Linda Arnell PhD is a Researcher in Social Work at Örebro University, Sweden. Additionally, she is part of the steering committee at FlickForsk! Nordic Network for Girlhood Studies. Arnell focused on girlhood as part of her thesis project: Violence of girls. Girls of violence: A discursive analytical study of violence, gender and femininity.
How would you define ‘girlhood’? Do you have any anecdotes which you believe summarize girlhood?
The word or category of ‘girl’ has various meanings, but is often related to a child of a specific gender and age, and most commonly as a term defining adolescent females. However, I also understand it as a social (western) construction, and the way in which the term girl is given meaning is also intertwined with notions of ability, ethnicity, sexuality, and class, etc. When conducting research, my perspective on the category of girl includes everyone who identifies as such, regardless of the sex assigned at birth, even though I often include an age limit related to ideas of childhood, adolescence, youth, or what it means to be a child or to be young.
Why do you consider it important to study girlhood?
In early youth studies, the focus was mainly on young people and youth cultures associated with boys’ lives and cultures, reproducing the patriarchal and male normative understanding of youth, and making girls’ lives invisible or marginalized. Furthermore, girls and young femininity have historically also been marginalized within women’s and gender studies. Accordingly, by conducting girl-centered research and highlighting girls’ lives and experiences, we can gain a better understanding of young people’s lives, hopefully changing the lives of girls for the better. It is also important to recognize that girls’ lives are shaped and constrained by social and political structures in various ways, and that girlhood is classed, sexed, gendered, raced, aged, and abled. Since it is a relatively new research field, I also find it important to engage in critical discussions within the field of girlhood studies, to be open to new perspectives, for greater inclusion, and thus hopefully contributing with new knowledge for many years to come.
How, and when, did you become involved/interested in girlhood studies?
My interest in girl-centered research and girlhood studies started more than ten years ago, when I was working as a youth worker and, at the same time, studying gender studies at university.
How do you think globalization has affected how we define girlhood?
Firstly, I think that girls around the world, with the help of technology and the internet, have had the opportunity to share their experiences, opinions, and life situations with others in other parts of the world. We can also see how girls’ voices and activism have had a global impact in ways that have not been possible before, but, at the same time, girls are also affected by the negative consequences of globalization in various ways. Furthermore, I think that the effects of globalization have influenced girlhood scholars to broaden their perspectives and to look beyond their own context and understandings of girlhood. I hope that globalization, in this sense, will contribute with dialogues and knowledge that transgress national borders.
Would you describe girlhood as a construct (social or other)? Please explain.
Yes, one way to understand girlhood is to approach it as a social and/or cultural construction, intertwined with notions, not only of gender and age, but also aspects like ability, ethnicity, sexuality, and class, etc. But for me it is also important to understand girlhood as a lived experience, thus affecting the lives of girls every day.
To what extent is the definition of girlhood constructed through inclusivity and plurality?
To achieve plurality and inclusivity when defining girlhood, today’s notions of the category ‘girl’ need to be discussed, and may be also reconstructed and broadened in various ways. I hope that girlhood scholars will take the opportunity to be part of this, to advocate for greater inclusion, and discuss and question notions of, for example, femininity and age that constrain and limit people from living their lives on equal terms. I also hope for this change not only to be one of definition, but also one of social change, questioning the social, political, and power structures.
Lillemor, one of the girls participating in my research on girls’ violence, gives one example of how social norms, and notions of gender, affect the lives of girls:
Lillemor: I think it’s really sad, not because it should be okay for girls to fight, because it’s not okay to fight, but it’s stupid that it’s seen as something special, as if it’s not special if guys fight, because it’s like girls have to behave in a certain way, but guys can behave any way they want.
Linda: And what’s in a certain way then?
Lillemor: We shouldn’t fight, and we shouldn’t be loud, and we shouldn’t sleep around, and we shouldn’t do anything like that.
Linda: How are you supposed to behave then?
Lillemor: Yeah, we have to be nice and perform in school and we can’t fight. I don’t know, we should just be like this stereotypical girl, we’re not supposed to be seen or heard, and we’re not supposed to be violent, but nor should boys.
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?
Girlhood studies has grown and today researchers around the world are doing girl-centered research. For the future, I hope that girlhood studies will grow from lessons learned and from critical discussion within the field. Since my research interest is related to social and structural issues related to girls’ lives, I hope that social, structural, and political questions will be a central part of girlhood studies, and that the knowledge produced will aim to change the conditions experienced by girls for the better. I believe that knowledge is one way to do this – to make a change.