(Developed by Fiona Handyside, Danielle Hipkins and Peyker Özler)
Affect (Girl as)
Monica Swindle, in ‘Feeling Girl, Girling Feeling: An Examination of “Girl” as Affect’, Rhizomes 22 http://www.rhizomes.net/issue22/swindle.html, examines ‘how age and gender affect feeling and emotion (girling feeling) and how girl, as an affective state, can affect and be used to affect, how it affects girls and women and how it might be used to affect others to push back against forces that constrain girls and women (feeling girl).’ When thinking about affect, we can think about how the feelings and emotions generated within and by the representations of girlhood (and how they manifest in the combination of narrative, sound and image) might encourage us to invest in certain ideas, or ideologies.
‘Neoliberalism is underpinned by particular gendered affective investments: drives for perfection, confidence, and the careful observance of feeling rules mandating a pleasing balance of resilience and approachability. We suggest that within recent, largely USA, television some important questioning of such mythologies is taking place through the articulation of young women’s anger, insecurity, anxiety, and misplaced confidence. Such affective dissonances may to some extent serve to problematise myths about both the accessibility and appeal of highly individualist career-oriented lifestyles idealised in cultural mythologies of powerful “can-do” girls’, Amy Shields Dobson and Akane Kanai, ‘From “Can-Do” Girls to Insecure and Angry: Affective Dissonances in Young Women’s Post-recessional Media’, Feminist Media Studies, 2018, pp. 1-16
‘Age friction is certainly a regular feature of postfeminist representational culture, with countless contemporary chick flicks depicting the older female professional as a bad woman, an anti-role model for the protagonist, and a figure of calculation, deceit and insecurity’ – Diane Negra, What a Girl Wants, 2009, p. 75
Arthouse cinema/ Auteur cinema
See Chapter 10 of David Bordwell’s book Narration in the Fiction Film (London: Methuen, 1985) as a start, but remember that all of the films on this module also move beyond this model, moving towards generic hybridity, in dialogue with more recent forms, e.g. Smart cinema (see Sconce), female-directed film (see Kate Ince), or more popular forms: teen film and the coming-of-age film (see Catherine Driscoll), romantic comedy (see Claire Mortimer), and even horror (see Carol Clover). Most importantly they emerge in a particular national and/or transnational film industrial context, so it is also useful to think about how they have been funded.
Becoming a Woman
‘girlhood and daughterhood are consistently articulated in relation to a future role – who or what the girl will be or do as a woman’, Catherine Driscoll, Girls: Feminine Adolescence in Popular Culture and Critical Theory (New York: Columbia U Press, 2002), p.108.
‘Can-do’ girls and ‘At-risk’ girls
Anita Harris first classifies this influential distinction as one made broadly in popular discourse between ‘those who are seen to be rendered vulnerable by their circumstances’ (manifesting through delinquency, violence, disordered patterns of consumption) and those able to embrace ‘Girlpower’ through success at work, consumption and the ability to delay motherhood, Future Girl: Young Women in the Twenty-First Century, Routledge, New York 2004, pp. 16-36
Angela McRobbie’s early work on dance emphasized its importance for many girls as a way of accessing culture and the sphere of work through such popular fantasies, from the novel Ballet Shoes, to Fame, to Flashdance. In her essay ‘Dance narratives and fantasies of achievement’ (1991), she writes that ‘The romance of dance and the importance of work combine in these popular narratives. There are few other places in popular culture where girls will find such active role models and such incentives to achieve’. These narratives are popular with pre-teens, McRobbie argues, because ‘they continually and repetitively explore the dynamics of moving into a more independent space which carries with it the promise of achievement whilst simultaneously holding at bay the more adolescent dynamics of sexual success.’ (p.217)
Alison Kafer’s Feminist, Queer, Crip (2013) is of interest here, particularly the second chapter of the book. The chapter is about a girl born with a severe neurological defect and how the medical intervention was planned to stop her growth by surgeries, hormonal treatment to regulate her cognitive self and her physical self. The book raises questions about how normative ideas about able bodies constrain identity alongside questions of gender, sexuality and race.
Fire, air, earth, water – how does girl relate to the natural environment, both in relation to the rural space, but also in symbolic terms?
Hilary Radner considers whether the ‘chick flick’ represents a recovery of pleasures associated with femininity, which perhaps got left out second-wave feminists’ reclamation of control over the female body, see Neo-Feminist Cinema: Girly Films, Chick Flicks, and Consumer Culture (NY, Abingdon: Routledge, 2010)
‘One of the effects of feeling girl particularly seductive for women is the boundary that is created around female bodies rather than between them, the pull of girlfriends, the experience of those easy giggly friendships of youth, a collectivity that many women lament as lacking in womanhood replaced instead by horizontal hostility and competition’, Swindle
Anita Harris suggests that ‘[Girlhood functions] as a space for worries about unknown futures, about ability to succeed and dominate in changing social and cultural landscapes’, Harris, Future Girl, p. 2
‘the figure of the friend in girlfriend culture disguises the technologies of misogynist governance by offering advice and support through a friendly rhetoric’, Alison Winch, ‘The Girlfriend Gaze’ in Girlfriends and Postfeminist Sisterhood (Palgrave, 2013). Winch’s critique targets the ‘girlfriend media’: ‘that regulate the body and libido through surveillance networks that garner and maintain their power through provoking feelings of shame and guilt’, pp. 30-32.
‘the girl’s material body, and especially her hair, is made to support a binary approach toward questions of religion and modernity, so that she becomes the prime figure through which the relation between Islam and the West, tradition and modernity, patriarchy and feminism is articulated […] long, straight hair is made to signify a racialized body that is idealised as white, secular, agentic and empowered but also girlish and feminine’, Fiona Handyside, ‘The Politics of Hair: Girls, Secularism and the Veil in Mustang and Other Recent French Films’, Paragraph 42:3 (2019), 351-369
‘The task of the Single Girl is to embody heterosexuality through the disciplined use of makeup, clothing, exercise and cosmetic surgery, linking femininity, consumer culture and heterosexuality’ – Hilary Radner, 1999, p. 15.
“the intense publicness of contemporary girlhood: the way in which girls are readily available to us, similar to the way that every aspect of a celebrity’s life is fair game for discussion, evaluation, and consumption”, Sarah Projansky, introduction to Spectacular Girls (NYUP, 2014), p. 7
Kathleen Rowe Karlyn identified the function of the girl in the cinematic incest motif ‘to ideologically invert the social realities of white male privilege’. Taking American Beauty (Mendes, 1999) as case study, she identifies a structure that ‘redirects sympathy towards beleaguered midlife heroes by portraying them as victims of unhinged or vengeful wives, seductive and manipulative daughters or both’ (p. 53). Rowe Karlyn is not the first critic to observe a cultural preoccupation with the father–daughter incest dynamic. In fact she draws upon Valerie Walkerdine’s seminal Daddy’s Girl, which recognized in the Annie and Daddy Warbucks comic strips of the US of the 1950s, that ‘we can see that mother figures have been banished as nasty and cruel and the partnership that survives best is father and daughter. We certainly have the excitement of forbidden relations, an excitement which I believe, in one form or another, recurs in presentations of little girls in the media.’ However, whilst Walkerdine’s focus was on little girls, Rowe Karlyn’s work considers the incest dynamic in relation to an older ‘teen’ group that has emerged with particular force along with postfeminist reclamations of female pleasure. Nor has this kind of analysis been limited to US culture. In 1992 Ginette Vincendeau recognized that the ‘symbolic, or in some cases actual father –daughter axis constitutes a “master-narrative” which French cinema has repeatedly returned to, challenged or reworked’. More recently, Hipkins argues that there is a similar function at play in contemporary Italian cinema.
Kathleen Rowe Karlyn, Unruly Girls, Unrepentant Mothers: Redefining Feminism on Screen (University of Texas Press, 2011); Valerie Walkerdine, Daddy’s Girl: Young Girls and Popular Culture (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997); Ginette Vincendeau, ‘Family Plots: The Fathers And Daughters Of French Cinema’, Sight And Sound, March, 1992, pp. 14–17 (p. 15); Danielle Hipkins, ‘Figlie di papà? Adolescent girls between the ‘incest motif’ and female friendship in contemporary Italian cinema’, The Italianist, 35, 2015, 1-25.
What makes a girl innocent? An important question posed by R. Danielle Egan and Gail Hawkes is why ‘innocence requires the bypassing of sexuality’ (Egan and Hawkes (2008), p. 16. On this module we also ask whether there are ways of imagining girls’ becoming other than in relation to their sexual behaviour.
‘A concept widely attributed to Kimberlé Crenshaw (1989), who argues that the tendency to consider race and gender as separate, mutually exclusive categories fails to account for how they are experienced as axes of double oppression for women of colour’, Alison Harvey, Feminist Media Studies (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2020), p. 19.
Intimate public of girlhood
In The Aesthetic Pleasures of Girl Teen Film, Sam Colling argues that ‘Girl teen films aim to feel as though they express what is common among girls, especially in the form of desires, fantasies and pleasures. Following Berlant (2008), we can describe these films as part of the intimate public of girlhood. As Berlant (ibid.: 5) describes: “An intimate public operates when a market opens up to a bloc of consumers, claiming to circulate texts and things that express those people’s particular core interests and desires”. The intimate public of girlhood aims to feel as though it expresses what is common among girls and in doing so it sustains the association of specific desires, fantasies, affects and pleasures with girlhood’, p. 116. See also Fiona Handyside on the creation of such intimate publics of girlhood in Sofia Coppola’s work, (Sofia Coppola: A Cinema of Girlhood, I. B. Tauris, 2017, p. 115), which addresses ‘the paradox of the intimate public as a space that offers girls emotional connections, values the subjective experience of femininity, but brutally denies the impacts of gender, class and race difference.’
A term emerging from psychoanalysis (Lacan) that has been taken up by feminist theorists like Luce Irigaray, to denote female pleasure, particularly relating to sexuality, to the maternal and to bonds between women. Felicity Colman links this to female friendship in adolescence in her article: (2005) ‘Hit Me Harder: The Transversality of Becoming-Adolescent’, Women: a cultural review, 16:3, 356-371. Killjoy (Feminist) (from Sara Ahmed, ‘Feminist Killjoys (and other Willful Subjects)’, http://sfonline.barnard.edu/polyphonic/ahmed_02.htm#:~:text=The%20feminist%20subject%20%22in%20the%20room%22%20hence%20%22brings,that%20happiness%20can%20be%20found%20in%20certain%20places, p. 2). ‘Does the feminist kill other people’s joy by pointing out moments of sexism? Or does she expose the bad feelings that get hidden, displaced, or negated under public signs of joy? Does bad feeling enter the room when somebody expresses anger about things, or could anger be the moment when the bad feelings that circulate through objects get brought to the surface in a certain way? The feminist subject “in the room” hence “brings others down” not only by talking about unhappy topics such as sexism but by exposing how happiness is sustained by erasing the signs of not getting along. Feminists do kill joy in a certain sense: they disturb the very fantasy that happiness can be found in certain places. To kill a fantasy can still kill a feeling. It is not just that feminists might not be happily affected by what is supposed to cause happiness, but our failure to be happy is read as sabotaging the happiness of others.’
Very useful for thinking about watching the girl’s body engaging in sport or dance: ‘Girl teen sports films vary in the degrees to which they engage with the ‘muscle and sinew’ of the body in process but they all aim to render both: what it feels like to train and what it feels like to attain moments of physical success. The audio-viewer is encouraged to be kinaesthetically invested in the exertion, endurance and pain involved in the body’s becoming and in the uplifting delight of the body momentarily perfected. In either case the body itself becomes a surface, designed to generate kinaesthetic pleasures and experiences of the girl body reaching out beyond its apparent boundaries. Sam Colling, The Aesthetic Pleasures of Girl Teen Film (Bloomsbury, 2017), p. 77.
Women and girls are called forth in what Angela McRobbie (2009) describes as “spaces of luminosity” (54), which give them visibility and cast them as symbols of gender equality and meritocracy. She prefers the Deleuzian term “luminosity” as opposed to Foucault’s “panopticon”, since this “theatrical effect […] softens, dramatizes and disguises the regulative dynamics’ (54). Thus, these luminosities work to emphasize women’s equality on the public sphere, while concealing the longstanding inequalities which still burden women’s lives in both the private and the public sphere.
Make-over/ make-under narratives
Sarah Gilligan identifies two types of cinematic transformation: ‘in the first, the subject starts out as “natural” or “made under” and is subsequently “improved” through the processes of the makeover; in the second conversely, the subject begins as “made up”, before being “made under” to appear more “natural” (and thus more desirable).’ Sarah Gilligan, ‘Performing Postfeminist Identities’ in Melanie Waters (ed.), Women on Screen (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), p. 170.
Femininity as masquerade, a concept first conceived by Rivière, which has been further developed by feminist theorists such as Butler (1990) and McRobbie (2009). This idea frames femininity not only in terms of a ‘performance’ (Butler), but as a ‘masquerade’ which works to smooth the threat to the gender order as women enter male domains and to reassure that women pose no threat to masculine domination (McRobbie 2009).
Further explaining the persistence of the incest motif, Rowe Karlyn suggests that ‘Girl World tends to be daddy-identified, a bittersweet recognition that outside it’s still a man’s world’, Rowe Karlyn, p. 98. She argues that mothers are pervasively absent, or even negatively portrayed in postfeminist culture, drawing on the long-standing cultural phenomenon of matrophobia (see Adrienne Rich). ‘Sisterhood was the rallying cry of the Second Wave, and while representations of sisterhood or female friendship have begun to appear with more frequency in popular culture, the mother-daughter bond, a key model of female connection, remains invisible and unexplored.’ (Rowe Karlyn, p. 8). Does this hold true nearly a decade later?
Kathleen Rowe Karlyn, Unruly Girls, Unrepentant Mothers: Redefining Feminism on Screen (University of Texas Press, 2011)
Taking up Judith Butler’s concept of gender melancholia, Angela McRobbie Angela McRobbie outlines how feminism has become a lost object of desire for girls and young women, while Marnina Gonick uses this notion to explore how melancholia operates, not as a mode of suffering, but as a mode of subversive agency. Angela McRobbie, “Illegible Rage: Post-Feminist Disorders,” in The Aftermath of Feminism: Gender, Culture and Social Change (Los Angeles and London: SAGE, 2009), 94-123; Marnina Gonick, “Indigenizing Girl Power,” Feminist Media Studies 10, no. 3 (2010): 305-319.
Newly Emergent Feminisms
Do you see a fourth wave of feminism gaining momentum now? Are we post-postfeminism? Rosalind Gill, ‘Post-postfeminism?: new feminist visibilities in postfeminist times’, Feminist Media Studies (2016), 16:4, 610-630. Jessalyn Keller and Maureen E. Ryan, ‘Introduction: Mapping Emergent Feminisms’, in Emergent Feminisms: Complicating a Postfeminist Media Culture (New York and London: Routledge, 2018), pp. 1-21.
In her essay “The Rani of Sirmur” (1985), Gayatri Spivak examines three dimensions of othering found in archives of the British colonial power in India. The first dimension is about power that makes us aware of who holds the power and the other becomes the subordinate. The second dimension is about creating the subordinate as morally inferior. The third dimension is about knowledge which belongs to the powerful self, not the colonial. What is important in Spivak’s definition of “othering” is that it is not fascination or exoticism. It is a way to construct the other as inferior. These dimensions affirm the legitimacy of the powerful, hence — here — we might think of the possibilities of agency and identity formation among the subordinate.
Precarity and plutocracy
As Diane Negra explains, it is a mistake to think of the recession as a discrete event. ‘What we are calling the recession is only the most conspicuous phase of a broader economic and social shift. And for many people, the yin and yang of recession and recovery narratives are no longer particularly meaningful […] There are bigger, less cyclical changes in economic subjectivity taking place’ (in Gill 2014: 728). These changes in economic subjectivity impact on feminism and how it imagines a successful performance of girlhood. As neoliberal politics channels money upwards toward a highly wealthy elite, welfare provision recedes, and secure employment is replaced by precarious contracts increasingly produced within a gig economy and girlhood is imagined as entrepreneurial achievement. Feminism becomes associated with a plutocractic eite, from Beyoncé to Ivanka Trump – on plutocratic feminism see Diane Negra and Hannah Hamad, ‘The New Plutocractic (Post)feminism’, in The New Feminist Literary Studies ed by Jennifer Cooke (Cambridge, 2020).
Angela McRobbie (2009) argues that in recent years women have been entering into some male domains mimicking male behaviour, such as drinking, swearing, getting arrested, having casual sex, etc. McRobbie analyses the emergence of such subjectivities and suggests that heterosexual women can disturb the gender roles and young women can claim equality to their male peers by engaging in traditionally masculine behaviours. The phallic girl displays her equality to men by participating in activities similar to those of her male peers. However, she can only do so if she presents herself as feminine in terms of heterosexual desirability. Amy Schumer’s character in Trainwreck (Apatow, 2015) is a good example of this model
Postfeminism is not a movement, but a way of talking about some dominant aspects of contemporary popular culture of the past twenty-five years, particularly visible in mainstream media, that have ‘taken feminism for granted’ and focussed on the celebration of the individual woman as consumer and sexually-liberated party girl. Many critics (Gill, McRobbie, Negra) are critical of what postfeminism covers up in this celebration, i.e. the re-traditionalization of gender roles, continued inequalities, based on the intersections of gender, class and race, as well as the pressure that postfeminist media culture exerts on women, with its emphasis on hypervisibility, sexual knowledge, and the drive for self-perfection. Since postfeminism tends to gloss over the trickier aspects of womanhood (e.g. the gender pay gap and the long-term effects of inequality on women’s careers and finances, for example), its focus tends to be towards girlhood or ‘girlified women’. In many ways, the postfeminist moment reinforces the discourse of Neoliberal or late capitalist consumer society, in which the individual is portrayed as entirely responsible for her or his own success. For these critics the figure of the girl also becomes the perfect incarnation of the Neoliberal subject, since she is traditionally a focus for the gaze and has scripts of self-perfection already written into the modes of her becoming.
‘Postfeminism withdraws from the contemplation of structural inequalities fostered by feminism, putting forward diagnostics of femininity that take the place of analyses of political or economic culture […] Postfeminism codifies and essentializes femininity, relentlessly insisting that all women are bound together by a common set of innate desires, fears, and concerns’, Negra, 2009, p. 5, p. 12.
Postfeminist culture works to incorporate, assume or naturalize aspects of feminism; crucially, it also works to commodify feminism via the figure of the woman as empowered consumer (Tasker and Negra, 2007, p. 2)
Drawing on Betty Friedan’s classic concept of ‘the feminine mystique’, a term she coined to suggest that women were told that housewifery and motherhood would provide all they needed for personal fulfilment, Rebecca Munford and Melanie Waters develop the idea of the postfeminist mystique in Feminism and Popular Culture: Investigating the Postfeminist Mystique: Explorations in Post-feminism (I.B.Tauris, 2013). They note how popular culture revisits periods just prior to major feminist gains, such as the 1950s, and does so with ‘dewy-eyed nostalgia.’ However, ‘while the postfeminist mystique’s haunting often presents as an extended exercise in nostalgia (part of an elegiac lament for a past that feminism threatened with extinction), its temporal shifts make possible a process of endless cultural recovery that might, at other times, rescue and revivify feminism itself. […] The redeployment of images from the past serves the radical agenda of the feminist present by mounting a new feminist call-to-arms’, pp. 169-171.
For Ros Gill this is defined in particular by: the notion of femininity as a bodily property; the shift from objectification to subjectification; an emphasis on self-surveillance; a focus on individualism, choice and empowerment; the dominance of a makeover paradigm; a resurgence of ideas about natural sexual difference. Ros Gill, ‘Postfeminist media culture: Elements of a sensibility’, European Journal of Cultural Studies 10:2 (May 2007), 147-166
Queer Temporalities of Feminism
In the introduction to Feminism’s Queer Temporalities (Routledge, ), Sam McBean argues that feminism as a movement demonstrates a “queer temporality” and suggests that feminism is experienced as a series of queer temporalities, i.e. experienced as being ‘out of time’. McBean’s definition of queer temporality is anti-generational, that is, it rejects the idea that feminism is an inheritance granted by matriarchal predecessors. McBean’s readings, textual analysis and close readings of Antigone, 1970s utopian science fiction, riot grrrl archives and feminist manifestos revisit vital moments in a diverse feminist canon. McBean disagrees with the belief that “generational inheritance is the primary means through which feminism reproduces itself” (7).
Angela McRobbie theorizes the existence of ‘illegible rage’ in postfeminist culture which proclaims that girls ‘have it all’ when their lives are still in fact restricted, making them ill (Angela McRobbie, The Aftermath of Feminism: Gender, Culture and Social Change, London: Sage, 2009). More recently, Sarah Banet-Weiser reads a reclaiming of rage in popular feminism in Empowered (Duke, 2018) which she links to the rise too of ‘popular misogyny’ confirmed by the election of Donald Trump as President in the USA. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society reviewed Soraya Chemaly’s Rage Becomes Her in its ‘Short Takes’ series, where prominent feminist scholars debate a book that is shaping popular feminist conversations about key issues. The reviewers commented on how Chemaly’s book joins work by Brittney Cooper and Rebecca Traister in documenting a rise in the public performance of female anger in the US context. They discuss how Chemaly advocates for women developing ‘anger competence’, and debate the idea this might not always be progressive, discussing how right-wing politics of entitlement also feeds off anger. The journal Feminist Media Studies dedicated its April 2019 ‘Commentary and Criticism’ section to exploring this shift in the emotional tone of contemporary feminism, as women’s anger becomes increasingly legible within popular and commercial media forms, as well as in the spheres of political activism and protest. Jilly Boyce Kay explains that the globalised media culture seems newly accommodating of female anger, and her commentators explore to what extent this anger might bring about political change, and to what extent it might provide a ‘safety valve’ for women that capitalist media cultures can recalibrate and co-opt.
Resilience has become a key feature of contemporary (post 2008?) girlhood. Robin James identifies resilience as over-coming identity based-oppression ‘in socially profitable ways’, offering (often marginalised) subjects inclusion within neo-liberalised systems of social and political power. In Resilience and Melancholy: Pop Music, Feminism, Neoliberalism (2015), James examines manifestations of resilience discourse in contemporary pop music aesthetics, and how these are connected to neoliberal capitalism. For James, resilience is not characterised by one’s capacity to survive adversity, but by the ability to overcome trauma or suffering by converting it into surplus value. According to James, because resilience has become one of the key markers for creating social value, certain forms of trauma and suffering are thereby naturalised. Importantly, James delineates a specifically gendered form of resilience discourse, explaining that where traditional normative femininity was overtly centred on fragility and passivity, in our contemporary moment social viability is predicated on ‘visibly overcoming the negative effects of feminization’ (2015: 82).
In response to claims that girls are being ‘sexualised’ by the pornification (Nair, 2005) of culture, some feminist critics have pointed out that here too girls are polarized, as ‘objectified passive victims of sexualization or as agentic savvy navigators of sexualization’. [http://www.onscenity.org/sexualization/#blogf [accessed 6 June 2011].
R. Danielle Egan and Gail Hawkes suggest ‘the deterministic nature of the discourse on sexualization unwittingly conflates sexual expression in girls with sexualization’ (Egan and Hawkes, p. 4). The difference is an important one that Egan goes on to examine in her book Becoming Sexual: a Critical Appraisal of the Sexualization of Girls (Cambridge, UK ; Malden, MA : Polity, 2013, p. 24. There she argues that in popular culture “the sexualised girl has come to replace another longstanding symbol of cultural decay – the fallen woman”, p. 24. What the power of this image obscures is the question of how girls themselves experience becoming sexual anyway (it’s probably not just a media effect!). What Egan describes as ‘the hypodermic effect’ – or the idea that girls simply absorb sexual ideas from the media alone – covers up the possibility of girls really experiencing sexual desire on their own terms. How might film-making challenge that tendency?
‘the sparklefication of late modern life in the United States’ is ‘overwhelmingly raced, classed, gendered and aged, with white middle-class female youth its primary targets and proponents […] girlhood’s visual landscape, presented in far more subdued ways just 10 years ago, is now dominated by sparkly brilliance’. Mary Celeste Kearney, ‘Sparkle: luminosity and post-girl power media’, Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies, 2015.
You can also see this videographic epigraph I made inspired by the essay’s emphasis on seeing sparkle from girls’ perspectives:
Sarah Projansky has described how the ‘spectacularization’ of girlhood works in the US media, making anxiety and ambivalence, and (usually) an exclusive whiteness, the conditions of the girls’ appearance as ‘visual objects of display’. Projansky suggests that the anxious dichotomies between ‘adoration and denigration’, between the ‘can-do’ girl of ‘Girlpower’, and the ‘at risk’ vulnerable girl, structure contemporary interpretations of girlhood, in which the girl can easily move between the polarities and transform from ‘fabulous’ into ‘scandal’.
Anita Harris and Amy Shields Dobson coin this trope as a possible means of overcoming the dichotomy between agency and victimhood in the post-girl power period (the can-do/at risk polarization). They draw upon the term ‘suffering actor’ to ‘capture both injury and action’, insisting that ‘within post-girlpower conditions we perhaps need to be able to describe experiences of pain, oppression and suffering outside the terms of “victimhood” and within a framework that acknowledges capacity for agency’ (p. 153). Anita Harris & Amy Shields Dobson (2015) ‘Theorizing agency in post-girlpower times’, Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies, 29:2, 145-156.
In What a Girl Wants Diane Negra points out that ‘one of the signature attributes of postfeminist culture is its ability to define various female life stages within the parameters of “time panic”’ (p. 47), leading to an ‘intense calendarization’ (p. 50) of women’s lives. If ‘female adulthood is defined as a state of chronic temporal crisis’ (p. 48), there is a knock-on effect, Susan Pickard argues, for young women since ‘negative views of the mid-life woman further reinforce time panic in the Girl as do the paucity of alternative roles to that of wife/mother in mid-life’ (Age, Gender and Sexuality Through the Life Course, Routledge, 2018, p. 3).
‘Tomboyism is tolerated as long as the child remains prepubescent; as soon as puberty begins, however, the full force of gender conformity descends on the girl’ (Jack Halberstam, Female Masculinity, Duke University Press, 1998: 6)
‘The core of utopia is the desire for being otherwise, individually and collectively, subjectively and objectively. Its expressions explore and bring to debate the potential concerns and contexts of human flourishing. It is thus better understood as a method than a goal’ (Ruth Levitas, Utopia as Method: The Imaginary Reconstitution of Society, p. xi)
Anita Harris argues that girls’ voices are frequently still distorted and commodified even when we do get to hear them: “The consequences of the incitement to discourse”, she argues, “are similar to those that Foucault documents in the case of sexuality: regulation, surveillance, appropriation, and control” (Future Girl, p. 142). On a brighter note, she observes that: ‘new social media forms threaten adults’ position as the sole «authorities and mediators of young women’s voices.’ See also Jilly Boyce Kay’s recent work on the need for communicative justice, which, she argues, is not about empowering individuals to ‘find their voice’, but about collectively transforming the whole communicative terrain so that women’s speech is equally valued.
In a recent book presentation Alison Harvey cited Lynn Spiegel’s observation (in Signs) that the metaphor of the wave, when applied to feminism, ‘places old feminists on the beach’. Feminism is, Harvey argues, a ‘painful and messy terrain’ and the wave metaphor risks pitting generations against one another. As Harvey argues in her book, ‘it is necessary to reflect on who benefits from a focus on disagreement rather than on the potential power offered by forming intergenerational collectives across waves’ (p. 5-6). Understanding feminist ideology as including the idea that our society is shaped by relations of unequal power based on gender, she does nonetheless provide a new account of the four waves, with a focus on the role of the media and the significance of intersectional feminism (that addresses other forms of subjugation, particularly based on race), that I will scan and put into ELE (Alison Harvey, Feminist Media Studies, Polity Press, 2020).
A film by Argentine director Lucia Puenzo (2007) that tells the story of an intersex protagonist, who rejects the hormone tablets she has been taking to secure an identity as a girl. Instead she asserts her right to exist without medical intervention or the necessity of choosing a sex or gender. To what extent might such a narrative challenge the foundations of identities based on gender?
What role does the media play in girls’ lives and the construction of girl culture? (See Handyside, International Cinema and the Girl, p. 2 for further references in this area).
Where we hope to see the gender pay gap one day!