Welcome to Girl Museum’s interview series, Why We Need Girls’ Studies, for 2024. We have many exciting interviews this year with important scholars in the field to get insights about what we are all doing in this space to further our understanding of girlhood and girls’ experiences.

This month’s interview is with Emilie Zaslow. She is a Professor and Chair of Communication and Media Studies at Pace University in New York City. Zaslow is the author of Playing with America’s Doll: A Cultural Analysis of the American Girl Collection and Feminism, Inc.: Coming of Age in Girl Power Media Culture. Emilie’ research focuses on media and the construction of gender identity. She has published essays in various scholarly anthologies and peer-reviewed journals, including Women and Language, Girlhood Studies, Information, Communication, and Society, The Public Historian and The APA Handbook on the Psychology of Women.

Why do you consider it important to study girlhood?

The earliest girlhood studies were undertaken as a response to an almost exclusive focus on boys in every field that studied children as well as by the desire to understand the development and socialization of women. While we still need to fill in the gaps and to use the study of girls to understand adults, we now also understand that girlhood is an amalgam of distinct socially constructed identities with shifting, malleable definitions that requires deep and flexible analyses.  

I believe that it is important to make sense of how this complex, variable identity category has been and is constructed and constructs itself, the many ways in which these positionalities we call “girlhood” are experienced and represented in the world, and how power operates on and through girls.  

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

The opportunities in girlhood studies are endless! Find something you are passionate about and run with it. There are perpetually important questions to explore about how ideological, political, social, and economic power are enacted on and by girls. 

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

One of my favorite activities in my Girls’ Media Cultures course occurs on our first day when we work together as a class to define girlhood.  I encourage students to challenge themselves and each other as they try to use age, rites of passage, biology, activity (play, labor, styling), and sartorial acts to define girlhood.  By the end of the discussion, we agree that it is almost impossible to have a course that focuses on a category that is only tenuously definable. And yet, there are enough common experiences that intersect across differing girlhoods that make us want to understand it as a category. The challenge of fighting against essentialisms while also recognizing a potential category of analysis remains true of the field in general. 

To address this paradox, girlhood studies scholars need to continue to encourage expansive definitions of girlhood, listen to girls as they define themselves, and challenge the limited categorization of girlhood as produced by structural institutions such as schools and media markets.  

Finally, please feel free to plug any current projects or publications that you want to highlight. 

Since the pandemic, I’ve undertaken several new projects, some of which are focused on girlhood. By far, the most consuming is becoming Department Chair which has a steep learning curve and impacts my research. At the same time, I am excited about the work we are doing in our Communication and Media Studies department.

I’ve been energized by supporting my undergraduates’ work on girlhood – including our class exhibit, Girls in Toyland, with the Girl Museum and a fabulous podcast episode, Digital Rite of Passage, that Julia Kennedy, one of my students, produced as a result of a class discussion. Check it out and listen for the second episode dropping soon. 

I’ve also co-authored an article about the Barbie movie and am finishing an essay that explores consumer spaces, identity, and motherhood. 

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