'Reviving Ophelia,' Cultural Touchstone On Teen Girls, Updates After 25 Years
The recent Dark Phoenix movie offers two familiar narratives. The obvious (from the comics and the first generation of the franchise) has Jean Grey wrestling with new powers that enhance both her abilities and her capacity for destruction.
But this X-generation is younger, which gives Jean's struggle some distinctly adolescent subtext. And it's the reaction of her team members as much as anything that speaks to being a teenage girl: People around you — even if they know you — treat you as inherently unknowable, deeply irrational, and somehow dangerous.
Things don't end well for Jean, but that, too, is a familiar adolescent experience: As Dr. Mary Pipher writes in Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls, "America is a girl-destroying place."
When the book was first published in 1994, Pipher presented teenage-girlhood as a distinct developmental stage that put girls under pressure in unique ways and requires special attention to their mental health to see them safely into adulthood. Reviving Ophelia was a phenomenon whose influence on cultural conversation can be seen in later pop-psychology books and academic studies.
A new 25th anniversary edition published this month (with Pipher's daughter Sara) is, like Dark Phoenix, a retelling of a familiar tale for a new generation. However, though the problems of teen girls might be timeless, this update isn't — sometimes precisely because the discussion it inspired has moved beyond what an update can encompass.
Pipher's empathy is obvious. She rages against the "rigorous training for the female role" girls run into and the denigration of their experiences: "Protest was called delinquency, frustration was called bitchiness, withdrawal was called depression, and despair was labeled hormonal." Cluing parents in to the "deep structure" — where questions about identity lurk underneath small outbursts — feels self-evident, but perhaps that's because the 1994 edition introduced the concept to the white suburban mainstream, where the teen girl has been studiously dissected in the decades since.
This is a book written for family; the language is straightforward in delivering advice about trans teens, eating disorders, and divorce. The new edition also contains further commentary and new case studies — in the last 25 years, anxiety earned its own chapter. But the intervening years have created some disconnects. "It's exceedingly difficult to write about three generations without making generalizations," Pipher writes — and she's correct. Between case studies, generalities abound ("Appearance was more important in the 1990s than in the 1950s and early 1960s," "Girls possess limited ability to sort facts from feelings"). Unfortunately, perhaps as a casualty of the approachable tone, there are no footnotes or endnotes to sources that could provide context for the curious. (There's a Recommended Reading list, but it doesn't include, for example, the "Hostile Hallways" study Pipher cites for information about what girls face at school.)
And though the book touches on intersecting social issues, it simply can't keep up with the current cultural conversation. Race and class issues are noted but often elided as inescapable factors in a girl's mental health, and topics like sexual harassment can run aground. Telling girls "they have important choices to make and ultimate responsibility for those choices" makes sense in many contexts, but harassment is a lightning-rod issue that highlights an individual girl's powerlessness in the face of systemic cruelty. Pipher offers noticeably little comfort here, and her plea for schools to teach boys empathy — as urgent now as 25 years ago — speaks volumes.
In fact, some of the most interesting passages are Pipher's meditations on her work in the 1990s and how cultural expectations have shifted, or not, in the decades since. Such perspective also turns a longer lens on the present; perhaps in 1994 her concerns about drinking — a fad vice that's apparently come and gone — were as freshly anxious as her concerns about social media now. (Pipher claims it's universally isolating, which suggests, among other things, that these books take place in a world where all identities live openly and safely and no one ever needs to keep secrets from controlling parents.)
The pitfalls of social media are obvious: FOMO, Instagram perfection, cyberbullying. But Pipher includes case studies of girls using it to effect change — and finding the architecture to share their own stories. Perhaps this as much as anything makes the new Reviving Ophelia seem like a slightly outdated reboot; these days, if you want to know the psyche of a teenage girl, you can see it in real time right from the source.
But that's not really a deal-breaker. (Presumably, if social media is your concern, you'll look up one of her Recommended Reads about the online generation.) This is at heart the same book it ever was: earnestly concerned about the difficulties of teen girlhood, filled with stories of girls who overcame those difficulties. Its advice is aimed at teens and parents who want reassurance that their problems are serious, their problems are familiar, and — crucially — that their problems are ultimately solvable. Reviving Ophelia is a cultural touchstone and, almost inevitably, even a revamp carries the air of a cultural artifact. If it makes for occasionally creaky reading, maybe that's just growing pains.
Genevieve Valentine's latest novel is Icon.
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