Angela Dancey on Growing Up Female

Angela Dancey

Oct 20, 2019

Photo image of two young white women with long straight hair, wearing sunglasses, from Julia Reichert & Jim Klein's 1970 documentary film Growing Up Female

Angela Dancey considers Julia Reichert and Jim Klein's groundbreaking 1970 documentary Growing Up Female through a contemporary feminist lens. The film screens with Reichert's Sparkle and Making Morning Star on Thursday, October 24. A former Columbusite, Dancey earned her M.F.A. in Creative Writing (Poetry) and Ph.D. (Film Studies) from the Department of English at The Ohio State University. She teaches composition, film studies, and literature at The University of Illinois at Chicago.


The first shot of Growing Up Female shows a mother and her four-year-old daughter in matching flower-print dresses as they emerge hand-in-hand through the front door of their modest midcentury home. As an acoustic folk song plays, a series of dissolves depicts the couple making their way leisurely down the sidewalk, eventually arriving at the neighborhood preschool. “She was created from the substance of fairy tales and magazines,” says the female narrator—she being “the American woman.” Thus begins Julia Reichert and Jim Klein’s 1971 powerful, eloquent, and at times heart-breaking exploration of the social construction of (mostly white) female identity through the institutions of school, family, popular culture, and work.

Full disclosure: I was born the year of the documentary’s release, and therefore can’t help but experience it through a particularly personal lens. And while the film demonstrates that social, legal, and cultural conditions for American women have improved in my lifetime, some gender roles and stereotypes have remained nearly the same or taken on new and even more charged significance in the everyday lives of women.

The narrative structure of the film, which was shot in and around Yellow Springs, Ohio, follows a chronological path from girlhood to adult motherhood with each stage represented by an interview subject, beginning with the preschool-age girl we see in the beginning scenes. The gendered expectations imposed on younger girls and boys through play are familiar ones. Reichert notes, in voiceover, that the girls act as “little mothers” with their dolls while the boys “go to work” with their toy trucks. While some attempts are being made by parents and corporations to “de-gender” play, a glance at any toy catalog or store section demonstrates these expectations are still very much alive and strictly categorized as pink or blue.

Twelve-year-old Janelle represents the last stage of girlhood before the sexualized teenage years. A wonderful montage shows Janelle and a group of her girlfriends dancing and horsing around while Little Peggy March sings “I Will Follow Him.” Over a freeze frame of Janelle laughing, mouth open wide, Reichert questions her parents about her interests and attitudes. Janelle’s mother admits that she wishes “tomboy” Janelle would take an interest in boys and wear dresses, while, over a freeze frame of her mother’s face, Janelle’s voiceover tells us that she’s embarrassed by her mother’s recommended “gimmicks” to meet boys and doesn’t like to wear dresses because she “can’t do as much” in them. For me, it’s deeply pleasurable to hear Janelle state that even though the boys don’t like it when the girls play sports with them, she can still run faster than they can, to which Reichert replies with satisfaction, “That’s what I thought.” Over a montage of Janelle and her friends exploring the neighborhood woods, Reichert says, “Janelle enjoys the strength of her body. She likes, really likes, other girls.” A freeze frame of Janelle in mid-leap over a ravine signals that a profound change is about to come for the American girl.

And change she does. Probably the most shockingly anachronistic section of the film from a feminist viewpoint is the one we spend with Terri, a 16-year-old student of cosmetology at the local vocational high school. During her interview, where she looks profoundly uncomfortable at times but largely affectless, she talks about the importance of looking good for her steady boyfriend and how much she looks forward to getting married someday. While she speaks, we see images of her busy training salon, the walls covered with beauty ads targeting women and a handmade poster that reads “We devote a life to beauty.” Later, the filmmakers sit in on a conversation between Terri and her high school guidance counselor, also a woman, who instructs Terri in the “rules” for being a good wife: being “neat, clean, and as attractive as possible,” not making any major decisions in the household but instead “assisting” her husband in doing so, and not allowing her husband to do any work related to housecleaning or child-rearing, though, the counselor allows, he may “get to know” the children as he pleases. 

Thus, the cosmetology training becomes not only vocational but social—women learning how to make themselves and other women attractive for the sole purpose of getting and keeping the attention of men. This not-so-hidden curriculum extends to the business machine training classrooms, where one male teacher says that “females are more adaptive” for work such as key-punching because they are “sedate” and that the work is purposely unpleasant in order to encourage women to get married and leave the workforce to have children. It’s hard to imagine anyone in today’s educational system speaking of gender roles this way, yet we do see continued “slut-shaming” of girls in high school by teachers and administrators and pressure to dress and behave “appropriately” in order to not only attract boys the “right” way but also to control their sexual impulses. And stereotypes about the disciplines in which girls and boys are supposedly “hard-wired” to succeed continue to prevent girls from pursuing careers in STEM fields and prevent boys from pursuing careers in supposedly “feminine” fields such as teaching and nursing.

poster image for the 1970 documentary Growing Up Female by Julia Reichert and Jim Klein

Next we meet Tammy, a seemingly middle-class woman in her early twenties, who brings with her a focus on advertising and the feminization of consumerism. The filmmakers alternate interviewing Tammy as she discusses her love of shopping and somewhat vague goals for the future, and talking with a hip young male advertising executive, whose leather pants, Richard Brautigan-style facial hair, and motorcycle boots might flag him as counter-culture, while the ideas he expresses are some of the most openly misogynist and sexist in the film. He refers to female consumers as “chickies” who “live in a dream world” and can be easily persuaded to buy products either by appealing to their fantasy lives or making them feel bad about themselves. Of course, these tactics haven’t changed much since 1971, and while advertising targeting women has become less overtly sexist over the years, the feminine beauty standards reflected in ads (White, thin, and blonde) have become even more manufactured and extreme, and, as many critics argue, are doing more psychological and physical damage to women than ever before.

Also in her early twenties but in sharp contrast to Tammy in multiple ways, Jessica Jones is a Black divorced mother who turned down a full college scholarship in order to raise her daughter. The only woman of color featured in the film, she reflects on her difficult childhood and young motherhood, articulating the life and work challenges specific to the Black community, and the ways in which Black women are forced to take responsibility for themselves and their families. In many ways, this portion of the film is disappointingly contemporary, as the majority of Jessica’s observations could easily apply to any number of Black communities in America today.

Finally, we come full circle, meeting the 34-year-old mother of three glimpsed in the opening scenes of the film, identified only as Mrs. Russell. Mrs. Russell is openly frustrated and critical of her role as mother and housewife, and in her words we can hear the early rumblings of righteous feminist anger. Her voiceover, juxtaposed with shots of her cooking, cleaning, and caring for her husband and children, is deeply gratifying in its directness, and feels like a moment of profound awakening. 

Despite its nod to the early women’s movement and the beginnings of sisterhood among women rather than competition, the film ends on a less-than-hopeful note. As we watch Mrs. Russell leave home to retrieve her daughter from nursery school, Reichert solemnly describes the American woman as one whose future has been “robbed from her by constraints and false values. Her future: uncertain. Her identity: unknown.” In the 48 years since Growing Up Female was released, undeniable social and cultural progress has been made. But the film also serves as a reminder of just how resilient and pervasive our ideologies around gender, race, and ideology can be, and how much growing up we have yet to do.


Image: From Growing Up Female, courtesy of the filmmakers