Who or what represents girlhood and girl culture in the global, digital age? How are girls’ identities marketed, distributed, and consumed by popular media texts that are persistently communicating gender messages with attitudes, interpretations, and conclusions already built in? Rebecca Hains (2012) reminds us that making sense of media as texts that construct and relay meanings is a habitual and often unconscious practice that girls carry out as they respond to images, ideas, and sounds while engaging with diverse media forms (for example, watching television, playing video games, listening to music, and interacting online). While it is no secret that today’s girls are simultaneously inhabited by, immersed in, dependent upon, and often indifferent to the media messages with which they are bombarded and acculturated by every day, the challenge is educating them to understand how the media’s rhetoric influences their notions of girlhood and girl culture, and hence the ways that they see themselves in these texts and how others see them (Hobbs 2010; Long and Wall 2012).
In her influential work, Girls Make Media, Mary Celeste Kearney (2006) finds that girls with agentive experiences as media producers are less vulnerable to manipulation by commercialized media artifacts and texts, and more informed about the effects of the media on the re/production of knowledge and the re/formation of gender roles. Educational research by Hedy Bach (1998) and Ricki Goldman-Segall (1998) further documents how youth involved with the process of creating their own media works are more likely to expose and question the ways in which they are positioned by the dominant storylines, values, and norms embedded in media culture. Hence, I presented a team of 10 girls with the creative challenge of producing a PSA with three enabling constraints: it had to be written, directed, and edited by girls; produced for a specific audience of females their age; and themed around the portrayal of tween-aged girls in the media and what is at stake given these (mis)representations.
PSAs are a vital part of media culture and a significant format for this study since, as Renee Hobbs (2010) and Paul Long and Tim Wall (2012) point out, they are texts used to raise awareness (locally and globally) about an issue and persuade the audience to do (or not do) something. For example, a well-known PSA created to raise and change public consciousness is the iconic This Is Your Brain on Drugs, produced in 1987 by the Partnership for a Drug-Free America (PDFA). In this PSA, a male actor puts an egg (representing the brain) into a sizzling frying pan (representing drugs) to illustrate the dangers of drug abuse; he warns, “This is your brain. This is drugs. This is your brain on drugs. Any questions?” Building on the 1987 campaign, the PDFA launched a second anti-drug PSA in 1997 starring the female actor Rachel Leigh Cook who slams the frying pan down onto the egg and then destroys the whole kitchen with it. Twenty years later, on 4/201 the PDFA (now The Partnership for Drug-Free Kids) released a third PSA on the same topic that also starred Rachel Leigh Cook, but this PSA includes scenes of teens asking questions.
Although PSAs are often part of a larger media campaign with a strategic vision, the PSA reported on in this article was a one-time opportunity for an all-girl team to explore new identities as social activists advocating on girls’ issues and as media producers deconstructing the role of the media in their lives.2 In my analysis, I examine how the coresearchers reflected on their transformative learning experiences of identity construction, meaning making, and knowledge production as they scripted, directed, and produced their own PSA at 101 Technology Fun. While the findings are not intended to be representative of everyone who identifies as a girl, they do reveal some of the ways in which contemporary media texts are appropriated, negotiated, rejected, and remade by female youth through their media production processes. I believe that if we want to learn more about girls we need to listen to their stories. Additionally, if we want girls to transform gender stereotypes in popular media we need to educate and empower them to create their own texts as counter-narratives to media texts that marginalize, manipulate, and misrepresent them.
Research Setting and Coresearchers
The research setting for this article was an equity-oriented initiative called 101 Technology Fun, an annual summer camp for girls with learning labs in animation, game design, movie production, robotics programming, and web development. The goal of 101 Technology Fun was to provide a respectful, inclusive, and non-stigmatizing learning environment for anyone in grades six or seven genuinely interested in engaging in an all-girl technology camp on the University of British Columbia campus. Our project team had an inclusive view of the word girl and we welcomed trans, genderqueer, and non-binary youth. During the summer of 2012, I worked closely with the How We Learn lab to develop and supervise two one-week camps that included 30 girls (aged between 10 and 13) from diverse racial and socio-economic backgrounds. These girls were recruited from three culturally diverse elementary schools located in a densely populated and transient area of the west side of Vancouver, Canada. Everyone who submitted a camp application and parental consent form was accepted into the summer camp. Although the girls created artifacts using a variety of media forms (such as media diary, documentary, game, interview, photograph, PSA, survey, video, and website), the specific dataset selected for this article focuses on one PSA titled The Media?
Foundational to this article, following Bach (1998) and Kearney (2006), is the perspective that respects girls as legitimate and knowledgeable experts in how they learn about and come to understand the media texts in their daily lives and worlds as real and meaningful. Hence, on the first day of camp, I established the participants as coresearchers, presenting each with a personalized name badge and a professional portfolio in which to store their fieldwork and design works. The participatory and girl-centered research setting was innovative and somewhat unconventional since all the coresearchers were involved in designing the camp infrastructure and curriculum. They also had genuine opportunities to contribute their ideas and perspectives to the development of the research design, including data collection, data selection, data analysis, and the assembly of shared research findings. For example, the coresearchers were asked to prepare (at home) for a team meeting by creating a list of their questions concerning media studies and girlhood. We worked together to create the 101 Technology Fun interview guides based on their research questions, including these:
Who or what did the popular girl look like when you were our age?
Why is it that girls are kind of treated like a toy or object these days, like when posing inappropriately in an ad?
Why are woman always draped over men in advertisements?
What do you think society values more: beauty, brains, or body?
Do more or less than 50 percent of all the girls in Vancouver care more about their grades than their looks?
Questioning was fun at summer camp and conducting interviews was a popular activity. As my coresearcher Aslin3 reported, “It’s fun being with a bunch of girls and having talks about the media, and learning how girls are being affected by what they put in ads.” I facilitated all the large group interviews and the girls interviewed each other in pairs using hand-held video cameras. I believe that girls benefit from making a video reflecting on their media creation processes and productions since this generates another layer of analysis while creating rich artifacts evidencing their learning. Further, providing girls with alternatives to written summaries helps to improve their oral communication skills and provoke introspection. As Salina observed, “The questions and stuff we talked about [was valuable because] normally we don’t [do so] at home or with our friends or at school.”
Drawing on participatory research practices that seek to shift marginalization and give voice and visibility to a variety of girlhoods (Keller et al. 2015), the 101 Technology Fun research setting was designed to provoke scholarly reflection about girls’ rights and roles concerning the knowledge made about, for, by, with, and against them. Claudia Mitchell discusses various challenges and limitations of participatory research with girls, and asks us to consider “whether this type of work can really shift the boundaries of knowledge, or whether such a shift is only something that is part of the hope of do-good researchers” (2015: 153). These were my questions:
To what extent can girls identify, analyze, and communicate their lived experiences and expressions of media culture?
Who will listen to girls’ evocative stories and media scripts that deconstruct gender stereotypes?
How will our research at 101 Technology Fun be valued and interpreted?
Will our research generate more equitable and progressive possibilities for girls to examine their media relationships with a critical eye towards empowered transformation beyond preconceived notions of girls as apolitical, conformists, or consumers?
To ground my approach to studying with child participants as coresearchers, I developed the Tween Empowerment & Advocacy Methodology (TEAM) approach (see MacDowell 2015). TEAM serves to give voice and visibility to female youth who are often studied in social-science research but seldom privileged as authorities on issues concerning their lives and learning circumstances. Characterized by tween fieldwork, design works, and Doris Allhutter’s (2012) work on mind scripting, TEAM encouraged and supported the coresearchers to find their voice and make it heard as a counter-narrative to hegemonic media texts and discourses. Using mind scripting I worked to foster complex understandings and analytical thinking. For example, I challenged the girls to identify and question how they are positioned (by themselves and others) in media and technology cultures. I also provoked my team to analyze media literacy questions. How is a media text constructed? What techniques are used to shape the messages in the text? Whose point of view is represented? Why might people take different meanings from the text?
The specific design problem presented to the coresearchers was to produce a PSA depicting how girls are portrayed in the media and then present their work to a live audience. Importantly, we had group sessions involving both technical demonstrations and intellectual support including discussions on the ways in which media makes meaning, unconscious gender biases, and how to achieve a critical distance from various media forms. The girls had two eight-hour days to brainstorm, research, storyboard, script, rehearse, shoot, direct, and edit. These different stages were achieved by iteration and intuition not as a linear or required sequence of steps. My team had exclusive girls-only access to three learning labs in the UBC Education Building. The materials they chose to use from the labs included the Smart Board for brainstorming, large sheets of recycled paper for storyboarding, high definition video cameras for filming, iMovie software for editing, and an assortment of used magazines including Adbusters, chickaDEE, Cosmo Girl, National Geographic Kids, People Weekly, Seventeen, Shape, TIME, Today’s Parent, Vogue, and Wired for research purposes.4
The coresearchers arrived at camp with much to say in big and bold ways. My role was to set up a media-rich and girl-centered learning environment in which they could work, and then to stay out of their way and let them lead. Although I expressed my genuine interest in their creative and intellectual ideas, I did not interfere with my team’s content choices, production techniques, or creative decisions. I was ever present, however, following them to document the making of their media works. My intent was to discern their perspectives and points of view, appearing inconspicuous yet always trying to capture their stories about girlhood in relation to pervasive media texts. In total, four PSAs were produced at 101 Technology Fun. During one of our team meetings, The Media? was selected by the coresearchers for further analysis. Our approach to data selection and analysis was guided by John Seidel’s inductive method of qualitative data analysis, “a process of noticing, collecting, and thinking about interesting things” (1998: 1) while repeatedly engaging and re-engaging with the dataset.
Although this article focuses on a detailed analysis of one PSA, it is important to acknowledge that the girls were individually challenged to make a personal ME Documentary about the meaning of media and technology in their lives. The topic-focused PSA broadcast and open-ended ME Documentary presented two different opportunities for the coresearchers to engage with the technical tools and creative practices to express their ideas, concerns, talents, and volition both during and beyond the domain of the summer camp program. Parents, guardians, and UBC Teacher Candidates were invited to a premiere screening of the ME Documentaries and PSAs, thereby building the community’s media literacy, as well as reinforcing the importance of educating girls in media studies.
Data Collection and Creation
As Kearney (2006) advocates, we need many diverse and detailed accounts of how contemporary media shapes our notions of girlhood and girl culture to test the largely theoretical or survey-based research that dominates the literature. Further, girls’ perspectives need to be respected and given influence in the research concerning the knowledge created about their lives, health, and well-being. This serves as an emancipatory practice that supports them to resist stereotypical notions of girlhood and to transgress their doubly insubordinate status in the media sphere. Both gender and generational dynamics have historically marginalized girls’ involvement (Mitchell 2015; Wajcman 1998). Hence, in this section I offer the complete transcript of The Media? PSA followed by my analysis in conversation with the girls’ analysis and interpretation of their media production.
FADE IN. INTERIOR: UNIVERSITY LIBRARY
A serious-looking 13-year old girl is standing in a brightly lit library with a large shelf of books behind her. She is speaking directly into the camera.
Data Analysis: Part One
As I analyze The Media? I hear my team speaking with agency and without hesitation. They are mocking pervasive media culture and oppressive stereotypes with their assertive voices, creativity, and intelligence. I am proud to see girls soaring on the power of their words and watching their PSA come to life. Their girl-produced media production challenges the dominant identities and dubious ideals that, as Sarah Banet-Weiser (2011) notes, they feel pressured by mainstream media to believe in and become. Young girls are not typically portrayed as powerful or influential change makers in media culture and, as Leslie Farmer (2008) reports, most young females do not yet know how powerful they are. Developmentally, they are at an emotionally intense stage of negotiating their sense of self-esteem and self-worth (Callero 2003). As they explore their identities, girls are trying to distinguish who they are, both to themselves and others. They are navigating complex tensions as they establish their identities in relation to the popular media texts about girlhood with which they are growing up and that they are being acculturated to believe (Banet-Weiser 2011; Hains 2012). For example, the coresearchers criticize how the media narrowly portrays and trivializes females by emphasizing the traits of exterior beauty and sexuality as being more important than character, intellect, or talent.
What is a media girl supposed to do? This troubling question, raised by the coresearchers, provokes me to pause. Instead of making them fit into limiting stereotypes, how might we empower young females to experience and effect their own agency, influence, and power by contributing their stories to recreate and shape media culture (see Stuart and Mitchell 2013)? As content creators, my team list some of the entrenched inequalities and limiting labels about girlhood. For example, The Media? reveals the internal and external pressures that many young females feel to conform to the perfect ideal media ideal, someone they perceive as a homogenous photoshopped person who is limited to doing seven basic things: “consume, acquire, eat, dress, drive, drink, fuck.” The Media? evidences the coresearchers’ awareness of how contemporary media shapes their developing sense of self, yet they are still struggling with the lack of agency and confidence to be themselves.
Three mounting issues for my team include pressures to conform to traditional gender roles, unrealistic standards of beauty, and normalized expectations to be perfect super-girls. These media constructions and cultural fictions tell compelling tales about girls’ abilities, attitudes, and behaviours, and girls have cultural antennae and sensitive receptors that absorb these media-generated texts, roles, and storylines (Callero 2003; Hobbs 2010; Long and Wall 2012). Many conform to and perform these roles but this is not necessarily who girls are or how they want to be. For Jordan, “the media is everywhere all around us. It’s not just on your laptop, and it has a very good and bad influence on girls.”
As producers of their own PSAs, the coresearchers draw on the themes, plots, values, and characters contained in other cultural tales that have also been remade and retold. For example, to summarize their PSA in a powerful way, the girls used a quote they found in a magazine while researching and writing their script: “be yourself, because everyone else is already taken.” We had a productive conversation about how this quotation is a widespread meme that is routinely and perhaps mistakenly attributed to Oscar Wilde. I believe that my team’s ability to understand, question, and integrate popular media texts alongside their understanding of girlhood demonstrates a sense of agency that William Sewell defines as an “actor’s capacity to reinterpret and mobilize an array of resources” (1992: 19). By producing their own PSA and analyzing the media works of other girls, the coresearchers demonstrated agency in negotiating and expanding the mainstream media texts that circulate in and around their lives. Deeply engaged in a community of practice in which they can see the positive impact of their insights and technical skill, they exerted their autonomy and influence when they challenged the oppressive gender stereotypes that undermine female roles in local and global media culture and politics. I am wary, however, of over-valuing the transformative potential of their production work given that these girls are growing up within the constraints of a limiting cultural framework in which their unique ideas, opinions, and concerns are not always respected and valued. Girls do not develop outside of cultural frames in which their voices have long been ignored, silenced, or unheard, both collectively and individually (Mitchell 2015; Wajcman 1998).
Data Analysis: Part Two
As the coresearchers responded to each other’s analyses and interpretations, they seemed to shift confidently from one viewpoint to another, positioning themselves in diverse and complicated ways. Their reflections and questions evidence awareness of how contemporary media texts shape their developing sense of self yet their conversations are marked by the desire to overcome insecurities, channel rage toward positive ends, and just feel good about themselves. My team articulated how and why agency emerged as a salient theme quite early on during our interactions and investigations at 101 Technology Fun. They examined media texts about make-up, beauty, body diversity, and Photoshop. Their analysis is made up of artifacts, signs, and messages as much as the models in the magazines the girls used are made up of the same. Meledy’s story is touching as she recalls grocery shopping with her mother where she sees all those magazines that are prescriptive texts telling her how to be and picks up a cooking magazine that acts as a mask or screen to hide behind. By sharing her viewpoints, Meledy finds strength. She uses her voice. By co-producing a PSA to deconstruct the portrayal of females in the media, she has some agency to break down gender barriers, debunk stereotypes about girlhood, and inspire other girls to see that they can create change too.
‘A girl in my class said that she once saw a mannequin in a store that was size –1 or 000. The clothes were cinched tightly at her back to fit her,’ Halina reported with concern. She reached into her research journal and held up a print version of a graphic that she created during a camp storyboarding session. We could all see a modified photo of Halina eating a piece of paper that said, ‘You don’t have to be size 0 or –1 to look good.’
Chani took the voice recorder from Halina and responded,
‘Girls try to impress people. If they look more like girls in magazines, then they will be more accepted.’
‘When they pick the girls to wear the clothes on the commercials, they only pick the beautiful girls. Even though you are not similar to her,’ commented Salina.
‘Lots of time they will use people who have been photoshopped and stuff and they will alter them and then you think, if I use this, then I will look like them,’ Jordan criticized.
Jayden exclaimed, ‘No, you don’t have to look like those people. Like, just stop and think. Just looking at a magazine can change your perspective of who you are. Media tests your self-confidence. Ads target children because they are the most emotionally vulnerable. Don’t fall for it!’
Nodding her head in agreement, Raywin continued, ‘Yeah, I ordered the magazine Kids by National Geographic and they had before and after. Before they took a random girl with nice hair but not nice skin. After they used Photoshop to take away all her measles and acne, so she looked perfect and fake like a Barbie doll. I think it’s really upsetting that they photoshop everyone. There can’t be one model that is normal looking to advertising something.’
‘The thing I find upsetting is when you go to Safeway or whatever grocery store you go to, there are ten thousand magazines right before the checkout with pretty girls and women who have their zippers all the way down or low cut shirts or clothing that is really inappropriate and then you go: What’s that? And so I hide myself in a cooking magazine cuz I don’t want to look at them, and I’m not kidding. But they are everywhere and it’s really hard to avoid cuz they are all always catching your eyes. And you are always taking a second look. Why do they put them there in the first place? To make you want to open the magazine and then to make you want to buy it and the stuff advertised inside. Well that’s my pet peeve. It’s like insane,’ Meledy reflected with annoyance.
‘I find this so offensive! These girls are losing their dignity. Most women don’t dress like this. I wish this would stop,’ protested Chani.
Kim motioned that she wanted a turn to speak. ‘Girls and boys in clothing stores are always in a kissing pose and all lovey-dovey with each other. It’s like they are advertising love or something, not clothes. Another thing is that TV people are all photoshopped but when you go to the store and actually look at the products, they are not as good.’
Jordan advised, ‘Yes, but we have the responsibility to change this! We won’t ever be able to truly change how the media controls us, but we can change how the media portrays us.’
‘Yeah, like we can believe in ourselves and ignore the media,’ replied Salina.
‘It’s not just the media. People expect us to be beautiful. Men expect us to be beautiful,’ Raywin countered.
Jordan questioned, ‘Who says girls aren’t beautiful? And why can’t we be smart?’
Kim nodded her head and agreed, ‘A girl doesn’t want to be the only one who doesn’t care about what she looks like.’
Chani criticized, ‘Girls are worried about fitting in and being popular. Am I fitting in or being down casted by the popular people? It’s not enough to just be yourself these days.’
‘It’s hard to be yourself when so many other girls who are completely not themselves. Like they are also having difficulties trying to figure out who they are,’ Meledy complained into the voice recorder.
‘We should all just live in computers,’ joked Jill.
A round of laughter is shared, serving to lighten up the heaviness of our conversation.
As I analyze my team’s analysis of their experiences as media producers, what strikes me most profoundly is the juxtaposition of the girls’ intelligence with their internalized anxiety concerning the effects of the media in and around them. For example, Halina expressed concern about the unrealistic standards of beauty that are normalized when “all the girls in the ads are edited to look picture perfect.” Although she feels controlled and manipulated by popular media culture, Halina has also learned how “fun and effective making a PSA can be to tell other girls what we think about the media.” Aslin was empowered by her new role as a media producer: she said, “I’m really interested to make videos about how girls are being affected by what they put on ads and the Internet.” Jayden was knowledgeable about the ways media undermines girls’ self-confidence. “Just looking at a magazine can change your perspective of who you are.” Jill’s criticism of the media is not what I typically hear tween-aged girls talking about: “You have to be anorexic and skinny and dress like a slutty child. Make sure your eyes are as big as fuck too.” Her internal tensions and external concerns do not fit into the dominant and stereotypical discourses of femininity that tend to be confining and that induce passivity in girls. As I contemplate what Jill’s biting words reveal, I wonder about other fears that she may be concealing. What else does she (along with the other girls in this study) truly think and feel about growing up in today’s media culture, but dare not say? (see MacDowell 2015).
Conclusion: From Appropriating to Remaking Girl in Media Stereotypes
This article examines, elaborates on, deconstructs (and, in some cases, reconstructs) representations of girlhood in mainstream media, print, screen-based, and digital texts through the experiences of 10 young girls producing a PSA. Alongside my team, in the context and locale of 101 Technology Fun, I explore how girls can engage in knowledge production as media creators (not merely passive consumers) by analyzing media texts that are part of their lives and writing scripts for texts that tell their own stories. The coresearchers, engaged in their own learning processes, were supported and challenged to evaluate their roles as both viewers and producers in constructing meaning about girlhood in interaction with media texts that, as I have already discussed, and as Jean Stuart and Claudia Mitchell (2013) have made clear, have perspectives, explanations, and inferences already built into them. The coresearchers’ voices resonate throughout this article as powerful ones that resist and reconfigure (rather than simply receive and reproduce) the already-interpreted and oppressive cultural scripts written about girls that serve, as Banet-Weiser (2011) reminds us, to justify, produce, and perpetuate gender marginalization, bias, and inequity.
“Youth voice is far too often absent from important discussions and decision-making processes about issues that impact them” (CYCC Network 2013: 20), so capturing girls’ perspectives and learning from them cannot happen often enough or too soon in girls’ studies and media education research. Unequivocally, today’s girls are considerably disadvantaged and disempowered if they do not understand how digital media and popular culture are new types of texts that construct meanings about girlhood which need to be evaluated for presuppositions, biases, and limitations. When I analyzed my team’s multilayered analysis about their experiences creating and interpreting their own media scripts, I was bothered by what remained unspoken. Why, for instance, didn’t the coresearchers talk about being too creative, intelligent, skilled, or talented? Instead, my team members expressed their insecurities and self-doubts concerning the intense cultural pressures put on girls to conform to destructive expectations of heteronormative, cis-gendered female perfection.
I have demonstrated here that presenting girls with meaningful experiences to engage with the tools and creative practices for making media (on their own terms and in their own ways) supports the development of a new generation of female youth who have the capability to question, remake, and deconstruct gender stereotypes in contemporary media culture rather than simply receiving and reproducing male-dominated traditions and hierarchies. It is difficult, however, for girls to feel agentive and powerful unless we listen to them and value their work (MacDowell 2015; Mitchell 2011). Girls also need to know that their questions, answers, stories, and perspectives are valued for these are primary sources from which their identities are formed (Bach 1998; Callero 2003). As look back at the coresearchers’ highly personal interviews and challenging questions, it is clear to me that we (parents, teachers, and researchers) need to provide more opportunities for girls to ask their questions, and we need to demonstrate that we are genuinely interested in listening to them and talking in an open, respectful, and contemplative manner so that positive, feminist, and pro-social energy may flow freely. Asking questions and encouraging media inquiry will help girls and young women develop the kind of lifelong learning capabilities and self-initiative that are necessary for them to reject, remake, and rethink the (mis)representation of girls and girlhood in hegemonic media texts.
I gratefully acknowledge Ann Smith, Claudia Mitchell, and the two peer reviewers for their constructive feedback on drafts of this article. Special thanks to my coresearchers: may you continue to ask difficult questions, challenge media stereotypes, and expand horizons for girls everywhere.
In cannabis culture, April 20 is known as the day on which people worldwide smoke marijuana at the same time. Hence, it was a significant for the PDFA to release their anti-drug PSA on this day in 2017.
The coresearchers’ names have been changed to ensure confidentiality.
The magazines were donated by the coresearchers and UBC Teacher Candidates.
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)| false . , Keller, Jessalynn , Morgan Blue , Mary Celeste Kearney , and Kirsten Pike Sarah Projansky 2015. “ Mapping New Methodological Approaches to Girls’ Media Studies: Reflections from the Field.” Journal of Children and Media 9( 4): 528– 535. 10.1080/17482798.2015.1091103
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