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For my nieces, Claire Mary and Tessa Nicole, and my nephew, Benjamin Isaac, and for the next generation.
IN THE MID-1990s, specifically the summer of 1995, I was working at one of my first editorial jobs when I walked by a stack of newspapers. The lead story on the front page caught my eye: “When Typical TeenAgers Are Awesome Elders; Super Supy Girls Are Those Who Pass the Traditions Down to the Younger Ones.” The image presented, of a preteen girl at summer camp, stopped me in my tracks. I remember wondering, What was this article about and what was it doing on the front page of The New York Times? I picked up the paper and began to read.
The article was about a girls’ summer camp in upstate New York; it was about the bonds and rituals that had become emotionally essential to the girls who attended every year; it was about the transitions and milestones and uncertainties the girls experienced as they made their way from their elementary to their high school years; it was about the nuances of girlhood—baffling, energizing, changing almost by the minute as these girls tried to figure out who they were and what they were doing. And it was in The New York Times. On the front page. Of the Sunday edition. Furthermore, I realized, this wasn’t just an isolated article. It was one of a four-part series. As I stood there taking this in, I felt stunned.
How could this be? was my immediate reaction. Was this really considered “news”? Wasn’t this prime newspaper space reserved for Important Stories? Yet the more I read the more I felt an almost electrical reaction as I saw aspects of my own teen years represented, and a kind of credence given to the experiences that I knew would resonate for others but would probably never be acknowledged beyond their peers. I felt a curious combination of being both shocked and moved.
When I reread the series of articles now I feel emotional all over again, not just because of the content matter covered—the poignancies, triumphs, and intricacies of these girls’ bonds—but because what the series communicated is that these girls’ lives mattered. Their concerns and their visions for their futures are news. The mere existence of the series stated that the public should care about how girls are shaped by popular culture and how the stamp of femininity is pressed upon them. It was a revelation to me to see this in a paper of national reputation in the mid-1990s, and I’m grateful that I don’t think this series would seem such a radical act now.
Unbeknown to me at that time, the field of girls’ studies was just being born, usually the offspring of gender and women’s studies departments. Energy gathered in the early ’90s around the Riot Grrrls movement and the AAUW’s key reports about girls’ experiences in school, alongside the fast rise of popular books that brought to light girls’ drop in self-esteem around the time of early adolescence. All of a sudden, in both the popular press and in the academic world, there was serious study about how girlhood was defined, which experiences most shaped girls and into what kind of mold. Although there has always been concern about how to turn girls into “young ladies,” looking at how ideas about femininity constructed—and constricted—girls suddenly became a topic of new importance.
In the years since, concern about girls has swung a wide pendulum: Some voices maintain their self-esteem is ever in peril, others insist that girls have never been as strong and outspoken as they are now; some voices decry that girls are sexualized too soon, others claim it’s great that they feel ownership of their bodies in ways previously disallowed. And rather than girls being taught silence, girls’ voices are now heard shouting through the distance. Through zines, websites, lyrics, blogs, videos, among other outlets, girls now have greater visibility in expressing their concerns and making their points of view heard. Yet in an ever more media-saturated world, these additional resources can also be places where girls feel even more pressure to fulfill set expectations and to perform a certain type of femininity.
As a field, girls’ studies is very much still in its own girlhood. Mention of its mere existence can still astonish. I see in my own students’ reactions to learning that this field exists at all the same wonder and revelation that I felt when I first picked up The New York Times article about camp. They are amazed that their lives are considered worthy of examination, that it is legitimate to recognize the forces pressing on them through their girlhood years, and that, alongside other academic disciplines, this also matters. This stunning thought alone brings a sense of validation and excitement into the classroom that is deeply energizing.
However, girls’ studies is hardly a centralized, unified field. In a university setting, finding classes can be difficult, if they exist at all. Much of the debate over gender differences between girls and boys has moved into discussion of differences around learning and the value of single-sex education. Education departments have often pursued this focus, while, for example, classes within an English department might center around the figure of the girl in literature. No matter in which department study about girls is found, chances are bringing this topic to the fore is still new. As this field develops it has experienced the growing pains any adolescent does—including debate about its necessity and concern that promotion of girls means that boys are unfairly being left out of the equation. Proponents of girls’ studies will often advocate that this is exactly why the field needs to exist—to counter the unspoken assumptions that use boys’ experiences as the baseline in studies about youth or adolescence.
One interesting aspect I’ve noted about this field is how powerfully it dips and swerves into public consciousness. Debate about girls plays out in popular newsmagazines, television shows, school policies. As I carried the books I was reading around with me this past year—on planes, in coffee shops, or just out on walks—it almost never failed that a woman who asked me what I was reading, and why, would react with the same profound recognition that I first had in understanding that girlhood is worthy of study. After I explained the rise of this new field, there was often a long pause as I could see some measure of emotion collecting behind the questions asked, or buried within the stories that burst forth about their daughters, or rising within a moment’s recollection of a girlhood hurt, or a special bond, or an unexpected legacy whose impression lingers. The power felt in those moments was palpable, and often contained, again, the breathtaking realization that their girlhoods were considered important—worthy of study, of consideration, even just of mention.
There is now deep concern about girls in the world. Seeing popular culture follow the waves of interest in “mean girls,” crest to the catchphrase “girl power,” and then ricochet off to new directions has led me to realize how deeply American culture cares about its girls—and also how fraught that concern can be. Similarly, I was glad to discover how many organizations now exist to promote girls in developing countries, often with the realization that helping a girl finish her schooling, for example, can have a significant impact on her entire family, or even her whole village. It is heartening to know there is new recognition of how central a girl’s value is, not only to her family but to an entire social system, even if much work remains to have this more widely acknowledged and accepted.
The passion that exploring issues of gender often incites is still very much present. When I teach, I often hear students, male and female, say that there’s no need for feminism any longer—it’s all “solved”—the doors to any choice have been thrown open and all paths are clear. Yet when I bring up discrepancies in how many women hold positions of power or wage equity, or more subtle differences in expectations for their futures, the conversation often takes new turns. Debate also often quickly sparks around how girls outpace boys with grades, college admissions, or GPAs once on campus, hence the seeming lack of a “self-esteem problem” for girls these days. But when coaxed to look beyond these figures to how this success translates to later life empowerment, students’ arguments often grow thin. And yet, the concept of girlhood as a troubled time isn’t one that most students, male or female, want to have clouding near them. They are often quick to point out how pressured they feel, often with no neutral ground on which to stand as they negotiate the conflicting messages they are given about girlhood—be athletic but not too tomboyish, or attractive but not too sexual, assertive but not transgressively angry, or, alarmingly still, intelligent but don’t look too smart. Stories about injustice against girls because they are girls still abound in the news, and toy stores divide neatly along gender lines.
Not too long ago, after a move, I unpacked several boxes of childhood juvenilia. I was amazed to see favorite toys, series of books, stuffed animals emerge from what felt like a time-warped (and wrapped) pink cocoon. Much of what was buried inside seemed just as appropriate to give a girl today, the realization of which I wasn’t sure what to make. As I unpacked, I found myself remembering Toni Morrison’s Sula, an old favorite, and turned instantly to the book’s closing lines, just as Nel recognizes how much she’s been missing her childhood friend, Sula. Morrison writes, “‘We was girls together,’ she said as though explaining something. ‘O Lord, Sula,’ she cried, ‘girl, girl, girlgirlgirl.’” The emotion Nel expresses, in her ringing cry for the girlhood friendship she shared, is described as having no bottom or top, just “circles and circles of sorrow,” and seems to stand in for the coiled mysteries of girlhood itself—some of triumph, some of pain—that release in a spiral toward womanhood, that very much, as Morrison says, has no end. I hope this book will bring better understanding of the circles of girlhood, overlapping, concentric, and expanding outward, individually, collectively, toward the future.
Two teenage girls doing their makeup in the bathroom.
LEARNING TO BE A GIRL, LEARNING TO BE AWOMAN
THE PINK CAP IS PUT ON SHORTLY AFTER BIRTH. In a still-common practice in hospitals, babies are identified by their bodies, and then sorted into two simple categories—blue for boys, pink for girls—within minutes of their entrance into the world. When and how the traits associated with being female then enter each girl’s head is harder to pin down, but the imprint of gender is usually pressed onto her right from the start. Brought home from the hospital, she may be dressed in pink clothing or wrapped in a blanket decorated with flowers. A doll will likely be among her first gifts.
Learning to play, she may enjoy solving puzzles or building with blocks, learning to identify objects and then putting together phrases from words. But will she be told not to be aggressive if she takes toys from other children? Not to be too “bossy” if she orders other kids around? She most likely will, since most kids are taught to control their impulses—but will it be less permissible because “that’s not how a little girl” should act? Will she be allowed to participate in Little League soccer or baseball, or instead will she learn to dance? And at what age will she first learn that there are “boys’ toys”—GI Joes, race cars, helicopters, Lego robots, Nerf guns, sports video games—opposed to “girls’ toys”? Will she receive unwelcome looks from teachers, parents, or friends if she reaches for the wrong pile?
As girls grow, they learn from the messages they see around them. If Sesame Street has only a few female Muppets on the show, children absorb the absence, although they might not understand why. If adults reflexively refer to all gender-nonspecific animals and creatures as “he,” that too is absorbed. If cartoon characters most often feature boys who are rescuing girls, or who are big and brawny, while the female characters are petite, this also filters into young girls’ minds. Children learn what is considered “normal” by observing the world around them—whether it’s that mothers care for kids while fathers (if present) leave in the morning to go to work, or the other way around. These are the messages their open minds take in.
Whispered secrets, sleepovers, and shared stories are just some of the ways young girls learn how to bond with each other. And girls also learn that excluding another girl can be powerful, and that not acting or looking or dressing a certain way can make you unpopular. Whether they pick out their own clothing or someone provides it, girls are likely to be presented with clothing options that, even in elementary school, show off some part of their bodies. Will girls run as well in short skirts and sparkly flip-flops during recess, or will they already realize clothing can restrict and influence their behavior?
At young ages, girls absorb messages about their bodies—usually that thinness and being small fits best with the archetypes of femininity. Loving candy and ice cream is pretty typical for most kids, but will a young girl be told sooner than her brother that keeping herself slim is important? Will she be sent off to dance class while he goes to tae kwon do, and would it be okay if their roles were switched?
As girls mature into young women and enter adolescence, the physical changes of teenhood accelerate them into awareness of the body as a site of sexuality. Will this girl be proud of her changing body’s size and shape? Will she be catcalled on sidewalks, or in the school hallway, as a matter of course? Will she be able to sit anywhere she wants in the lunchroom at school, or will some groups be unwelcoming? And will she be safe walking home alone at night, or will she be more at risk than her brother simply because she is a girl?
If she’s good at school, will her decision about which field to pursue be nudged one direction or another because certain fields, such as literature, seem more available to girls? Will she have role models in her math and science classes or see other women who are making strides in these disciplines? Will she be told, subtly or overtly, by her family that going to college doesn’t matter so much because they can’t afford to send her, or because her real destiny is to become a mother? Will it be uncomfortable for her to be too ambitious or too smart?
Television commercials don’t feature men talking about how a cleaning product allowed them to get the sink cleaner than it has ever been before. Newspaper photos of a summit of world leaders feature few, if any, women in the room. Children hear terms such as “fireman” and “waitress,” but they may never hear a female pilot make the announcement that a plane is on course. These are just a few of the subtle ways in which girls learn how their gender (broadly defined as the sets of behaviors, expectations, and limitations imposed by culture on girls and boys simply because they are female or male) defines the roles available to them. The messages start in infancy, and they continue steadily, filtering into girls’ consciousnesses so that they think these definitions simply seem to be just “the way that things are.”
But how did these messages get there, and why do they seem to be the status quo? Why does pink persist? Why “sugar and spice and everything nice,” as the old-fashioned, but still recited, verse goes? How do we define what it means to be a girl? What remains to define girlhood if there are no barriers to achievement or restrictions left, as girls are now often told—and is that statement actually true? At a time when many people think that we’re “beyond” gender restrictiveness—that the glass ceiling has been shattered and girls can do anything—it’s important to look closely at how understandings of gender have been shaped, and whether they have shifted from traditional expectations into new definitions, or whether they are just slightly changed variations.
This book looks specifically at the “gendering” experiences of girls in the United States, starting at the earliest moments of their lives and continuing into their transformations to young women, and then women. (The word “girls” will be used to encompass anyone between the ages of zero and eighteen who is born with female secondary sexual characteristics, or who identifies herself as female.) There are no clear lines of demarcation between these stages, which can vary greatly from culture to subculture; the passage from childhood to adulthood—whether male or female—can differ so widely that it would be impossible to pinpoint or categorize all the variations here. Even within the United States there is a huge range of cultural markers that separate girlhood from womanhood, varying from a bat mitzvah to a quinceañera to a debutante ball to a sweet sixteen celebration. When girls feel “grown up,” or they’re told they are, is also another matter. When they are allowed to wear makeup, get a tattoo, babysit, hold a job, go on dates, or take on new responsibilities, such as parenting, varies widely. The process of moving from girl to woman is often traveled by meeting challenges and finding rewards as girls gain independence and learn what their changing bodies and changing roles mean—for each girl individually as well as within the varied cultures in which she participates and her identity as a woman is formed.
Why Study Girls?
Girls’ studies is an academic field that specifically considers the experience of gendering girls, starting at the earliest moments of their lives and continuing into their transformation to young women. Historically, studies that explore “childhood” broadly, or the experience of growing up generally, have often been biased to represent the experiences of boys. Separating out the realities within girls’ lives uncovers new issues, topics, and concerns that are unique to being female and brings attention to experiences that might otherwise be subsumed into what are considered “standard” experiences of childhood, which presume the experience of boys to be the norm.
In the 1950s, phrases such as “date rape,” “domestic violence,” and “sexual harassment” weren’t part of contemporary America’s lexicon (though many women experienced these things). As women’s experiences were brought to the fore by feminists in the 1960s and 1970s, names for these phenomena entered the public’s vocabulary. So it is with the many feminist perspectives on girlhood, which are united in recognizing that the experiences of girls are unique compared to those of boys, though they are often subsumed into broader categories that ignore the specifics of gender. Attention to girls has brought new focus on classroom dynamics—for example, how often boys call out answers without raising their hands, or interrupt and cut off conversation, and how teachers too often let this pass as “normal” while girls in the same classroom might not receive equal time. Scholars and writers have focused further on the “gendering” of certain fields—such as math and science—and how often students are informed (usually subtly) that one area is more suited to one gender than another.
Thinking through how girls interact differently from how boys do—in a broad sense—has opened up a conversation about what the needs of girls are and the unique joys they also experience as they move from childhood through adolescence. There’s never one prescription for this, but separating girls out for study has spotlighted some areas that were long disregarded, such as girls’ risk for eating disorders, or the ways that media and cultural sexualization of women harms girls’ self-esteem. It has also highlighted other important realities of girls’ lives—how resilient girls can be, how much they often take on, how important female friendship is, how they learn to grow an emotional center within themselves as they meet challenges, and the place they hold within their families.
Still young, the field of girls’ studies is a new one—as of 2009, it’s less than twenty years old, still in the range of its own girlhood. It is generally considered to be a subfield of gender studies and women’s studies, and scholars who study girlhood are often found among a range of departments: history, popular studies, or the social sciences. A college course on this topic might be found in the gender and women’s studies department, or history, or American studies, or with a focus on literature for girls in English.
Lauren Greenfield’s 2002 photo-essay book Girl Culture includes images of girls of all ages, from across America, representing different facets of the complicated prism of contemporary girlhood. Greenfield’s book explores girlhood years from multiple angles: She examines what popularity looks like as she photographs cliques in a middle school cafeteria, and she asks what it means to be attractive through images of hooting men gesturing toward a bikini-clad girl on a spring break boardwalk. A rail-thin nineteen-year-old white teenager in New York City explains that her parents value education over looks, but she wants to explore how far she can go within the world of modeling, and she knows some boys want her on their arms for the prestige she adds. Mary Cady, a white, upper-class, eighteen-year-old self-described “Southern belle,” insists that her future husband will make all the decisions in their marriage because she’s “a typical Southern girl. A lady.” Nkechi, an eighteen-year-old Los Angeles girl whose parents emigrated from Nigeria, is pictured after a prom makeover she was selected for. “Looks are important to American girls,” she comments. “I’m glad I was raised in a different culture, because my mother kept emphasizing that [looks are] not that important. . . . If you’re brought up here, you’re taught that you have to look good to succeed, that beauty gets you what you want and gets you where you need to go. I don’t worry about being beautiful, because I just make myself feel beautiful. Whatever I wear, I make sure I feel good in it. It’s the way you carry yourself.”
These girls reveal how stereotypical feminine values, despite variation from cultural region to region, have been stamped into their psyches, and consequently, into their bodies and into their future expectations for themselves. This book will further explore what that means—how the power and danger of female sexuality has been engraved into girls’ minds before adolescence even begins to change their bodies, as seen in the image of four-year-old Allegra, posing with her hand on her hip, microphone to her mouth, as she “plays” at being a provocative singer in a skimpy, glittery outfit. A simple walk to a local mall to look at the slogans found on T-shirts for girls—PRECIOUS; SWEET & SASSY; POP STAR; GIRLS RULE, BOYS DROOL—raises the question: Why these messages? And no matter how “innocent” it might seem to show these slogans to the world, what inner impressions on girls, and the world at large, do they leave?
A walk down the aisles at any toy store reveals how toys are assigned to genders and what activities are then encouraged or discouraged. Why is there still no cookware set advertised with a boy serving a make-believe dinner? Why do toy companies market makeup kits and nail polish to preschool-aged girls? And if some stores offer chemistry lab sets and beginner toolboxes geared toward girls, why are they packaged in shades of purple and pink? Why make them gender specific at all?
Lessons in Toys: The Socialization of Girls
A doll. A truck. An Easy-Bake oven or an erector set. The Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew. Bratz or Thomas the Tank Engine.
One of the common beliefs about childhood is that it’s a time in which children are free—free to use their imaginations to think up anything, free to try on different identities, free to roam in their play, habits, dress, to experiment and figure out who they are as they experience the world openly.
Yet from the time a parent acquires the first toy or article of clothing for a baby, a gender script is already being imposed, often unconsciously, by adults who replicate standards and assumptions that seem too common to question. Even before a baby’s birth, when parents post a registry or attend a baby shower for their child-to-be, presents flow in (or are picked out) in preset gender schemes. If, more rarely these days, parents don’t want to know the child’s sex, a color that is deemed “acceptable” for either might be picked: yellow, perhaps white or green, but the mere concept that colors are sorted out into preassigned designations for boy or girl reveals a gender coding already at work. When girls’ blankets and baby clothes come embellished with flowers, and boys’ with tiny symbols of maleness (a wrench, truck, or hammer), does the newly minted child truly ever explore his or her own desires? Roughly $12 billion per year in the United States is spent on advertising and marketing to children: According to sociologist Juliet B. Schor’s Born to Buy: The Commercialized Child and the New Consumer Culture, advertisers spend more than $150 per boy and girl in the United States.
- On Sale
- Oct 6, 2009
- Page Count
- 184 pages
- Seal Press