Daddy’s Girl: Young Girls and Popular Culture
Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press. 1997
Uploaded 16 April 1999
Daddy’s Girl is a very personal and passionate book which returns to a project initially embarked on by Walkerdine in her controversial essay “Video replay: families, films and fantasy” . In this earlier essay Walkerdine raised the problem of the researcher in audience research by describing her own engagement with the film, Rocky, while watching it in the presence of a working class family called the Coles with whom she identified in significant ways. The primary object of this initial research (though subsequent commentary usually focussed on the perceived narcissim of Walkerdine’s autobiographical approach) was the six year old daughter, Joanne. Joanne appears again in Daddy’s Girl, along with a number of other little working class girls, both fictional and factual, who constitute, in Walkerdine’s analysis, a significant set of problems to be investigated.
The little working class girl as represented in the media, as a consumer of the media and as a performer/participant in the media therefore comes to stand for a great deal in this volume. In some ways, she stands for Walkerdine herself, who talks about her own experience of growing up in a working class home with a depressed mother and an adored father, her subsequent grammar school education and entry into the field of academe as a working-class outsider. This little working class girl, in Walkerdine’s construction, also stands for a fear of the (feminised) masses in both left and right wing critiques of popular culture and its consumers, especially the working class who in her opinion have been sold down the river by an intellectual left (especially in Cultural Studies) only interested in looking for signs of resistance or compliance. According to Walkerdine, this futile investigation has failed to get even close to the complexity of working class subjectivity and its formation, and so:
I want to start with a view of ordinary working people as neither proto-revolutionary fodder nor duped masses. Rather I want to understand the conditions of their subjectification, how they become subjects and live their subjectivity at both a social and psychic level (23).
Lastly, the little girl seems to stand for an eroticised femininity needing to be controlled and civilised (most especially when this is working class), as well as the fantasy of a forbidden sexual relationship between man and female child which constitutes the darker side of adult sexuality. And so Walkerdine argues for a kind of psychoanalytic research, which she doesn’t want to call audience research, which would allow for a more nuanced account of the formation of subjectivity, including that of the researcher, in its relationship to popular culture.
Walkerdine sets about this task in the following ways: with an analysis of specific texts featuring little working class girls, especially the comic strip and subsequent film of Little Orphan Annie; with an account of the consumption of this latter film by real little girls (Joanne Cole included) in their own homes and a discussion of how the film might relate to aspects of their own experience and fantasy; with an account of the ways in which little girls participate in popular culture through performance in two British TV talent shows where they sing and dance, often in a parody of adult female sexuality. Underlying each of these strategies is an insistence on the significance of the subjective, the ways in which meanings are made from the media by those who are both working class and female. The book concludes with a discussion of psychoanalytic accounts of fantasy and seduction and how such quasi-universal fantasies may be realised in specific social contexts in relation to specific media texts.
Walkerdine’s arguments about the significance of the subjective for both the researcher and the researched are convincing. Her accounts of little girls, their lives and the importance of fantasy in the formation of subjectivity, compelling. There is no doubting the anger she feels on behalf of ‘my people’, the working class – and yet – I have to accept the invitation offered at the end of the book to offer another record in opposition to her own. Born only two years later than Walkerdine, my post-war experience of home (especially her relationship with her father), grammar school and university is remarkably similar to her own – with the exception that I always regarded myself as middle-class while she sees herself as profoundly working class even though my mother didn’t own a washing machine until the eighties. This leads me to question the centrality of class to a social experience which as far as I’m concerned had a lot to do with a variety of other factors including the death of an infant brother, the treatment of depression among isolated suburban housewives without an income of their own or an understanding of how they were being abused by the medical profession – and the nature of a particular kind British snobbery which meant coming from the North of England was always going to set you apart from the girls from the Home Counties. In other words, on the basis of Walkerdine’s account of her own upbringing, if she is working class then perhaps I am too even if my father was an accountant, since my subjectivity was apparently formed in remarkably similar ways. I watched the same films, dreamed the same dreams – and Walkerdine’s wrong about middle class girls – I desperately needed to fantasise about being somebody else. This suggests to me that assumptions about the nature of working-class, and indeed middle class experience, may need to be qualified with reference to specific cultural backgrounds in particular times and places and that generalisations about the experience of class are dangerous. Reading this here and now in Australia in 1999, it would seem to me that ethnicity may be as much of a factor, if not more, in the formation of subjectivity and the subjective experience of the media, though we would probably both agree that gender is still the over-riding consideration.
Such quibbles are not intended to detract from the overall thrust of Walkerdine’s thesis. I am entirely supportive of her insistence on the significance of the personal and the subjective in any analysis of popular culture which attempts to say something about those who consume it. My problem is how to relate those personal and subjective experiences to broader social categories such as class or ethnicity. Despite Walkerdine’s best efforts, I don’t think we’re there yet. Daddy’s Gir is, nevertheless, a very welcome and provocative step in the right direction.