Sunday, July 13, 2014

Mother Tells You How": The Mother As A Role Model in Girl Magazine

JUN.22.2013 - 9:18 AM

Today as I was driving on the highway, I  saw a yellow building with the sign IMA --on one side and GINATION on the other. Ima in Hebrew is mother. I decided that this was my sign to post some ideas from my work on  "Mother Tells you How" from Girl Magazine.

In December 31st  1952, in a letter from the editor, Marcus Morris, editor of Girl Magazine introduced a new section called “Mother tells you how.” The new comic strip featured two characters:  the Mother in her role as a teacher and a mentor, and her daughter Judy in the role of the student.  The first story teaches Judy how to bathe a baby, but throughout the strip the mother would teach her daughter other different skills that were regarded as essential to her life.

 Introducing the mother as a role-model was a big change for a magazine, whose first role model was a young female pilot. Girl was a weekly comic magazine for Secondary School girls, published by Hulton Press in GB from 1951 till 1964. It was the sister of a similar magazines for boys Eagle founded a year earlier in 1950.

The founder and editor of the two magazines was Marcus Morris, a clergyman. This fact is essential to understand the spirit and agenda of the magazine: Morris envisioned a clean popular children's comic like he remembered from  his school days. The result of his vision  was another magazine devoted to adventures, which did not reflect the reality of the secondary school middle class reader.

At that time girls were much more involved in the family and home life than boys, but traditionally girls' magazines used as their settings locations and situations which were far away from home and family. The focus was on girls outside the home: in boarding schools, girls’ guide camps, foreign land and circuses. Magazines devoted relatively little space to discussion of readers as daughters and sisters, and in general, in the adolescence literature of the day mothers are noticably absent.

Adventures in children's literature is normally an escapist, sexless genre demonstrating universal qualities in boys and girls such as courage, imagination, initiative and resourcefulness. Yet adolescence is an age of physical and emotional changes; in this aspect Girl  did not reflect the life of its readers

However, in “Mother Tells You How,” Girl stepped in to the home and acknowledged the reality of its readers. In contrast to the unusual, the exceptional, and the courageous, bringing in the mother was a celebration of the ordinary, an attempt to rebrand the mother and to establish her authority as a source of knowledge. Her knowledge is practical and focuses on the private sphere –the home but within that realm she knows everything and provides practical advice.

 “Mother Tells You How” (actually shows) demonstrates the type of relationship in which the mother is “every mother” and Judy the adolescent daughter is “every daughter.” The latter knows nothing about the topic at hand but has a strong will to learn, and cooperates with the mother.

The fact that such a section is offered by the magazine at an age when adolescents normally would not want to be told what and how, is intriguing and unexpected.  Moreover, the adolescent is being told, not by a teacher or a specialist, but by her mother. I believe that in doing so the magazine decided to empower the mother by making her the expert and the teacher.

The fact that this feature stayed in the magazine for the rest of the decade suggests that it was relevant to the reader. The mother is competent, no-nonsense, even professional in her teaching. She has a large body of knowledge about everything in the house. The mother is a handywoman, talented, full of useful ideas. Yet she is elegant, feminine  young and full of energy.

The interaction between mother and daughter is not personal or warm, it is functional yet respectful. The body language indicates that the mother does not crowd the daughter’s space and they don’t hug or kiss at the end of a successful project.

In spite of the basic skills that the mother teaches, I see it not only as an attempt to reaffirm the choice that the mothers made by staying at home, but also as empowering the mother and rebranding her role as an authority as a source  of knowledge.

But why was such a feature needed? It is safe to assume that the girls shared that feature with the mothers (who also provided the pocket money for buying the magazine) and they tried the project together at home. At that time, 75% of married women stayed home and very few mothers worked outside the home. But as the mothers themselves who were young women themselves during the war, they didn’t have a chance to learn how to do everything around the home. The encouragement to marry and stay home was reinforced by popular media: films, radio and popular women magazines.

 In addition, the 1950s was the first decade in which middle class families didn’t have domestic help, and it was up to the mother and her daughters to do the housework. So if we consider this, it makes sense that the feature was very relevant to the reader at that time.

Generally girls’ teenage comics and magazines have in general received poor critical reception. Complaints have concentrated upon the type of literary escapism in their contents, which originally led to the word ‘bovarism’ after Mm. Bovary, meaning the domination of the personality by romantic or unreal concept.

Broader criticism of girls’ magazines and comics have since encompassed not just their fiction but almost everything else in the contents from horoscope to articles about the perfectibility of marriage or beauty enhancement as a life-time goal. Only the printed readers’ letters stood outside the accusation that such magazines peddled unreal fantasies to what was seen as a very gullible audience.  The fact that these letters spoke of a harsher reality gave critics extra ammunition when drawing attention to what they saw as a dangerous gap between hard home truths and the magazines deluding day-dreams.

Such criticism came from a tradition of irritated liberalism which saw magazine fiction as something like the new opiate of the people. Only when girls and women readers faced the world as it really was would any change for the better become possible. The counterargument presented by the magazine publishers and their defenders was that they took the impoverished lives of most of their readers for granted, but saw escapist fiction as welcome relief from what might otherwise be a fairly bleak existence. 

I believe that the letters that were sent to Girl had a lot to do with the choice to bring the mother into center place. The magazine’s  agony aunt was James Hemming, who wrote his PhD based on  letters from 1953—55 that were sent to the magazine.  Many of the problems that the girls experienced had to do with their relationship with the mothers.

In his book, Problems of Adolescent Girls (1957), Hemming describes home for the adolescent girl as a “base and a springboard, she still needs a haven where she feels secure and protected.” He claims that “not infrequently, the tension and sensitivity find an outlet in the mother-daughter relationship.

 In his study Hemming not only lists the problems, but also offers some solutions; his basic assumption is that girls want to have guidance. Yet there is a problem of trust, as many parents, especially mothers, fail to win the trust or cooperation of their daughters, who no longer are prepared to accept the authority of parental opinion on trust. He suggests that parents should lead by guidance through understanding, and that guidance by example is important, and dependent on the existence of good relationships. He claims that  adolescents are quick to follow the ways of hero and heroine figures and behind this mimicry is respect and a longing for a relationship of understanding. The example of a person they do not like and trust has no meaning for them

Hemming poses the question “how best we may provide for adolescents the sort of support and guidance they need to help them negotiate the difficulties and dangers which beset their path to maturity... How, moreover, can we provide such help in a form which will be both acceptable and useful to them.” I believe that “Mother Tells You How” offered that exact guidance. The comics were an important step in building trust between daughter and he mother. Since the teaching of the mother was limited to practical instruction, it was “acceptable and useful.” Mother was ready with the solutions for her daughter’s questions and by doing so gave her help and some skills  in her path to maturity.

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