Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 704
Given Toth’s argument that growing up in a small town in the 1950’s could be pleasant and fulfilling, Blooming appropriately uses a balanced, lighthearted tone. Toth often pokes fun at herself, but she also has great sympathy for her community and the younger version of herself. She offers detailed descriptions of 1950’s material culture, and her stories and reflections bring to life the texture of everyday life in a small midwestern town during the decade.
Beneath this often-humorous storytelling, however, Blooming also provides a useful analysis of how gender marked the lives of girls in the 1950’s. She reveals some of the strongly defined gender expectations in Ames, such as the notion that males would be inclined to science and females to literature, but she also shows her own faith in these visions of gender difference. While the adult narrator looks back critically at the sometimes clear divisions between male and female behavior, Toth also shows how her younger self found guidance and fulfillment in those divisions. In a humorous but also critical passage, for example, she describes the pleasure and agony of classic rituals such as preparing for and attending high-school dances. For girls, such rituals offered the first chance to wear stockings and lipstick, two signs of adult femininity that Toth remembers with both nostalgia and disdain. This ironic stance allows her to demonstrate both how traditional gender expectations could place limits on a young girl during her coming-of-age and how she might find such ideas about masculinity and femininity attractive.
One attractive aspect of being female was the essential link that shared gender identity created among Toth and other members of her community, both peers and adults. In the chapter “Girlfriends,” Toth emphasizes the supportive camaraderie girls provided for one another, though she also recognizes the underlying competition over who would be whose “best friend.” Having a circle of close friends was essential, she says, but such relationships were fraught with conflict as well. The competition, according to Toth, was not over boys but among girls competing for one another’s attention and devotion.
Toth suggests that relationships between young girls and adult women were also important. In describing the many hours that she spent in the library, her summer vacations with her mother and sister, and shopping trips with a friend and their mothers, Toth emphasizes the importance of female role models and her sense of growing up in a mostly female world. She notes especially how her mother, the head librarian, and the women with whom she worked in her various jobs offered her models of women as workers, as well as models for her appearance and behavior. In her chapter opening descriptions of conversations with her daughter, Toth makes her awareness of the importance of women as role models even more apparent as she considers what kind of model she will provide for her own daughter. Her descriptions of her girlfriends and women role models all focus on the supportive aspects of women’s culture. Blooming offers a mostly positive vision of what life was like for girls in the 1950’s, although it does not ignore the power of traditional ideas about gender to mold the thinking and behavior of teenage girls.
Toth’s representation of gender difference is not, however, based on an assumption that women might be better or more important than men, even though they were more central to her experiences. Men were pleasant enough, she suggests, and some were quite valuable as friends, boyfriends, and coworkers. Nevertheless, in young Susan Allen’s experience, men and women were clearly different. They were boyfriends (not best friends), scientists (not librarians), the newspaper editor who gruffly helped her learn to be a journalist, and her formally distant grandfather. She does not criticize men or the cultural ideas about gender that created and enforced such gender differences. Rather, her stories explore the differences between women and men as if they were natural and mostly unproblematic. Her book does not, then, offer an especially critical analysis of the meaning and practice of gender difference in the 1950’s. It does offer detailed, interesting descriptions of how she experienced growing up female during that period, with all of its contradictions.