Revisiting Reviving Ophelia, the Book That Exposed America's 'Girl-Destroying' Culture

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Revisiting Reviving Ophelia, the Book That Exposed America's 'Girl-Destroying' Culture

When psychologist Mary Pipher was working as a therapist in the early 1990s, she began to notice an influx of troubled adolescent girls as clients. These girls, Pipher found, were struggling with eating disorders, abuse, self-harm, and suicidal thoughts—a far cry from what Pipher had experienced in her own adolescence. Fidgety and unhappy to be dragged to Pipher’s office in the first place, these girls didn’t get along with their parents. Parents stressed that they didn’t even know who their daughters were anymore. According to Pipher, these parents had good reason to not recognize their daughters.

“America today is a girl-destroying place,” she wrote in an iconically metal line from her book Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls, a collection of case studies of her adolescent clients. Published in 1994 after being rejected by 13 publishers, Reviving Ophelia spent the next three years on the New York Times best-seller list, captivating exasperated parents and curious teens. A dispiriting look at American teen girl culture, Pipher called attention to how girls bend to the needs and desires of mainstream culture to abandon their true selves and take up false selves. “Girls stop thinking, ‘Who am I? What do I want?’ and start thinking, ‘What must I do to please others?’” she wrote.

Girls in Reviving Ophelia were depicted as especially malleable in the face of oppression and a “girl-poisoning” culture. At times they are depicted as literally voiceless. Girls’ “voices have gone underground, their speech is more tentative and less articulate,” Pipher argued. Their ailments, from burning themselves with cigarettes to STDs, were vast. There was Cayenne, a 15-year-old whose dreams of being a doctor in childhood gave way to falling in with a wild crowd, experimenting with drugs and alcohol, and contracting herpes. Heidi, a 16-year-old gymnast, became so obsessed with the weigh-ins her sport required that she developed bulimia. And 15-year-old Ellie described being raped by three boys from her school, her father harnessing revenge fantasies. “Some days I leave work thinking that every woman in America has been or will be sexually assaulted,” Pipher wrote.

In 2021, talking openly about teen girls’ well-being in the face of a hostile culture is mainstream. What teenagers struggle with—eating disorders, sexual assault, bullying—is plastered on the walls of TikTok, Twitter, and Instagram for anyone to see as girls can now speak for themselves. Teenagers like Emma Gonzalez, Greta Thunberg, and Mari Copeny have given rise to the teenager as activist as young people battle climate change and gun violence, and at times it feels like the culture is overcompensating for past stereotypes of teen girls as materialistic and catty when celebrities claim teens will save the world. But over 25 years ago Pipher’s book helped popularize the idea that teenage girls suffer uniquely under America’s sexist and capitalist culture, calling for readers to actually listen to them.

What I realized is the reason girls were having so much trouble is who they are and who they want to become is so at odds with the cultural pressures on them to be a certain way

“What I realized is the reason girls were having so much trouble is who they are and who they want to become is so at odds with the cultural pressures on them to be a certain way,” Pipher tells Jezebel. “It isn’t about having neurotic parents at all. It’s really about trying to develop a strong sense of self and self-respect in a culture that totally ignores and devalues women.”

When Reviving Ophelia was published, it was part of a broader academic and popular interest in teen girls, particularly their faltering self-esteem and its impact on school performance. In 1990, psychologist Carol Gilligan co-wrote Making Connections, a study of girls at the all-girls Emma Willard School and a “crisis of connection” happening in girls’ lives. In 1992, the American Association of University Women Educational Foundation issued the report “How Schools Shortchange Girls,” which found that girls received less attention than boys in the classroom and were increasingly subject to sexual harassment, with the bottom line that a “well-educated workforce is essential to the country’s economic development.” The same year Reviving Ophelia was published, Peggy Orenstein released Schoolgirls: Young Women, Self-Esteem, and the Confidence Gap, a study of middle-schoolers in different communities that brought the AAUW study to a wider audience, and researchers Myra and David Sadker published Failing at Fairness: How Our Schools Cheat Girls in 1994, which zeroed in on gender equality issues in education.

Reviving Ophelia was especially successful because it looked beyond the classroom, and it was easy to read. As a teenager who first read the book nearly two decades after it was released, I could log on to a computer and reach strangers my age struggling with eating disorders, self-harm, and abuse at any moment. But Reviving Ophelia’s frank accounts of teen girls’ experiences collected in one neat volume further legitimized such experiences as real trauma rather than the stuff of frequently trivialized diary and Tumblr entries. “Up until that book, if you read the case history of a client, it put you to sleep,” Pipher says. Case studies were dryly academic, Pipher says, referring to subjects by case number rather than by name. “One of the things I did was open up for other professionals the idea that when you wrote, even if you were writing sophisticated, rather professional material, you could actually write in a vivid way that ordinary people would enjoy and understand.”

Still, Reviving Ophelia could be dramatic. The book’s original tagline, paired with a cover featuring a close-up of a forlorn blonde, warned about the “everyday dangers of being young and female.” Pipher wrote that because of the media, from the prevalence of hardcore pornography to MTV, girls were living in “one big town, a sleazy, dangerous tinsel town with lots of liquor stores and few protected spaces.” Pipher emphasizes at the book’s end that schools overprioritize academics over developmental concerns, but girls’ “true selves” are admired in the book as future lawyers and doctors with good grades and abundant school activities, a squeaky clean definition of what constitutes girlhood success.

And while the book may have floated among parents desperate for answers regarding their rebellious teenage daughters (or at the very least some insight into their nose piercings) there was a voyeuristic quality to reading Reviving Ophelia’s frank case studies of girls who existed like “saplings in a hurricane.” In a pre-internet era, in which teen magazines and TV shows were more inclined to sell aspirational fantasies of girlhood back to consumers than realism, the book could be a beacon for teenage girls. In Pipher’s case studies was the affirmation that your insecurities are valid in a culture designed to mess with your understanding of your “true self.”

Reviving Ophelia was embraced as a troubling snapshot of American girlhood in the 1990s, one which brought brewing concern in the fields of psychology and education to a mainstream audience, but not without criticism. The success of Reviving Ophelia launched a series of books written by other authors trailing Pipher’s ideas including Ophelia Speaks, an anthology written by girls, and Surviving Ophelia and Ophelia’s Mom, each from the perspective of mothers. But as sociologist Marnina Gonick writes, the so-called “Ophelia movement” “may, ironically, also be contributing to the proliferation of the girl-damaging media images.” Just as books like Reviving Ophelia called on the culture to foster girls’ confidence and agency, it also further normalized how little confidence and agency they apparently had.

Though Pipher writes in her book that an “analysis of culture cannot ignore individual differences in women,” there was the question of whose girlhood was being accurately captured in Pipher’s book as universal. Aside from a few interviewees, including Franchesca, a Native American adopted teenager who struggles being raised by white parents, and Evonne, a confident and affluent Black girl who bemoans being unable to find Black movies that aren’t “about drugs and gangs,” most of the girls featured in Pipher’s book are white, heterosexual, and middle-class. In her 2004 book Women without Class: Girls, Race, and Identity, a study of teenage girls growing up in California, sociologist Julie Bettie opens her book by critiquing Pipher for not adequately exploring how race and class differences among girls impact their adolescence. “Although Piper admits she is generationally far removed from girls today,” Bettie writes. “A bigger limitation is perhaps less about generation than her unwillingness to more fully analyze the multiple social forces that shape girls’ lives.”

Pipher and her daughter Sara Gilliam, a teenager herself when Pipher was writing Reviving Ophelia, take steps to widen the book’s scope in an updated 25th-anniversary edition published in 2019. The two sent out original copies of the books to teenage girls across the country with an eye on geographic and ethnic diversity and asked them to go nuts with editing. The result is a text with a stronger emphasis on social media and anxiety and one that chips away a bit at Pipher’s original alarm. Where in the original she writes plainly that “girls are having more trouble now than they had thirty years ago,” drawing on her own adolescence for contrast, the update reads that Pipher and Gilliam were careful to “avoid better-or-worse comparisons and nostalgia. Every decade possesses its positives and negatives.”

There is also the inclusion of voices and anxieties that failed to appear in the original. Instead of Evonne, there is Jamila, a 17-year-old Black girl in Omaha, Nebraska, who laughs when Pipher says that most of the girls she’s interviewed say academic stress is their biggest source of anxiety. “I’m far more stressed about police brutality and the endless racism that surrounds us,” she says, having been pulled over four times for “driving while black.” A trans 16-year-old named Greer talks about the importance of transitioning between middle and high-school, and girls talk about their gender-fluid proms. A chapter on anxiety adds school shootings to the laundry list of stresses for girls, but also notes that immigrant youth fear ICE agents and hate groups, that people of color fear racial violence.

“I think in some ways that critique doesn’t work because my mom set out to do exactly what she set out to do, which was tell the stories of the girls that she was seeing in therapy,” Gilliam says, when I ask if the new interviewees were added in response to criticism of Reviving Ophelia’s limited inclusion. “But we recognized that wasn’t ultimately as inclusive of girls in 2019 as we wanted it to be.

When I recently reread the original Reviving Ophelia and its update, I expected to revisit a book of sheer panic, a collection of warnings for concerned parents and patronizing descriptions of withering teenage girls. But for all of its flaws, the alarmist asides about MTV, the limited intersectionality of its gaze, I found many of Pipher’s statements about the reality of girl-poisoning culture to still ring true. Girls still experience sexual harassment from students and teachers, teen girls aged 16 to 19 are still more likely than the general population to experience rape or sexual assault, girls still “come of age in a misogynistic culture in which men have most political and economic power.” Parents looking for some quick how-to tips at the end of the book will find a few suggestions, but they’ll mostly find Pipher stressing that everything needs to change: the overall structures of schools, popular conceptions of manhood that foster violence, media, gender inequality, capitalism.

Reviving Ophelia’s central rallying cry that what appears on the surface to be a girl in crisis is really a culture crisis still feels potent, even if the girl crisis Pipher outlines has its limitations and dated concerns. It’s too easy to make the American teen girl a cultural punching bag, to sensationalize her failures and minimize her desires, to sexually objectify her but revile her when she expresses any sexual agency. And while she may not always be the struggling, voiceless, “sapling in a hurricane” Pipher writes her to be, the hurricane still exists, and Reviving Ophelia’s strength was in starkly outlining how our culture is responsible for that hurricane, and still is today.

Correction: An earlier version of this piece used the incorrect pronouns for activist Emma Gonzalez. Jezebel regrets the error.

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