Mary Celeste Kearney is the Director of Gender Studies and Associate Professor of Film, Television, Theatre at the University of Notre Dame. She is also on the board of the International Girl Studies Association, and is currently editing a special issue of the Girlhood Studies journal that focuses on articles about girls of color and other marginalized forms of girlhood.
How would you define ‘girlhood’? Do you have any anecdotes which you believe summarise girlhood?
I define “girlhood” in several ways: 1) as the subjective experiences of those who identify as “girls”; 2) as the period in life one identifies as “girl”; and 3) as the discursive construct used by social institutions and individuals to categorize those deemed young and female/feminine, which is commonly performed and reconstructed by those who identify as “girl.”
I tend to define “girl” via demographic categories and based on the combination of gender, age, and status of financial dependency—so, those people who identify as female/feminine and young who are still financially dependent on their parents or guardians. Typically, this means female/feminine youth between the ages of 0-18, whether cisgender or trans. That said, historically “girl” has also been used to refer to young women older than 18, and it still is. Indeed, the term “girl” is often used among women of all ages when they are in women-only groups, as well as by many gay and bisexual men in relation to the feminine members of their groups. The fluid use of “girl” across these various social groups points to lack of one essential meaning as well as its relationship to the social construction of identity.
As I wrote in my 2009 article, “Coalescing,” which focuses on the development of girlhood studies as an academic field: “[T]here are many ways to be a girl, and these forms depend on not only the material bodies performing girlhood, but also the specific social and historical contexts in which those bodies are located” (19).
Why do you consider it important to study girlhood?
Like women, girls have been ignored by scholars for most of the history of academia and critical thought. Yet girls have experiences that differ from women’s as a result of their age status. So it is necessary to study them as a unique demographic group with unique experiences. That said, we need to be mindful that girls are not just gendered and aged; they have other intersecting identities that impact their experiences of girlhood, including race, ethnicity, class, sexuality, and ability. And, as noted above, all of that is impacted by geography and history also.
But there’s also a political side to the project of girlhood studies. As I wrote in my “Coalescing” article:
“Girls’ Studies scholars must keep in mind that our work has significant political effects both within and outside the academy. At the heart of our scholarship is a demographic group that has been consistently marginalized, trivialized, and exploited throughout the ages. Girls today may have more agency than those of previous generations, yet even the most privileged contemporary female youth remain disenfranchised because of their age. As minors, they are barred from many of the activities and social institutions that might expand their power and improve their lives. For many girls, such disempowerment is exponentially multiplied as a result of their race, ethnicity, class, ability, sexuality, religion, and/or nationality. Indeed, compound disenfranchisement is the norm for most female youth today, though such identities and the social experiences associated with them are the least represented in popular discourse.
It is important to remember, therefore, that even though more girls are asserting themselves publicly—providing real evidence that “girl power” is not just a marketing slogan—girls cannot on their own make the world a more respectful place for female youth. Girls’ Studies scholars can serve as their allies, however. By looking to the past, including the history of our field, we can formulate new questions and modes of analysis for topics already associated with female youth. By listening to girls and collaborating with them on research, we can discern areas of girlhood and girls’ culture that have not yet been examined and deserve further analysis. And by promoting our studies beyond our academic communities and national borders, we can facilitate a deeper understanding of, as well as a broader appreciation for, girls worldwide. This is our challenge. This is our contribution” (21-22).
How, and when, did you become involved/interested in girlhood studies?
As I wrote in the Preface to my first book, Girls Make Media:
“This project began in 1993 with my introduction to Riot Grrrl, a feminist youth culture that emerged somewhat simultaneously in Olympia, Washington and Washington, D.C. in 1991, and spread quickly to other cities, including Los Angeles, California, where I was pursuing my Ph.D. in media, gender, and cultural studies. Shortly after becoming aware of Riot Grrrl, I read Angela McRobbie and Jenny Garber’s essay, “Girls and Subcultures,” the pioneering text of culture-oriented Girls’ Studies. It is no exaggeration to say that my exposure to these two things—one cultural and the other academic, but both radically political—transformed my life” (ix).
Indeed, I changed my dissertation topic to focus on discourses of female adolescence in U.S. media, and have been studying mediated girlhoods ever since—almost 27 years
How do you think globalization has affected how we define girlhood?
Great question and one all girls’ studies scholars should think more about. I know I do!
The concept of girlhood has long been tied to capitalism, as girls are understood as a lucrative consumer market. Originally that was because girls grow into women, and the assumption was that all women become mothers who make purchases on behalf of their own families. So if advertisers and manufacturers could solidify girls’ brand loyalties early on, those companies would have assured consumers for life. Yet since the mid 1930s, in the United States at least, there’s been a recognition that girls want to consume products made just for them and their needs, and so the girl consumer market was born. This has happened at different times in different countries, but the United States has been a major player in globalization as a result of its power in the world and capitalist values, as well as its production and distribution of media. Globalization has led to a more universal sense of girlhood, although it is one that has been based on the most privileged girls in the U.S. and other Western societies. (Check out the history of the Barbie doll made for different countries.) It remains to be seen how much other countries can resist the West’s—and more specifically, the United States’—definition of girlhood by producing their own girl-centered media and other forms of culture. Japan comes to mind as a nation with a very strong girl culture that has impacted not only other Asian countries, but also those in the West (think of Hello Kitty, manga, anime, etc.).
Would you describe girlhood as a construct (social or other)? Please explain.
Yes, that’s what I was getting to in my definitions of “girl” and “girlhood” above.
To what extent is the definition of girlhood constructed through inclusivity and plurality?
That depends on who’s defining girlhood! Many white people, girls’ studies scholars, included have been remiss on not paying attention to the many categories of identity that intersect with gender with regard to both girls and girlhood. And girlhood studies has been dominated by white scholars for a long time, so we have not been as attentive to diversity, plurality, and inclusivity as we should have been. Fortunately, more research by indigenous scholars, scholars of color, queer scholars, and disabled scholars is bringing light to the many different ways girlhood is constructed in relation to the various categories of identity that intersect with gender and age. And that work has challenged white scholars to engage in those issues as well.
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 wrote an article about the development of girls’ studies titled “Coalescing” (noted above), which was published in 2009. Toward the end, I noted several trends in our field up to that point, specifically: 1) a movement away from studying girls as future women and toward analyzing girls as members of a unique demographic group, especially in sociological, psychological, and historical studies of girlhood; 2) a historic focus on adolescent girls, but a new rise in “tween” scholarship; 3) a movement away from gender-specific research, especially in terms of critical race, postcolonial, and queer studies; 4) the growing interdisciplinarity of girls’ studies scholarship; and 5) scholars’ increased access to and research collaborations with girls.
Nevertheless, I also noted areas that deserved further attention by scholars in our field, including: 1) girlhood in the fine arts; 2) girls’ experiences during early childhood; 3) intersectional analyses that include class, ethnicity, sexuality, ability, and age; and 4) non-Western girls, girlhoods, and girls’ culture.
I have been thrilled to see many recent articles by girlhood studies scholars who are drawing attention to the specificities of Black girlhoods, queer girlhoods, trans girlhoods, and disabled girlhoods, as well as a variety of non-Western girlhoods, and I hope such studies continue to expand the field and our understanding of the vast array of girls and girlhoods across our globe and across time. Unfortunately, I still think that there needs to be more attention by all to age (which is bizarrely forgotten as one of the two primary intersecting identity categories that define “girl”), and more study of girls who are children (before the pre-teen stage). Finally, although there’s been some progress in the fine arts, it’s been very slight. So I think there needs to be much more girl-centered research in art, theatre, and music studies.
As you can see, there’s still a lot of work to be done in this field, and I’m excited by the many possibilities we all have to better understand and work with girls.