strong, funny, independent women who love gaudy jewelry. Is my mom a warm and fuzzy sort of person? No. But it’s not warm and fuzzy that defines love.

I am stepping into my womanhood, and I couldn’t have found my way here without my grandmother and my mother. I know that now. And it’s my turn. I am a launching pad for a new soul.

So when I go to Dr. Katz’s office, I’m ready to find out I’ll be having a girl.

“I can’t take it any more—just tell me,” I say as Dr. Katz squirts warm goo on my belly and presses down with an abdominal probe.

“Do you want me to write it down, put it in an envelope and seal it so you and your husband can open it later?”

“Why don’t you just tell me now, write it down, and I’ll pretend to be surprised later.”

“You got it,” he laughs. Dr. Katz points to the middle of the screen. “There you go.”

“Is that what I think it is?”

Dr. Katz smiles. “Yes, yes it is. You’re having a boy.”

And I smile because I realize he could’ve said “you’re having a kitten” and it wouldn’t have made any difference.

Author’s Note: Landing a featured role in The Joy Luck Club was an honor, a privilege, and a thrill, but until I gave birth to my sons, I had no idea what joy and luck I was to have in my life. Writing “The Boy Luck Club ” helped me understand to what degree that is true. 

Brain, Child (Fall 2004)

About the Author: Lauren Tom is an award-winning actress and writer. Besides The Joy Luck Club, she has starred in the films When A Man Loves A Woman, Catfish in Black Bean Sauce, Mr. Jones, Bad Santa, and Disney’s Mulan II. She had a recurring role as Julie, Ross’s girlfriend, on NBC ‘s Friends. You can read more about her at

 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.

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.

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