Monmouth IL 61462
Faculty Editorial Board
William Urban and Steven Price
THE MONMOUTH COLLEGE FACULTY FORUM was established in June of 1963 by Dean Harry S.
Manley to "provide a means through which selected scholarly papers written by Monmouth College faculty would
be given a wider distribution." The source of papers was the faculty colloquium series, a program in which each
month one faculty member presented a report on recent research and reflection. Manley wrote:
The college underwrites this publication out of a conviction that it will:
1. Encourage members of the faculty to pursue their research interests and thereby stimulate scholarship and
2. Enhance the interest of advanced students in scholarly writing and research.
3. Give the faculty a format for confrontation with their peers.
4. Support our academic policy that competent teaching requires continuing research by the teacher.
After a lapse of some years, publication of the series was resumed in 1991. In the spring of 1993 the Faculty
and Institutional Development Committee recommended local distribution in electronic form with only a few
printed copies for authors and institutional use.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
William Urban, Department of History,How to Publish 1
Craig Vivian, Department of Education,The Critic in the College Community 6
Monie Hayes, Department of Education, How Do Girls Define Resistance and What Would They Resist? Implications for Critical Pedagogy 10
Anne Mamary, Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies, At the Root: Fundamentals and Fundamentalism in Zadie Smith's White Teeth 27
How To Publish
By William Urban
I would not have written this essay a few years ago. But circumstances have changed. As of November,
2004, when I spoke to this topic in a colloquium, most members of the college faculty were new, and it is important
that they and their successors recognize artifacts of our institutional history when they encounter them. In writing
this now, I hope that some of the attitudes I describe are artifacts, and therefore rare. And I hope that everyone
understands that these are artifacts thatI see. Others may well not agree. Others may choose not to see.
It used to be said, certainly from the Seventies well into the Nineties, that one could not publish at
Monmouth College. The teaching load was too heavy, there were no examples of excellence on campus, there was
too little administrative help, and the library was inadequate.
This was never completely true. If it had been, the faculty would have been totally unproductive. There was
something to the complaint, of course. But I believe that on the whole this statement was based on what some might
call selective self-referential reification.
It was true that in the more distant past, more than thirty years ago, each instructor taught more classes than
today, eight (except Bernice Fox, who offered more for her Latin majors), and most were larger in size (except
Bernice Fox’s), often forty students or more. Twenty years ago there were still eight classes but much smaller ones.
But in either epoch there was more free time. There were no emails, no internet, and often no telephone. Fewer
distractions. Also fewer term papers, because reading the handwriting was just too difficult. Faculty just had more
leisure time. Some used this time to write.
Professors were publishing in the 1950s and 1960s. Not Haldeman, perhaps, who was a great producer of
chemists who did publish. But there was Garvin Davenport in history (the successor of Lynn Turner_who was
president of Phi Alpha Theta, the national history honor society, which named its most prestigious prize for him),
Albert Nicholas and Charles Wingo in education, Dorothy Donald in language (honored by France for her service),
Sam Thompson in philosophy, Charles Speel in religious studies, and many others.
In 1961 the faculty began a practice of giving talks for colleagues. In 1963 Dean Manley established the
Faculty Forumas a means of recording these thoughts. This small journal has continued, issued intermittently. Its
fate is at the heart of my story.
Administrative efforts to encourage publication included introducing a Sabbatical program at a time when
Sabbaticals were not universal. And few colleges had as generous a program as the one introduced by Dean Amy,
one term in ten off. Since Monmouth College had three terms a year, that meant a three month Sabbatical every 3
1/3 years. President DeBow Freed tried very hard to honor those who published, establishing cash awards and an
award banquet for three categories of faculty achievement—teaching, publication and service. There were always
travel grants and money for research, and several of my early books were published only because they were given
subventions by theFaculty Development Committee. Ever wonder why that committee had that name? I also
received assistance from the Association for the Advancement of Baltic Studies, and when that organization asked
me to edit theJournal of Baltic Studies, Dean Julian provided me with student assistants and relieved me of
Interlibrary loan was always available. It was more primitive in those days, but if the librarians had any
chance at all of getting my books, they did so. They always joked about my never ordering anything in English.
In spite of this a severe morale problem developed in the Seventies that lasted until recently. In part this
reflected negative national employment trends. The number of students attending college had increased dramatically
in the Sixties, partly thanks to Sputnik-inspired grants for science and foreign languages. Monmouth had benefited
from both the growth and the grants. But the introduction of the junior college system and the explosive increase in
the number and size of the state universities put a pressure on private liberal arts colleges at a moment when
graduate schools were turning out more Ph.D.s than could be employed. Hiring and tenure committees,
overwhelmed by the number of applicants for employment and retention, gave up the effort to evaluate teaching and
began to look almost exclusively at publication records. This also reflected a desire for status based on faculty
scholarship; “weighing” accomplishments became more literal than symbolic. And, perhaps, administrators realized
that professors who were staying up late nights writing that next book for promotion would not be interfering with
the smooth operation of the university. Whatever the reasons, the energy crisis and the end of the draft in the early
Seventies gave an additional push to an already discernible decline in enrollments and grants. This at the very
moment that costs were increasing dramatically. When the trustees announced that the budget had to be balanced,
even if it meant cutting back an oversized faculty, there was a reaction close to panic. Monmouth College’s survival
was not certain, and the employability of its faculty was in doubt, too.
One lesson from this: never increase faculty size inanticipation of growth. You never, ever, want to have
to cut friends and colleagues. Never. Ever.
The generally low morale created by the combination of terminal contracts and minimal raises was
exasperated by the frustration at realizing that the job market now emphasized publications. Some said that the
college was to blame for their not having published—too heavy a load, no administration support, no library.
The reaction to this was mixed. Most faculty members were supportive of colleagues who published, but
there was some resentment. There were hurtful comments, and ours is a thin-skinned profession. Slights that should
have been considered, well, only slightly, became barriers to personal interactions. Factions developed, and the fads
of the Nineties only made the situation worse. Old-fashioned scholarship did not count for much, certainly not as
much “cutting edge” subjects. Traditionalists countered that the profusion of new journals made it possible for
almost anyone to get something in print and that many editors preferred jargon-ridden essays for narrow audiences
rather than the kind of writing that would benefit students and the general public. The result was a generation gap
that did not disappear when the GI Bill generation retired. The elimination of the recognition awards about 1992, on
the grounds that feelings were being hurt, was probably the low point. The message seemed clear: Don’t try to do
anything outstanding. It was later articulated as “we are all working hard, and we are all doing a good job.”
Honest people could disagree over that. And did.
But the negative attitude sometimes went even farther--to imply that one couldn’t even be a goodteacher at
Monmouth College: the load was too high, the students too average. Some faculty members were demanding a
significant increase in the ACT average, no matter what this did to recruiting efforts. Others voiced great concern for
the poor and underprivileged, and racial minorities, no matter that their ACTs were generally lower. Gender was
often expressed as a problem, but less so because the trend in enrollment was toward more women (and higher
ACTs). Claims that there was an imbalance on the faculty was balanced against a head count which revealed—no
surprise—that older faculty were overwhelming male. But younger faculty were almost 50-50, and that Monmouth
was much more balanced than other ACM schools. There were occasional suggestions that, because of past
discrimination, women should not be required to meet the standards of male faculty. This was not appreciated by
female professors who had managed to publish. There were even arguments that there had to be special classes for
the best students, taught by the best faculty, and, naturally, these had to be smaller classes. One had to be among ‘the
best faculty’ not to realize what their colleagues thought of that. In short, this was not the faculty’s finest moment.
That generation is passing, or at least maturing, and the fads are passing, too. This process had already
began to end when Dick Giese became president in 1997. Three-quarters of the 2004 faculty were ‘Giese kids’, men
and women who have come since then. He deserves much credit for this, most importantly in the growth of the
student body, the increase in salaries, and the new buildings, but there were also changing national trends and
improvements in technology. At one of Giese’s first faculty meetings, the internet was made available to the faculty.
That surprising development, which no one had foreseen coming so quickly, changed our access to the outside
world. Professors who were familiar with the technology and had been waiting impatiently to use it, had their
websites up the very next day.
My contention is that one can both be a good teacher and a good scholar. But more than that,that one has
more opportunities at Monmouth College than at many research universities.The main obstacle is internal. If you
want to publish, you can do it. If you don’t want to, you probably won’t. I wouldn’t want to require anyone to have
to write a book.Publication is not the only worthwhile activity in a scholar’s life.
It is also relatively unimportant what one writes. I have been criticized by medievalists for writing narrative
histories, the type non-professionals read. Real scholarship, I have been informed, is produced in monographs. The
thicker and duller, the better. But that’s what I love about those who preach individualism—the herd instinct.
As for teaching, my dissertation advisor, Archie Lewis, always got a standing ovation on the last lecture of
each class. A good model, I always thought. (I don’t remember anyone else at the University of Texas being so
honored.) I’ve never gotten a standing ovation myself, but once when I was a guest lecturer at the University of
Kansas a student came up and said, “I couldn’t figure out at first why you and Professor Nelson are so much alike.
Then I remembered that you are both students of Archie Lewis.” I prefer to think that that was a compliment.
That’s why Archie’s picture hangs in my office. He was a teacher, scholar and gentleman. I should have
consulted him more often. When I first came to Monmouth College, I was asked to undertake college
responsibilities that required more wisdom and experience than I had; I did not have enough wisdom and experience
In the end, my colleagues either forgave me or didn’t notice. They gave me the first Burlington Northern
Award for Teaching Excellence, with a cash award sufficient for me, together with a German government research
grant and a Sabbatical, to take Jackie and our three children to Germany for the summer and fall. I have enjoyed
taking on new tasks, going from serious histories to philosophies of history, to middle school history, to plays and,
more recently, to murder mysteries. I do not think I could have done that at a research institution. I would have been
confined to writing monographs. Well, maybe by now I could write murder mysteries. If I had survived the tenure
process despite not having published immediately, I now would be a quaint old fellow, an artifact of the bad old
days, and therefore allowed to do what I wanted until I took my silver-plated retirement gift and vanished.
I did not write the articles and books because I had to. Lord knows, it wasn’t for the money, either. But
people just kept asking when the next publication would be out. There wasn’t any money connected to the Lee L.
Morgan chair, either, or for the years of coaching, or helping ZBT get off the ground. But sometimes one is uniquely
qualified to do a job. Perhaps only marginally qualified, but nobody else will do it. The old-fashioned name for this
is a ‘calling’. It is an appropriate term for Presbyterian education, even in a college like Monmouth, where the
church has moved away from the college as much as the college has backed away from the church.
I was not a better scholar or teacher than many others here. Just ask around. But I understood better than
most the principles that lead to successful writing and publishing. First of all,publication is the result of hard work.
At research universities professors stay up late at night to write. Although they have relatively low teaching loads,
the time put into research far exceeds any saved from having fewer hours in the classroom and grading exams.
When I was first learning my trade, my days seemed overfilled. Each course was new. It was not until I had
taught each multiple times that I did not have to work evenings on class preparations. No mentor was available, but
my colleagues were very supportive. I have much to thank Doug Spitz and Mary Crow for.
Thesupport of department chairs helps greatly. I taught western civilization classes over and over again till
I had them down pat. As chair I remember well some confrontations with a former dean over his efforts to get
excessive new preparations out of new hires. (Fortunately, he wanted me tovolunteer their services. I declined.)
With experience, new courses become less daunting. Also, if new courses are built on individual strengths, they will
not exhaust the instructor. New preps should provide insights and stimulate thinking.
Family support is close to essential. Jackie and I finished the dissertation together when I was teaching at
the University of Kansas. I wrote, she typed. She proofread until computers and spell check came in. Family
members have to understand that when the writer is hunched over the typewriter or computer, that any interruption
should be important. Fire comes to mind. Or children’s problems.
Thus, one suggestion for publishing isMarry the Right Person. Jackie didn’t help with the research, but she
willingly packed up the children to live in Italy for a year, then Germany, then back to Germany and back again.
Then to Yugoslavia and the Czech Republic. And endured my frequent absences during much of many summers.
Do not rush.I published nothing during my first five years at Monmouth College, then only unimportant
pieces. My revised dissertation came out asThe Baltic Crusade in my ninth year here. I received tenure and my first
Sabbatical in my thirteenth year.
Sometimes research cannot even get started until new skills have been mastered. For years I used lunch
time to work on medieval Latin; in 1973 I went to Poland to study the language; I went to Beloit College two
summers to recover my lost Russian; I talked the dean into allowing me to teach Intensive Italian three times as an
overload. Returning to Germany regularly kept that language alive, and visiting family in Texas was a constant
opportunity to keep the Spanish from turning completely into Italian. I was less able to work on my Slavic
languages. Alas. But life is short and eventually one has to stop preparing and start working.
Work whenever you can, even at odd hours. My best time to write is very early in the morning. Sometimes
4 AM. (I wrote the first draft of this talk at 3 AM.) If you are thinking about something, you will dream about it or
think about it. Rather than toss and turn, get up and write it down.
Come to work early. I used to come at six to use the college’s first computer; I now come at seven. Use
lunchtimes effectively. Give up prime time TV (not much lost there anyway). Work on weekends. Work during the
summer. Write, write, write.
R emember the role ofluck. Mutual friends introduced me to Jerry Smith. Our collaboration resulted in
several translations from Middle High German into colloquial English, and deepened my knowledge of the sources
I’ve been asked how to make time. These are my suggestions: First, marry the right person; second, give up
competing passions. I used to play chess well. That was very time consuming and, even worse, stressful—I would
replay the games in my head all night. I also enjoyed playing tennis, but getting better required playing more
regularly than I could manage; third, refuse entreaties to take on responsibilities. Men’s clubs, for example, take
only an hour or two a week, but that is equal to a full work week each year. Administrative tasks should be limited.
Becoming a dean is deadly to scholarship, because administrative paperwork is too much like research and too
stressful. Lastly, develop a schedule. One of my history colleagues thirty years ago was not finishing his
dissertation. His wife practically locked him in the house except to meet his classes; she turned down all social
invitations until he was finished.
How can one keep fresh? First, make diversions truly diverting. Totally different from research and writing.
Physical activity is almost a necessity. I coached soccer for years. It was nothing like library work. Gardening,
which for many years was little more than mowing the lawn, has been very enjoyable—and it lends itself to Books
on Tape. Biking is great fun, but Books on Tape are far too dangerous on the road.
At a minimum,vary the work locations. I do some work in my office, then go home, and I have various
places to work there. One place for grubbing the footnotes, another for the rough first draft, another for corrections. I
enclosed the front porch to make a marvelous solarium.
S tart writing right away. Often you can only see what you need to do when it’s on paper. You can throw
away what is bad. Throw away even what is mediocre.
Learn to write well. That’s not easy. Since editing student papers is good practice, a heavy work load is not
all bad. Apply the same standards to your own work: find a strong topic sentence, cut back on wordiness, eliminate
flourishes; strike out most words ending in –ly and most adjectives. Read Mark Twain’s advice on writing. Follow
it. Also Sinclair Lewis’s ideas inBabbitt. Eschew jargon, or put it into everyday English. Bernice Fox used to say
that I was not a good writer when I came to Monmouth, but I had become one. That was high praise. Bernice had
very high standards.
Write on diverse subjects. Newspaper columns and book reviews are good practice, and they are diversions
from wearying research projects that seem to have no end.
Make time for family. Jackie and I went camping, hiking. The kids hated it; now they do it themselves.
Children’s activities make tourism more interesting (there are only so many museums one can stand in any given
day). This was especially important during my teaching and research stints abroad; there was nothing like a hike up
to a castle to combine family, exercise and research interests. Time with relatives was important for us all. Two to
three times a year we packed children and pets into the car for the eleven hour drive to north central Kansas.
How do you get ideas? That’s a question I get occasionally, but usually it comes in the form of “All the
good research topics have been done.” I could not disagree more, though it is obvious that all the obvious topics
have been worked on. Get off the beaten track. Become an expert in something that is not a current fad. I started in
Baltic history when nobody was interested in it. I now turn down offers for talks and chapters and books (I always
answer letters and email from graduate students or even just enthusiastic undergraduates). Just as today’s fad will
become out of date, what seems unimportant now may become tomorrow’s hot subject.
Teaching at Monmouth gets one out of any narrow specialty. Anyone with a few years of experience will
smile at this. No graduate school training prepares for the variety of classes we have to offer.
Read widely. The best ideas are not in your specialty. Hang out with people in other departments. Hang out
with interesting people. That is, unconventional people, people who do not always agree with you. Doug Spitz never
failed to provide a good conversation; he never seemed to sleep, and there was no important book that he hadn’t
read. Hang out with productive people. If they have time to hang out with you.
Avoid too much alcohol, and people who abuse it. Alcohol wipes out many a promising scholar.
(Marijuana probably too. Although I understand it is less damaging to health and not fattening.) Avoid anything that
could get you more reading time at state expense than you really want.
Avoid bad trips, but travel. Not just as a tourist, but live in some new place for weeks or months. Attend
conferences, but listen to papers on topics you don’t know anything about.
Don’t get carried away by politics, either national or campus. I once asked Archie Lewis, probably about
1963, a year filled with explosive issues, why he wasn’t active in university politics. He said that one couldn’t be a
member of the AAUPand publish. Similarly, spending too much time on the internet and discussion boards is bad.
Too much stress and too much time. Do have political opinions, do get involved. But use common sense. Establish
your priorities. And combine your interests. If saving whales is your passion, write about whales. Move to Puget
Above all:Avoid defeatism. There are those who would discourage you. Competitors, burned-out
colleagues. The kind of people who killed theFaculty Forum. As one critic said, he couldn’t write anything as low
as the level ofScientific American. Don’t take insults to heart. Campus politics have always been mean and petty,
everywhere. Jealousy and conspiracies have existed on campuses since the Middle Ages, and they won’t go away.
Remember that publishing a popular book or winning a teaching award is the kiss of death at many major
There are those who would distract you. Most mean well. Don’t forget that most distractions are
worthwhile in themselves. They may be more valuable than publishing.
Publishing is not for everyone.In graduate school you were taught that it was primary. Or the only thing.
But you were young then. As you mature, you will likely discover that much you were told in graduate school is
Teaching well may be more significant than writing for a handful of peers. That is nothing to be ashamed
of! If teaching turns you on, teach. If it doesn’t, look for another job. But if you are driven to write, do it!
Start anywhere. A discussion board is good practice. But don’t let such activities take on too great a role in
your life. Stay focused. Then move on.
Faculty Forumis a good outlet. I would go even further. I would require an article in the Faculty Forum
for promotion or tenure. These articles would serve as benchmarks of what each generation of scholars does. The
writer might even learn that writing for a general audience is enjoyable. Our present requirement of giving a talk is
outdated because so many of us cannot find the time to attend all of them—the teaching staff has grown too large.
Rather than speak to a handful of people, something most of us can do with minimal preparation, each candidate
could write five to ten good pages in understandable prose on something important and interesting. Something each
is willing to be judged on for years to come.
Lastly,don’t be discouraged. Keep going. Jackie says that I have a lot of chutzpah. Giving this talk may be
a good example of that. Or advocating theFaculty Forum be made part of the promotion and tenure process.
But everything in life requires risks.
Publishing means choosing among the various risks.
Then pursuing the goal.
The Critic in the College Community
By Craig Vivian
A man must serve his time to every trade
Save censure—critics all are ready made
What has ever been produced, created, or imagined that has not also been questioned by critics? To be
critical seems to be a fundamental part of human nature. There have always been critics, and they have been
perceived differently by those around them. Some are praised, some are tolerated, and some are killed. What role
can or should critics play in academic institutions, and how ought liberal arts colleges to respond to the critics within
their midst? This paper will argue that critics are essential to the dynamism of institutions of higher education;
however, because of the encroachment of a corporate mentality into institutional development, critics are an
endangered species on college campuses. The critic, ideally, provides the antithetical impetus needed to challenge
and change the institution. In order to provoke change, a critic must have access to public spaces within the
institution, but corporations, by their nature, restrict public space. As academic institutions shift toward
corporatism, public space diminishes, and so too does the contribution of the critic to intellectual and institutional
The critic serves a political and social purpose. Whereas the art critic serves as a judge or connoisseur, and
the social critic serves to offer insights into the forces that govern us, it is the academic critic who serves to analyze
the institutions and disciplines that produce and pass on knowledge, as well as the knowledge itself. The production
of art would continue without the presence of art critics, because every artist, simply through his or her work, acts as
an art critic by challenging the existing body of art with the creation of more art. However, the contributions of
people dedicated to art criticism also lead to an advancement of art by stimulating discussion and reaction.
Similarly, in the absence of critics within academic institutions, scholars would continue to produce knowledge and
serve as critics through their contributions to knowledge. Institutional critics, however, facilitate this process: by
offering an antithesis to a thesis, they stimulate the community’s efforts to achieve a synthesis, or advancement.
This process is as crucial for institutional development as it is for the evolution of knowledge.
James Downey (1995) has described the university as a trinity: an admixture of corporation, collegium, and
community. He argues that this composition is a recent development, brought about by technological, economic,
and political changes. This description applies, in some degree, to all institutions of higher education and becomes
important in understanding the tensions on campuses relating to differing reactions to social and political issues by
various constituents. According to Downey, the corporate dimension of a college is of a “hierarchical structure,
with authority vested in a corporate board and delegated to designated officers. [It] cannot afford to operate as a
consensual community…[it] doesn’t have colleagues; it has officers, employees, and clients, and for its own
integrity it must deal with them as such (p.3). This hierarchy is seen as necessary to the orderly running of the
institution, and therefore as an essential component of it. What becomes problematic for institutions of higher
education is that corporations do not have public space in which to accommodate critical voices. In a hierarchy,
critics are generally seen as subversive, destructive, divisive, and disloyal. Simply stated, there are no critics in a
corporation. Although there may be room for “input” from outsiders in a corporation, this is business that takes
place in a “private sphere” and not in public.
If the corporate component of the trinity becomes central to the academic institution, private spheres
become primary in planning development and growth, as well as academic direction and initiatives. Private spheres
are housed within existing power structures and operate to promote private vision and self-interests. Under a
hierarchical structure, group-think primarily dominates private interactions: little innovation occurs and a limited
number of perspectives are examined. If a corporate structure, and its procedures, comes to dominate an institution,
public spaces are transformed: instead of existing as active and critical forums of communication and participation,
they are reduced to spaces where those in the collegium perform perfunctory “business” transactions devoid of
democratic interaction. The corporate component does not easily tolerate critical public spaces, because
corporations must work under the assumption that the institution is functioning correctly so as to preserve
confidence in the institution. Corporations must claim some degree of foundational validity in their operations, but
critics, by their nature, do not accept an absolute or imagined truth: they are continually examining and contesting
ideas— striving for better approaches or answers. A corporation, to maintain order, must at least pretend that it has
the right answers and goals, and cannot give a public impression that it is constantly questioning its goals, or
publicly searching for a better mission.
Critical public spaces are defined, in this essay, as areas where public discourse is unconstrained and all
ideas are publicly questioned, examined, or challenged by the members of the community. If a college community
is to flourish, students, as well as faculty and administrators, need to be able to take seriously different points of
view. It is essential to understand thathow we debate and critique others is as important as what we debate.
Accordingly, “those who claim the right to criticize should assume the responsibility to comprehend others”
(Williamsburg Charter, 1986, p.6). Public spaces are civic arenas which are an integral part of the institution and
therefore viewed as positive communal spaces where one goes to participate in reasoned critical discussions of
important public matters. These spaces are not “pseudo” public spaces full of competing propagandas and private
ideologies aimed at distorting or selling a perspective. These spaces are also not philosophically equivalent to the
common notion of a marketplace of ideas—which claims that theTruth arises out of the competition of ideas in an
open market. Public critics are not as interested in developing a shared conception of Truth as much as they are
interested in the “personal challenge of assuming personal responsibility for finding their own will to meaning”
If the public spaces of an academic institution wither away, how will the institution function? One result
could be an institutional vacuum where meaningful public responses to political and social issues do not
exist—where no public reactions to political and social events are visible. They become socially or politically
“dead” communities in spite of any erudition or thinking taking place in the classroom. It seems reasonable to
suggest that “living” communities only survive in the presence of public spaces, for it is in public spaces that people
come together to speak and act—to publicly craft a vision. Although there have been many conceptualizations of
public space, Aristotle’s insights have continued to inform those who have seriously looked at the significance of
public and private spheres. When Aristotle studied the activities required to be a part of human communal life, he
found two: action and speech. He believed that from these activities there emerges the political and social
foundations of human affairs. When action and speech occur within a public sphere, common ground is created
where people are seen and heard as “equals,” and this space becomes the location where they can critique, judge,
discuss and advance a common and shared understanding of the good. In other words, the public use of space will
be political/social in nature. Hannah Arendt captures well how the critical aspect of thinking depends on the
attributes of a public space:
the thinking process which is active in judging something is not, like the thought process of pure
reasoning, a dialogue between me and myself, but finds itself always and primarily, even if I am
quite alone in making up my mind, in an anticipated communication with others [which results in
an] enlarged way of thinking, which as judgment knows how to transcend its individual
limitations, cannot function in strict isolation or solitude; it needs the presence of others “in whose
place” it must think, whose perspective it must take into consideration, and without whom it never
has the opportunity to operate at all. (1961, p. 220-1)
In other words, a critical mind is formed by association with other critical minds and will indeed benefit by
having public spaces in which to operate. In order to accommodate the critic, and critical thinking, certain public
spaces must be established which lend themselves to critical exchanges that promote questioning, probing, and
dissension. These public spaces also serve to ensure that a healthy balance is maintained between the three
components of the institution.
Democracy and freedom have always been associated with a conception of public space, and in her paper,
Models of Public Space, Seyla Benhabib (1992) presents three conceptions of public space, each of which mirrors a
particular strain of political thought: Benhabib first examines Arendt’s view of public space as being
“associational”—a view that public space emerges whenever groups of people come together and act in concert.
According to Arendt, these public spaces become “sites of power, of common action coordinated through speech
and persuasion” (ibid p.93). Benhabib criticizes this conceptualization for focusing primarily on agendas and
activities. If the critic is to locate herself in higher education, then the institution must have legitimate public spaces
devoted to “reflexive questioning of issues by all those affected…and the recognition of their right to do so” (ibid
p.95). Accordingly, public space must not be used solely for demonstrations of power or protests, as there is a lack
of dialogue and a proclivity to violence or force.
Benhabib presents a second view of public space based upon the work of Bruce Ackerman, a proponent of
political liberalism. Ackerman proposes that public space be devoted toneutral public dialogue; specifically the use
ofconstrained public dialogue, that is, a public discussion of those issues upon which different groups do not
fundamentally disagree, thereby allowing members of those groups to “resolve problems of coexistence in a
reasonable way” (ibid p.96). Ackerman imagines public space, restricted in this manner, will be used to enhance
public conversations, but performed in accordance with a certain procedure:
When you and I learn that we disagree about one or another dimension of the moral truth . . . we
should simply say nothing at all about this disagreement and try to solve our problem by invoking
premises we do agree upon. In restraining ourselves in this way, we do not lose the chance to talk
to one another about our deepest moral disagreements in countless other, more private, contexts.
This consensus building approach is commendable, but does little to engender the unanticipated insights
that occur during a critical discussion of issues by those who agree that their disagreements are worth talking about.
A problem with Ackerman’s approach is that public spaces are most useful when they become the sites where
contested issues are critically examined and where discussions are publicly evaluated.
Benhabib offers a third conceptualization of public space based upon the work of Jurgen Habermas and
referred to as a discursive model; a critical-participatory environment giving opportunities for all voices to be heard
and a commitment to legitimating society and tradition by developing “individuals who are increasingly more
dependent on critical and reflexive attitudes” (ibid p.104). This conceptualization implies institutional support for
full participation of all its members in the issues which they see as relevant. For universal participation to occur, it
requires that a common space is maintained in which members are allowed to meet through different media, and in
various arenas—print, electronic, and face to face encounters—all taking place within the institution, but none under
the influence of the institution. This type of participation will be “messy,” and, according to Charles Taylor, within
this public space there is an “ever-continuing controversy . . . [whose] potentially divisive and destructive
consequences are offset by the fact that it is a debate outside of power, a rational debate, striving withoutparti pris
to define the common good” (1995 p.192). As argued previously, it seems impossible for a truly inclusive common
good to be created within a corporate structure that privileges private space and eschews public spaces and divergent
It is therefore incumbent upon academic institutions to give space and voice to the critic to counter the
conforming aspects of the corporate element within higher education, and to sustain the critically reflective tradition
of inquiry among faculty and students. If public spaces in academia disappear, the critic will be relegated to the role
of a complainer: one whose words and ideas are never given public exposure, legitimacy, or acknowledgement. A
key difference between oppositional and alienated individuals (complainers) and committed, activist, and reflective
members of a community (critics) is that the former are denied access to a public space. It is the critic, and the
public embracing of critical voices, that will lead to dialectical progress, since it is through public debate and critical
interchange that the institution will democratically and freely revise and re-form itself. These changes will be the
result of critical exchanges over the values, goals and communal issues that make their way into the public spaces.
It is also the case that these exchanges will allow the faculty and student body to legitimate and delineate knowledge
claims and intellectual foci.
An institution that makes no effort to preserve public space will be replete with alienated, apathetic, or
powerless individuals. Evidence of a lack of public space on campuses will be a faculty that does not model the
pursuit of justice, wisdom, and inquiry as citizens, and a passive student body. It does not suffice to be critical only
in the classroom, as that can only remain an academic exercise, regardless of its intent or the power contained in its
instruction. The academy must preserve and even augment public space since it is there, through critical discourse,
that the common “good” can be formed and developed, for “at its root, criticism is always moral in character”
(Walzer, 1988, p.9)—and it is a public critic with a sincere interest in furthering public discourse, and not the
individualistic complainer, who works to change conditions for the better.
Hannah Arendt, “The Crisis in Culture” inBetween Past and Future: Six Exercises in Political Thought (Meridian,
Seyla Benabib,Situating the Self (Routledge, NY, 1992).
James Downey,The University as Trinity: Balancing Corporation, Collegium, and Community
Paul Lakeland, “Preserving the lifeworld, restoring the public sphere, renewing higher education” Cross Currents,
Winter 1993, v.43, issue 4 pp.488-503.
Charles Taylor, “Liberal Politics and the Public Sphere” in Amitai Etzioni, ed.New Communitarian Thinking
(Charlottesville, UPV, 1995).
Michael Walzer,The Company of Critics ( Basic Books, NY 1988).
Williamsburg Charter, reprinted in Charles Haynes “Finding Common Ground: A First Amendment Guide to
Religion and Public Education” (Nashville, 1994).
How Do Girls Define Resistance and What Would They Resist?
Implications for Critical Pedagogy
By Monie Hayes
Abstract: The reported qualitative case study examines peer dynamics and program uptake among one
group of adolescent Girl Scouts in a small, predominantly White, working- and middle-class Midwestern
community. Specifically, the research, which included observation, interviews, and document analysis, focused on a
troop of high school girls and their implementation of the Girl Scouts’ Media Know-How program through the
collaborative authorship and production of a radio vignette. The study braids together scholarship about gender,
adolescence, popular culture, critical media literacy, and learning communities to frame an analysis of the ways
participants in an informal, outside-school educational program implemented a critical literacy program designed
for girls. The project was intended to add both ethnographic evidence and the voices of youth to contemporary
conversations about young people’s relationships to popular media, girls’ experiences in a sexist society, and
learning in outside-school settings.
Our children are going to hell, and Hollywood, in a handbasket. At the same time, our girl children are
traveling their own road to perdition, one paved with good intentions—good, that is, where prevalent discourses of
femininity conflate “goodness” with self-abnegation while common cultural representations of women and girls
continue to objectify, diminish, and constrain us. The preceding statements summarize, respectively, much of the
current thought about kids’ relationship to popular culture and much of the recent scholarship about growing up and
assuming a gendered identity in contemporary Western culture. Not surprisingly, adults want to steer youngsters off
these paths. But the prevailing conventional and scholarly wisdom about kids in trouble, while it seems to grow
from an ethos of care about kids, casts both youth and gender as problems to be solved, realms of peril instead of
possibility. It further casts adults who would intervene in these dynamics as advocates for kids, here girls in
particular, in a didactic role, reading from a “We know what’s good for you” script. Moreover, such opinions often
are put forth as if viewing, listening, or logging on were somehow context-free, with little regard to the social
dynamics that inform viewing and response, and certainly color kids’ authorship of media messages.
One important strand of scholarship during the previous decade has, however, considered the ways in
which girls, as situated audiences, take up popular media, and the ways in which publications marketed to
adolescent girls position them to reproduce patriarchal, “lookist,” and consumerist personas and practices. Spurred
by the 1992 release ofHow Schools Shortchange Girls by the American Association of University Women, scholars
have identified girls as at risk in particular ways in our schools and larger Western culture, especially as they enter
adolescence (American Association of University Women, 1992, 1999; Debold, 2001; Finders, 1997; Gilligan,
1993; Girl Scouts of the USA, 2000; Orenstein, 1994; Pipher, 1994; Sadker & Sadker, 1994). A branch of this
inquiry has considered girls’ literate practices, in particular the ways in which they respond and are positioned with
regard to popular genres (Cherland, 1994; Christian-Smith, 1993; B. Davies, 1993a; Enciso, 1998; Finders, 1997;
Gilbert and Taylor, 1991; Trachsel, 1998; Willinsky & Hunniford, 1993). These scholars find that such narrative
forms as horror films, horse stories, teen romances, and teen ‘zines operate as little more than primers for patriarchy,
serving to reinscribe middle-class morés of “ladylike” gentility as inextricably bound to happy endings.
Where kids are being sold a shoddy “identity kit” (Gee, 1987), it is, of course, proper to intervene and
invite them to interrogate messages that position them in delimiting ways as, for example, the man of action, the
“perfect” girl, or the savvy consumer. It is also appropriate to work with kids to confront the gender and class
inequity that popular media genres often reflect. But as literacy scholars, it is likewise appropriate that we
interrogate the assumptions, including our own, surrounding the phenomena of response as well as those implicit
within the electronic messages that increasingly are a part of our children’s lives, and that we turn our energies
toward considering all that these representations might mean to the young people who view and listen to them, often
with enthusiasm and sometimes with disdain. This is what I sought to do in my dissertation research, and I excerpted
and adapted my doctoral thesis,Smart Cookies, published in 2004, for this report. The project’s title at once
indicates a rhetorical-political stance with regard to adolescent audiences’ extant savvy and a penchant for wordplay
since my research informants were members of a Girl Scout troop. I recount and consider one aspect of my
findings, which inform the title of this piece.
My findings underscore my conviction that an authentic apprehension of children’s relationships to media
is vital to developing a sound and substantive grounded theoretical base to support critical media literacy instruction.
Developing such insight is especially vital because media literacy pedagogy is gaining a stronghold among
education practitioners and scholars. In the 1990s, for instance, both the International Reading Association and
National Council of Teachers of English included media literacy among their literacy standards. In 1999, Girl Scouts
of the USA introduced its own critical media literacy program, Media Know-How, whose uptake I chronicled in two
group settings, including the focal troop whose implementation of the program this article reports. Any
understanding of girls’ relationship to media must extend beyond consideration of particular young people’s habits
and assumptions with regard to media to include an accounting for their relationships to their social worlds and the
cultural context in which any text or image, and the ideology it naturalizes or interrogates, circulates. This can offer
insight not only into how various textual messages mean for kids, but additionally, into why they are fraught. Taking
this approach can surprise us, but it can both complicate and inform our work with adolescents toward fostering
critical media literacy—and critical cultural literacy—in productive ways.
Again, many approaches to gender, adolescence, popular media and culture, and literacy learning itself
seemed based on the notion that there is a problem to be fixed and little recognition of the resources at
hand—namely, the young people we are ostensibly trying to “help.” What social and intellectual resources do they
bring to viewership, authorship, and response? What resources do they want to develop? A research stance that
considers their central role as participants in media literacy learning, production, and response can yield answers to
these questions. To generate a portrait of one critical literacy program and its mobilization by a specific group of
learners, I turned to the Girl Scouts of the USA and one adolescent troop’s implementation of the organization’s
Media Know-How program (Cryan/GSUSA, 1999).
I sought an adolescent troop, and was able to negotiate entry to observe one group of fifth and sixth graders
as well as the ninth and tenth graders who became my focal subjects, because of the pressures that accompany the
inculcation of gender at adolescence (Gilligan, 1993; et al. as listed above). This work alerts or reminds adults who
grew up in the era of “women’s liberation” that the notion that the girls they are raising and teaching are growing up
in a post-feminist culture is a myth in the discursive service of ongoing male privilege, veiled in genteel admonitions
not to make waves.
In perhaps the most widely read of the 1990s gender tomes,Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of
Adolescent Girls(1994), psychologist Mary Pipher pronounces that we live in “a girl-poisoning culture” (p. 12) and
discusses the ways femininity is defined by contradiction and limitation and the consequences of the processes of
subjectification that girls undergo:
Girls have long been trained to be feminine at considerable cost to their humanity. They have long
been evaluated on the basis of appearance and caught in myriad double binds: achieve, but not too
much; be polite, but be yourself; be feminine and adult; be aware of our cultural heritage, but
don’t comment on the sexism. Another way to describe this femininity training is to call it false
self-training. Girls are trained to be less than who they really are. They are trained to be what the
culture wants of its young women, not what they themselves want to become. (44)
Thus the discursive norms of ideal femininity are at odds with each other in frustrating and delimiting
ways. Pipher is apt to remark the arbitrary and constraining ways that social discursive norms of gender can inhibit
girls, but her observations suffer the conceptual shortcoming of presenting restrictive cultural norms in opposition to
an idealized notion of the self, in particular as it is experienced in a romanticized childhood. I would argue that the
term “false self-training” most accurately conveys that the options girls face for enacting gender are narrow and thus
prohibit certain ways of performing one’s subjectivity in socially sanctioned ways. If girls’ felt motives fall outside
the recognized standard for “doing girl,” girls might not act upon them—or might face consequences for so doing.
What is false is what is not full. The fault of cultural standards for the performance of gendered identity is not that
they operate to sever girls from their previously fixed and authentic selves but that they work to constrict the
Pipher is not the only feminist scholar to illustrate that the rules for enacting gender are contradictory in
ways that give girls coming of age in Western culture few satisfying options or to point out that social standards can
seem at odds with what girls understand to be their own motivations. Psychologist Carol Gilligan, who participated
in the 1992 AAUW research, explains that girls are especially vulnerable to feelings of loss and consequent anger as
they enter adolescence, when the inculcation of femininity intensifies. Reporting the findings of a study of
adolescent girls, Gilligan (1993) describes the process as one of psychic tumult and struggle precisely because it is
not natural. Gilligan’s findings echo Pipher’s claim that girls are caught in a web of cultural paradox where they are
led to be “good,” “nice” girls in a social world that is not always good and nice, in particular to them. Girls, who
prize caring and are judged by how caring they appear (Gilligan, 1982/1993, 1993; Nilan, 1991), learn that if they
don’t have anything nice to say, then they shouldn’t say anything at all. But they do so at great psychic cost, for in
order to maintain approval and interpersonal connection, they learn to behave in socially constructed “feminine”
ways that feel as artificial as they are.
One of the most pernicious cultural myths is that of the perfect girl. The omnipresence of this impossibleto-
emulate role model holds girls to “a standard that does not come out of their experience and an image that,
because embodied, calls into question the reality that they have lived in” (Gilligan, 1993, p. 158). In addition to
inculcating acquiescence, then, social norms of femininity inculcate self-doubt as girls approach and move through
adolescence. Gilligan describes the impact of such recurrent narrative and social tropes as perfect girls and
swaggering heroes upon the actual girls growing up in a patriarchal culture beholden to such myths. According to
Gilligan, girls discover that they are at risk:
if they continue to know what they know, and especially if they say it in public. What once
seemed ordinary to girls – speaking, difference, anger, conflict, fighting, bad as well as good
thoughts and feelings, now seem treacherous: laced with danger, a sign of imperfection, a
harbinger of being left out, not chosen. (ibid.)
Where prevalent discourses of gender define femininity against a standard of consideration for the comfort
of others over one’s own, a recalcitrant girl risks not only correction but ostracism. The girl who dares to speak her
mind, to voice her perceptions—to “comment on the sexism”—risks being defined as different and socially rejected,
a particularly deterrent consequence for adolescents and especially harsh discipline for girls, given Gilligan’s earlier
observations (1982/1993) that girls are inculcated into an ethos of care; they come to construct their identities and
weigh their value and importance in the social world in terms of their relationships to others.
Gilligan identifies what adolescent girls thus experience as “the central dilemma of relationship: how to
speak honestly and also stay in connection with others” (1993, p. 150). In order to be “good,” and thus maintain
approval from significant others, girls must deal with those others less openly.
Girls’ accounts of the social practices of teen femininity indicate that assuming and enacting a gendered
subject position remains a struggle involving choices and costs. The 1999 AAUW reportVoices of a Generation,
with its participant suggestions for cultural, attitudinal, and school reform, demonstrates that feminism is not an
adult-down project. The project, in which GSUSA was one of a handful of national partners, was undertaken to
include girls’ perspectives in research and advocacy undertaken on their behalf. It represents a deliberate attempt to
bring girls’ voices into discussions of the problems they face and the solutions they imagine—and to take them
seriously. The case study reported in this thesis represents a similarly informed, more longitudinal effort on a
smaller participant scale.
The data reported inVoices is drawn from a series of day-long summits held across the United States, at
which girls were invited to discuss their experiences and list issues that concern them as adolescent girls along with
the changes they’d like to see in their social environment; specifically, AAUW researchers coded preliminary
questionnaires completed by 730 girls, roughly one-third of the participant pool. The findings of the AAUW’s 1999
follow-up to the earlier study reveal that today’s schoolgirls remain oppressed and inhibited by a school culture
which values them according to their looks and marginalizes those who do not meet the accepted standard. The
findings confirm that it is not easy being an adolescent girl and that girls want support in meeting and negotiating
the social challenges they face. This includes a stated desire among pre-adolescent and adolescent respondents for a
discursive space where they might talk about the issues that concern them.
Most of the eleven- to seventeen-year-old girls invited to discuss their experiences reported sexual pressure
and body image problems, along with an absence of help from parents or schools in dealing with these issues (ibid.,
p. 3). Most name harassment as something they wish they could change about their schools. Yet many report having
taken part as well as having been a victim; this not only reveals the extent of sexual harassment in schools, but
demonstrates the fluidity of subject position and participant structure, specifically among adolescent social practices.
It also speaks to the pervasiveness of intimidation among teens (ibid., p. 23) and the likelihood that the harshest peer
policing will be related to the performance of one’s sexual or gendered identity.
Summit participants named teen pregnancy more than any other issue as “the ‘major issue’ or struggle in
their lives” (ibid., p. 17), with Black and Latino girls naming teen pregnancy as a significant concern more
frequently than White and Asian-American girls. (Sixty-two percent of Latino girls, fifty-seven percent of Black
girls, thirty-one percent of Native American girls, twenty-one percent of White girls, and nineteen percent of the
Asian-American girls who completed a questionnaire named pregnancy as one of the most important issues or
struggles facing teen girls.) Moreover, girls’ characterization of sexuality as perilous extended beyond a cause-andeffect
appreciation of the risk of pregnancy; their depiction of the experience of sexuality was embedded in a
discourse of coercion along a continuum that ranged from harassment to assault. Girls reported sexuality as fraught
with social consequences—“a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t” social practice that echoes Gilbert and
Taylor’s “slags or drags” discourse of teen femininity. Yet some respondents expressed the desire to be able to
interact with boys as friends, as well as to explore their sexual feelings and curiosity in a safe, respectful
interpersonal context without necessarily proceeding to intercourse. Fine (1993) writes of the missing discourse of
desire in pregnancy-prevention education, an absence that reflects cultural discomfort surrounding and “moral”
condemnation of female sexual appetites. Many feminist educators and scholars, myself included, welcomed her
observations as broadening the standard of wholesomeness. Yet this perspective was not apparent in the AAUW
informants’ responses; the majority of girls seemed to associate sexuality more with pressure than pleasure and did
not seem nearly as ill at ease with the desires they felt as with the social consequences of either avoiding or
exploring sexual activity. They found that boys condemned them as bitches or lesbians for rejecting their overtures,
while girls either branded them sluts for their involvement with boys (whatever form it might take) or labeled them
babies or prudes for abstaining from it. Instead of foregrounding desire, or volition, a discourse of acquiescence
reverberates in girls’ answer to the question, “What is something that someone has said to you that you wish they
hadn’t?” Girls voiced a hesitancy to say no to sexual overtures because they will be—or had been—judged “rude” or
“not nice” (ibid., pp. 28-29).
If we wish to extend the choices and mitigate the costs girls encounter, we need to couple our awareness of
discursive dynamics and gender ideology with a consideration of actual girls’ experience, to find out what they
perceive their problems to be. Adults can most productively work with girls to explore their desires, barriers to their
fulfillment, and the consequences of fulfilling or them or not, in our attempts to include girls’ voices in the work of
feminism and determining what form that will take.
Girl Scouts of the USA and Media Know-How
A look at the history of Girl Scouts, in particular a consideration of the organization’s “curriculum,” from
such past programs as a 1969 series of summits and program intended to confront racial prejudice to more recent
programs encouraging girls’ involvement in sports and development of financial and computer savvy, shows the
organization to be at the crest of public and professional awareness about the issues that affect girls’ lived
experience. Thus, observing a focal troop’s uptake of a Girl Scout program seemed a good way to take some girls’
attitudinal pulse, and to consider how institutional agendas meshed with the girls’ motives. I have not doubted since
my original reading of the Media Know-How booklets for Scouts and troop leaders that this program was informed
by an awareness of the exhortations to consumerism and the measuring of oneself against a false physical ideal,
along with the derogation of women some popular lyrics seem to condone—indeed, the booklets explicitly mention
these trends (Cryan/GSUSA, 1999). These elements, along with my own critical concerns and those expressed by
my colleagues, previous research participants, and even my children and their friends, who already at a tenth
birthday sleepover lamented the “girl in jep” formula they recognized in preteen suspense films, led me to expect a
Media Know-How project that interrogated prevalent images of femininity and offered an agentic
alternative—which is in fact what members of the focal troop ultimately produced, though through a text more
closely aligned with the AAUW informants’ voiced concerns about the politics and consequences of sexuality than
with my own prior research informants’ expressed desire for popular cultural representations of feminine personae
that included “an awesome girl kicking rearend” (Hayes, 1999).
Girl Scouts of the USA has a long and varied history that reflects both the social practices it has endeavored
to reproduce and the progressive ideals that have been part of the cultural context the organization has sought to
expand. In this way, according to Halpern, it is similar to many after-school programs:
[T]he after-school field has a rich and interesting tradition . . . After-school programs have defined
themselves in terms of protection, care, opportunity for enrichment, and play while simultaneously
defining themselves in terms of socialization, acculturation, training, and problem remediation.
Providers have argued that program activities should be shaped by children’s interests and
preferences and yet also by what they as adults thought children needed. (2002, p. 179)
Consideration of the history and programs of GSUSA uncovers many of these tensions along with contrasts
between the organization’s present and past social practices. From its liberal roots in opening opportunities for
outdoor excursions—among other more and less traditional activities—to girls without challenging gender divisions
to its overtly collectivist current-day incarnation, the organization itself is a window into overlapping and protean
discourses of gender, youth development, and community. For instance, the organizational slogan is now “Where
girls grow strong” where just a few years ago it was the more individualistic “We grow leaders, one girl at a time”
(http://www.gsusa.org). In an organization with the Girl Scouts’ long history, numerous programs, and diverse
localized program uptake, it is not surprising that accounts of the organization should suggest a wide range of
meaning or experience for girls. Again, the focus of my research was on girls’ interpretations.
GSUSA traces its history to 1912, when the organization was founded by Savannahanian Juliette Gordon
Low. The initial unit included eighteen girls. Low’s organization was a reflection of the British Scouting movement;
in fact, it was modeled after the British Girl Guides, which was in turn an offshoot of the recently organized British
Boy Scouts, founded by Sir Robert Baden-Powell (Jacobson, 1985). In keeping with the ethos of the age (Neil,
1912), Low founded the organization in order to provide wholesome outdoor activities for girls, who customarily
were “cloistered” in their homes (http://www.gsusa.org/ organization/briefhistory.htm). An additional goal of the
program was community service (par. 1). Current program goals include fostering the development of girls’
potential and self-esteem, respect for and cooperation with others, reflective and ethical decision-making, and
contributions to the larger community (http://www.gsusa.org/programs.html).
The organizational structure of GSUSA is one of regional Councils (Iowa, for example, has five; Missouri,
nine) and local troops, several of which might coexist across and within age divisions in any town or city. More than
400 employees currently work at the national headquarters in New York (http://www.gsusa.org/organization/
facts.htm). But despite the full-time national cadre, it is council staff and troop leaders who carry out Scouting
programs at the local level. GSUSA bills itself as the largest voluntary organization for girls, open to all girls ages 5
through 17 (or K-12) “who subscribe to its ideals as stated in the Girl Scout Promise and Law” (p. 2). Today’s
GSUSA troop articulation now comprises Daisy Girl Scouts (Daisy was Juliette Gordon Low’s nickname), ages 5-6
and grades K-1; Brownie Girl Scouts, ages 6-8 and grades 1-3; Junior Girls Scouts, ages 8-11 and grades 3-6;
Cadette Girl Scouts, ages 11-14 and grades 6-9; and Senior Girls Scouts, ages 14-17 and grades 9-12. Daisies joined
GSUSA in the 1980s, while the Junior and Cadette distinction dates to 1963 and the Brownies to 1937 (Jacobson,
1985, p. 31) and represents a bracketing off of young adolescent troops at a time that coincided with a renaissance of
professional interest in the middle school movement (Cuban, 1992). Along with its handbook and initial and
evolving age divisions (e.g., the addition of Brownie troops), the Girl Scouts’ law and oath are traceable to the UK
Boy Scouts’ movement. It has been my experience that some in the academy are skeptical of any Girl Scout troop or
program’s progressive potential, especially given the organization’s roots in colonial nationalism and enduring links
to patriotism. Coke cites Lesko to characterize the Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts as agents of youth development in the
service of cultural maintenance (2002, p. 44). Palladino notes that the organization was one of the “character
builders” of the 1920s and ‘30s (1996, p. 18). Walkerdine (1990) finds the organization, with its roots in the British
Scouting movement, reactionary and nationalistic to the point of fascism. I would argue that patriotism is as slippery
a term as any other and that its definition, like all meaning, is locally constructed and contingent. Thus, one person
who hears the term might conjure, say, a John Ashcroft (talk about surprising) while another thinks of current-day
activists for peace. The point is that the social field of the Girl Scouts organization is open and, as its history reveals,
prone to shift. Any of its programs, too, is open to varied local uptake.
Released in 1999, Media Know-How invites girls of varying ages to explore common genres, consider
specific examples of them and, in the case of older girls, create their own game show based on information about the
media (“Media Know-How for Junior Girl Scouts”) or produce their own alternative texts (“Media Know-How for
Cadette and Senior Girl Scouts”). Media Know-How includes a series of booklets for Girl Scouts of different ages,
authored by Rosemarie Cryan, membership and program consultant for GSUSA. The booklet for five- to eight-yearold
Daisy and Brownie Girl Scouts features puzzles, games, and, illustrations intended to introduce terminology.
“Media Know-How for Junior Girl Scouts” features a simulated, read-along game show that introduces media
terminology and describes the history of various media. In addition to reading the script in the booklet, girls may
create and enact their own game shows using information they have gathered from various print and electronic
sources. Twelve- to eighteen-year-old Cadette and Senior Girl Scouts’ booklets contain information that enables
them to design their own magazines, videos, Web pages, and song lyrics. In addition to listing elements of
production (including sound effects and camera angles for video and audience and updates for Web pages) that girls
might consider in authoring original texts, the booklet notes that “Some magazines for girls and women focus too
much on superficial topics rather than ones that appeal to the reader’s intelligence, creativity and ingenuity” and
offer unrealistic visual images of women (Cryan/GSUSA, p. 8).
The tone of each booklet is bright, and each seems written to achieve a balance between admitting pleasure
(in the use as well as the production of media) and questioning stereotypical representations and calls to
consumerism (Alvermann, Moon, & Hagood, 1999; Buckingham, 1993). Zipes (1994) has noted that popular
cultural narratives have been regarded metaphorically as either a mirror or mold of audience values; that is, the
common culture has been subject to folk culture and mass culture interpretations (Hagood, 2001). The Media Know-
How literature seems to take a somewhat more complicated perspective; the language of the booklet for Cadette and
Senior Girl Scouts casts media offerings as a marketplace of experience and ideology and exhorts girls to be
thoughtful shoppers, “‘buying’ only those ideas and opinions with which you are comfortable” (Cryan/GSUSA, p.
5). The program casts media discourse as dialogic and girls as legitimate peripheral participants (Lave & Wenger,
1991) by inviting them to plan and complete their own creative projects in various genres and offering suggestions
for determining what materials they will need for production.
I hoped that observing a group of adolescent Girl Scouts would accommodate my goal of learning more
about the enactment of gender at adolescence, about adolescent girls’ uses for media and for critical media literacy
instruction, and about the social context of a particular outside-school learning community as these various
discursive domains inter-animated one another. I hoped that observing a focal troop and its implementation of
organizational programs would enable me to discover what the girls thought they needed to know and why they
decided what they wanted to say. I wanted to see how a focal group of adolescent girls would or would not use their
participation in this program to address their concerns about the media or craft a message in order to fill a void in the
popular culture and the social practices that constitute both media representations and girls’ experiences more
immediately. I wanted to include girls’ voices in interpreting the process as well as the outcome of production in
order to get their take on the experience of learning in a collaborative context, their message, and its intended
I spent fourteen months documenting one adolescent Girl Scout troop’s implementation of GSUSA’s
critical media literacy program Media Know-How within the context of a season of troop activities they shared.
Members of an ancillary troop allowed me to observe their implementation of the program during one monthly
meeting. I gathered data from September 30, 2001, through December 12, 2002, though I began working to
negotiate entry to a research site in May of 2001. Through interviews, observation, and transcript and document
analysis, I explored ways they approached producing a media text and the topics and concerns that informed their
choices. This qualitative case study was not designed as an exercise in program assessment. Rather, my purpose was
to add to the scholarly knowledge about what is important, annoying, meaningful, and distressing to girls, and upon
what standards and values they base their judgments. I chose the focal troop not only because of the opportunity to
observe its sessions over time, but because as Cadette and Senior Girl Scouts, their Media Know-How
implementation would include the collaborative composition of a message. Cadette Girl Scouts, again, include girls
in grades six through nine, or usually eleven to fifteen years old while Seniors are fifteen- to seventeen- or eighteenyear-
old tenth through twelfth graders. Moreover, because of the social pressures facing girls as they enter
adolescence (Brown, 2001; Cherland, 1994; Debold, 2001; Finders, 1997; Gilligan, 1993, 1995), I sought an
adolescent troop to take part in this study.
The selection of both research site and subjects had much to do with negotiating entry with the Girl Scouts
organization. Similar to Alvermann et al.’s public library-based study of outside school literacy (1999), invitations
to take part in this research were issued across a geographic region and participants self-selected into the project. So
while I was looking for specific characteristics—in particular, for adolescent Girl Scouts, along with a willingness to
participate in Media Know-How and as much diversity as I could find—in the end, identifying subjects and thus
determining a setting for this project came down to which troop(s) within that framework selected me. I determined
that this way of coming to participation, this dynamic of subject volition, was appropriate given my research
questions and their focus on identifying adolescent girls’ interests in participating in a critical media literacy
program and an outside-school organization for girls.
By May of 2001, I had contacted program directors of four councils and left messages with a camp director
at a fifth. Two councils, including the Golden Path Council, where I eventually conducted most of my research, are
located in one state; one (the Running Waters Council, where the younger troop I observed on one occasion met)
includes communities in that state and an adjacent state, in which the camp where I made inquiries is also located;
and the fourth council includes communities across the border of a third state. By September I had spoken with
program directors and field managers in the offices of each of the four councils. All were receptive to my call and
agreed to pass along word of my proposed study to their service unit managers and, subsequently, troop leaders. I
shared an abstract of my proposed research project with each regional Girl Scout official with whom I spoke. It was
difficult, however, to locate a focal troop in this way because troop activities are troop driven; therefore, people at
the Council level could not know what programs groups of girls in different towns would choose to complete in the
coming school year. Most troops, at least in the councils where I made contact, meet during the months of the
traditional school year with some members continuing their involvement in Girl Scouting into the summer through
attending programs at area Girl Scout camps. In August of 2001, as the result of a telephone inquiry, I got a spot on
the agenda of the Golden Path Council service unit meeting (a meeting of volunteers representing the various
population clusters in the council) and described my project to the women assembled there. Three troop leaders
listed their names and additional contact information. (Note: All local/regional proper names in this report are
pseudonymous to ensure participants’ confidentiality; research participants likewise are identified with
Meanwhile, I had continued to make inquiries to personnel at other council offices, in particular Running
Waters, whose program director put me in touch with two troop leaders. One was willing to participate but her Daisy
troop was too young; another, who worked with middle school-age girls, indicated that their troop schedule for the
coming year would not accommodate my research plans. Yet also during the first month of the 2001-2002 academic
year, a colleague put me in touch with another troop leader from the Running Waters Council. She was intrigued to
learn about Media Know-How, and upon obtaining copies of the booklets from council headquarters, was
enthusiastic about the program and reported that she would encourage her troop of older Junior Girl Scouts to make
it the centerpiece of one of their monthly meetings. While I observed that meeting and appreciated the troop’s
willingness to try the new Media Know-How program and invite me to observe the session, I concluded that
documentation of one monthly session was not comparable to the rich field of data I gathered from the focal troop.
A follow-up phone call after the August 2001 meeting led to my initial observation of the focal troop, when they
gathered on a Sunday afternoon in September in the sun room of a fast food chain.
The primary site for this study is the town of Astoria, a mostly working- and middle-class Midwestern
community whose population is approximately 8,000. It is, then, a small town, with one public middle school whose
enrollment was 496 and whose public high school enrollment was 653 during the 2001-02 school year (Telephone
communication 6 February 2003). Its student athletes and musicians compete in the 3-A division, where 4-A denotes
the largest schools in the largely rural state where the town abides. Astoria has a handful of banks, its own twoscreen
cinema, and a collection of Main Street businesses and restaurants along with the regional fixtures Hardee’s,
Pizza Hut, and Wal-Mart.
According to Astoria Chamber of Commerce staff, during the course of this study the largest local
employers included a Wal-Mart distribution center, four factories, and the public school district. Near the end of this
study, Astoria lost 325 jobs when a smaller manufacturer closed its local plant to consolidate production in a
Southern state and an additional manufacturer, again not among the top six local employers, cut its workforce by 15
percent (Telephone communication 6 February 2003). In addition to its public schools, Astoria is home to a private
four-year college and a K-12 Christian school that operates in the shell of an old discount store. The Springfield
Community College operates a satellite campus in what used to be a downtown department store. Springfield is a
community of some twenty-five to thirty thousand citizens, some twenty-five to thirty miles away. It is also the site
of the regional Girl Scout council headquarters.
Many adults who live in Astoria grew up there, and the number of years one—or indeed, one’s family—has
resided in the community can have more to do with one’s standing within it than the number of years of
postsecondary education, or dollars in annual earnings, one claims. The median family income in Astoria was
$46,062 while the median household income was $35,558 in 2000. Meanwhile, state median income averages were,
respectively, $48,005 and $39,462, according to the Workforce Development Agency Web site posted by officials of
the state in which Astoria is located. According to Astoria Community School District officials, 351 students
qualified for free school lunches and 129 for reduced-price lunches during the 1999-2000 school year, when total
district enrollment for grades K-12 was 2,176 (telephone communication, 6 February 2003). In addition to being
mostly lower- to middle-income, the population of Astoria was also overwhelmingly White, though there is a
growing Asian, mostly Laotian and Vietnamese, population, along with a smaller but also growing Latino
For the reported study, data collection sites included the afore-mentioned Hardee’s, two focal troop
members’ homes, a Methodist church, a Presbyterian church, a park shelter, a community festival held at a park, a
pizzeria, a steak buffet restaurant in Astoria and one in Springfield, the Springfield Country Club, Girl Scout council
headquarters for the region (located in Springfield), and Astoria’s lone radio station.
Primary subject-participants in this study were the members of one focal troop of Cadette and Senior Girl
Scouts and their leaders. The group included six members: Chaz, Erin, Michelle, Mikayla, Emily, and Natalie. A
seventh girl, Jessica, left the troop during the observation period. Except for Erin, who was in tenth grade when the
study began, I observed members of the focal troop during their freshman year and the first months of their
sophomore year. Thus, while Erin was a Senior Girl Scout when I began observing the troop, the other girls were
Cadettes during most of the time of this study and became Senior Girl Scouts during the summer of 2002. Other
focal participants include the troop leader, Vickie, who is Chaz’s mother. The troop’s co-leader, Lisa, who is
Vickie’s sister-in-law and Chaz’s aunt, left the community and also the troop near the end of the first school year I
Like most Astorians, the focal girls lived in surroundings that are in every way comfortable but by no
means plush. Also like most Astorians, they could be classified as members of the working or middle class. Vickie
Wells was an information technology specialist (a digital importer) at an Astoria industry and her husband, Chaz’s
father, worked as a service technician. Erin’s dad, who died suddenly in the spring of 2004, worked as a driver for
FedEx during the time his daughter participated in this study, while Erin’s mom worked at Main St. Pizzeria with
Michelle’s mom. Michelle’s father farmed. Mikayla’s father worked as a construction engineer at and vice president
of a local construction company while Mikayla’s mom was the elementary talented and gifted (TAG) instructor and
a junior-senior high school coach for a small, neighboring public school district. Emily’s parents both were
employed at the same local factory. Natalie, the only focal participant whose parents were not married to each other,
lived with her mother and younger sister. Her mother sold advertisements for the AstoriaGazette.
For the most part, these girls had been friends for a long time, and their membership in the troop was
longstanding. There were exceptions, though—or perhaps more precisely, variations. While Chaz, Erin, Jessica, and
Michelle’s history with the troop was as old as the troop itself, dating back to their kindergarten year together as
Daisy Scouts (Vickie’s history as troop leader reached as far), Mikayla joined after she moved from Springfield to
Astoria when she was in the third grade, while Emily defied membership trends by joining during middle school.
Natalie’s affiliation with the troop was longstanding, but like Emily’s, more peripheral. Each of these two girls took
part in troop activities more on the basis of her interest in them than her availability to attend.
Chaz, more than anyone, was the leader and spokesperson of the Astoria Cadettes. She spoke relatively
frequently and often at greater length than her troopmates. Moreover, whether in answer to an interview question or
at the start of a presentation to a community group, Chaz often spoke first and set the terms of the focal troop’s
enactment of its collective identity. She seemed to enjoy assuming the leadership role she so often stepped into, and
to prize opportunities to do so—and to experience frustration when they were not proffered. When I asked her and
her troopmates about their experience with group work at school, Chaz reported that “It’s usually one person that’s
in charge and then you have to listen to ‘em.” The implication was that in the classroom, she did not enjoy regular
access to the subject position of being “in charge” and that she did not relish “having to listen,” at least not
exclusively or passively. Chaz was the sort of girl who looked adults and cameras straight in the eye. Tall and
strong, she was a powerful softball pitcher for the Astoria Tigers in addition to performing in the concert band, as a
flag girl in the marching band, and in the high school chorus. She was additionally an avid participant in her church
and its youth group.
Erin was a quiet girl with a steady temperament and a warm sense of humor. I came to refer to her as the
glue of the troop in that her regular presence and vocalization of support of the other Astoria Cadettes’ observations
set the standard for performing and renewing troop cohesion. On more than one occasion, she said that she didn’t
enjoy speech class, though she prepared for and delivered a topical subsection of the troop’s public presentation to
members of the local Kiwanis club. Erin was particularly close to Chaz; they spent time together outside the troop.
And though she often spoke to affirm her good friend’s pronouncements with a succinct “Yeah,” I never thought of
Erin as deferential to Chaz, but rather, saw the friends’ attributes as complementary. Where Erin seemed
comfortable basking in Chaz’s light, Chaz enjoyed Erin’s presence like cool shade. Like all her troopmates and their
adult leaders, Erin made the occasional irreverent or teasing statement in addition to her more frequently earnest
remarks. Erin was shorter than average, with long, straight hair and pale, almost transparent eyes in an aqua tint I’ve
never seen in any other actual face and of whose description in a novel I’d be skeptical.
Michelle was the focal girl I thought of as the most typical teen. Tall, slender, and pretty, she seemed to
possess a certain wistfulness. Toward the end of the study, she forwarded an e-mail about “How to Treat a Girl on a
Date,” a message dripping in romance ideology simultaneously present with an implicit yearning to be cherished.
Michelle sometimes challenged Chaz’s declarations, or amended them; she also critiqued the radio script for internal
inconsistency. Michelle at times inflected her comments with a certain theatrical irony as she parodied teen behavior
or media representations. Yet she, like her troopmates, was by turns earnest as well as irreverent. Michelle was good
friends with Mikayla. When I e-mailed her requesting consent to describe my study for the council newsletter (as I
was invited to do when I interviewed the council’s vice president for membership and programs), Michelle sent back
a reply signed “Yours in Girl Scouting” with both their names. Michelle also was good friends with Jessica, at least
at the start of the study. During the ice breaker she led at the start of Sports Event for younger girls, when she
directed each of them in turn to say something they liked to do, Michelle opened with, “I like hanging out with my
good friend, Jessica.” Emily came to the troop during middle school because of her friendship with Jessica and
Michelle. Michelle was a cheerleader for the wrestling squad. She was the second of four children; her older brother
and his girlfriend, who spoke during a Decisions for Your Life session, were raising a baby together. Michelle at
once, or alternately, expressed affection for the baby and awareness of the challenges the young couple faced as
Mikayla was a smart, artistically talented, somewhat quirky girl with a quick, dry wit. She was tall and so
thin that people mentioned it when they mentioned her. She enjoyed science fiction. When Vickie was late for a
rehearsal of the troop’s upcoming presentation for local troop leaders, a dance routine, the girls took to the church
basement stage in part to practice and in part to improvise in a playful way. The routine involved flags and Mikayla
said, “It’s the only chance I’ll get to be a flag girl,” picked one up, and started hamming a part. She described her
older brother as “annoying” and herself as “normal” with “crazy moments.” She was an animal lover who favored
turtles, real and represented. Hers was the only firmly middle-class family among my research participants’.
Natalie was an intelligent, rather hip girl, who liked all kinds of music and adored her younger sister. An
avid writer, Natalie wrote a column in theAstoria Gazette, where her mother sold advertising. Among Natalie’s
subjects were learning to drive and the kindness of a stranger who stopped at her little sister’s lemonade stand and
generously overpaid. She wrote for the school paper as well and took part in speech activities. A tall, large girl,
Natalie was proud of being selected to attend JEL (Just Eliminate Lies, an anti-tobacco public relations campaign
that includes teens) camp. Like Emily, Natalie took part in some troop activities but not others.
Emily was another outspoken member of the troop. She loved interacting with younger girls and was prone
to brief bouts of singing. She fondly recalled watching the “Vegi-Tales” Christian cartoon series when she was
younger and remembered its theme song, which she sang off and on en route to the annual council banquet. Emily, a
cute, petite blonde, was the sort of girl one might label perky. During the course of the study, she was the only girl
who spoke of having a regular boyfriend (though Chaz kept in touch with an out-of-town boy she’d met at a church
camp the summer before I began observing the troop). She sang in the high school chorus and bagged groceries at a
During the time of the study, in addition to their participation in Girl Scouts, each of these focal subjects
were involved in at least one school-sponsored extracurricular activity. Most took part in the marching band or flag
corps, while Natalie wrote for the student newspaper and had a column published in the AstoriaGazette. Chaz and
Michelle were cheerleaders for the wrestling squad. Chaz, Michelle, and Emily participated in the school’s vocal as
well as instrumental music program, in which Erin also took part (and, as noted, Chaz played softball). Mikayla and
Emily won academic recognition. In addition, Mikayla played on the ninth grade volleyball squad, while Chaz, Erin,
and Natalie were active in their churches. Chaz and Erin belonged to the town’s only Methodist congregation while
Natalie attended the local Mennonite church. By the end of the fourteen months I observed them, Erin was no longer
the only one driving and most of the focal girls had jobs.
Jessica remains the enigma of the troop for me, because she quit attending during the course of the study
and did not take part in any group interviews. She and Michelle had a longstanding friendship. Her parents attended
their older kids’ ballgames and dance recitals with their younger ones in tow.
Vickie had been the adult leader of the troop since she organized it during Chaz’s kindergarten year. She
was a working class, working mom with a deep Christian faith and a cheeky sense of humor. For instance, when the
girls were discussing whether to have a bonfire or use the grill to roast hot dogs at an event they planned for younger
girls, Vickie chuckled at the inadvertent antecedent when, following a mention not of the food but of the children,
she said, “Are we having a bonfire or are we cooking ‘em on the grill?” Lisa was quiet, but like the others, prone to
saucy humor. When Mikayla brought in coasters for everyone, Lisa received one whose design featured Holstein
cows. Lisa laughed that one in the foreground of her coaster showed its backside to the viewer and looked over its
shoulder, “Like it’s saying, ‘Kiss my rear end.’”
Decisions for Your Life
Like Media Know-How, Decisions for Your Life is part of the Girl Scouts’ Contemporary Issues series of
programs for girls. The goal of Media Know-How is the achievement of media literacy through learning about
different genres and how they are constructed, practicing critical and deliberate media consumption, and, for older
girls, the collaborative and creative production of a media text. The goal of Decisions for Your Life is teen
pregnancy prevention; its title implies that it is rooted in the larger program goal of reflective decision making. The
program likely is additionally informed by the basic Girl Scouts program goal of realizing one’s potential and
cultivating self-esteem given that caring for a child can complicate a girl’s plans to complete or continue her
The focal troop already had plans to complete Decisions for Your Life when I first met with them near the
outset of the 2001-2002 school year (I discovered in the troop’s enactment of Media Know-How that unfinished
business from one year might be taken up during the next). Their implementation of the program was fairly
elaborate. Vickie and Lisa assembled a roster of guest speakers and Vickie submitted an outline of the troop’s
planned implementation of the program to council officials in Springfield and sent copies home to parents of focal
girls. The program was to take place over seven weeks and include presentations from the Astoria Methodist Church
youth minister, a representative of Planned Parenthood, and four teen couples who had faced unintended pregnancy
and responded by choosing, alternately, adoption, abortion, and, in two instances, early parenthood. The first couple
included a friend of Lisa’s college-age daughter and one of the parenting couples included Michelle’s older brother
and his girlfriend. Finally, the girls were scheduled to hear from a couple who married and had a child after they
were well into adulthood. Sessions were scheduled consecutive Monday evenings during the winter and spring of
2002 in a Sunday school classroom of the Astoria Methodist Church. The program was shortened when the couple
who’d opted to terminate their pregnancy and one of the couples who’d opted for early parenthood opted not to
show up. In addition to hearing from and asking questions of the guest speakers, the Astoria Cadettes’
implementation of Decisions for Your Life included each girl’s listing of personal goals. Among Michelle’s goals,
in addition to “Become a better person,” are “Learn to resist boys, Set boundaries, Stay a virgin, [and] Control
hormones.” Erin’s list includes “Get a b/f [boyfriend] that will understand me + what I want to do/not do.” A
generous reading of this goal is of a girl who wants to have it all. Jessica listed “Control my hormones [and] Stay a
virgin.” Mikayla’s goals include “Understand yourself, resist temptations, [and] know boundaries.” Chaz recorded
only two goals: “Stay a virgin [and] To stay on top of school and keep grades up.” Only Natalie did not include
avoiding sexual activity among her list of personal goals.
The Astoria Cadettes’ Media Know-How project was a radio spot that drew upon their completion of
Decisions for Your Life. Their public service announcement took the form of a cautionary vignette designed to
promote the Decisions for Your Life goal of teen pregnancy prevention. Focal troop members took up their Media
Know-How project as a service project through which they might extend the support they received through their
involvement in Scouts to an audience of other girls. Their comments about the project and about their participation
in Girl Scouts, as I report below, indicate that focal girls found their project empowering in that it offered them a
way to contribute to the public dialogue about teen sexuality and early parenthood, to offer a supportive message to
other girls, and to speak against a discourse of adolescent experimentation and the inevitability of yielding to
curiosity or acquiescing to boys. The troop’s approaches to authorship were collaborative, recursive, and extended
over time. The group’s process in authoring a public service announcement reflected focal girls’ desire to intervene
in prevalent social norms of gendered adolescence. I also discuss tensions between the overlapping, contesting
discourses focal girls reproduced and deployed against one another in authoring the script of their radio text.
Focal girls’ process of authorship involved multiple drafts, even versions, and the luxury of a flexible time
frame for completion. The Astoria Cadettes’ participation in Media Know-How differed from their other troop
activities in that it was prompted by this study, though subjects self-selected into the project. I phoned Vickie, one of
the troop leaders who had left contact information at the August 2001 meeting where I presented my research
project and invited participation in it, after the school year began and joined a troop meeting in the sun room of a
fast food restaurant, taking along the program booklets I’d ordered from national headquarters. The girls leafed
through them and voted to complete the Media Know-How program and let me observe and document their
implementation of it. They told me they already had some activities scheduled, including a Sports Event for younger
girls in October, but that I was welcome to observe their conduct of this and other events in order to develop a sense
of how they went about getting things done. Focal girls started mulling potential messages and genres on the spot,
including producing a radio segment and “putting together” an ad based on their upcoming participation in the
Decisions for Your Life program as possibilities for their Media Know-How project.
At the initial meeting, Mikayla was selected to chair the troop’s implementation of Media Know-How
because she needed to fulfill that role in order to become eligible for an organizational award. Mikayla took home
the GSUSA booklet for Cadette and Senior girls and during the troop’s subsequent meeting she described the
program to Erin, Chaz, and Michelle. I never saw focal troop members refer to the booklet again.
Upon deciding to participate in Media Know-How, focal girls’ approach was leisurely and free-ranging as
they explored possible messages and electronic media genres before determining the ultimate focus of their project.
During a spring 2002 meeting convened to plan for several upcoming activities, focal girls mulled a possible
television spot informed by anti-drug messages in that medium. Their talk was casual and included questions about
casting and costumes. Who would be the people on the street corner (the antagonists offering drugs), Michelle
wondered, and what would they wear? The girls were half-playful, half-mocking in envisioning the hypothetical
spot, which they seemed to recognize as clichéd. “Girl Scouts is our anti-drug,” Erin quipped. The data suggest that
her parodic comment was intended to mock the genre and not the organization. Chaz, for instance, spoke during the
April interview about the artificiality of such ads’ treatment of peer pressure as isolated and episodic “when it goes
on so long.” Thus, focal girls brought critical insight into both cultural forms and cultural norms to bear on the
construction of their message. They also enjoyed an element of shared play in imagining possible scripts, even while
they simultaneously took stances which regarded familiar cautionary messages as trite. The social context of the
troop afforded a space both to offer silly messages and to deconstruct them. The outside-school, girl-determined, and
project-driven setting, as indicated, additionally afforded troop members the luxury of time: They began mulling
ideas in September, lightly discussed possible topics in early March, brainstormed specific messages following their
Decisions for Your Life sessions in late March and April, wrote and revised a script based on one of these scenarios
after troop meetings resumed in September and October, and finally recorded their message in December.
Once focal girls determined that their media text would not only center on resisting peer pressure but
specifically promote the Decisions for Your Life objective of pregnancy prevention, they brought a relaxed and
recursive approach to determining its ultimate content. At the end of three Decisions for Your Life meetings, when
guest speakers were not present, focal girls brainstormed several dramatic scenes. Among them was a two-episode
dialogue between two girls, before and after one goes on a big date during which she has sex and gets pregnant. The
vignette was to be set in a school locker room following gym class on consecutive days. A second locker room
scenario the girls mulled took the form of a cautionary tale not to be like a persona whose sexual experimentation
becomes the subject of locker-room talk. The second scenario gave way to a girl-boy dialogue, which eventually
became a dialogue between two girls. The first vignette was abandoned for its problematic timeline while the
second, built upon an off-color joke, was rejected as unsuitable for television or radio broadcast. Yet the girls
seemingly enjoyed repeating it and imagining its performance: “Did you hear about Caitlin?” “She goes up and
down like an elevator.” Focal girls seemingly took some pleasure in pushing the boundaries of appropriate speech,
albeit in a private instead of public context. Imagined performances of the spot permitted the playful assumption of a
persona who did not enact niceness—or tolerance, for that matter. This scenario shows the girls’ awareness of an
adolescent politics of reputation pervasive enough that they reproduce it even in their irreverent backstage
performance of a message about how—or more precisely, how not—to navigate this social sphere. Focal girls also
relished Natalie’s proffered bit of girl-boy dialogue in the form of an invitation to have sexual intercourse, to which
the girl replies, “And maybe get STD’s and get pregnant and ruin my life? Sure, let’s go!” The girls appreciated the
frankness of this message, they told me. It was additionally likely that they enjoyed the female character’s insight
and authoritative subject position as well as her tone. This sort of resistant, confrontational talk pushes the
boundaries of sanctioned speech according to gender norms in that the girl is not acquiescent.
It is somewhat poignant, then, that the troop abandoned this version after Michelle raised the question,
“Where are we going to get a guy to do this?” Heinrich (2001) describes the pressures boys face to conform to the
standards of hegemonic masculinity, and focal girls seemed very much aware of that discourse as it affected the
boys they knew. They realized that they would encounter difficulty getting a boy to appear in a Girl Scouts public
service announcement, in particular one that promotes abstinence. Even though they envisioned a male character
who seeks heterosexual sexual activity, focal girls seemed to appreciate that boys would be reluctant to be
associated with a girls’ organization and an anti-sexual intercourse message. While they seemed to reject masculinist
discourse, they did not set out to challenge it in their social circles beyond the troop but rather to go around boys’
social practices by composing an alternate message—or an approach that relied on detour rather than deconstruction.
Their message addresses how to manage masculine behavior and the longing to be loved, not how to interrogate
them. Focal girls’ pragmatism in this way reproduced the gendered enactment of accommodation. In the
complicated dynamics of the overlapping and counterpoised social norms they navigated, adopting some, adapting
some, and challenging others, focal girls were Bakhtinian ventriloquists (1981) and agents of bricolage (Tobin,
2001) as they pieced together a textual mosaic of their desires and concerns. Their final product script, of a dialogue
between two girls, one pregnant and the other already parenting, like their imagined ironic “Let’s go!” spot, equates
refusal with resistance. In it, focal girls do not reveal a judgmental attitude with regard to teen sexual activity, but
rather an earnest apprehension of how it might occur.
At the final Spring 2002 meeting of Decisions for Your Life, the girls did some drafting on the spot, with
Chaz assuming the position of official recorder. Vickie did not arrive until after the session was well underway and
the girls had moved to the church basement to rehearse their performance at an upcoming Astoria Service Unit
meeting. Before they adjourned, the troop arranged to meet before the meeting the following week, but a scheduling
conflict forced a postponement, summer arrived, and work on the project was postponed until the next school year.
I had a chance to ask some of the girls in the summer and during the first group interview in April 2002,
while they were still mulling possible scenarios, what informed their approach to authoring a public service
announcement for teens. They said that they did not want to author a spot that would be overly simplistic or upbeat
in the manner of certain anti-intercourse and anti-smoking and substance use television and radio ads aimed at teens.
Informants wrote their text in response to such messages as a contemporary radio vignette set in a bowling alley and
framed as a celebration of chastity. I asked them the difference between effective and ineffective messages in the
I: What would a good commercial look like? 476
Chaz: Well, I mean like having things that like a, having that a child, 477
like a teenager wrote it. And you can tell– 478
Emily: Right. 479
Chaz: –what an adult wrote and what a child wrote. 480
Erin: Yeah. 481
Mikayla: Yeah. 482
Chaz: Because, just by the words that they put in it and how they 483
come across, gettin’ the point across. Like what Natalie said. Do you 484
want to have sex? Do you want to mess up my life? And kinda go 485
through that. I mean, that’d get the point across, sayin’, you know, you 486
shouldn’t be doin’ this ‘cause this is what’s wrong. This’ll make your 487
life so messed up. 488
Erin: Right. 489
Chaz: And this is what I don’t want. 490
Taken in conjunction with their goals of avoiding temptation and their comments about the force of peer
pressure over the course of the study, Chaz’s contrast of effective and ineffective messages emphasized her
awareness that cautionary media texts are part of a counter-discourse to a more prevalent social practice of teen
adolescence which is hard to resist even when one wants to do so, a counter-discourse which needs to be forthright
in order to resonate.
Following one of the Decisions for Your Life sessions, Chaz declared, “I don’t want to be like the girl in
American Pie.” I hadn’t seen the film so I asked what she meant and Chaz explained that the character gets
pregnant. The film’s plot centers on a contest among a group of male teens to see which one of them can lose his
virginity first. When I interviewed focal girls about their habits and preferences in popular genres in July, Chaz
again mentioned theAmerican Pie movies during an episode of talk about portrayals of real life versus “fake”-ness
in movies. The interview also included a series of comments about genuineness and social pretense among other
kids they knew at school. I asked how their Media Know-How project would address those themes and their other
Girl Scout activities:
Erin: All the stuff from Planned Parenthood and stuff. 250
U: Mm hm. 251
Chaz: I mean, it just gives you real life. Scouts, you don’t have to 252
prove to somebody– 253
Erin: Yeah. 254
Michelle: My cookie! 256
(A playful digression; the interview took place at a pizza parlor)
Chaz: I mean, like you don’t have to be somebody you’re not to be
accepted in Scouts. And it’s like in the real world, to me, you know 257
how—You don’t have to do somethin’, like you don’t have to go 258
out and smoke or lose your virginity or somethin’ just because other 259
people are doin’ it. I mean, you can be your own person. 260
In her explanation of the relevance of their media project to their lived experience, Chaz echoed the theme
of acceptance which focal girls recurrently reported as central to their participation in Girl Scouts (informing my
interpretation of the satiric target of Erin’s “Girl Scouts is our anti-drug” remark). Chaz’s recurrent use of the phrase
“you don’t have to” to contrast the ways of being that were available within the Scouting community with those
available in the school social world underscores the dilemma she faced as she felt forced to choose between
unappealing options in order to participate in the larger discourses of gender and adolescence. In the larger teen
community, she implied, teens must engage in behavior that is risky or at odds with their values or agendas, or face
rejection. Her observations parallel those of participants in the AAUW Sister-to-Sister Summits.
In my complete thesis, I explain and illustrate how focal girls seemed to believe that they had the power, as
legitimate central participants in discourse of the troop, to give shape to its unfolding discursive traditions. Focal
girls deliberately set out to use their Media Know-How project, a public service radio spot in the form of a
cautionary vignette, to spin the discourse of Scouting against the more prevalent discourse of acquiescent adolescent
femininity they experienced at Astoria High School and in the community beyond.
Here is how the focal troop’s final draft, completed during the van ride to a field trip and revised and
rehearsed two days later at the meeting room of a church no research participant attended, reads, as Chaz
subsequently formatted it on her word processor:
Your baby is so cute.Thanks, but sometimes it’s such a big responsibility that I forget how much I do love
my baby.Why do you say that? The guy I’m with promised that he would stay with me no matter
what and he loved me.That doesn’t mean anything. The guy that I was with left me after he got me
pregnant. He said he wasn’t ready and wasn’t his problem. And you think life will be so easy. Well guess
again. I can’t go out on Friday nights. I have to work 2 jobs and I had planned to go to college but that’s all
in the past. Oh and sleeping in is no longer an option. All because I had sex and had a baby.Why? You
could still go to college but get a babysitter.No, once you have a baby it’s your responsibility, and
babysitters cost money. You should have thought of those things before you had sex.I wasn’t thinking.
What have I done?
3) Teen pregnancy is not an option.
4) Always set your boundaries, and don’t let guys run your life.
5) Make the right choices, and don’t have sex until your married.
6) If you want to have success, don’t have SEX!
Everyone:Absence is the Key!1
Brought to you by Girl Scout Troop 346 of Astoria.
Michelle took issue with some elements of the script during the revision and rehearsal session, noting that
her brother’s girlfriend attended Springfield Community College, where child care cost far less than the private
sitters her brother and his girlfriend sometimes hired. Michelle’s observed experience did not mesh with details of
the media text. In addition, Michelle cast a critical eye on tensions within the script:
Michelle: This kinda contradicts itself. It talks about, like, she has 1221
to work two jobs and stuff, but she doesn’t use a baby sitter for
1 While their script read “Absence,” focal girls correctly pronounced the word Chaz had misspelled on her
U: Uh, that’s true. 1223
Erin: It can just be like, had to file for unemployment. To do things 1224
you never thought you would do, like file for, like food stamps. 1225
Chaz: Food stamps. But yeah. Single mom, so . . . 1226-
Michelle: And she doesn’t even get any support from the boy. 1229
Chaz: From the husband, ‘cause he left her before the baby was born 1230
when he got her pregnant. ‘Cause he wasn’t ready. 1231
The girls talked through their scenario to reach an explanation for Michelle’s objection. In critiquing the
text and ultimately approving it, Michelle revealed a complicated preoccupation with realism as she sought to help
construct a media message that at once had integrity and would “tell it like it is” but that she could reconcile with the
circumstances of teen parenthood she has witnessed in her own family. Meanwhile, Chaz’s wording shows that
social discursive norms, such as the ideal of the family, can be so thoroughly apprenticed that one uses the language
of prevalent discourses (“the husband,” line 1230) even in discussions that demonstrate awareness that these ideals
are often myths.
As they had when they realized that the boys they knew would be hesitant to appear in a Girl Scouts
pregnancy prevention PSA, focal girls once again had to adjust to circumstances beyond the troop in completing
their Media Know-How project. The local videographer declined to shoot the spot pro bono, citing a full fall
schedule and a need to start rejecting the increasingly frequent requests Astorians were making on behalf of their
organizations. The girls opted to approach the local radio station instead. Given the tips for production included in
the Media Know-How booklets for Cadette and Senior Girl Scouts, it is noteworthy that they did not videotape the
spot themselves and in fact never discussed the option in my presence. Their approach to producing a media text
focused more on the text itself than on the technical aspects of its production.
On December 12, 2002, Chaz, Erin, Mikayla, and Michelle recorded their Media Know-How message at
the single radio station located in Astoria. It took five takes and it follows the script reproduced above, with the
exception that the line “What have I done?” is omitted. Chaz and Michelle read the roles they had rehearsed more
than two months earlier at the Presbyterian church, while Erin and Mikayla read alternate lines of concluding
narrative. A girl I’d never seen before, wearing pigtails and fuzzy slippers, witnessed the taping. The announcement
lasts seventy seconds.
According to Bakhtin’s dialogic theory (1981), our words are only half our own. Through our engagement
with the social world we enter and reproduce a practice of multi-voicedness and ventriloquism as we give voice to
established ways of speaking ourselves and the world into being. The combinations we piece together reflect our
multiple subject positions. The Astoria Cadettes authored a hybrid text that reproduces certain discursive
conventions without question and deliberately deploys other discursive conventions against the dynamics of
gendered adolescence they find most threatening.
According to one dichotomous social trope, adolescent boys seek sexual encounters while adolescent girls
seek relationships, and (heterosexual) males and females of any age may barter one for the other. While remarking
such a phenomenon may well lead to insight into cultural values and assumptions and what is constructed as
“proper” behavior according to gender norms, and even become a first step toward deconstructing these norms,
when the observance is circulated as a maxim, its circulation and uptake can perpetuate the assumption that such
values and ways of behaving are innate. Focal girls focused on managing rather than interrogating the manifestation
of hegemonic heterosexual masculinity in dating relationships. At the same time, the goals they listed as part of their
participation in Decisions for Your Life indicate that focal girls experienced or at least recognized that girls have
sexual urges as well as a desire for interpersonal connection and romance.
As their summer interview responses indicate, focal girls’ loathing of fakery in media directed at them
(Davies, 1998) extended to sugarcoating and simplification. They wanted bluntness in their message; and while their
message reproduced certain reductive representations of gendered behavior as well as melodramatic narrative
formulas, they saw it as informed by a complicated social context. For participants in this study, saying no to sexual
activity was a way of being true to themselves and protecting their own goals, while saying yes to a boyfriend’s
advances represented a case of putting another’s wishes or others’ expectations ahead of one’s own desires. Even
while informants acknowledged conflicting desires, as Mikayla made explicit in her exit interview remark that girls
who were ambivalent about sexual involvement might find comfort in the knowledge that other girls have faced the
same decision, the desire to protect oneself from pregnancy and heartache seemed to supersede the desire for sexual
activity and for winning a boyfriend’s ongoing or enhanced affection. The risks of a sexual relationship outweighed
the potential benefits. Michelle indirectly acknowledged the power of felt internal and external pressures to
experiment and acquiesce in her assertion that the troop’s media message needed to be blunt in order to counter
these forces, that it needed to “hit ‘em over the head.”
Focal girls saw their collaboratively constructed cautionary tale as an affirmation of their goals for future
schooling as well as a forum for speaking against prevalent discourses of acquiescent femininity; they regarded their
project as both situated within and potentially informing the discourse of adolescent femininity and sexualization
that they witnessed and experienced in their school and community, and as offering support to an audience of girls
who were navigating these social spheres. Focal girls characterized their message, with its exhortation to postpone
sexual activity, as resistant rather than reproductive of social norms.
Yet at the same time it exhorts resistance, the troop’s message expounds abstinence, or a way of enacting
“goodness” as girls. The choice focal girls put forth as their own is surely one many adults hold out for youth, girls
in particular. The overlapping discourses and subject positions adolescent girls experience encompass their
relationships to contradictory standards of young womanhood. Because all performances of literacy and learning
activities are informed by participants’ complicated perspectives, it can be instructive to invite youth to share their
views in order to know what the meaningful implementation of critical media education can look like in various
settings. The Astoria Cadettes’ implementation of Media Know-How reminds us that there are many ways to read
against the grain. Progressive educators must be cognizant of and responsive to learners’ diverse perspectives as
they are socioeconomic and familial factors as well as the more obvious markers of “race” and gender. Most of the
Astoria Cadettes hoped to be among the first generation in their families to obtain a college degree, a prospect they
viewed as contingent—an opportunity deliberately to be guarded rather than presumed. The seeming naiveté and
conventionality of their script was situated in a personal narrative of potentially expanding horizons.
Many approaches to gender, adolescence, popular media and culture, and literacy learning itself seem based
on the notion that there is a problem to be fixed in kids’ lives and little recognition of the social and intellectual
resources, insights, and agendas they bring to authorship and response. It is time to attend to them. And as Carol
Gilligan would admonish us, if we set out to create an open discursive arena in which girls are empowered to speak
from their experience, we’d better brace ourselves to hear the observations they share and to appreciate the
complexity of their experience. I contend that authentic critical literacy pedagogy depends upon it.
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At the Root: Fundamentals and Fundamentalism in Zadie Smith’sWhite Teeth
By Anne Mamary
I. In the Beginning
Zadie Smith’s novel,White Teeth, starts on New Year’s Eve, 1974, with one Alfred Archibald Jones, 47 years old,
white, working class English man committing suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning, the hoover vacuum tube, a
relic from his recently-ended 30-year marriage, piping gas into his car’s passenger compartment.
December 31, 1974, the story begins at an “end of the world party” at a hippy commune where Clara Bowden,
daughter of Jehovah’s Witness, Jamaican immigrants, Hortense and Darcus, has landed in her flight from her mother
and Hortense’s predictions that the world will end in fire and destruction that very night. Our story begins when 19-
year-old Clara flees boyfriend Ryan Topps, newly converted Jehovah’s witness, who took the loss of Clara’s teeth in
a scooter accident as a sign that she was damned and he was among the chosen.
Well, the story starts in the final days of World War II, 1945, in a remote Bulgarian village on the Greek border far
from battle, when Archie Jones and Samad Miah Iqbal, a Bengali with a dead hand and very white teeth, aged 17
and 19, are crammed together by a roll of the dice into a tank crowded with misfits, the “buggered battalion.”
English and Bengali in the King’s army, Archie and Samad are an unlikely pair, but theirs is the relationship that
brings the rest of the novel’s characters together. Thirty years before their future wives, Clara Jones nee Bowden and
Alsana Iqbal nee Begum ever are born, Archie and Samad unite in the masculine temple of war, in a peculiar
colonial bond or in its despite.
Going back, going back, our story begins in the 1907 Kingston earthquake, in the splitting open of Ambrosia
Bowden at the birth of Hortense and in the shaking of all creation that sent a marble Madonna to crush Sir Edmund
Flecker Glenard, the Englishman about to rape Ambrosia, sending his teeth skittering across the heaving church
The story begins with three women, Clara, Alsana, and Alsana’s niece, Neena, crowded onto a North London park
bench late in 1975. Over lunch, the pregnant Clara and Alsana, having realized that their husbands tell each other
everything and their girl-wives nothing, form an alliance and then a friendship as “a rearguard action against their
husbands’ friendship” (63). Only two years older than Neena, Alsana calls her lesbian, free-spirited niece, “Niece of
Shame,” and counters Neena’s insistence that husbands and wives should talk to each other with her own certainty
that the less she knows about Samad, the better. It is these women who talk to each other, who plan their futures and
the futures of the coming Iqbal twins, Millat and Magid, and the coming Jones girl, whom Clara will name Irie,
patois for “cool, peaceful, everything’s ok.”
Somewhere nearby, but worlds apart, Joshua Chalfen is on the way, too, the first son of horticulturalist Joyce
Chalfen and her geneticist husband, Marcus. At the beginning, with four babies coming, how can we know that one
fine day in the middle of the night, Samad will split the world apart, effectively kidnapping Magid, his elder son by
two minutes, and sending him off to Bengal. How can we know, at the beginning, that these four kids will change
England, will ignite England, will create a future no one can yet imagine?
From the start, Zadie Smith makes it clear that there are no neutral spaces, that history is everywhere, that
nothing is simple. By the end of the book, talking across generations, experiences, gender and race, Irie wishes she
could make Samad Miah Iqbal feel better about the way his life has run and about how his sons have grown into
different men than Samad had hoped, despite his best and worst-made plans. Irie thinks, “but if you could begin
again, . . . if you could take them back to the source of the river, to the start of the story, to the homeland. . . . But
she didn’t say that, because he felt it as she felt it and both knew it was as useless as chasing your own shadow. . . .
[Instead she said], ‘Oh, Mr. Iqbal, I don’t know what to say. . .’” (336).
And maybe that’s where the book really starts, in histories of unspeakable violence, of blundering violence,
of broken hearts and dead hands, of false teeth and suicide attempts. Who knows what to say? But in Irie’s
wistfulness and Samad’s pain, Smith says a lot, wistfulness and pain signifying real loss, not only a mystical longing
for an imagined source. At the source are the violence, plunder and rape of empire. At the source are lies, false teeth
and anguish. At the source are cultures that did not ask for interference. Irie does not just put a brave face on it; she
does not tacitly forgive and excuse with brave new world ideas about the inevitability of cultural change and
progress. She shows us that there is not one answer to history—that seekers after Truth with a capital t tend not to
find it, but, still, there are truths and many lies. At the root, there is no source in which one can wash away the pain
of the world. ButWhite Teeth is the story of many voices, many shining lives, each with its share of tarnish.
At the root, Smith’s novel of empire and multi-cultural London decades later shows modernity in crisis and
fundamentalist responses to modernity as, at least in part, themselves modern responses. The so-called children of
the empire now populate London, and their children, like Irie, the twins and Josh, are English and busily changing
England, their England and yet painfully not their England at the same time. Almost every one of her characters
holds fast to what may seem like a misguided adherence or challenge to modernity’s single-minded belief in its own
inevitability and in the march of progress. But each character also holds these beliefs for reasons with which the
reader can find at least some sympathy. Neither does the book take a single, simple stand, posing a battle of good
and evil, of simple reasoned good triumphing over simple irrational evil, for such a premise would itself reify a
modernist stand. But, though showing a multiplicity of views, each both sympathetically and not,White Teeth also
avoids utter relativism.
Smith suggests modernity and fundamentalist responses spring from similar sources and that they are often
conversations and battles among men. There is no larger-than-life hero or heroine in the novel, but a richly
populated, teeming life. While the overt, outward battles and clashes in a text often demand the most attention,
Smith offers a quiet alternative to them. In the end, Irie and Neena, along with other characters, male and female,
offer alternatives to a modern/fundamentalist duel. They offer a path that slips this masculinist embrace while
acknowledging a colonial, racist and sexist history. They remember and nurture the fundamentals without becoming
rigidly fundamentalist. They show how to hang on to roots to avoid blowing away into nothingness in the storms of
postcolonial England, and they know how to sever roots that bind and constrict. Irie’s is not the only way, but it is
one way. It’s hers, it’s cool, it’s ok, it’s Irie.
II. Twin Troubles
But before we can tell Irie’s story, we have to go back, back to twin trouble: her father, Archie, and Samad,
young soldiers in World War II. We have to go back, back to 1492, the year Isabella and Ferdinand, dressed in Arab
finery, signed the decrees forcing the expulsion or conversion of Spain’s Jewish and Arab populations, the year
Christopher Columbus set sail for India and stumbled upon the Americas. For Archie’s and Samad’s stories and the
stories of their children in postcolonial England start at the beginning of modernity, at the beginning of European
colonial expansion. InThe Ornament of the World, Maria Rosa Menocal describes medieval al Andalus as a place of
diversity and tolerance, Jews and Christians, with Muslims, peoples of the book, granted protection asdhimmi,
under the rule of the Muslim-Arab Umayyad government. Menocal writes:
The fact that Ferdinand and Isabella did not choose the path of tolerance is seen as an example of the
intractability and inevitability of intolerance, especially in the premodern era. But their actions may be far
better understood as the failure to make the more difficult decision, to have the courage to cultivate a
society that can live with its own flagrant contradictions. They chose instead to go down the modern path,
the one defined by an ethic of unity and harmony, and which is largely intolerant of contradiction. The
watershed at hand was certainly the rise of single-language and single-religion nations, a transformation
that conventionally stands at the beginning of the modern period and leads quite directly to our own. (271)
It took the Spanish Inquisition 100 years to force an end to pluralism in early modern Spain, and Archie
and Samad struggle with the same issues of pluralism late in the day, when modernity is beginning to crack. At the
end of World War II, and just three years before Indian independence, Archie and Samad play out colonial and
postcolonial contradictions. At first, all Archie can do is stare at Samad; later he feels a kind of friendship that “an
Englishman makes on holiday, that he can make only on holiday. A friendship that crosses class and color, a
friendship that takes as its basis physical proximity and survives because the Englishman assumes the physical
proximity will not continue” (Smith 82). When their tank breaks down and their tank mates murdered, Samad and
Archie drift into a ‘real life’ friendship, friendship for the long haul, while they wait for someone to answer their
radio calls for help.
For Archie and Samad never see ‘action,’ their job to “make sure the war ran smoothly” (74), not to
participate directly, in the romantic-heroic way these teenagers had hoped. Samad wanted to capture the Nazi doctor
Marc-Pierre Perret, a.k.a. Dr. Sick, as part of his desire to be on the side of resistance against evil like his
grandfather, Mangal Pande, who, by Samad’s account, fired the first shot in the 1857 Sepoy rebellion. By this point,
Archie idolizes the smart, educated Samad and follows on the great charge to capture the Nazi. Samad’s brave
charge gives way to despair, when he “saw where he was at the farewell party for the end of Europe and he longed
for the East” (94). At the same moment, he realized his twin troubles, that in him East and West were forever linked
but that he belonged nowhere, at the brink of the collapse of the English empire. “‘What am I going to do?’ he
demanded of Archie, ‘Go back to Bengal? Or to Delhi? Who would have such an Englishman there? To England?
Who would have such an Indian? They promise us independence in exchange for the men we were. But it is a
devilish deal’” (95). At this moment, suicide seems like the only way out of this twin dilemma, framed as a
peculiarly masculine one at the beginning of the end of empire, late in the reign of modernity.
Modernity replaced faith with science, and put the scientist in the throne once reserved for god. In many
ways liberating, modernity also closed doors on symbolic thinking, on metaphoric and interpretive understanding,
on inspiration, emotion, and the sacred. In the first one hundred years of the scientific revolution, the Catholic
Church was mostly able to accept the work of the new scientists, assuming any contradiction with scripture,
including Copernicus’ heliocentric model, indicated scriptural misinterpretation. They were able to be flexible at
least on this count, and reinterpret a text that was seen allegorically. Ironically, it was the Protestant Reformation
that helped to undermine this give and take relationship between science and religion. Luther’s reformation was on
one hand profoundly forward-looking—he exposed church corruption and the economic burdens it placed on the
poor. At the same time, it was profoundly reactionary, condemning Greek influence on Renaissance life as pagan
and heretical. One of the results of the reformation, then, was the disenchantment of nature, and the modern view
that bodies, human and natural, are inert matter over which people can dominate. Although anti-science himself,
Luther’s disenchantment of nature opened the door for modern science.
Luther’s insistence on literal interpretation of scripture condemned the scientists as heretics, and Luther
called Copernicus an “upstart astrologer” (Tarnas 252). It was because of protestant challenges that the early modern
Catholic Church ultimately began to insist upon literal truth of scripture. It was then that the Inquisition most
fiercely focused its wrath on scientists. One of the formative forces of modernity, the Protestant Reformation began
as an anti-scientific movement. But, as modernity developed, Luther’s insistence on literal truth was also the
scientists’—not in regard to scripture, but in regard to reading the text of nature. Luther insisted on stripping away
any mythical interpretation of the Bible, on stripping away anything but the absolute monotheism of the early
church. With no need for priestly intervention or interpretation, Luther saw people as essentially sinful and on their
own before a judgmental god with the literally true scripture for guidance. Out of these fundamentally religious
tenants came increased secularism, as religion became more and more private. Luther’s literal religion shaped
secular, scientific modernity, itself often rigid and unbending.
In the twentieth century, it was American Protestants who first used the word “‘fundamentalist’ to signify
their desire [like Luther’s in the sixteenth century] to go back to basics and reemphasize the ‘fundamentals’ of the
Christian tradition which they identified with a literal interpretation of Scripture and the acceptance of certain core
doctrines” (Armstrong xii). The connection of these American fundamentalists to modernity is as ironic as Martin
Luther’s at the beginning of the Reformation, at the birth of modernity. Seeking to flee the secular, scientific world
of modernity, they made the same move as Luther did, trying to reform a church that was adjusting its readings of
scripture to accommodate the science Luther’s work ultimately facilitated in a secular society he ultimately helped
Other forms of fundamentalism are also linked with the very modernity they often revile, not only as
opposing sides in a battle, but often adopting some modernist ideology as part of the struggle. As historian of
religion, Karen Armstrong, notes inThe Battle for God, the term fundamentalism has been used more broadly than
this original usage, and she concludes that, although not perfect, the term is widely used enough that it makes sense
to keep using it. She also concludes that, despite their differences, a variety of forms of fundamentalisms share a
‘family resemblance.’ [Following Martin E. Marty and R. Scott Appleby], she defines fundamentalism as:
embattled forms of spirituality, which have emerged as a response to a perceived crisis. They are engaged
in a conflict with enemies whose secularist policies and beliefs seem inimical to religion itself.
Fundamentalists do not regard this battle as a conventional political struggle, but experience it as a cosmic
war between the forces of good and evil. They fear annihilation, and try to fortify their beleaguered identity
by means of a selective retrieval of certain doctrines and practices of the past. To avoid contamination, they
often withdraw from mainstream society to create a counterculture; yet fundamentalists are not impractical
dreamers. They have absorbed the pragmatic rationalism of modernity, and, under their charismatic leaders,
they refine these ‘fundamentals’ so as to create an ideology that provides the faithful with a plan of action.
Despite her undertone of cheerleading for modernity (she praises its emphasis on ‘progress’ without
critiquing accompanying losses to cultures, the environment, to the aesthetic; she uncritically links the terms
‘enlightened and tolerant’ to describe modernity), Armstrong makes an important connection between modernity
and fundamentalism. While often experiencing modernity as an assault, twentieth and twenty-first century
fundamentalisms, “have a symbiotic relationship with modernity” (xiii), because modernity has shaped and touched
cultures the world over. Modernity, too, is Promethean and heroic; fundamentalism often is as well. Assault and
counter assault, modernity and fundamentalism are twin trouble in Smith’s novel. She presents neither side as all
right or all wrong, but when they do finally meet in a battle of sorts, even to death, there are no winners either.
At the end of WWII, Samad and Archie have a sense that there are no winners. Samad is suicidal over the
struggle of east and west in him. Archie is there. Young, ingenuous, awe-struck, working class, not formallyeducated,
white, English Archie. Bumbling Archie trying to save his friend. Samad, young, worldly, educated,
affluent, despairing, Bengali, English Samad. Samad longs to be a hero in the fight against evil. With the Nazi
doctor theirs (Samad won him in a poker game from the Russian soldiers who were supposed to arrest him), Samad
insists he and Archie have to kill him as a kind of atonement for ‘missing’ the war. Samad thinks blood on his hands
will wash him clean of the dual dilemma tearing him in half. Using Samad’s own logic against him to try to save
Samad’s life and to avoid him killing Dr. Perret, Archie says, “‘But you said that was nothing to do with you. Not
your argument. . . . If anyone’s got a score to settle it’d probably have to be me. It’s England’s future we’ve been
fighting for. For England. You know . . . democracy and Sunday dinner, and . . . and . . . promenades and piers, and
bangers and mash and things that are ours. Not yours’” (100). A much quicker wit, Samad agrees with Archie’s
uncharacteristic patriotism, and sends him out to kill the Nazi, saying, “‘Jones, it is simply a question of what you
will do when the chips are down. . . . I want to know what kind of a man you are, Jones’” (101). For it is a question
of manhood, this patriotism, this desire for heroism and blood on one’s hands. These twin troubles, modernity and
fundamentalism, west and east, empire and its demise, often come down to conversations among men, men as
unlikely as Archie and Samad, who thinks Archie stands for nothing, “‘not for a faith, not for a politics. Not even for
your country. How your lot ever conquered my lot is a bloody mystery’” (101).
Much of the world is a mystery to Archie, the Joneses in peacetime, like the buggered battalion in the war,
not part of the ‘action’ of England. Archie thinks the Joneses, like the Smiths of the world, are “chaff” (84). Their
job is to keep England running smoothly so others, the middle class and affluent, can live out their important and
exciting lives without having to worry about mundane everyday necessities. His preferred method of decisionmaking
is the coin toss, a method he employs 30 years later even to decide on his own suicide. So, when Archie
marches Dr. Perret out into the night and comes back bleeding and limping, it is not clear what has transpired. But,
when the chips are down, when someone for whom he cares is in trouble, Archie does not equivocate. When Samad
is about to be humiliated or, worse, pitied, the regiment of Russian soldiers stumbling upon the suicidal Samad, gun
in his mouth, Samad says he is cleaning the weapon. Archie, not missing a beat, no coin needed, explains, “‘that’s
how they do it in Bengal’” (96).
Nearly forty years later, in London, Samad and Archie are best friends. Samad is still split, still haunted by
the twin trouble he hasn’t been able to shake or replace with a less wrenching alternative. Obsessed with his sons’
red-headed music teacher, Samad turns to the Islam he has never truly believed (in the war, he told Archie he lacked
the ability to be religious) and turns to the logic of Archie’s England. His twin trouble is now revealed in the phrases
“to the pure all things are pure” and “can’t say fairer than that” (115). He tries to justify his extramarital longings
and how he takes matters into his one good hand with his logic that if he is ‘pure,’ all of his actions are also pure.
When that doesn’t work, he tries bargaining with God, vowing to give up one so-called vice if he can practice
another (can’t say fairer than that). “But of course he was in the wrong religion for compromises, deals, pacts,
weaknesses, andcan’t say fairer than thats. He was supporting the wrong team . . . if he wanted to be given a break.
His God was not like that charming white-bearded bungler of the Anglican, Methodist, or Catholic churches. His
God was not in the business ofgiving people breaks” (117). Unable to solve his own dilemma in either way, he
visits his guilt on his sons, tearing them apart, kidnapping the elder by two minutes, Magid, and sending him to be
raised in Bengal. Instead of bringing him peace, Samad’s action brings him only more misery as his twins embody
the troubles Samad faces, as his wife refuses to speak directly to him for eight years so that he will feel the
uncertainty she feels every day her son is gone.
After eight years, Magid comes back from Bengal more English than the English, a young scientist who
wants to study English law to help the former colonies become English-civilized. Millat, raised in England, has a
split-level subconscious (366) like his father and lives with one foot in Willesden, the other in Bengal. He first joins
the Raggastanis and then the Keepers of the Eternal and Victorious Islamic Nation, a Muslim fundamentalist group
with an acronym problem. Millat wants to be a hero in the fight against evil, like Samad, like Mangal Pande. But
mostly, Millat wants to belong; he likes the uniform (green bow tie), he likes the male embrace of the group. His
twin phrases for a new generation are “I always wanted to be a gangster,” and “I always wanted to be a Muslim”
(348-9). And he is an adolescent running from his father’s mistakes into his father’s confusion. When the twins are
finally reunited, Magid is working with Marcus Chalfen and Millat is preparing for battle against Chalfen’s
genetically engineered mouse. The twins are inseparable, even when they won’t speak to each other, identical genes
and two sides of the same dilemma binding them, one on either side of a two-way mirror, each reflecting the other in
a dance of mutual destruction.
III. Mirror, Mirror
Neither twin can look at himself in the mirror that is England and find a reflection that is not terribly
distorted. Although they are British, they are still facing the England George Orwell defined in 1941 in “England,
Your England.” In Orwell’s words:
The British needed neither to learn from, nor be subject to, other people’s decidedly inferior cultures.
Britain was mature and fully formed. British influence upon others was the norm; after all, was there not an
Empire to prove this? (qtd. in Phillips 266-7)
In the decades after the British Empire began to crumble, immigrants began arriving from Pakistan, Bangladesh and
India. Immigrants began arriving from the Caribbean. Hundreds of thousands of them arrived, and they were
“British and had come to help” (Phillips 271). While whites of non-British ethnicity (Jews, Catholics, Eastern
Europeans) were earlier excluded based on ethnicity from full participation in English society, they were given
white status in the 1950s and 60s in an attempt to exclude Caribbean immigrants (and Southeast Asians as well),
who were often “uncomfortably and surprisingly British . . . based on physiology” (Phillips 273).
So Joyce Chalfen nee Connor, an Irish Catholic, and Marcus Chalfen, nee Chalfenovsky, an Eastern
European Jew, could be English in England, could see themselves reflected in its mirror, only in the last fifty years
and as part of an attempt to exclude the Samads and Iries, Alsanas and Claras, Hortenses and Neenas, Magids and
Millats of the world. When Millat looked into the mirror of England that is television, he never saw a man like
himself, unless the man was a murder victim or a criminal. “He knew he had no face in this country, no voice in the
country, until the week before last when suddenly people like Millat [and his Raggastani crew] were on every
channel and every radio and every newspaper and they were angry, and Millat recognized the anger, thought it
recognized him, and grabbed it with both hands” (Smith 194). Maybe it is no surprise, then, that Magid could be
English in Bengal, but Millat could not be in England. Maybe it is no surprise that Magid had his friends calling him
Mark Smith in the years before he was ripped from his mother and brother.
InA New World Order, Caryl Phillips explains that until quite late in the twentieth century, “a Black man
could never be a British man” (273). In the 1980s, Margaret Thatcher repolished the mirror, and the “keep Britain
white” political slogan of the 1950s was replaced with advertisements featuring suave Black men in elegant business
suits and the slogan “‘Labor says he’s black, Tories say he’s British.’ Suddenly there were to be acceptable ‘aliens,’
such as profitable Asian businessmen and upwardly mobile black men in suits, which meant there would also be
unacceptable ‘aliens,’ presumably those who still had the temerity to go to the mosque or wear dreadlocks.
However, Mrs Thatcher’s new idea of British nationality, with its dependency on economic virility and on codes of
behaviour, was clearly to be culturally and not racially constructed” (278). So, Samad and Alsana, a waiter and a
seamstress, and their two sons, were not to be ‘acceptable,’ that is, until Magid, more British than the British,
returned from the east to London, where Marcus Chalfen adopted him as protégé, as acceptable, as someone who
could look into the mirror of England and see himself reflected.
Surprisingly, in his 2001 book, Phillips, offers no critique of the masculinity central to each of these
constructions of race, ethnicity and economically virile Brits. So it is not surprising that he also credits young men of
color with “kicking back when kicked, and therefore kicking open doors long closed” (276). It is not surprising that
he points to cruel racist abuse and then claims that it is “especially directed at males” (269). IfWhite Teeth were
only Millat’s story, if it were only Samad’s story or if it were only KEVIN’s story, we might see Phillips’ twentyfirst
century analysis of race in Britain reflected clearly. But Smith tells a broader story, she holds up multiple
mirrors, shows multiple absences. For Irie Jones also looks into the mirror of England and sees nothing. In her High
School English class, she thinks she might see a glimpse of herself in an Elizabethan sonnet written to a woman with
Black hair like wires and skin described also as Black (Smith 224-5). Love itself is called Black in the poem, and
Irie, for once, is eager to discuss poetry in class (222). But the teacher quickly turns the mirror away, explaining to
Irie that there were no “Afro-Carri-bee-yans in England at the time . . . and never to read what is old with a modern
Irie looks into the mirror that is England and sees nothing. She sees her Jamaican body “loaded with
pineapples, mangoes and guavas” (221); she sees her hair and hates what she sees. Instead of acting out, like Millat
does, Irie acts in. Despite Clara’s, “Irie, my love, you’re fine—you’re just built like an honest-to-God
Bowden—don’t you know you’re fine? Irie didn’t know she was fine” (222). She diets, she corsets herself, she holds
her breath. She does not go to public book burnings, but she goes to the beauty parlor to have her hair straightened,
only to have it burned off. The men’s side of the shop “was all laughter, all talk, all play, . . . [but] the female section
. . . was a deathly thing” (229) each woman waging war against her own body in hopes of forcing a reflection for
herself in the mirror of England. Irie has the additional hope that Millat will love her if her hair is straight and red.
Drowning in the reflectionless sea of England, she hopes a man will rescue her by someone else’s hair. But Neena
and Maxine are there to pull her to the surface, to offer her a reflection. To Irie, Neena says, “‘The Afro was cool,
man. It was wicked. It was yours’” (237).
Irie’s great-grandmother, Ambrosia Bowden, understood better than Phillips that racism is also directed at
women, but not always in the same public ways as it is directed at men. Irie’s great-grandfather was a white man,
Captain Charlie Durham, who educated Ambrosia in letters and math, in botany and anatomy, and left her while
Hortense was a bump in her belly, his play on words “a maid no more, Ambrosia, a maid no more” (296) ringing in
her ears like slaps. Every Bowden woman learned the danger of “a little English education” from that “no-good
djam fool bwoy” (294), the one who tried to come back to marry Ambrosia, to take her away, but who was thwarted
by the earthquake during which Hortense was born. The ship’s captain said there was no room for “black whores or
livestock” (301) on his ship, even as Durham protested that he loved her and would marry her. “And he did love her,
just as the English loved India and Africa and Ireland” (299).
Racism plays itself out on the bodies and souls of women of color. At the Chalfen’s, inspecting the family
that has both given so much to and taken so much from Irie, Clara lies when Joyce asks where she thinks Irie gets
her intelligence. Knowing that the Bowdens are much smarter than Captain Charlie Durham, Clara’s grandfather,
Clara lies, saying “it was probably Captain Charlie Durham. He taught my grandmother all she knew. A good
English education” (294). Even Clara directs her pain and anger at Joyce’s racism inward, telling lies that Clara felt
as an assault against herself, initiated by Joyce’s insistence that genetics is the better half of intelligence, an English
education making up the rest. But Clara knew it “was a downright lie. False as her own white teeth” (294). And
Joyce is not as smart as the Bowdens either; like Charlie Durham, she sacrificed people she hardly knew for her own
The Chalfens, middle class, assimilated to Anglo, look into the mirror of England, and see themselves, both
in terms of the white status they were given precisely in order to exclude the likes of Irie and Millat and in terms of
economic class. The Chalfens helped to keep England white and to keep England economically virile. The Chalfens
thought of themselves, the middle class, as inheritors of the Enlightenment (359), and they are proudly and solidly
modern, science their arbiter of truth in both the physical universe and the political arena. To their credit, they live
their politics, sending their children to public schools. They live their Chalfenist lives perfectly, and when they look
into the mirror of England, they see themselves reflected back. But, like modernity at the end of the twentieth
century, there were cracks in Chalfen bliss:
The century was drawing to a close and the Chalfens were bored. Like clones of each other, their dinner
table was an exercise in mirrored perfection. Chalfenism and all its principles reflecting itself infinitely,
bouncing from Oscar to Joyce, Joyce to Joshua, Joshua to Marcus, Marcus to Benjamin, Benjamin to Jack
ad nauseam across the meat and veg. . . . They were bored, and none more than Joyce. . . . Joyce needed to
be needed, [and so] it was when she finished breast-feeding Oscar that she threw herself back into
gardening, back into the warm mulch where tiny things relied on her. (262)
When Irie and Millat are busted along with Josh Chalfen in a schoolyard drug raid and are assigned as a
result to after school study at the middle-class, white Chalfens, science nerd Josh Chalfen is delighted by his rise in
status to ‘cool’. But when Joyce first met Irie and Millat, she had just come in from the garden where she was
ruthlessly pruning her delphinium, pruning it back for its own good, so it could grow again free from the thrips now
eating it from the inside. She “looked at Irie and Millat the way she had looked at her . . . delphinium. She was a
quick and experienced detector of illness, and there was damage here” (269). But the Chalfens love Irie and Millat
like England loves India, like England loves Jamaica. Assimilated themselves, the Chalfens, like England, think of
themselves as mature and fully formed, having something to give to these brown strangers, but never expecting to be
IV. Creating Gardens of Diversity
In her 1976 book,The New Flower Power, Joyce Chalfen writes gardening advice mirroring the Chalfen
experience. She writes:
If it is not too far-fetched a comparison, the sexual and cultural revolution we have experienced these last
two decades is not a million miles away from the horticultural revolution that has taken place in our
herbaceous borders and sunken beds. Where once we were satisfied with our biennials . . ., now we are
demanding both variety and continuity 365 days a year. . . . The birds and the bees, the thick haze of
pollen-these are all to be encouraged! Yes, self-pollination is the simpler and more certain of the two
fertilization processes, especially for many species that colonize by copiously repeating the same parental
strain. But a species cloning such uniform offspring runs the risk of having its entire population wiped out
by a single evolutionary event. . . . The fact is, cross-pollination produces more varied offspring, which are
better able to cope with a changed environment. It is said cross-pollinating plants also tend to produce more
and better-quality seeds. . . . Sisters, the bottom line is this: if we are to continue wearing flowers in our
hair into the next decade, they must be hardy and ever at hand, something only a truly mothering gardener
can ensure. If we wish to provide happy playgrounds for our children, and corners of contemplation for our
husbands, we need to create gardens of diversity and interest. Mother Earth is great and plentiful, but even
she requires the occasional helping hand! (257-8)
The concept of hybridity has long been part of postcolonial studies and of philosophies of race and racism.
And Smith shows the strengths of the concept along with its pitfalls. For Joyce means well, her instincts are right.
Josh and Irie and Millat are products of cultural and genetic mixing and they are in the process of defining a future
of coexistence, of cultural crossing and of the shared forging of an England their parents cannot even imagine.
the century of strangers, brown, yellow, and white. . . . It is only this late in the day that you can walk into a
playground and find Isaac Leung by the fishpond, Danny Rahman in the football cage, Quang O’Rourke
bouncing a basketball, and Irie Jones humming a tune. Children with first and last names on a direct
collision course. Names that secrete within them mass exodus, cramped boats and planes, cold arrivals,
medical checkups. It is only this late in the day, and possibly only in Willesden, that you can find best
friends Sita and Sharon, constantly mistaken for each other because Sita is white (her mother liked the
name) and Sharon is Pakistani (her mother thought it best—less trouble). Yet, despite all the mixing up,
despite the fact that we have slipped into each other’s lives with reasonable comfort. . .
this is no easy hybridity, no easy, happy multiculturalism, no innocently blooming garden of diversity (271). Sita’s
mother had the option of Sita—to choose the name because it pleased her, new and pretty; Sharon’s mother picked
Sharon to shield her daughter, to make things easier for her daughter in a country where Pakistani names might be
picked like jewels for white girls, and Pakistani kids still have need of shields.
For Joyce, cross-pollination and diversity are, like brightly-colored blooms in her garden, resources to
brighten up her life, to educate her children, to nourish her husband. Joyce is willing to use Irie and Millat (and her
project of rescuing them from what she perceives to be troubled home lives) to make herself feel needed in her white
female role as reproducer of Chalfenism, of white England, where a Black man can be accepted if he is
economically virile enough. Joyce’s version of hybridity is a neocolonial one: the empire was always willing to
profit at the expense of Black and Asian labor and on the bodies of Black and Asian women and men. Like the thrips
she was facing down in the delphinium, Joyce means “well, but [she and] thrips go too far, thrips go beyond
pollinating and eating pests; thrips begin to eat the plant itself, to eat it from within” (263).
And, though the Chalfens have no friends and are completely self-referential, Joyce is as spellbound by
Millat’s beauty as she is by her desire to ‘save’ the children, to have them need her, to shape them into Chalfens. She
thinks to herself that Millat “should have been indistinguishable to [her] from those she regularly bought milk and
bread from, gave her accounts to for inspection, or passed her checkbook to behind the thick glass of a bank till”
(264). He should have been one flower among many in her garden, indistinguishable from the others there for her
benefit, but he stood out, a rare, solitary and beautiful flower. And immediately, Joyce turns her fascination into
genetic and social information for Irie, advising her to seek “‘a man like Marcus for the long term. These fly-bynights
are all right for fun, but what kind of fathers do they make?’” (265). Again, Joyce’s interest in crosspollination
and hybridity reflects no real desire to let her flowers change her, to become hybridized herself through
cultural interaction with Millat and Irie or with their families, the families Joyce assumes are essentially damaged.
She cannot see her young guests as English, remarking, “‘you look very exotic. Where are you from?’” ‘Willesden,’
said Irie and Millat simultaneously. ‘Yes, yes, of course, but where originally?’ ‘Oh,’ said Millat, putting on what he
called abud-bud-ding-ding accent. ‘You are meaning where from am I originally.’ Joyce looked confused. ‘Yes,
originally.’ ‘Whitechapel,’ said Millat, pulling out a fag. ‘Via the Royal London Hospital and the 207 bus’” (265).
Full of stereotypes and her own self-importance, a self-importance itself a reflection of Marcus Chalfen’s glory,
Joyce is hardly aware the Millat is making fun of her, her laughter an obedient imitation of her husband’s and sons’.
Although she seems unconscious of it, Joyce is a living example of one of hybridity’s possible downfalls. She has
assimilated entirely to Chalfenism, become entirely English. An assimilated white English woman, she has also
devoted herself to the needs of children and husband, needing to be needed, and not recognizing that, in her need,
she needs Irie and Millat. And they will change her whether she intends to be changed or no, perhaps even
threatening Chalfenism’s single-strained, inbred existence.
Caryl Phillips suggests thatthe only way to a new world order, as he puts it, a world that is no longer
colonial or postcolonial, is through an amalgam of the cultures of all involved. He asks, “So how should Britain
define itself as a nation? A synthesis of Indian takeaways, baked beans, soccer, Jamaican patties, St. Patrick’s Day,
pub on Saturday, Notting Hill Carnival, church on Sunday, mosque on Friday and fish and chips? I say
emphatically, yes” (281). And this hybridity seems like a good solution. There is no easy cultural ‘purity,’ as Alsana
makes vividly clear to Samad in his postcolonial dilemma, pulling out the encyclopedia BALTIC-BRAIN volume to
show him the ethnic admixture of the inhabitants of Bangladesh (Smith 196). But while she insists “‘you go back
and back and back and it’s still easier to find the correct Hoover bag than to find one pure person, one pure faith, on
the globe. Do you think anybody is English? Really English? It’s a fairy tale!’” (196), she and Clara also worry, as
immigrants do, about disappearing, about their children being “swept away in a sea of pink” (272).
There is the danger, also, that this hybridity turns into meaningless capitalist sampling, such as in the
restaurant where Samad works, ignored or belittled by arrogant customers, who can’t pronounce the names of the
dishes that do not even exist in India. Or, pointedly excluding Archie and Clara from the company dinner because
Clara is Black, Kelvin Hero, Archie’s boss, mentions that curry will be on the menu. Archie is excluded, because he
married a woman from the Caribbean; Archie is excluded because he has Bengali friends and talks to Pakistanis just
like they were ordinary people, and brings Indian sweets to celebrate Clara’s pregnancy. Curry is the invited guest of
honor, while Clara and Archie are left out.
Desperately wanting to be guest of honor somewhere, Millat makes the evening news with his Raggastani
crew the day they burn a so-called blasphemous book they’d none of them read. These young teenage boys want a
place to fit in, and they get it through homophobic, crude, violent action. Trying to blast their way onto the English
landscape, they, fittingly, come dressed in Nike gear from head to toe, the lot of them moving in unison, in “one
gigantic swoosh, one huge mark of corporate approval” (193).
V. At the Root: Fundamentals and Fundamentalism
Smith neither neatly condemns any one of these characters nor holds anyone up as having the answer, the
only way out. She does suggest, however, that, although there are unacceptable behaviors aplenty, there are also
likely multiple practices that could lead out of modernist/fundamentalist, colonial/postcolonial binds. She does not
shine a light on the clear path out, for that would undermine the more fluid, more improvised approaches of some of
her most flexible and determined characters.
Not going back to a ‘pure’ source, Smith still goes to the fundamentals, goes to the root. For all of her
characters have the anguish of history somewhere at the root of their beings. They have all suffered historical root
canals of some sort, their histories being deadened, their bodies the sites of battles and scars and forced pregnancies and
disappearances. Even the Chalfens have lost in their assimilation to whiteness; even the insufferably racist Mr. J.P.
Hamilton, the old, gnarled white British army officer, who used the whiteness of their teeth as a beacon to illuminate
his murder of Blacks in the Congo, has lost his teeth. His imperial England is, fortunately, in its death throes.
December 31, 1992, England got down to the fundamentals. On this New Year’s Eve, Marcus Chalfen, under
the sponsorship of the Perret Institute, and with the collaboration of Magid Iqbal, will launch the FutureMouse project.
The little brown mouse has been genetically altered to live twice as long as an ordinary mouse, but to develop cancer
seven years hence which Chalfen can then study in an attempt to find a cure for cancer. Chalfen fundamentally wants to
give Mother Nature the helping hand Joyce mentioned in The New Flower Power. He wants to breed out the random in
nature for the benefit of humanity. Fundamentally, he is the Promethean modern scientist, shining Enlightenment
Reason on nature and politics.
All of the groups who come to the event to challenge Chalfen, all of the individuals who come, have
fundamental reasons for their interest in or opposition to the project. Some of them are also fundamentalists. Smith
offers two definitions:
fundamental 1. Of or pertaining to the basis or groundwork; going to the root of the matter. 2. Serving as the
base or foundation; essential or indispensable. Also, primary, original; from which others are
derived. 3. Of or pertaining to the foundation(s) of a building. 4. Of a stratum: lowest, lying at the
fundamentalism: The strict maintenance of traditional orthodox religious beliefs or doctrines; esp. belief in the
inerrancy of religious texts. (241)
Although Smith never says so directly, she presents many of the characters and their religious, political, or
scientific projects as fundamentalist, expanding the definition even beyond Karen Armstrong’s to include people or
groups who hold their fundamental principles with religious fervor, who are rigid and unyielding, who separate from
the rest of society to maintain a kind of purity, and who, ultimately end up in twin trouble with the very forces they
represent or oppose. Hortense’s Jehovah’s Witnesses and their belief in the literal truth of scripture fit the most
narrow of the definitions, but KEVIN, with its veneer of unbending Islamic rules and proscriptions over a program
of political action fits Armstrong’s expanded definition. FATE, the radical animal rights group, which Josh Chalfen
has recently joined, although claiming no religious affiliation at all, might still be seen as fundamentalist, in its rigid,
unbending adherence to fundamental principles. The Chalfens, too, might be considered fundamentalist, if we look
at their own self-referential Chalfenism as their source and sacred text. Nothing else ever measures up, and they
have retreated from the rest of the world in their presumed superiority. Finally, Marcus Chalfen’s scientific work on
FutureMouse, may too fall into the fundamentalist category, his unbending belief in science described by Romantics
as “a jealous monotheism in new clothes, wanting no other gods before it” (369).
But Smith shows us the reasons each believes as he or she does. Each, in one way or another, wants to
weed out the random, to make life more safe, more bearable, more predictable, more accepting. For Hortense, like
Ambrosia before her, the Jehovah’s Witnesses represented freedom from the English men who had done them such
harm. From the day of Hortense’s birth, “no Bowden woman took lessons from anyone but the Lord” (301). For
Millat, KEVIN was a mirror and haven. For Halaal butcher, Mo Hussein-Ishmael, frequent victim of racist attacks,
KEVIN was an army of resistance. He joined KEVIN after his Irish wife left him and he felt emasculated. For Shiva,
the Hindu waiter, KEVIN was his way to ‘be someone,’ his job as a waiter in the same Indian restaurant as Samad
pulling away at his self-image. For him, the best result of KEVIN was increased attention from women. FATE
offered Josh Chalfen a way to spite his father, who seemed more interested in Magid and the mouse than in his son.
Chalfen hopes to find cures for fatal human diseases.
Smith allows the reader both to sympathize with the reasons each character takes the path he or she does
and also to understand the limits of such paths. Each wants to eliminate what seem to be random racist and/or sexist
attacks or to eliminate what seem to be random diseases or misfortunes. Each wants to make the world more livable,
but each is also rigid and narrowly focused. The only entirely sinister character in the novel is Dr. Marc-Pierre
Perret, former Nazi scientist. He offers a frightening counterpoint to the others precisely because he also wants to
weed out the random through eugenics, through the creation of a master race.
This weeding out of the random is what Samad wanted, too, as he tried to deal with his twin troubles, and,
as a result, heaped trouble on his twins. KEVIN, with its list of rules and its tough talk and confrontational action
wants to rip out the random attacks, the random invisibilities, the random loneliness each of its members face.
Hortense’s religion is a firm foundation, a place of freedom with its rules and scripture verses for all occasions.
Marcus Chalfen’s work, too, is precisely about eliminating the random (283), as are Joyce’s horticultural and social
interventions. Irie herself at first wants to merge with the Chalfens, to escape “the chaotic, random flesh of her own
But beyond attempts even at weeding out the random, each of these fundamentalists also lacks “the cardinal
insight of all the major confessional faiths. . . : no religious doctrine or practice can be authentic if it does not lead to
practical compassion. Buddhists, Hindus, Taoists, and monotheists all agree that the sacred reality is not simply
transcendent, ‘out there,’ but is enshrined in every single human being, who must, therefore, be treated with absolute
honor and respect” (Armstrong 322). Even Josh Chalfen is skeptical about FATE’s plan to use him as a hostage to
manipulate his father into acceding to their demands, not sure his father has the compassion for his son to choose
him over the mouse. Even Irie Jones is unable to feel compassion for her mother, when, upon being bitten by her
mother’s false teeth, runs to her grandmother Hortense to escape her parents’ painful histories, both wanting those
histories to vanish and blaming her parents when they push into the present.
Going back to the beginning, to another New Year’s Eve, Archie is about to commit suicide. Archie’s
despair might be read as modernity despairing. The promises of modernity went unfulfilled for Archie. The promise
that if a person works hard, he or she will be rewarded: failed. The promise that if a young man fights for his
country, he will be a hero: failed. The promise that military service will attract a beautiful woman and a life of
happiness: failed. The allure of personal glory—Archie tied for 13th place as an Olympic cyclist and was left out of
the record books: failed. The promises of masculinity, capitalism, the protestant work ethic, the military, athletic
heroism, the promises of certainty, the random weeded out: all failed. So Archie flips a coin, and decides to die. This
man, broken by the failed promises of modernity, awakes into a postcolonial, multicultural world. Mo Hussein-
Ishmael raps on Archie’s window, saying he cannot die in front of the butcher shop, and Archie gulps in fresh air
and the idea that life chose him. In his elation, he drives until he stumbles randomly upon the ‘End of the World’
party and is at the bottom of the stairs the moment Clara Bowden appears in her elegant beauty at the top. Six weeks
later they married; within the year Irie came along. By the end of the novel, Irie, her father’s daughter, begins to
recognize the random, not as an enemy. It sounded “like paradise to her. Sounded like freedom” (337).
VI. In the End
In the end, we must go back to the beginning, to Samad’s question what will Archie do when the chips are
down? A friendship that began as the kind an Englishman can only have on holiday, turned out to be the most
enduring relationship of Archie’s life. When the chips are down, Archie spares the same Nazi scientist twice, not for
the value of that man’s life, but to save Samad’s son from the vengeance of the English legal system. When the
chips are down, Archie throws himself in front of a bullet Millat intended for Marcus or for Dr. Perret. Archie took
the bullet, not for Dr. Sick’s sake or for Marcus’ but for Millat’s. He took the bullet for friendship and for his
friend’s teenage son. Without flipping a coin, without a moment’s hesitation, Archie does what he must,
fundamentally. In the chaos, FutureMouse escapes, and Archie cheers him on, thinking “go on my son!” (448).
Recognizing that, for a culture in flux, the chips are always down, Neena and Irie work on culture at the
level of fundamentals. They, at the supposed bottom of the heap, shift the foundations, and so can’t help but to shift
the whole of society, without becoming locked in a fundamentalistdanse macabre with the stratosphere. Neena,
proudly a Begum willing to support and defend her cousins and Irie, is at ease with the confusing multiplicities of
postcolonial London. She lives with contradictions, sorting out what is fundamentally unacceptable and breathing
with the rest. Often at odds with her aunt, Alsana, Neena is the undercover agent of the mums, Clara and Alsana,
when they are fed up with Chalfen interference. Alsana’s usual philosophy is that her son is second-generation and
can’t be just like his father, that Millat should be left to make his own mistakes. But she is not completely hands-off,
willing to tolerate everything. When Millat’s Raggastani crew participated in the public book burning, Alsana had a
bonfire roasting Millat’s most precious possessions waiting for him on his return home. She wanted him to learn
respect for other people’s things. When she begins to see the Chalfens as little English birds with ripping teeth, as
Chalfinches, she sends in Neena to find out just how much or little these birds respect her son and her family. For
the first time in her life, Neena agrees with her aunt: the Chalfens are crazy. They are full of themselves, they are
racist, they are homophobic, they are impossible.
Neena makes and repairs shoes; she often appears in a funky creation of her own, walking on supports of
her own invention. She repairs shoes for others. Shoes. Easily ignored when comfortable and supportive, screaming
for attention when painful. She works on the fundamentals: the lowest level, the most essential.
Irie, too, works on culture at the level of fundamentals. Effectively a secretary for Marcus Chalfen, she, like
Archie before her, does the work that makes Marcus’ battles possible. Magically, his papers are organized, folded
and filed, while Marcus courts Magid as partner in the so-called important business of science. Of course, secretaries
often hold all of the power, although they officially have little. Because Marcus takes her so for granted, like
Neena’s comfortable shoes, Irie is able to read his correspondence with Magid, the golden one. To Magid, Marcus
Well, things are the same round here except that my files are in excellent order, thanks to Irie. You’ll like
her: she’s a bright girl and she has the most tremendous breasts . . . . Sadly, I don’t hold out much hope for
her aspirations in the field of ‘hard science,’ more specifically in my own biotechnology, which she appears
to have her heart set on . . . she’s sharp in a way, but it’s the menial work, the hard grafting, that she’s good
at—she’d make a lab assistant maybe, but she hasn’t any head for the concepts, no head at all. She could
try medicine, I suppose, but even there you need a little bit more chutzpah than she’s got . . . so it might
have to be dentistry for our Irie (she could fix her own teeth at least), an honest profession no doubt, but
one I hope you’ll be avoiding. (305)
Understandably upset, Irie soon decides that she will become a dentist after all. Like her father and mother,
she is “a great reinventor of herself. A great make-doer” (305). But Irie is not simply settling; she’s getting down to
fundamentals. In a book filled with false teeth and deception and the agonizing wounds of history, Irie will work on
the fundamentals, on the teeth that shape a person’s face, that make speaking and eating possible. She’ll work on
teeth, on the white teeth common to all humans, teeth, that, like shoes, are taken for granted, ignored, but relied
upon, when they do not hurt. She’ll work on teeth that scream for attention when they do.
Dentistry, of course, is also symbolic of the fundamental cultural work Irie, like Neena, does. When Irie,
against her better judgment, facilitates a meeting between the twins, she ends up first in the desperate arms of Millat
and then in the maddeningly serene arms of Magid. She wants Magid, the elder twin by two minutes, for once to be
last, and she makes him second by 25 minutes. Out of these unions, Irie and each twin, a new Irie is born, and Irie’s
daughter is conceived. Magid tells Irie she is like a person shipwrecked, who clings to men like islands, wanting to
mark them with an X. And calmly, he says it’s a little late in the day for that (382). His kiss on her forehead feels
like a baptism, and Irie wept. For, as Neena has been saying all along, Irie is ok as she is. She doesn’t need Millat’s
love to make her strong or beautiful. Fundamentally, his love will change nothing. But fundamentally, Irie will
No eye-witness is able to decide with certainty if it was Millat or Magid who fired the shot that fateful New
Year’s Eve, and the Chalfens, the Iqbals and Joneses were uncooperative, so the twins got 400 hours of community
service each, to be served in Joyce Chalfen’s new garden project along the banks of the Thames. Between genetics
and the practical compassion, finally, of the three families involved, the twins and the families get another chance to
make their way toward a new future. As for Irie, no one will ever know if Millat or Magid fathered her child, their
genetic makeup identical. Irie’s daughter on the way confounds modern science, confounds tradition, confounds
twin trouble. So, on New Year’s Eve, 1999, sitting with her grandmother and Josh on a Jamaican beach, her little
daughter playing nearby, Irie waits for the new year while her grandmother waits for the glorious end of the world.
This is no magical source, as elusive as one’s own shadow. But this is a beginning, connected, fundamentally to the
history that Smith says is as impossible to escape as that same shadow.
Armstrong, Karen.The Battle for God. NY: Ballantine, 2000.
Menocal, Maria Rosa.The Ornament of the World. NY: Little Brown, 2002.
Phillips, Caryl.A New World Order. London: Secker and Warbur, 2001.
Smith, Zadie.White Teeth. NY: Vintage, 2000.
Tarnas, Richard.The Passion of the Western Mind. NY: Harmony Books, 1991.