Sunday, September 7, 2008

What is Girls' Studies? Why Girls' Studies?

In reading All About the Girl and Young Femininity for the first time, I was immediately drawn in by the discussion of girlhood as a period of transition rather than a legitimate identity of its own. During adolescence, I often felt a conflict between wanting to stay young forever and desiring the beauty that would surely come with age. Older girls were developed, attracted the interest of boys. Though they no longer played with dolls, they got to have mature fun. I never actually wanted to grow up, though, I never wanted my imagination to fade - but being told "You'll understand when you're older" for the hundredth time, I was ready grow.

Girls' Studies as I understand it right now is an attempt to theorize ("re-theorize") what it means to be a girl in an age of global capitalism, a time when "young women appear to have it all,” with increased choice and opportunity, but "with fewer structures of support" (Harris xviiii).

The fundamental issues of Girls' Studies, as defined by Anita Harris, are “the relationship between girls and popular culture, material condition and gender identities; social institutions such as school and the media in shaping femininities, and the places and voices young women utilize to express themselves” (xix). But the field is at a turning point, adopting a new focus that addresses the assumption of newfound freedoms for girls, the fixed category of “girl” itself and its neglect of “an increasingly inequitable distribution of resources among girls” (xx).

Building on the idea that "girls lose their resistant and authentic voices when they engage with cultural requirements to shape their identities in line with dominant femininities" (Harris xviii), there is an increased, but not exclusive, focus on differences among girls – the intersectionality of all aspects of their identities. This involves rethinking the model of girl that has been “shaped by norms about race, class and ability that have prioritized the white, middle class and non-disabled, and pathologized and/or criminalized the majority outside this category of privilege” (xx). While many girls have enjoyed new social freedoms, these new choices hinge on multiple and intersecting oppressions – such as her class background, her race, ethnicity, sexuality, and physical bodiedness.

A foundation has been laid by which girls can be brought into a conversation of oppression and self determination, but this foundation must be shifted to acknowledge that girl is not a fixed category. It seems to me like most movements, or areas of study, have to do this at some point. As a generality: the anti-war movement had to address its sexism, the woman’s movement had to address its racism – the struggle against oppression is an ongoing one, and one oppression cannot be addressed without all others.

Girls’ Studies also examines commodified Girl Power! and girls as both consumers and producers. It simultaneously examines where young women use their voices and regain some lost assertiveness, and is the basis of projects that act as a means of validating girls' realities. It affords some room to be cultural producers in a society where girls are seen largely as base consumers. Girls’ Studies provides a space to come together with older feminists - to bridge a gap between "girl" and "woman," though I was disheartened to read that the more current focus of is on the individual – the single girl and perhaps her parents – rather than the social factors that all girls, despite differences, face. This is a convenient way to shield the powers that be from critique – if the problem is with the individual girl, and not the society, then it’s the girl’s responsibility to change, and the status quo can be preserved. This must be rectified. Women and girls need each other, need to have open dialogue about the things they’re facing, if either group can hope to both overcome what they’ve endured and ensure that the cycle won’t continue.

I think the questions that Harris posed in the Introduction to All About the Girl (xviii) are indicative of the direction of Girls' Studies. Looking at how "girl" is constantly changing as a result of our changing, increasingly global and capital-oriented world, who speaks for girls, and how feminism fits in, and acknowledging that “girl” will never work as a fixed category. That each girl is more than the implications of her gender.

I have a feeling this course is going to be a lot more therapeutic, or restorative, than I originally thought. Girlhood, for me, was a time of unbridled joy mixed with confusion, but adolescence was largely hell. The uncertainty, the self loathing and lack of confidence that I felt is something that I don't want other girls to ever have to feel. I can't wait to examine girlhood and its differences along the lines of race, ethnicity, class, sexuality, able-bodiedness, and other intersecting oppressions. No woman should have to piece herself back together after the tear-down that comes for many with that adolescent loss of self worth. And only a critical journey into society by women and girls together can ensure that they won’t have to.

- Ali V

1 comment:

amanda said...

I completely agree with you and your feelings toward adolescence. By readings these post and yours I have a better understanding of what everyone felt through adolescence and girlhood and that I was not alone. It's important to let girls today know that they are not alone. I only wonder how my girl days would have been if only I knew I was in the same boat as other girls.
Girlhood is a time of transition and trying to find your place in the world and who you are. I think this time would be a lot smoother for girls if they did not also have to struggle with the pressure society puts on them.