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Constructions of 'the nice girl' -- teenage female sexual definition and identity in Seventeenth Summer and Forever
"Sybil Davidson," begins Judy Blume's classic novel of teen sexuality, specifically teen feminine sexuality, entitled Forever, "has a genius I.Q. And has been laid by at least six different guys." (Blume, 9) The implications are obvious -- Sybil is equally brilliant and beautiful. Sybil is sexually precocious and yet mature in mind as well in body -- and bodily experience, at least according to the teenage rumor mill. Regardless, this assertion shows how in Blume's world, the antiquated associations of brains and chastity, of sexual openness and being a loose, bad girl, are being challenged in a confronting fashion by the narrator Catherine's less experienced, yet still-authoritative voice. The narrator seems to want to assure the reader that although she may not have been "laid by at least six different guys," like the fabled Sybil, she is no prude in her morals or intentions about her romantic future, either.
Maureen Daly's world of Seventeenth Summer could not seem farther away from Blume's world of sexually open teens. Daly's central character is a virgin, almost unaware of her sexual desire. Angie is charmed when a boy tells her that the wind looks nice blowing through her hair, although he makes no real reference to the rest of her physical body. Although the books take place in roughly the same place in time in the narrator's lives, in the summer between high school and college for Daly's main character, and during the senior year of high school for Blume's central female protagonist, the two books initially seem to be from different planets -- Daly's teens say 'Gee whiz,' and worry constantly about what the parents of their significant others will say. Blume's teens seem cut off from their parents, parents who often just 'don't understand,' modern, shifting sexual morals, Blume's teens seem more concerned with what their peer groups than their parents think. In contrast, Angie at one point is mortified when she sees a boy at her parent's table exhibit such bad table manners as bumping his spoon against his teeth, clearly seeing him through the eyes of her mother's sense of etiquette rather than through her own moral eyes.
However, both Daly and Blume's novels present an essentially similar framework for the female protagonist to define herself -- the question of the female's sexuality becomes the main conduit of self-definition open to her, a way to define her new independence. Although for Daly, her main character is not actively sexual, Angie's decision to date over the summer -- more than any other decision during her previous four years of high school, her future college career, and current intellectual accomplishments -- becomes the defining moment of Angie's life. For Blume, sexuality becomes a kind of proving ground for her main character's individuality -- the Catherine's discretion about making the jump into sexuality will change things, in the words of the title, forever.
Sexuality alone, and the desire to have sex will define a young woman's ability to morally distinguish herself against her peers. Daly's young woman uses her crush to distinguish herself against her parents; Blume's Catherine uses sexuality to make her a more morally complex and knowing individual. Thus, for both authors, the decision about sexuality and who to choose as a prospective partner is what defines the female protagonists as nice or good girls, more than anything else in the main character's lives, unlike the male protagonists.
For example, Angie Morrow of Seventeenth Summer, although she is college-bound and is evidentially considered intelligent and perspicuous in her perceptions of her environment. But Daly presents Angie as fundamentally, emotionally incomplete as a young woman, because Angie lacks a boyfriend. Angie is dominated by the conservative morals of her mother, and seems emotionally although not intellectually ill equipped to attend college in the coming fall. Angie's older sister Loraine is already in college has a boyfriend, and the independence of a summer job, but Angie is still under the thumb of her doting mother, and acts like a child. She does not date, at least has not had what the book defines as a real date throughout high school, something Angie perceives as a lacking an absence in her life. She does not even have a job for the summer, and her life is adrift until one day, she meets Jack and everything changes.
When, Angie falls in love, over that titular seventeenth summer, with Jack Duluth, the rising star of the town, the basketball superpower of the high school, and the son of the a bakery owner, she truly comes into 'her own' as an independent individual. Gazing at the boy's shining crew cut, described as peeking out over a booth in McKnight's drugstore one night, she is suddenly smitten at first sight, as is he with Angie. The intellectual development of this girl seems to have stymied her emotional growth, the book implies -- it is as if suddenly this late bloomer is going through puberty, in awareness of what she has missed through high school, from attending an all-girl's institution for so long.
Significantly, although both books use ordinary settings, like fondue parties and high school halls for Blume, and cars and the local drugstore for Daly, Blume's book begins while the protagonist is still in high school -- rather than a mythic, out of school and out of mind time, like Daly's fantasy summer. Blume ties sexual development more integrally to the mental and social life of her main character by insisting her main character participate in adolescent as well as adult social life -- in contrast to the rather limited summer world of Daly's character, who mainly deals with Angie's boyfriend and parents, and a few friends of Jack who she did not know before, given that she attended a different high school. Although romance still defines the life of the protagonist in Blume's Forever, it is not in a sentimentalized or purely romantic fashion. But Angie meets Jack from afar, and he merely smiles at her and does not speak, until he accidentally blows the paper from his straw out of his booth and it lands near the girl. Blume's much more sexually knowing teenage female character Catherine meets Michael over a steaming pot of fondue, and speaks to him, all the while longing to touch the mole on his cheek -- Blume's couple may 'meet cute' but they do so less by accident and in a way that is less deflating of the main female protagonist's active role in the process.
Throughout Seventeenth Summer, Angie remains an extremely passive character, not just in her initial meetings with Jack, but also because she is an outsider to co-ed teenage society. Angie is pure and virginal from her four years at intellectual private girl's school. Her reserve makes her a mystery to Jack, who was in contrast the center of all social and romantic life at his high school, the most popular and desirable boy in the eyes of all girls. He was pursued until now. Now, it is he who is the pursuer, the book implies, of nice, reserved, timid Angie -- and this excites him, as it ought. In contrast, Angie's more forward sister Loraine has her heart broken by her more urban and sophisticated boyfriend. For all of Loraine's own veneer of educated sophistication, Loraine learns she is still a small-town girl, foolishly forward in love.
Angie's innocence is such that Jack opens up to her right away, as he has never opened up to a girl before. But while the book approves of Angie's innocence towards men, and rewards her for this in the form of Jack's attentions, it frowns upon her parent's snobbishness and protectiveness towards their younger daughter. Angie must remain 'pure' in her spirit, yet through male attention she is able to grow as a person -- only by finding the 'right' man (unlike Loraine) does Angie grow and develop as a mature character.
The settings of the two books, even apart from the swinging 1970s and the conservative pre-World War II 1930s are notable in their contrast and further underline the differences between Angie and Catherine. Blume's teens inhabit the East Coast world of slightly upper middle class New York, while in rural, Depression-era Wisconsin, even owning a bakery makes one middle class and a 'town leader,' although there is a certain class tension between Angie's more established family and Jack's up-and-coming family that makes for one of the more interesting facets of the book. But again, only by entering into a relationship does Angie truly learn about the town, her previous education, the perceptions of her parents that may or may not be correct, and gain a new sense of her own independence. Even her sister's romance only exists as a foil to show the superiority of Angie's purer attraction for (popular, healthy, all-star local) Jack and the 'bad' city…[continue]
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