And the state invented woman


Joanne Hershfield explores how a new concept of womankind was forged in post-revolutionary Mexico


Imagining la Chica Moderna: Women, Nation, and Visual Culture in Mexico, 1917-1936
Joanne Hershfield
2008, Duke University Press
200 pages

Reviewed by Georgina Jiménez

TRANSFORMATIONS in Mexico at the beginning of last century gave rise to new social demands for equality and governments were under pressure to address the needs of workers, women and the indigenous population. Like other sectors of society, women had been previously ignored, meaning their inclusion within national identity was considered a pressing need.

Imagining La Chica Moderna is a detailed and comprehensive study of feminine images embodying both a desire for sexual liberation (within the limits of conservatism) and political and economic integration within the project of nation-building that appeared in Mexican newspapers, magazines and films in the formative post-revolutionary era from 1920-1936.

A new concept of the role of women was forged, influenced by both an American-European models of modernity and the search for national uniqueness. These ideas were embraced by members of the government, intellectuals, and moreover, advertisers. The media’s response would be to summarise this concept – and a profusion of photographs and cartoons resulted, with a new global-regional discourse into how to be a mother, a worker, marriage and financial independence.

Uncontrollable forces

Under the sponsorship of Lázaro Cardénas, for example, women served in political positions and organised themselves into political movements supporting his agenda. But, at the same time, the lives of women were being influenced by uncontrollable forces of popular visual culture. A mixture of flapper-style women embodying the ideas of suffrage, birth control or a female workforce were circulated. At the same time, state-sponsored art and cinema promoted images of exotic femininity for the sale of everyday artefacts such as cigarettes, beer, tequila, over-the-counter remedies and toothpaste, mainly directed at an emergent middle-class consumer.

Joanne Hershfield – the author also of The Invention of Dolores del Rio and Mexican Cinema/Mexican Woman, 1940-1950 – analyses alongside these images the distinctive media in which they appeared and the reasons why one medium was chosen over another for their dissemination, such as the target audience. Such strategic choices, in turn, would determine whether an image would appear in a newspaper or on a postcard, as well as its degree of aestheticism, context and stereotypes.

Imagining La Chica Moderna does not intend to be a social history of Mexican women, but offers an analysis of how post-revolutionary ideas about womankind were produced and how these images contributed to an understanding of a modern, white, middle-class nation in opposition to an indigenous-rural one. The many images it reproduces are interesting and stimulating, and even the celebrated female artist Frida Kahlo is dissected.

For those interested in the formation of national identity in Mexico and the creation of a women’s post-revolutionary culture crossing social end economic borders in a climate of growing globalisation, Hershfield’s work should become essential reading. It might usefully be read in conjunction with Anne Rubenstein’s Bad Language, Naked Ladies and Other Threats to the Nation (Duke, 1998).

Joanne Hershfield is professor and chair of the curriculum in women’s studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her articles on Mexican cinema have been published in Wide Angle and The Spectator: A Journal of Film and Television. She has produced and directed video documentaries including Nueva Comunidad: Hispanics in North Carolina.

Georgina Jiménez is a freelance Mexican writer