The history of modern girlhood is entwined with anxieties about cultural norms and cultural change that are foundational to "girlhood" and "girl culture." This essay sketches a history of discourses on girls, girlhood and girl culture as the necessary genealogical context for a subsequent discussion of the field of contemporary girl studies. It begins with historical perspectives on the 'girl of the period' from the nineteenth century, through the "girl of yesterday," the "it girl" to the post World War I period that coalesced the cultural conditions necessary for the teenager to take on iconic status. The second half of the article considers girlhood studies today—and in particular its interest in locating, describing and problematizing girls' voice and girls' agency. In a world increasingly perceived as "global," these are powerful starting points for thinking about what constitutes "girl studies" (or "girlhood studies" or "girl culture studies") today.
Negotiating New Discourses with Old Practices
Natalie Guice Adams and Pamela J. Bettis
In Alpha Girls: Understanding the New American Girl and How She is Changing the World, psychologist Dan Kindlon (2006) claims that the new psychology of girls has produced a dramatically different kind of girl from her 1990s girl-in-crisis predecessor. He proposes that this new type of girl is a hybrid, personifying the best traits of masculinity and femininity. The Alpha Girl represents a new form of girlhood in which girls are seen as the economic, social, and cultural winners in the twenty first century because they are risk takers, competitive, and collaborative. How does cheerleading, one of the most female-identified and sexualized cultures of adolescent life, coexist with this seemingly new discourse of empowering girlhood? We argue that cheerleading provides a rich space for Girls Studies scholars to analyze how modes of femininity play out in the social practices that girls themselves deem important.
In this article I explore the concept of the rebellious girl by examining the cases of three different girls: an HIV activist in South Africa; a young feminist in Finland; and a topless on-line protester in post-revolution Tunisia. Although their contexts and messages vary greatly, there are marked similarities between and amongst them. I suggest that, in general, the media, political movements, and research agendas often appear to have difficulty taking girls' protests seriously. The rebellious girl is ridiculed, shunned, shamed, and disciplined. The protests explored here can, however, be read as important visual interruptions that attempt to invoke an epistemic mutiny that does not beg for inclusion on preexisting terms but, rather, challenges the boundaries of acceptable bodily integrity. They also gesture towards the social in a way that demands recognition, acceptance, and support, not a simplified acceptance based on the notion of neoliberal individual freedom.
Intergenerational Activism and the Ethics of Empowering Girls
In this article I consider the ethical boundaries of intergenerational activism for the feminist researcher conducting research in pre-existing activist networks. Drawing on a decade of involvement with girl-activists at the United Nations, I revisit key moments that challenged me to re-think the ethical, discursive, and relational conditions of girls’ political empowerment. Intergenerational activism creates relational messiness between adults and girls since effectively partnering with girls requires disruptions of generational power with practitioner-scholars learning to make it up as they go along. This article illustrates the complex and contested ways in which girls and adults build activist partnerships in adult-centered and sometimes politically hostile settings. In exploring the environment within which North American girls experience political (dis)empowerment, I question the ethics of empowering girls under current spectacular discursive conditions.
Girmay Medhin and Annabel Erulkar
There is increased consensus on the role of adolescent girls in reaching development goals but few programs for girls have been rigorously evaluated. In Ethiopia, Biruh Tesfa (Bright Future, in Amharic) mobilizes out-of-school girls into safe space groups led by mentors. Girls receive training in literacy and life skills, and they are given vouchers for medical services. A longitudinal study was conducted to measure changes in girls’ learning outcomes and their use of health services. After adjusting for background factors, we found that girls who had never attended school in the project site had significantly higher literacy scores than did control girls. At endline, girls in the project site were 1.6 times more likely to have used a health service in the past six months than those in the control site. Girls-only safe spaces programs can be effective at improving literacy and health-seeking behavior among the most marginalized girls who otherwise lack educational opportunities and access to services.
Girls and the State of Feminism in Popular Culture
Deirdre M. Kelly and Shauna Pomerantz
The article explores representations of "realistic" teen girlhood in popular culture in order to examine the current constructions of power made available to girls. Specifically, it focuses on three recent popular and critically acclaimed films: Mean Girls, Thirteen and Ghost World. The dominant discourses put forward in these films—girls as mean, as wild, and as alienated—naturalize negative behavior as a normal part of girlhood. In the terrain where these distinct, yet overlapping and reinforcing discourses on girlhood operate, postfeminism is taken for granted. Girls are portrayed as facing only individual concerns rather than any group-based injustices and, therefore, as not needing collective deliberation, evaluation, or action to solve their problems. The resulting discursive formation works to limit access to feminist and other oppositional discourses that name girls' experiences and link their feelings to the ongoing quest for gender justice.
Early twenty-first century North American journalists often claim that social changes such as women's liberation and civil rights have had a dark side for girls. For supposedly abandoning the safety of their traditional role in the home, girls are disproportionately characterized as being at risk of victimization, while also being increasingly cast as risks to themselves and others. Using mixed-methods content analysis, this article demonstrates that the social construct of risky girls crystallized for Toronto news after the 1997 murder of Reena Virk in British Columbia through a raced, classed, and gendered moral panic over bad girls. Discourses changed from talk of youth violence before the murder to talk of risky girls after it. By conflating victimization with offending, risky girl discourses prioritize risk management over needs. This conflation results in the increased policing and incarceration of girls and youth of color, ultimately reinforcing social inequalities like racism and patriarchy.
Online Doll Videos and the Intertextuality of Tween Girl Culture
Jessica E. Johnston
Over the last 10 years, girls on YouTube have been creating stop-motion videos with their American Girl dolls. Many of these girls began producing videos when they were tweens and have continued participating in the American Girl YouTube (AGTube) community into their late adolescence and early adulthood. In this article, I explore the intertextuality of tween girl culture as it is performed and reflected on by teen (13 to 18) and young adult (19 to 24) girls in their online doll videos. Through an examination of their AGTube channels, I show how girl producers negotiate their experiences and desires as teens and young adults within the tween culture of American Girl. I argue that AGTube functions as an audience- generated paratext of American Girl, and demonstrate how teen and young adult girls interact with and challenge the marketplace boundaries of tween girl culture in digital spaces.
Analyses of Girls' Use of Violence
Girls who use violence are marginalized as the worst of the mean girls, disrupting conventional femininity codes and causing panic in the streets. Twenty two girls participated in a qualitative study in Nova Scotia about what it means to be a girl and use violence. Interpretations presented here suggest that their reasoning can be contextualized through an analysis of neoliberalism, racism, heterosexism and classism, as they navigate discourses of choice and experiences of constraint.
In this article I will centre the historic and ongoing resistance of Indigenous girls to violence through colonial policies and practices. I challenge conventional intersectionality scholarship by foregrounding anti-colonialism and Indigenous sovereignty/nationhood. Using examples from my own work, I illustrate the manifestation of colonial power and persistent resistance in the lives of Indigenous girls. Through these stories, I will discuss the everyday practices of witnessing and resisting the discourses of risk. Red intersectionality will be offered as one way forward in relation to my ongoing work on violence.