Reviving Reviving Ophelia

Can the pop-psych classic about teen girls in crisis be updated for an era when teens are healthier, safer, and more engaged?

Sad girl looking through window.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by MoMorad/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

When Mary Pipher’s Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls came out in 1994, I was 16, and had recently passed through the early-adolescent crisis that Pipher’s book defined. The book, a bestselling publishing phenomenon, presented a complete explanation for so many of my feelings about the world; it was my first time feeling seen by a work of popular psychology. The volume, with its dreaming blond cover girl gazing out into the middle distance, traveled with me for years, from dorm to dorm to post-college apartment. Ophelia inspired several painfully earnest term papers and eventually, in a roundabout way, my employment at a teen magazine, where I hoped to set a better example for girls coming up. When I interviewed Mary Pipher and her daughter Sara Pipher Gilliam, on the occasion of the book’s 25th-anniversary edition, Pipher said that in the intervening years, “partly because of my book, and partly because of rising awareness and education, the culture really did change, and become more teenager-friendly.” Although my love for the book felt personal, it seems I wasn’t the only one affected.

Part of Ophelia’s appeal was pure voyeurism. I gobbled up Pipher’s anecdotes about the young patients she saw in therapy in her Nebraska practice. There was Cassie, who was sexually assaulted at a party; Jessica, who refused to go to school, and lay around in her mother’s bedroom all day watching TV; Julia, whose mom got divorced and remarried a father with three boys who never, ever did chores. I identified most with Monica, whose parents were “kindhearted and slightly out-of-touch” professors who had raised the 15-year-old without “many common childhood experiences, such as television, Disneyland, camping, or sports.” (Very relatable to me, the product of a no-TV household and a long line of klutzes.) “We’re an odd family. We talk about philosophy and science at dinner. We know more about chaos theory than we do about movie stars,” Monica’s mother said in therapy, speculating about the root causes of her daughter’s total lack of friends. But Monica—an icon—said flatly: “It’s my looks. I’m a pimply whale.”

Monica’s story contained the core message of Pipher’s book. Pubescent girls in the 1990s (the psychologist argued) fell into drugs, self-harm, and eating disorders as they were exiting the cocoon of family life into a harsh world that demanded that girls fixate only on looks, boys, and clothes. (Pipher called this “the junk values of mass culture.”) When they turn into adolescents, Pipher wrote, girls “become ‘female impersonators’ who fit their whole selves into small, crowded spaces. Girls stop thinking ‘Who am I? What do I want?’ and start thinking ‘What must I do to please others?’ ” It was worse for the smart girls, she wrote, who were “paralyzed by complicated and contradictory data that they cannot interpret.” For me, a nerd who loved her family and felt it was very unfair that her intense childhood interest in books and school didn’t translate into teenage social and dating success, this observation felt extremely correct.

Mary Pipher and Sara Pipher Gilliam.
Mary Pipher and Sara Pipher Gilliam.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Taura Horn and Sarah Greder.

Pipher and Gilliam now hope to help a new generation of parents and daughters feel seen with the updated 25th-anniversary edition. The biggest challenge the new Reviving Ophelia faces in describing female adolescence in 2019 is that teenage girls are much better off than they were when I was young. Rates of teen pregnancy and drug use have fallen, and Pipher and Gilliam add to these positive indicators the news that the girls they interviewed while reporting this book seem much closer to their families than the girls Pipher saw in therapy in the ’90s. Fathers are more engaged, and social acceptance of LGBTQ teenagers is much more common. The book nods at the fact that the internet has made some teenagers activists and given all of them much more information about social justice issues than their 1990s counterparts.

Pipher and Gilliam must balance all this good news with their creeping fear that social media is the worm in the apple—leaving American girlhood looking good, but rotten at the core. “Parents today,” they write, “feel close to their daughters, but often they do not understand them, because they have no access to their online lives.” In a way, the two authors argue, the subterranean unease of girls’ depression and anxiety is more threatening than the obvious problems 1990s girls manifested when they began cutting or drinking. Because they don’t have as much face-to-face interaction in their lives, Pipher and Gilliam hypothesize, girls are more often saved from traumas like assault, but they also aren’t as resilient or self-reliant.

It’s in this part of the argument that the book most suffers from lack of the in-depth relationships that the first Reviving Ophelia, written when Pipher was still a practicing therapist, could tap as anecdata. The updates come from focus groups the mother-daughter team conducted with present-day teenagers, conversations with therapists now working with teenage girls, surveys from the Pew Research Council, and the findings in iGen, an upsetting (and much-critiqued) book about social media and teenagers by Jean Twenge. As a result, the book feels way too much like the alarmist generational analysis that’s served up with well-meaning intent and very little concrete detail on op-ed pages from the Atlantic to the New York Times, full of mentions of “comfort animals and trigger warnings.” Some passages feel positively David Brooksian: “It is almost as easy to find a sexual partner online as it is to order a backpack. And it’s about that romantic.”

Digital media is “unlikely to have a singular, uniform impact on all teens,” three researchers wrote on Medium in a critique of Twenge’s Atlantic feature when it came out two years ago. While the focus-group girls who spoke with Pipher and Gilliam reported feeling FOMO or depression when they missed a group text, it’s hard to say what these feelings might actually mean. When I spoke with Pipher and Gilliam about the book, Pipher said of the conversations they’d had about social media with the focus groups: “There was not a single girl that we talked to, across 18 months of research for the book, that strongly personally pushed back at the working hypotheses we brought to the table.” Girls, in other words, were willing to say that social media made their lives worse. But teenage girls know that adults see social media as a problem. Just as teenage me would enthusiastically rant to any interested party about the “Beauty Myth” and the unfair airbrushing techniques used in perfume ads, so too does any remotely savvy teenager know how to talk about this issue with a well-meaning adult. The actual effects on their lives seem much harder to determine.

This big problem of social media—which is also a boys’ problem, and an adult problem—is much different from the more girl-specific ones that inspired the 1994 book. The first Reviving Ophelia built on a growing cultural interest in the academic fates of teenage girls. Reviving Ophelia came out the same year as Myrna and David Sadker’s Failing at Fairness: How Our Schools Cheat Girls and Peggy Orenstein’s Schoolgirls: Young Women, Self-Esteem, and the Confidence Gap. In Pipher’s original book, which was a qualitative work rather than a quantitative one, many of the girls profiled had “good grades” before puberty, then stopped caring about school when they hit adolescence. (Rosemary, one of the girls in therapy with Pipher in the 1990s, “stopped making good grades because she felt grades didn’t matter. Popularity was all that counted.”)

This academic part of the “lost girls” conversation of the ’90s inspired Christina Hoff Sommers to mount an angry counterargument, via Atlantic feature and book, that girls were fine and it was the boys who were being underserved in school. The new Reviving Ophelia revises the 1994 edition’s discussion of the apparent negative impact of teenagerhood on girls’ academic motivation—a phenomenon, its authors write, that now seems to be a problem of the past. “Being smart is no liability,” Pipher and Gilliam write, summarizing the perspective of therapists in present-day practice treating teenage girls, whom they interviewed for this update. “Girls are more stressed about grades today than in 1994, but they are proud of them.” (As a team of researchers reported last year, analysis of 2014–15 test scores in nearly 10,000 school districts revealed no average gender achievement gap in math and a small gap in girls’ favor in English language arts. Meanwhile, young women are the majority of college students and have been for some time.)

There’s a villain lurking at the edges of the new book, but it’s not a threat that’s particularly gender-specific. It’s the tenor of our current moment, and the ever-growing pressures that affect us all. “Our culture has become isolating, polarizing, and fear-producing,” Pipher and Gilliam write. We’re living in anxious times, and young people feel it. “In the 1990s when I wrote Reviving Ophelia,” Pipher told me, “there was less concern about money. College wasn’t so expensive, health care was better, the cost of living hadn’t gone up relative to wages the way it has by now.” The girls Pipher and Gilliam spoke with voiced concerns about money in a way she didn’t hear in therapy in the 1990s. As Pipher paraphrased it to me: “ ‘I need to get into a good school. I need to get a job. Money is going to be an issue in my life.’ ”

Trying to compare her own girlhood to her daughter’s, and to the girls of today, Pipher wrote: “If I were to come up with a word for each of the three generations we are discussing, I would call my generation confident, and Sara’s 1994 generation rebellious. In 2019, girls are cautious.” The causes of this timidity, Pipher hypothesizes, are myriad: “Economic conditions are harsh, climate change is an overwhelming threat, and school shootings are commonplace.” Could girls’ anxiety be a manifestation of our larger politics, or does it need to come from something specific to girlhood? Time and again, the new edition of the book draws close to articulating these questions, then draws back to mention nights spent at home alone, with “Netflix and a smartphone.”

“America is a girl-destroying place,” Pipher wrote in Reviving Ophelia’s first edition. The “girl problem” is surely not fixed—as the lifetime wage gap will testify—but in 2019, I want to read a different kind of book. America seems, to many parents, like a kid-destroying place, and most days, social media feels like the least of our problems.

Penguin Publishing Group: Reviving Ophelia 25th Anniversary Edition: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls
Penguin Publishing Group

Reviving Ophelia: 25th Anniversary Edition

By Mary Pipher and Sara Pipher Gilliam. Riverhead.