Jessica R. Calvanico is a scholar, artist, and musician interested in gender, subjectivity, race, and history. She is currently a Postdoctoral Research Fellow with the Institute for the Study of Global Racial Justice in the Department of Childhood Studies at Rutgers University. She completed her Ph.D. at University of California, Santa Cruz in the Feminist Studies Department, with designated emphasis in Visual Studies and Critical Race & Ethnic Studies. Her work explores the foundations of the juvenile justice system and histories of girlhood in the US South.

She recently published “Arson Girls, Match-Strikers, and Firestarters: A Reflection on Rage, Racialization, and the Carcerality of Girlhood” about the history of girls who burn down the buildings that incarcerate them in Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society. She is also working on a monograph tentatively titled Carceral Girlhoods: Juvenile Justice and “the Problem” of the Girl in New Orleans and is a musician in a band called KIM (@kim_a_band), which writes music about mythic and historical topics related to girls and girlhoods!

Jessica Calvanico.

Why do you consider it important to study girlhood?

As many scholars have noted (and continue to note), girlhood as an object of inquiry has historically been overlooked, with adulthood as the default focus. They also note that when childhood was/is an object of inquiry boys were/are often the focus of the research. Of course, a diversity of subjects, perspectives, and experiences in research are crucial for producing transformative, important, and frankly worthwhile scholarship. However, considering girlhood as an object of inquiry to me is more than just a corrective response to historical erasure (although, that is a plus), it is also an exciting political project about the possibilities about subjectivity, agency, power, and power. For example, I see girlhood as a particular and specialized subject category that helps to illuminate the ways subjectivity operates in relation to the state more generally. In this way, studying girlhood helps to illuminate the complex ways that the state creates subjects and seeks to control them, while also illuminating how girls resist/refuse/thwart/acquiesce to those forms of control and power.

How did you become involved/interested in girlhood studies?

Funny enough, I started thinking critically about girlhood during my own girlhood. While this is kind of a long story, I really wouldn’t be here today without riot grrrl. At the age of 13, I discovered Bikini Kill and riot grrrl. Listening to Bikini Kill and obsessing over their lyrics is what taught me to be a feminist. This also taught me to critique and engage with girlhood and what led me to apply that feminist lens to the category of girlhood. This interest in riot grrrl also got me to join message boards where I found pen pals with whom I exchanged mixtapes and feminist girl zines. This time in my life was such a radical political education and it was when I really started to consider girlhood as both an object of inquiry and an identity category I had been experiencing. I continuously feel immense gratitude for this time and the fact that I stumbled upon that Bikini Kill Singles record because it truly changed my life. Much later on, I completed my MA at the University of Chicago where I focused on Linguistic Anthropology. This is when I started to really think about gendered forms of code-switching and communicative practices within homosocial spaces—all while complicating the idea of homosociality. I am also a musician and an artist, so during this time, I also started exploring these topics in my music and making performances focused on these ideas. I then volunteered with Girls Rock! Chicago—a music education camp for those who identify as girls, ages 8-16, teaching guitar and various workshops. During this time, we were actually having conversations about exclusionary spaces and how to define “girlhood” at Girls Rock! Chicago, and were trying to make the camp inclusive to trans, gender non-conforming, and non-binary folx. These conversations got me thinking in new and complex ways about the category of girlhood and I decided to apply to Ph.D. programs to study homosocial spaces—especially carceral spaces—while recognizing the myriad ways that people often refuse/fail/thwart/complicate these state-sponsored identity categories. These interests all came together while writing my dissertation on The House of the Good Shepherd, a Catholic reformatory in New Orleans for “sexually delinquent” girls and the legacies of carcerality that continue to shape the contemporary possibilities of girlhood.

What most excites you about your work, or what are you most proud of in your work on or with girls?

Good question! Kind of a hard one as I am excited and proud of all my work, so it is difficult to pinpoint one thing. I guess I will say that, because my work is historical, I am extremely grateful I get to access these documents and tell these stories. I feel forever indebted to some of my favorite people on Earth: all the archivists and librarians who continue to be the most generous and thoughtful problem-solving geniuses I have yet to meet, because they have helped me access so many incredible archival materials that made my project possible. Ultimately, the most exciting part of my work are those moments in the archives, looking through folders or microfiche and learning about the textural details of lives, systems, and laws that make up the stories I get to tell.

Girlhood studies is a relatively new field, yet is rapidly changing. What are the biggest opportunities for those interested in studying girlhood?

I think the field is really expanding is some fascinating ways! Recently, my colleagues from Childhood Studies at Rutgers Halle Singh and E Feinman (who asked me for this interview, in fact!!!) organized The Girl in Theory: Toward a Critical Girlhood Studies Symposium, which was just incredible! It was a ton of work and they did it all, which truly amazes me. It brought together scholars doing work that challenges and complicates girlhood studies and the category of girlhood in such innovative ways. I think these kinds of virtual global symposia are really promising because they bring together international scholars, without the burden and cost of travel, to have exhilarating conversations about girlhood(s). I was lucky enough to witness mere snippets of how Feinman and Singh organized this incredible event, and they did it all on their own, which is really a thrilling prospect for scholars, organizers, artists, and practitioners everywhere interested in facilitating exciting conversations. On this note, I would also like to see more artists who explore girlhood(s) directly interacting with academic scholarship and scholars on girlhood studies.

What is the biggest challenge facing girlhood studies? Do you have ideas on how we can address it?

There are a few challenges that exist on different fronts. There are the fascist right-wing assaults on queer and trans kids/adults enacted through the legal and legislative realms that often use the protection of girls as bogus justification for state-sponsored terror and gender-based violence. This is an issue for girlhood studies, because it is an attack on queer and trans girls, and it invokes girls/girlhood as complicit in the project of state violence. As scholars of girlhood studies, our work has always been and will always be political. These attacks are real forms of existential violence that kill, hurt, and affect all of us, and we must organize and fight against them.

On a more academic front, I think a real challenge is the siloed nature of girlhood studies scholars in academia. One of its strengths is the fact that girlhood studies is interdisciplinary, but this leaves it up to chance really if departments happen to have scholars of girlhood in their departments. If they do, their students might receive a class or maybe a unit on girls/girlhood, but usually in the discipline of said department. This is also a problem for graduate students looking for training on girls/girlhood who may not have many options for scholars in their discipline with expertise on girls/girlhood. Recently, I was lucky enough to teach a girlhood studies course because I am currently a postdoc in the Childhood Studies Department at Rutgers. This was a great opportunity because we were able to delve into the history of girlhood studies, the problems with the field, and understand the many different disciplinary approaches to this work—giving students a much more holistic understanding of girlhood studies. I don’t have a great solution other than creating more tenured lines and hiring more girlhood studies scholars in all types of departments. I think also having many more interdisciplinary symposia centered around girlhood, like “The Girl in Theory: Toward a Critical Girlhood Studies Symposium,” where brilliant scholars get to interact across continents and disciplines is also a great way to find solutions.

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