This past weekend (Oct 22-24), I attended the ‘Reimagining Girlhood: Communities, Identities, Self-Portrayals’ Conference at SUNY at Cortland. Though I’ve been with Girl Museum for several months, I’m still new to the academic discipline of Girlhood studies, so it was interesting to learn just what exactly professors and their students are studying. To my delight, the talks I went to focused mainly on two topics I’m fond of—pop culture and international issues.
Before I get to the panel sessions, though, let me share what I learned about Girlhood studies from Sharon Mazzarella, the keynote speaker and Director of Communication Studies at James Madison University. Girlhood studies programs arose because many early education researchers focused on boys and then tried to apply their findings to girls as well. Scholars began studying education in a girls’ context, and then began studying girls as a group.
Mazzarella pointed out that Girlhood studies has moved beyond a “girls in crisis” mentality studying only disorders in girls; instead, researchers emphasize girlhood as an exceptional and unique life phase. I found it especially interesting when Mazzarella asked the audience members what academic departments they were coming from, because it turns out that those who study girlhood come from a huge variety of background. There were art historians, educators, women’s studies researchers and many, many others.
The variety of topics I learned about over the weekend was astounding, but I’ll try to give the highlights here. Many of the presenters took on subjects from popular media that girls enjoy, and looked at them through a critical lens. I was unfamiliar with some of the subjects, so it was interesting to hear what these presenters thought. I learned, for example, that Justin Beiber seems to be rehashing to same tired gender stereotypes about control and faithfulness in relationships; that the main characters in the Twilight books are just a hair’s breadth away from being in an abusive relationship; and that the Spice Girls stole “Girl Power” from the Riot Grrrl movement.
I also got a chance to see some of the pop culture I enjoy in a different light. One presenter analyzed Lady Gaga’s 'Bad Romance' and found it more than a little disturbing, as it seems to glamorize terrible, unwise relationships and features kidnapping and sex slavery in the music video. Another researcher studied how girls and boys present themselves on their Facebook profiles, and found that women are much more likely to portray themselves as sexy, funny, or dominated, while men tend to show their strength or their cars.
My favorite talk was about Taylor Swift, whose music I hate to admit that I enjoy, even if I’ve never really stopped and thought about its message. Adriane Brown at Ohio State University did a good job of showing how Swift’s music subtly reinforces a message that sexuality is dangerous and makes you into a victim; and how she cashed in on a white, childlike innocence after being upstaged by rapper Kanye West at the 2009 Video Music Awards. Of course, none of this stopped me from downloading Swift’s album (which came out the day after the conference ended) and playing 'Dear John', the ultimate ruined-by-an-older-man song, many times.
Not every session, however, was about entertainers. Emily Bent from the University of Galway, Ireland, presented an interesting paper about her experience at the UN 54th Session of the Commission on the Status of Women. She imagined that this conference, which brought girls to the UN, would attract international attendees. Instead, the majority of girls were from the developed world, and seemed to view many girls in poorer countries as illiterate victims who needed to be rescued. This “missionary girl power”, as Bent termed it, is yet another misguided facet of colonialism that is damaging to girls’ causes all over the world.
In the same vein, Jessica Taft of Davidson College spoke about how girls in more privileged countries tend to focus on international girl issues, to the detriment of the problems in their home countries.
There were many other interesting talks with information that was all new to me. For example, did you know that South Korean girls abroad have their own social networking website, called Cyworld? Did you know that by age 12, many girls give up on science and math as careers because they think it will interfere with romantic relationships? And have you ever heard of the Japanese practice of ganguru, where girls darken their skin and dress in “gangsta” clothes in opposition to traditional notions of femininity?
These new realities I was exposed to gave me much food for thought and I’m glad I had this chance to expand my horizons and gain a new understanding
- Girl Museum