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 seventh interview is with Dr. Mary Celeste Kearney, Associate Professor of Film, Television, and Theatre, at University of Notre Dame, South Bend, Indiana.
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 girls’ media studies. One way to think about this is “girls’ studies + feminist media studies = girls’ media studies.” I was trained as a feminist film and television scholar, and have been doing research, as well as teaching, about girls’ media culture since the late 1990s.
Why do you think we need Girl Studies?
We need girls’ studies because girls are one of the least studied segments of the human population historically, and continue to be so in many countries around the world, especially where they are understood as only future wives and mothers. We need the academic study of all sorts of human beings to understand the people who occupy (and have occupied) our planet. More specifically, we need to understand girls, and girlhood, to make the world a better place for them—one that values them and respond to their needs and interests.
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?
One branch of girls’ studies began in the field of psychology. Via the work of researchers like Carol Gilligan, others began to understand girls’ psychological development as different from boys. More important, a greater number of people began to understand that many girls lose their confidence and self-esteem with the onset of pubescence, a problem that can impact their relationships with other people, their schoolwork, and their ability to take advantage of opportunities that come their way. Without Gilligan and other researchers drawing attention to that problem, a number of school and extracurricular programs designed to help girls with this problem wouldn’t have been launched, and many girls would still be suffering through adolescence thinking they’re the only people with that problem. Yet other researchers have noted that race is an important intersecting variable here, and have found, for example, that African American girls do not suffer as much of a self-esteem loss during adolescence. Such intersectional research has been hugely important for complicating the label “girl” as well as the experience of “girlhood.” Girls’ studies scholars are helping to ensure that neither of those terms is naturalized as being only about white, straight, middle-class, able-bodied female youth in the West.
Girl-centered research in numerous other academic fields has contributed to the better understanding and treatment of girls, including history, sociology, criminology, education, sports, media, the arts, and STEM fields.
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?
The biggest challenge facing girls’ studies as a field is its historical dominance by white, Western scholars focused on white, Western girls and girlhood. We need to reframe our academic gaze toward the margins and study other types of girls and girlhoods, and we need to figure out strategies to involve more scholars of color and scholars of the “global south” in girl-centered research without putting too much of a burden on them in the process.
I don’t know if there will be academic programs or research institutes focused solely on girls/girlhood, but the Women’s & Gender Studies Program at the University of Missouri, Kansas City already has a certificate in girls’ studies.
We have an ongoing research question we ask everyone we interview: Do you think the Internet is a safe place for girls and why?
That’s a tough question to answer briefly. Which Internet space, and which girls? Some places on the Internet are safe for girls, especially those they create and control themselves. Others are potentially more problematic because of their ties to capitalism and sexualization, or both. Thanks to Girl Museum, girls always have a place online where they can feel safe and valued. ☺
Learn more about Dr. Kearney here.
Join us next month for another interview of a Girlhood Studies scholar, Dr. Angharad N. Valdivia of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Thanks for reading!
-Ashley E. Remer
Girl Museum Inc.