Anastasia Todd PhD is the Assistant Professor of Gender and Women’s Studies at the University of Kentucky. Currently, she is working on the completion of her first book which focuses on disabled girlhood, tentatively titled: Cripping Girlhood: Disability, Affect, Ablenationalism.
How would you define ‘girlhood’? Do you have any anecdotes which you believe summarise girlhood?
In my work on disabled girlhood, I mostly define girlhood in terms of what it is not. Girlhood is not a “common-sense” ahistorical, static, biological “life-stage.” But rather, it is a shifting category of analysis that is constituted through and by systems and relations of power. Another way I like to think of girlhood (as I do disability) is as an assemblage, not just as an attribute of a body. Notwithstanding the academic definition, I think girlhood means many different things to many different girls. Reflecting on my own girlhood, which was very privileged in many ways, I mostly think back to feelings of anxiety, joy, discovery, desire, belonging, and exclusion. My newest streaming television obsession has been the show PEN15, which I believe does an excellent job capturing and relaying some of my own affective experiences of girlhood, as a millennial growing up in the United States.
Why do you consider it important to study girlhood?
For me, personally, I think it is important to study girlhood because we owe it to girls (present, past, and future). Studying girlhood, as I see it, is an intervention into the ubiquitous flattening and patronizing narratives about girlhood and girls. Girls are knowledge makers. Their knowledge about the world, their bodies, their experiences, and their dreams does important political work.
In my own work, on disabled girlhood, I find that by studying disabled girls, I learn a lot about the insidious operation of ableism, nationalism, and neoliberal capitalism. There has been a recent uptick in media representation of disabled girls. However, through critically considering the emergence of disabled girlhood, I can better look at what is operating under the surface. Media representation is not always a good thing in and of itself. Quite often, in our contemporary moment, disabled girls are represented in the media in quite depoliticizing ways, blunting the radical potential of disability justice. However, even more importantly, there are places and spaces where disabled girls push back and provoke us to imagine different ways of knowing and being in the world.
How, and when, did you become involved/interested in girlhood studies?
I became interested in Girlhood Studies in college. I majored in Women and Gender Studies and I worked over the summers as a camp counselor at a Girl Scout camp. Working with the campers brought me a lot of joy and also I was so interested in hearing about their experiences, their lives, and their dreams. I also was lucky enough to take a couple of Girlhood Studies courses taught by my former dissertation chair and now colleague, Heather Switzer that piqued my interest. In my first semester of graduate school, I read Rosemarie Garland-Thomson’s article, “Integrating Disability, Transforming Feminist Thought,” and it was like my life changed. It was definitely a light-bulb moment for me. As a girl, I had to undergo extensive speech therapy, and it was very traumatizing for me. The Garland-Thomson article gave me the language to think about my experience in a different way. I realized that there was a lack of engagement with Feminist Disability Studies in Girlhood Studies, and I hope that my book project starts to bridge that gap.
How do you think globalization has affected how we define girlhood?
Being attuned to globalization helps to decenter white, Western girlhood as the universal frame for studying “girlhood.” An engagement with transnational feminism allows us to think more thoroughly about how neoliberal capitalism has structured the realities of girls across the world in different and similar ways.
Would you describe girlhood as a construct (social or other)? Please explain.
I think that girlhood is both a construct as well as a material-affective reality. Girlhood has meant many different things in many different historical, political, social, and geographic contexts. This doesn’t mean that girlhood is not “real” per se, it just means that the way we conceptualize girlhood changes. By thinking about how girlhood is constructed, it calls attention to the fact that there is not just one universal experience of girlhood. It is important that we think intersectionally and transnationally about girlhood. Not all girls are figured as innocent or in need of protection, for example. Certain girls, by virtue of their race, class, ability, citizenship, etc. experience the world in vastly different ways than the white, Western girl that populates many of our imaginaries as “the Girl.”
To what extent is the definition of girlhood constructed through inclusivity and plurality?
I think for many people, girlhood is imagined in a very rigid and “common-sense” way. I would say scholars of girlhood are trying to push folks to reconsider girlhood as something that does not just signify “women in training” or is conceptualized strictly in terms of age (under 18). For many of us who do work on marginalized girlhoods, I think we attempt to conceptualize girlhood in an increasingly capacious way. In my own work, I try to attend to the materiality of the body as well as recognize how interlocking systems of oppression structure girls’ lives in asymmetrical ways.
Girlhood studies is a fairly new field, how do you believe it has changed since it was first established? How do you believe it will continue to evolve over the next few decades?
I see myself as part of a wave of scholars who are attempting to de-center the white, Western, heterosexual, able-bodied, cis girl as Girlhood Studies’ primary object of analysis. There are a lot of exciting ways that Girlhood studies could (and is) evolving over the next few decades. One thing I am excited about is the recent deluge of Black Girlhood Studies’ scholarship. My brilliant colleague Aria Halliday edited The Black Girlhood Studies Collection, which was just published last year. I hope more generally, too, that Girlhood Studies continues to evolve and change in order to reflect and theorize the multifaceted lives and dreams of girls everywhere.