Within the discipline of communication there has been a long history of studying the relationship between girls, media, and other cultural artifacts. Until recently, however, the focus of such studies has been almost solely on girls as consumers of media and other products and/or as passive victims of mediated portrayals of femininity. For example, the norm for academic studies of girls has, until recently, been to define girls as potential victims of the culture that surrounds them – a definition guiding much of the research examining how girls are affected by teen magazines, romance novels, popular music, and other cultural artifacts.
This tendency of the academy to label girls as victims of mass culture found a parallel in public discourse as well, a predisposition that was evident throughout the twentieth century and particularly during the 1990s. At that time several influential and high-profile studies of girls were published addressing such issues as girls’ declining self-esteem, negative body image, and poor school performance. Paramount among these was Mary Pipher’s controversial book Reviving Ophelia, in which Pipher argued that girls were living in a “girl poisoning culture” (1994, 12).
“Girls’ Studies” In The Academy
What was missing, until very recently, however, were studies of girls as able to resist and negotiate cultural messages as well as girls as active producers of their own cultural artifacts. Indeed, recent scholarship, grounded more in cultural studies and feminist theory, particularly in third wave feminism, has changed the way we in the academy think about and study girls. Dubbed “girls’ studies” (as opposed to simply studies of girls), this field has its roots in women’s studies and represents “a sub-genre of recent academic feminist scholarship that constructs girlhood as a separate, exceptional, and/or pivotal phase in female identity formation” (Wald 1998, 587). As a result, in the early years of the twenty-first century, girls have achieved a new visibility in the academy as a whole and within the discipline of communication in particular.
This visibility is groundbreaking since, until the latter half of the twentieth century, academic and clinical studies of females were virtually absent. Much of what we know (or thought we knew) about youth as a generation has come from male scholars studying male children and adolescents. As feminist scholar Carol Gilligan reminds us, those theories guiding the public and media discourse on youth development throughout much of the twentieth century told us nothing about girls as a distinct group. Gilligan’s own work, notably the groundbreaking In a different voice (1982), has gone a long way toward showing us the unique ways female youth develop as well as the ways in which girls and women communicate and reason, and notably that they speak in “a different voice”.
While Gilligan focused on the biases inherent in longstanding psychological theories of youth development, Angela McRobbie reminded us that these same biases and absences were extant in theories of youth culture, in particular youth subcultures. Grounded in both feminist and cultural theories, McRobbie’s own work on girls has expanded the dialogue about girls and girl culture and, like Gilligan’s, has had a profound influence on the development of girls’ studies as a field. Her book Feminism and youth culture (1991) is generally credited with laying the groundwork for cultural studies of girls’ lives.
In addition to shifting the focus of youth studies away from solely boys, Gilligan’s and McRobbie’s contributions to the development of girls’ studies have also been methodological, specifically advocating the need to listen to the voices of girls themselves rather than relying on adult academicians’ interpretations of girl culture. Girls’ studies scholars often rely on qualitative and cultural methods of studying girls, including focus groups, one-on-one interviews, and ethnographies. Such methods enable girls to speak for themselves.
Girls And Popular Culture
Paralleling and contributing to the growing academic and public discourse about US girls in the 1990s, girls proved to be a highly profitable audience for the media industries, a phenomenon initially attributed to the movie Titanic, whose financial success has been linked to repeat viewings by pre-adolescent and adolescent girls. But it was not just Titanic that benefited from a newly powerful young female audience. Girls helped insure both the financial and cult success of such youth-oriented television programs as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Party of Five, and Dawson’s Creek, not to mention a new wave of pop music acts such as the Spice Girls, the Backstreet Boys, Britney Spears, and Christina Aguilera, to name just a few.
Given girls’ clout with the popular culture industries, it is not surprising that girl oriented popular culture has generated extensive academic scrutiny. The television program Buffy the Vampire Slayer, for example, has been the focus of countless articles, chapters, and entire books, many focusing on the role of the teenaged Buffy Summers as a transgressive and empowering role model for girls. Moving beyond knee-jerk reactions to controversial portrayals and/or messages, girls’ studies scholars typically offer nuanced and theoretically grounded deconstructions of such cultural texts.
This upsurge of academic studies of girls’ cultural artifacts, while still grounded primarily in content analysis methodology, differs greatly from previous studies of cultural artifacts targeted at girls. First, they are not limited to studies of print media such as teen girl magazines, thereby acknowledging the range of media producing cultural artifacts representing and targeting girls. Second, they do not begin with an assumption that cultural messages are harmful to girls and that girls are the hapless victims of the culture industries. Indeed, it is this movement away from defining girls as victims that leads to the most compelling area of current girls’ studies scholarship – studies that listen to the voices of girls themselves.
Following from Gilligan and McRobbie, many girls’ studies scholars remind us of the need to go beyond even the most nuanced deconstructions of cultural artifacts, and to move toward including the voices of girls themselves in the dialogue – to hear how girls actively negotiate and even resist these cultural artifacts. Yet, while it is important to listen to the voices of girls as they tell us about their relationships to cultural artifacts that we, as adult scholars, would likely miss or misinterpret without their help, it is equally, if not more, important to listen to, to see, and to read their voices through the cultural products they themselves create. Technological innovations such as digital video/filmmaking and the Internet have enabled young people to produce their own media messages – a phenomenon that is particularly prevalent in girl culture. But even such low-tech pursuits as publishing a handmade zine that has been photocopied and handed out at a concert is an important form of cultural production for girls.
Nearly a decade ago, Mary Celeste Kearney (1998, 285) labeled the “emergence of girls as cultural producers” as “one of the most interesting transformations to have occurred in youth culture in the last two decades.” While writing at a time when others both in the academy and the media were focusing on girls as victims of media content, Kearney advocated seeing girls as active and capable of doing more than consuming media content. She reminded us, “If scholars involved in the field of Girls’ Studies desire to keep current with the state of female youth and their cultural practices, we must expand the focus of our analyses to include not only texts produced for girls by the adult-run mainstream culture industries, but also those cultural artifacts created by girls” (1998, 286).
In response, the field of girls’ studies has generated a plethora of studies documenting girls’ active production of culture (both media and otherwise), including music, zines, websites and blogs, films, the riot grrrl movement, and skater girl culture, to name only a handful of examples. But it has been the area of girls’ creative production on the Internet that has generated the most prolific body of work. While at one time there may have been a gendered digital divide such that boys were more likely to use computer technology than were girls, that divide no longer exists, at least in the United States. In fact, in many ways US girls are more active Internet creators than are boys, especially when it comes to such things as blogs. According to a recent study conducted by the Pew Internet and American Life Project, 38 percent of US girls aged 15 to 17, versus only 29 percent of US boys in this age group, create and share such self-authored content as photos, artwork, videos, and stories. While the first studies of girls and the Internet focused on websites created for girls or other Internet content about girls, recent scholarship has moved toward examining websites, blogs, and instant messaging created by girls. Specifically, scholars have examined the Internet as a space fostering girls’ self-expression, community building, identity play, and expressions of girl power.
Indeed, one cannot discuss studies of girl culture without addressing this highly contested and controversial concept of girl power. Certainly, the phrase has been associated with everything from the riot grrrl movement (a now international movement, grounded in feminist politics and a punk aesthetic, designed to empower girls and young women through music, self-publishing, and community building) to the Spice Girls to the animated Powerpuff Girls. But its origins are less well known. The independent Welsh band Helen Love first included the phrase in a song, “Formula One Racing Girls,” in 1993, and the pop-punk duo Shampoo released an album and single titled “Girl Power” in 1995. But no one did more to popularize and commodify the term and to link it to girl culture than did the Spice Girls – the prefabricated, all-girl, British pop group whose music was purposely targeted at young girls. Adopting the girl power slogan, the band has been criticized for redefining the phrase to focus on physical appearance, sex, and shopping. No matter what the phrase’s origins, it is significant that the Oxford English Dictionary began including it in 2001, defining it as “a self-reliant attitude among girls and young women manifested in ambition, assertiveness and individualism” (BBC News 2002). Indeed, this definition captures the spirit of the way in which girls’ studies scholars and girls themselves use the term.
In her call for girls’ studies scholars to study girls as cultural producers, Kearney (2006) makes it clear that she is not dismissing the role consumerism plays in girls’ lives. Rather, she is attempting to broaden our focus to include areas of scholarship and ways of defining girls’ relationship with media that had been previously neglected. Specifically, such studies, she argues, enable us to redefine adolescent girls as active agents, acting on their world. As the culture, technology, and society evolve, so too must the questions we as academics ask and the methods we use to answer them. Indeed this has been one of girls’ studies major contributions to the study of the relationship between youth and cultural artifacts.
- BBC News (2002). Girl power goes mainstream. At http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/1765706.stm, accessed December 10, 2007.
- Gilligan, C. (1982). In a different voice: Psychological theory and women’s development. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Kearney, M. C. (1998). Producing girls. In S. A. Inness (ed.), Delinquents and debutantes: Twentiethcentury American girls’ cultures. New York: New York University Press, pp. 285 –310.
- Kearney, M. C. (2006). Girls make media. New York: Routledge.
- Mazzarella, S. R. (ed.) (2005). Girl wide web: Girls, the Internet, and the negotiation of identity. New York: Peter Lang.
- McRobbie, A. (1991). Feminism and youth culture: From “Jackie” to “Just Seventeen.” Boston: Unwin Hyman.
- Pipher, M. (1994). Reviving Ophelia: Saving the selves of adolescent girls. New York: Ballantine. Spice Girls (n.d.). Wikipedia. At http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spice_Girls, accessed September 14, 2006.
- Wald, G. (1998). Just a girl? Rock music, feminism, and the cultural construction of female youth [electronic version]. Signs, 23(3), 585 – 610.