February 07, 2010
“What are little boys made of? Frogs and snails, and puppy- dogs tails.
“What are little girls made of? Sugar and spice and all things nice.”
What Mother Goose could never have expected hundreds of years ago – leaving aside her conformist cockle shells and quite contrary Marys – is the parlous times girls have lived through even though feminism is a household word and girls now have more opportunities than their female forebears.
Girls’ worlds are now so distinct and thorny that academics involved in women’s studies or gender research are turning their minds to girls and their cultures.
In 2008, McGill University launched what appears to be the first international journal devoted to that group, Girlhood Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal. The journal, now in its third volume, examines sexuality, violence, education and other topics, in both developed and undeveloped countries.
It is extremely academic, not a how-to for moms. The periodical considers social forces that hit young girls in the 1970s and ’80s. Girls were expected to conform to society’s changing expectations, like sexy little maids all in a row.
In the 1990s, social websites began to alter notions about how girls were supposed to behave and look: hence the Britney Spears’ influence of T-shirts flaunting the midriff. There were still heroes such as Nancy Drew, and the magazine Seventeen, which had been around since the 1940s. However, that fashion bible is now being read by girls of 10 and 11.
The larger culture directed at girls and teenagers was defined by TV shows such as Beverly Hills 90210 and movies such as Mean Girls and Thirteen. Not uplifting role models. Or liberated to any extent.
The McGill journal was conceived in 2002 when three Montreal-based academics were in London for a conference on young feminism. The three were inspired by what they heard about girlhood to start the journal, and they invited experts in literature, history, advertising, etc., to contribute – as well as girls themselves, who provide some of the photographs.
“In the late 1990s girls’ studies and girl culture were labels which hadn’t yet been placed,” says Jacqueline Reid-Walsh, one of the three journal creators.
Reid-Walsh, who’s now at Penn State University, drew some of her inspiration from being the mother of a young girl in the late 1980s and “looking at the world around her.”
She explored part of this in a paper that countered some feminist orthodoxy, “Thank You, Barbie,” with colleague Claudia Mitchell. It looked at how the doll can be seen beyond its hourglass figure and perfect relations with Ken to be an exemplar of someone who questions about women’s place in society.
“Each successive version of Barbie brings with it new contradictions … What does it mean that Barbie addresses eating disorders and makes it possible for a daycare centre to be enlarged?” the writers asked.
Here, at York University, Cheryl van Daalen-Smith of the School of Nursing is planning a forum on March 15 to gather experts on girls and girls themselves to discuss starting another journal and perhaps a future conference.
“This is long overdue,” says van Daalen-Smith, also an associate professor in women’s studies and children’s studies.
“Psychologists were the first to really talk about the journey of girls,” she says. Girls “were so much more at risk for depression and weight issues.”
Working as a public health nurse 20 years ago gave van Daalen-Smith access to girls and allowed her to hear their concerns.
“Violence is the No. 1 issue and I define that broadly to include the way women are viewed and treated. Girls are frequently called ‘slut, whore and fat bitch.’ ” They are objectified at a younger age as they enter puberty earlier. They are dealing with enormous pressures to have sex: at a party if you wear a certain bracelet or a certain colour lipstick it means you’re willing to have oral sex, van Daalen-Smith explains.
As a public health nurse van Daalen-Smith learned that many girls felt “unappreciated, devalued, dismissed and judged.” She adds: “Girls told me they learned to live as chameleons, constantly adapting, based on appearances or how they thought they were expected to be.”
She learned some of this as she spent two years travelling across Canada speaking to 65 girls about their lives and interests.
As the mother of a daughter, I find this relevant and touching. And I am grateful my daughter, who had tough moments in teenhood, had so many good role models, not only teachers or adults she met but TV shows such as Road to Avonlea. It focused on feisty Sara Stanley and made the children’s characters as important as the adult ones.
But the show my daughter watched again and again via DVD into early adulthood was Golden Girls, headed by Bea Arthur, who had earlier played television’s first feminist, Maude. Golden Girls was about a group of divorced, retired women living in Florida.
“It’s about girls being together and it doesn’t matter whether they are 70 or 17,” my daughter says. “It’s about four different women who had different world views and different talents and but they came together and muddled along together. It’s about friends.”
The importance of friends. I hope the new girlhood studies can look at positive influences like that, too, the wisdom of Carole King who once sang: “You’ve got a friend.”