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Book Review


Alys Eve Weinbaum, Lynn M. Thomas, Priti Ramamurthy, Uta G. Poiger, Madeleine Yue Dong, and Tani E. Barlow, editors, The Modern Girl Around the World: Consumption, Modernity, andState Globalization. Durham: Duke University Press, 2008. Pp. 435. $25.95 (paper)


     Teachers of world history have found certain themes more amenable to the field's transnational focus—trade flows, international exploration, environmental change, or large-scale events like the World Wars, for instance. But when confronting issues of culture and society, historians still often feel contained by cultural specificity or national boundaries. Though theories of modernity and globalization provide a framework for thinking about cultural issues in world history, studies that address such issues on a broad scale have so far been limited.

     The Modern Girl project, an effort by a working group of scholars to address just such a global cultural issue, provides a new model for how those interested in tackling world cultural and social issues might proceed. Made up of a coalition of scholars working on Europe, Asia, the United States, Africa, and South Asia, the Modern Girl project tracks the roughly simultaneous emergence of the "modern girl," who also went by flapper, moga, or neue Frau, for starters, in the early decades of the twentieth century. This volume brings together their diverse explorations of the modern girl, demonstrating that the modern girl was not just an American marketing invention but instead an icon and ideal that emerged globally in the 1920s and 1930s, taking on culturally specific forms but also sharing certain features across locales.

     The authors employ what they call "multidirectional citation" to examine local phenomena, from the influence of anglicized movie stars in India to advertising in Shanghai women's publications, and show how those local understandings connected to and influenced international ones (26). It is through this mode of analysis that the authors are able to conclude that advertising agencies were critical distributors of the image and idea of the modern girl. (Another important mode of transference that appears in several chapters was the attempts at colonial assimilation in places like Okinawa or Australia.)

     The modern girl shared an affinity for consumption (particularly of cosmetics), a new style of dress, and liberated sexuality and romance from Paris to Delhi. Appearing most frequently in cosmetics advertisements, modern girls were fond of a full-mouth smile (often deployed in toothpaste advertisements) and were frequently shown examining themselves in mirrors. The emphasis on self-examination reveals that the modern girl's new beauty was not just for the outside observer but also for herself. In one of the concluding commentaries to the volume, Kathy Peiss notes that "wherever she appeared, the Modern Girl professed herself an individual" (352). That individuality, the hallmark of the modern self, extended to the modern girl's new relationships to the society around her—and particularly to her family. As Madeleine Y. Dong points out in her chapter on the Chinese modern girl, the modeng xiaojie was "free and available … in a public space" (197) rather than subject to the confines of her family and her father. Moreover, while the consummate modern girl was a middle-class consumer, women of all classes were aware of the modern girl aesthetics, particularly, as Barbara Sato writes, through magazines. In the process, lower-class women, sometimes, Dong argues, "disturb[ed] the social order" by donning identities that transcended their social station (201). Consumption of a new form of beauty, and the subsequent creation of a new self, thus opened a space for young women to challenge existing hierarchies, whether familial or class-based.

     But the modern girl, the authors argue, didn't just challenge gender and class expectations but also racial ones, and this theme forms one of the cores for this volume. For African-American women or Australian Aboriginal women this could mean "re-creating" modern girl fashions to empower themselves as women and minorities. In his chapter on the beauty mogul Madame C.J. Walker, Davarian Baldwin argues that in the process these women disputed stereotypes that they were less civilized or less respectable than white counterparts. But as both Baldwin and Lynn M. Thomas, in her chapter on the modern girl in South Africa, emphasize, "looking white" was not the goal for modern girls of color, but instead an effort to set themselves in contrast to the more "natural" look that dominated in older generations (109). For a white American, in contrast, this "racial masquerade" might mean imitating "Oriental" aesthetics in order to "underscore her robust possession of whiteness" through an intimate expression and experience of the exotic (11). This notion of the "racial masquerade" is introduced by Alys Eve Weinbaum; her chapter asserts that the American modern girl had to be not only an adept consumer but also proficient at understanding, consuming, and deploying racial identities, donning and taking off these identities like a mask. Young women of varied backgrounds thus used the new aesthetics to redefine their national and racial location, reaching for a more internationalized ideal even while using that international ideal to articulate a localized identity.

     At the same time that the modern girl could be a play on racial stereotypes, however, she could also be used to express a national ideal of beauty. For example, in her chapter on the neue Frauen of Weimar and Nazi Germany, Uta G. Poiger explores the brief life in the late 1920s of a "cosmopolitan aesthetic" in German advertising campaigns that was both preceded and succeeded by a more circumscribed ethnic identity (though not one always, Poiger stresses, linked explicitly to the muscular athleticism associated with National Socialist propaganda) (320, 340). The modern girl did not thus exist in a solely international sphere. As the authors in this volume stress again and again, how the modern girl was imagined and constructed was closely connected to place, culture, and time, even if there were traits that transcended local place.

     This volume's eclectic collection of "modern girl" types showcases that the modern girls were not simply frivolous consumers. Miriam Silverberg, rather than placing the modern girl in contrast to the older, more politically active "New Woman," as has typically been the case, suggests instead that they are one and the same, part of a spectrum of new forms of womanhood that emerged in the early twentieth century and that stood as a challenge to global society about the place and shape of femininity. Alongside the emergence of a global consumer culture, it is likely this perspective that will intrigue teachers and practitioners of world history and validate the important contribution this volume makes to world history methods. For such a conclusion--that the modern girl was both aesthetic and political, signaling a new way of identifying the self--could only be drawn when placing the works of so many scholars on so many places alongside one another, as this volume does.

Kate Merkel-Hess is an assistant professor of History and Asian Studies at the Pennsylvania State University. She is the co-editor of China in 2008: A Year of Great Significance and her writing has also appeared in The Times Literary Supplement, Current History, and History Compass, among other publications. She can be reached at


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