Welcome to Girl Museum’s 10th Anniversary year. We have many exciting projects for our community, including this new blog series, Why We Need Girls’ Studies. Each month we will feature an interview with a scholar in the field to get insights about what we are all doing in this space to further our understanding of girlhood and its experiences.
Our eighth interview is with Dr. Angharad N. Valdivia, Professor of History, at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Let’s begin with defining our terms, especially since Girls’ Studies is a relatively new academic area. Can you tell our readers what your field of expertise is and how you see it within Girls’ Studies?
My field of expertise is Feminist Media Studies, with specializations in transnational, ethnic, and popular culture issues. Girls Studies contributes a specificity of age and generation. I intersectionalize Girls Studies by always pursuing it as a transnational, racialized, and classed area of research.
Why do you think we need Girl Studies?
To begin with—girls are important; they are the future of the world. I remember being in Minneapolis/St. Paul airport a few years ago and seeing a poster that said: Children are part of our present and 100% of our future. Given that “children” is too often assumed to be masculine, we need girls studies to take the lives and experiences of girls seriously.
Second, disaggregation matters in scholarship. Flattening differences across age does not serve to advance knowledge.
Third, so much of post-feminist neoliberal popular culture is marketed at girls. Even before this, girls were a target of consumer products as it was found that many remained brand loyal until middle age—decades of Maybelline mascara consumption! So encouraging consumption through a discourse of empowerment through beauty products centralizes girls—they are the target audience through a message of individualistic consumer and branded selves.
Fourth, as with feminist studies in general, in Girls Studies we must strive to include all girls—not just white, middle class, cis-gendered, Global North girls.
There are vast disparities globally in girls’ situations, with incremental improvements in some areas and serious steps backwards in others. From your work in Girls’ Studies, what are some positives you take away from the academic interest in girls and girlhood? What changes can it lead to?
I sort of got ahead of myself with the previous answer and will expand on above comments.
Global disparities are huge yet we must resist tendency to flatten differences. Global North girls are not equally empowered or represented. Nor are Global South girls. Filling out the gaps, with careful attention paid to specificity, promises to enrich our knowledge about girls. Of great importance is including the voices of girls. I realize this is very difficult, but I truly appreciate scholarship that includes the voices of girls. I especially value books and research by girls themselves—recognizing that the very fact that a girl is publishing represents an amount of cultural capital not possessed by most girls.
Mediated representation is immensely important. As a media studies scholar I know that mainstream media ownership is concentrated in a few transnational conglomerates, nearly all of whom are located in the Global North. Inclusion in the mainstream is absolutely essential—of images, scholarship, and voices.
Funding education and production so that girls can communicate and voice their experiences is also supremely important. I believe in the value of single sex education for girls, so that they can develop leadership skills in a body positive environment. For example, Sana Amanat (Barnard College, ’04) co-created Marvel’s first Muslim female superhero and is one of the few female of color creative executive in Marvel Comic– this is the promise fulfilled of Girls Studies and media intervention from a global and intersectional approach.
What are the biggest challenges now and going forward for Girls Studies in an academic world? Do you see Girls’ Studies programs being a reality?
I had not really thought of a program on its own until I read this question. I guess I saw it as a component of Gender Studies. Right now the academy is under such financial constraints, that, at least in my own university, I do not see creating such a program as something the administration would support, despite the fact that we have major girls studies scholars involved in research and public outreach.
I see no challenges to scholars carrying out Girls Studies research. I have colleagues throughout the university, the country, and the world who do so. There are even book series, such as Sharon Mazzarella’s in my own field, that publish girls studies material exclusively.
I do see a challenge in the nascent International Girls Studies Association [IGSA]. In its two conferences (Norwich, 2017; Notre Dame, 2019) issues of global and racial inclusivity have proven to be difficult. The fact that there really isn’t an association, but that IGSA has functioned more as a loose umbrella for the conference, means that these issues are not being treated systematically and structurally.
We have an ongoing research question we ask everyone we interview: Do you think the Internet is a safe place for girls and why?
The internet becomes the latest excuse for a moral panic about girls. Depending on who is writing, or when they are writing, girls are constructed as either agential “can-do” girls or as passive victims of predators (sexual, commercial, or whatever kind). The “internet” is a technology deployed by humans. It is neither neutral nor does it act on its own. Whether we draw on Safiya Noble’s Algorithms of Oppression or Amy Hasinoff’s research on sexting, we find that the internet can be a site for production and creativity while its most salient and powerful agents are nothing but advertising platforms (e.g. google). As with all media, literacy is absolutely essential. Also as with all media, the discourse of the “technological sublime”—that is faith that technology will save us—is just that, a fantasy that has to be populated by real policy and human beings.
Learn more about Dr. Valdivia here.
Join us next month for another interview of a Girlhood Studies scholar, Dr. Michele Polak of Notre Dame College.
Thanks for reading!
-Ashley E. Remer
Girl Museum Inc.