Working Hard, Hanging Back

Constructing the Achieving Girl

in Girlhood Studies
Colette Slagle Pennsylvania State University

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Michele Paule. 2016. Girlhood, Schools, and Media: Popular Discourses of the Achieving Girl. New York: Routledge.

Girlhood, Schools, and Media: Popular Discourses of the Achieving Girl by Michele Paule, published in Routledge’s Research in Cultural and Media Studies series is a sophisticated study of the socio-cultural concept of the so-called achieving girl. Paule does not attempt to universalize the term, but instead destabilizes it by considering how the achieving girl is discursively created across many context-specific sites. Drawing from Foucault’s The Archaeology of Knowledge, she examines both media constructions and girls’ own constructions of such a girl. The book is a multisite, interdisciplinary study that works to destabilize the category of achieving girl and to explore the wider power structures implicated in this categorization. Specifically, Paule links the discourse of the achieving girl to neoliberalism and post-feminism.

In the introductory chapter of Girlhood, Schools, and Media: Popular Discourses of the Achieving Girl, Paule explains how she became interested in the achieving girl: she says, “What first attracted my attention was the ubiquitous alpha girl heroine of teen TV, juxtaposed with press celebration and simultaneous hand-wringing over girls’ school success” (xi). The first three of the book’s six chapters position her research within a broader intellectual framework, and also provide justification for her methodology, a multisite textual and reception analysis. Paule begins the book by tracing a history of genius as a concept, illustrating the ways in which girls have been excluded consistently from this category. She begins with the Ancient Greeks and traces it through the Romantics, showing how conceptions of genius inform the present day. She notes that genius has been used to marginalize girls and women at each stage by setting the solitary innate boy genius in opposition to the collaborative hardworking girl. She conveys how these ideas are still espoused today in neuroscience studies that are used to justify sex/gender differences as being biologically determined.

In the second chapter, “The Achieving Girl as the Ideal Subject,” Paule provides background on the history of youth and adolescence studies and shows how scholarship in the field has typically elided differences of gender, class, and ethnicity. She suggests that research on the relationship between girls and popular culture has fallen into two main categories—textual analysis and reception analysis. Paule’s own study draws on both approaches since she analyzes television characters and real girls’ responses to them.

In chapter three, she explains her decision to use Foucault’s The Archaeology of Knowledge for her study. Feminist critics and other scholars have mostly ignored this piece in favor of his other works. Paule similarly acknowledges the challenges of using this particular work since it does not allow much space for agency because of its attention to how discourse constructs identity. In spite of this difficulty, she finds Foucault’s idea that “a statement has to be related to or perform a function with regard to other statements within a discourse” (29) fruitful for her own study that seeks to treat the achieving girl as an object of knowledge produced through discursive statements. Paule then provides examples and analyses from various girl texts, including films, television, an online forum (one she specifically created in consultation with a group of girls for research purposes), and interviews in a school setting. Here, she shifts between interviews and media, treating both as texts worthy of discussion in their construction of the achieving girl.

Chapter four describes various achieving girl tropes in school and onscreen, including the geek girl and the alpha girl among several others. Paule pays attention to how these tropes are constructed slightly differently across each site (the school, the forum, and the screen), and how they intersect with class, race, and sexuality. The next chapter describes the trajectory of the “girls work hard” (98) narrative as a current day meritocratic ideal. She argues that some girls manage their competing gendered and achieving identities by “characterizing their success as produced in acceptably feminized ways” (134)—such as hard work. She even includes an example of a girl who has difficulty reconciling her high-achieving status with the small amount of effort that she exerted because she does not fit the “hardworking girl” script: “It’s really weird actually because I’m supposed to be ‘gifted and talented’ but if I like, sit back and think over the last couple of months I don’t even know if I push myself that hard … and apparently I did well” (111). The hardworking girl stands in sharp contrast to “achievement models associated with masculinity, such as effortless success” (112), which is afforded to boys. In the final chapter, “‘Girls hang back’: Choice, Complementarity and Collaboration,” Paule shows how some girls navigate the complexities of the achieving girl discourse that entails managing “the pressure to succeed, their social relations and the pressures of individuation” (135).

Using both textual analysis and qualitative social scientific research as her methodological approach, Paule speaks to many disciplines, including education, literature, media studies, and, of course, girlhood studies. The text functions as a piece of a larger continuity in girlhood studies, drawing on the research of Angela McRobbie, Anna Jackson, Valerie Walkerdine, and Marnina Gonick among others. Paule successfully marries textual and reception analysis, two competing strands of scholarship that have long informed girlhood studies. By refusing to either “reif[y] media texts and assum[e] monolithic meanings, nor overcelebrat[e] the possibilities for local resistance and agency among audiences/subjects” (25), she shows how achieving girl identities are constructed through discourse across many different socio-cultural contexts.

Paule offers an insightful look into the constructed nature of the achieving girl, and how girls come to be marked as such. My only criticism is that while she attends thoroughly to the ways in which class, gender, and race intersect with the achieving girl, reference to disability is noticeably absent, even when ability is discussed at length. Given the interest in disability studies in the way disability is constructed through systems and institutions (such as schools) it seems that such studies could prove fruitful in a discussion of the achieving girl as a cultural object. How might the achieving, able girl be constructed as a counterpoint to disability, for instance, or how might the two reference each other?

Paule provides a compelling interdisciplinary study that will help to shape future research endeavors in the field of girlhood studies.

Contributor Notes

Colette Slagle is a PhD candidate at the Pennsylvania State University pursuing a dual degree in Curriculum and Instruction and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. Email:

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