book review: Your Daughter’s Bedroom

I read psychoanalyst Joyce McFadden’s book Your Daughter’s Bedroom: Insights for Raising Confident Women (2011) immediately before I started teaching last semester–so now I actually have time to write a review! Short version: Your Daughter’s Bedroom has a great premise, and yet it sits uneasily with me as a parent, as a daughter, as a feminist, and as a scholar.

In some ways, this book is awesome:

  • It’s a matter-of-fact, body-positive, non-prudish, empathetic plea to mothers to reach out to their daughters about sexuality. Yay definitely do this!
  • It does not go in for the Madonna/whore dichotomy. It also asks us to break down unhealthy and artificial divisions between not just “good girl” and “bad girl” but also “girl and woman, and daughter and mother” (8).
  • It asks mothers to communicate openly, stop pretending we’re not sexual beings ourselves, think about our own values and experience, respect our own and our children’s individuality, and refuse to play along with the misogyny that’s so ingrained in our culture.

In other ways, Your Daughter’s Bedroom is significantly flawed:

  • It tends toward gender essentialism, overemphasizing difference (or the ‘specialness’ of being a woman).
  • It assumes that everybody has a mother in a significant way.
  • When it does briefly acknowledge that some people don’t have mothers, it’s in a discussion of “what happens when a girl doesn’t have a mother, or maternal figure” (answer: bad stuff!). This passage considers no examples of girls/women raised by non-abusive single fathers or gay couples (48-9). Conflating motherlessness with abuse is, like, a problem for me.
  • It assumes that all mothers have given birth (“birth is the demarcation of mother and daughter” [8]).
  • It uncritically deals in the concepts “virginity” and “loss of virginity.” This is a huge problem for me. The whole idea of “virginity” as a real thing that you can “lose” is bullshit, and it’s tied up with heteronormativity as well as with the men’s-pleasure-matters-most and slut-shaming crap that McFadden totally pushes against.
  • It sometimes emphasizes the power of a positive mother-daughter relationship so much that it feels unrealistic and/or mother-blaming to me, though that is very clearly not McFadden’s aim. Most notably, the passage about mothers making menarche (onset of menstruation) positive or negative for daughters says: “At its heart, our initiation to menstruation has largely to do with the quality of our mother-daughter relationships” (52). My reaction was this: You know what would have made menarche less scary and shameful for me? Living in a culture that treated women and our bodies as ordinary and good, is what. That’s not something my mom could control.

So for me–a daughter, and the sex-positive body-positive mother of two sons–it was an interesting but frustrating read, with more potential than follow-through in many areas.

I’ll close with two positive contributions, because really the book does have its moments and a good heart.

One especially useful point, I think, is when McFadden argues that it’s strange not to teach our daughters about sexuality. She writes:

The clearest evidence of this, is that we begin preparing our girls for absolutely everything else from an early age exactly because our fantasies of them are fixed on the future. When they play with dolls we imagine them as mothers, and when their teddy bear’s well-worn arm falls off and they tape it back on, we imagine them as doctors.  We don’t scoff at signing our daughters up for Little League because their bones and musculature haven’t fully developed, and we don’t warn them not to make friends with other children because they’re too young to appreciate the sophisticated workings of interpersonal life. Even at the earliest, we imagine who they might be when they grow up and set about helping them become their best selves. We’re brimming with anticipation for our daughters’ development and have no problem whatsoever seeing that each experience they have will contribute to who they’ll become. It comes to us effortlessly. All except for sexuality, that is. It’s as if all of those nonsexual experiences live in the Land of Hope, and sexuality in the Land of Dread. (10-11)

I also appreciate the theme that parents are teaching about sexuality, even in our silences: “The truth is, we’re teaching them about sexuality whether we think we are or not. It’s just a matter of what we’re teaching. Our daughters observe and weigh our every move, conversation, silence, gesture, and relationship” (25).

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  1. Lara
    Posted 14 January 2014 at 7:43 AM | Permalink

    Thanks for the review. I appreciate getting the summary of what you like, since I’m unlikely to read it. It goes for sons, too! I was realizing recently that my own parents’ conversations with me, while very open and progressive for the time, never acknowledged their own sexual feelings. They hugged and kissed in front of me, so it wasn’t invisible, but since they didn’t speak of it, neither did I. I’ve been pondering how to do this differently. Since I don’t talk directly about sexual feelings with adults in casual conversation either, I don’t have an obvious model for how to do it. My 9-year old is starting to at least “get” something about it — he knows what it means when the hero and heroine kiss at the end of a book. We sometimes talk a little about it. It’ll be interesting to see how it goes, given my different intentions, but without a concrete plan to back it up.

    By the way, we got Tuesdays in the Castle from our library on your recommendation, and loved it! Wednesdays in the Tower is on our book pile, but I have to leave it alone until at least Saturday, so I can get some work done. Our latest great find is The Runaway Princess, by Kate Coombs, and its sequel, The Runaway Dragon. I highly recommend them as a parenting-while-feminist find. I also like that they are less scary than most books at their reading level.

    • Molly
      Posted 14 January 2014 at 2:07 PM | Permalink

      That’s awesome–our current read-aloud happens to be The Runaway Dragon because we loved The Runaway Princess! Totally agreed.

      I’m glad you enjoyed Tuesdays in the Castle, too.

      Have you read The Mother’s Guide to Sex? Their chapter on raising children and communicating about sexuality is good, though it’s been a while, so I can’t recall the details too well …

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