Girlhood Studies

With the advent of sex‐positive third‐wave feminism in the 1990s, notions of femininity and feminism shift, in reaction to the growth of fields like masculinities and transgender studies, but also in response to the activism of women in the previous decade to broaden the inclusivity of feminism. For this strain of feminism, “intersectionality” (coined by legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw in the late 1980s) becomes an important term for thinking through how different social categories—gender, race, class, sexuality (dis)ability, and so on—come together to create a system of privilege or disadvantage for any individual. Explorations of femininity and gender were just as wide‐ranging in the 1990s, with the advent of fields like motherhood studies spearheaded by scholar Andrea O’Reilly who created Demeter Press, the first feminist press focused exclusively on motherhood.

This article looks to the flip‐side of female experience, girlhood, which had a particular surge of scholarly and also mainstream interest, expressed through the figure of the riot grrrl and mantra of girl power. This field, alternatively known as girls’ studies or girlhood studies, intersects with de Beauvoir’s widely quoted notion in “Childhood,” the first chapter of volume two of The Second Sex (1949): “One is not born, but rather becomes, woman” (Beauvoir 1949: 283). A number of scholars write about the riot grrrl movement, initially a subcultural reaction against the misogyny of punk music that coalesced around a number of girl‐led punk bands in the early 1990s. In conjunction with this phenomenon, many young women started to create “zines”: self‐produced, often autobiographical, grassroots media that would circulate through the mail. Lisa Darms’s The Riot Grrrl Collection (2013) presents a selection of zines she curated for the Fales Library of New York University. In her introduction, Darms writes:

Riot grrrl called for the liberation of young women by taking control of the means of subcultural production. In pointed contrast to mainstream—and underground—culture, it sought to unify girls, calling out culturally ingrained jealousy and competitiveness between women while also recognizing and accepting individual girls’ differences. The movement aimed to revivify feminism, foregrounding sexual and psychic violence against women, while supporting young women’s sexual expression and right to pleasure. (Darms 2013: 7)

In this passage, Darms encapsulates how riot grrrl empowers girls to take control through media‐making and focuses on a number of social issues relevant to young women’s social and sexual development. Sara Marcus’s Girls to the Front (2010) provides a respected overview of the movement, but her work is often critiqued for representing this new movement of young, empowered women as primarily white. However, the material record qualifies this view, particularly through the work of someone like Mimi Thi Nguyen, a zinester of color and an academic, who produced zines like Evolution of a Race Riot (1997) and Race Riot (2002) and has retrospectively written scholarly articles about the movement.

This trend of young girls making zines to autobiographically express what it means to be a girl has caught the attention of many scholars who theorize third‐wave feminism and notions of femininity through this mode of media production. Mary Celeste Kearney’s Girls Make Media (2006) and Alison Piepmeier’s Girl Zines: Making Media, Doing Feminism (2009) investigate how this self‐expressive media‐making theorizes the gender experience of girlhood. In Piepmeier’s text, she contends with how this handmade media format allow girls to embody themselves on the page. Throughout the entire book, she includes work by a diverse group of women, but focuses one chapter in particular on women making zines about their intersectional identities: “They are illustrating theories and tactics of intersectionality and putting these theories into practice in particular ways, using the characteristics … that make the zine medium distinctive” (Piepmeier 2009: 126). Piepmeier discusses how the women visually explore their experiences of their gender and intersectional identities through repurposing mainstream print culture, where they can “spin out multiple possibilities rather than pin down any sort of essential or ‘true’ identity” (2009: 125). Throughout her text, she cites Kearney, who focuses on girls’ cultural production of a wide array of media, zines included.

Kearney’s scholarship is significant also for how she positions herself within girls’ studies. In her 2009 essay, “Coalescing: The Development of Girls’ Studies,” she discusses but also delimits the field. In the same year, Elline Lipkin published Girls’ Studies (2009), characterizing the growing field and its concerns, including body image, gender roles, and media influence. These concerns echo Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth (1991), a widely popular mainstream text about the shifting landscape for femininities in the 1990s that tackled how media consumption negatively impacts women’s self‐image. Laying further work for the field that Lipkin and Kearney define, Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards’s Manifesta (2000) studied the rise of girl culture and how it connected to secondwave concerns. A year previous to Kearney’s and Lipkin’s field‐defining works, the journal, Girlhood Studies (2008–present) was launched and the University of Illinois Press started the Girlhood Studies book series. In 2016, the International Girls Studies Association held their inaugural conference. In marking out this field as distinct, these scholars echo the larger culture where girls were designating their own space within culture.

Other culturally significant productions included anthologies that centered on girls’ voices as emblematic of a new generation of feminists: Ophelia Speaks (1999) and Colonize This! (2002). There were also magazines aimed at girls that embraced the tenets of girl culture, including Sassy (1988–1996), Bust (1993–present), and Bitch (1996–present). Bitch started as a zine, so its politics directly arose out of that milieu. Kara Jesella and Marisa Meltzer’s How Sassy Changed My Life (2007) theorizes Sassy magazine’s participation in girl culture, including how their magazine set the stage for the success of Bust and Bitch. In the twenty‐first century, Teen Vogue (2004–present) continues this chronology of magazines. Following the appointment of Elaine Welteroth as editor, Teen Vogue has been shaped into more of a politically engaged space for young women than one might expect from its origin in the Condé Nast media empire. These magazines affirm girl culture and the basic tenets of the riot grrrl movement rather than perpetuate the beauty myth that Wolf warns of.

Girlhood studies alongside transgender and masculinity studies fulfill the hopes that the editors outlined in that first issue of The Journal of Gender Studies in 1991. They examine the expression of femininities and masculinities that had heretofore been ignored and allow the examination of new subject positions and the role that gender plays in the narratives that surround them.

Source: A Companion to Literary Theory Blackwell Companions to Literature and Culture Edited by David H. Richter 2018
Baumgardner, Jennifer and Amy Richards. 2000. Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism and the Future. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Beauvoir, Simone de. 1949. Le Deuxieme sexe. Translated as The Second Sex by Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany‐Chevallier. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
Jesella, Kara, and Marisa Meltzer. 2007. How Sassy Changed My Life. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Kearney, Mary Celeste. 2009. “Coalescing: The Development of Girls’ Studies.” NWSA Journal 21 (1): 1–28.
Lipkin, Elline. 2009. Girls’ Studies. Berkeley: Seal Press.
Marcus, Sara. 2010. Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution. New York: Harper Perennial.
Piepmeier, Alison. 2009. Girl Zines: Making Media, Doing Feminism. New York: New York University Press.

Categories: Gender Studies, Girlhood Studies, Queer Theory

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