Femininity: Girlhood, Power and Social Change
Girlhood is seen as a stage which is constructed socially, besides being a biological and psychological process. It is therefore understood that girlhood is accomplished both individually and collectively through participation in social, material and discursive practices, all defining young femininity. Thus what it means to be a girl is constantly changing. The complexity and the difficulty of drawing an exact picture of girlhood at any specific point in time come from the fact that notions of gender and age necessarily intersect with many other notions such as race, class, sexuality, ethnicity, nationality, and ability. With these broad perspectives in mind, the book can be read primarily as a reaction against the controlling image of girlhood which has tended to impose itself—even in past feminist studies—that of the dominant social group, that is, white, middle-class, heterosexual, and able-bodied. The contextual background for their study is the current democratic political systems, market economies and history of civil movements, among which the women’s movement. The authors assess the recent fundamental changes that occurred in the structure of the labor-market as in many other spheres of life, such as education or family; these changes deeply affect youth in general and girls in particular. Thus the scope of this book is ambitious as it seeks to account for the contemporary complexity from a variety of perspectives. To do so, the authors present—along with their own commentaries—various kinds of materials: interviews, personal statements, excerpts from articles and books, as well as from websites, e-zines and zines.
First the book gives an overview of what feminist and youth studies have brought to the understanding of girlhood and the transition to adulthood beyond the simple view which predominated during the early part of the twentieth century of a physical and emotional stage of development that all young women experience in more or less the same ways (e.g. in Granville Stanley Hall's Adolescence: Its Psychology and Its relations to Physiology, Anthropology, Sociology, Sex, Crime, Religion and Education, 1904). Then the authors analyze in what ways girls’ lives and the quest for an identity have been affected by such recent phenomena as de-regulation and globalization of the economies, global migration, marketisation and the logic of consumption, the imperative necessity of getting a good education as a safeguard against rampant economic insecurity, and the diversification of family models in Western societies. In the new context, transition to adulthood has become more strenuous, tensions are greater than ever before between the pressures toward socialization and those toward individualization and self-invention (subjective and collective meanings), for all youth but especially for girls. As a result, many girls endure inner contradictions between the need to connect to their environment and the need to develop autonomy and self-reliance.
The book also offers an exploration into the recent history of constructing “girlhoods” and first focuses on two current, and competing, discourses in youth and gender studies and in the media: “girl power” (e.g. the Riot Grrls Movement in the United States, the Spice Girls), and “reviving Ophelia” (cf. Mary Pipher's Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls, 1994). Both appeared at the same time in the early 1990s. “Girl power” represents the feminist ideal of a new, strong, young woman with a strong sense of self. It presents an image of young femininity which is about possibility, potential, and the promise of control over the future. At the same time, it has become a marketing tool to attract the lucrative teen girl market and is being widely exploited by private companies. In opposition to this model, the “Reviving Ophelia” discourse has been dominant in North America and presents girlhood as a critical phase; it views girls as vulnerable and at risk. In her book In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development, published in 1982, Carol Gilligan had already written that in adolescence girls undergo a crisis in self-esteem, because they must enter a world of tradition and values that are essentially male-dominated. A report published by the American Association of University Women in 1992 entitled How Schools Shortchange Girls showed how girls’ scores at school drop, especially in math and science, when they reach the ages of 12 or 13. It explained this phenomenon by the fact that the environment provided by the schools was male-oriented and not supportive of girls. Mary Pipher explores the same issue and concludes that the girls’ self-esteem crisis is a consequence of a girl-hostile culture that prevents them from expressing their true selves during adolescence. This model shows that despite the many gains made by women in many respects, barriers to full equality still exist.
presented these conflicting models, the objective of the authors
is to move beyond the dual representations of today’s young
women as dictated by the dichotomy which these models have created.
For this, they look for new kinds of feminism. They found that while
some girls seem to reject feminism and the feminist theories of
the first and second waves of feminism (the first wave of feminists
were women involved in women’s rights activism; the second
wave was represented by a strong anti-men reaction, in which women
objectified men and acted like men), many young women felt personally
concerned by feminism. The authors identify three types of young
feminism. The first one is power feminism, which focuses on increased
power and equality for women and is integrated into mainstream society.
It is made up of a number of organizations with a focus on political
and public issues and inequities rather than private concerns, such
as sexuality or body image. The second type of new feminism is referred
to as DIY, do it yourself, or Grrrl Power. It reclaims the word
“girl” and argues for a girl-centered feminism. Finally,
the third type of feminism is made up of young women who actively
embrace the term “third wave.” These third-wave feminists
identify themselves as the next wave of feminists. They are highly
pragmatic, building and expanding on previous efforts and movements
for contemporary times. They also understand the complexity of some
situations facing feminists in the light of certain issues of diversity,
existing contradictions and multi-level realities. In short, they
realistically see young women as powerful and at the same time not
yet fully equal. The activism of these young feminists is not always
visible as they are often engaged in “micropolitics”
in their everyday lives but today’s young women admit to being
engaged in both specific issues that affect them in their own communities
and often in wider concerns that reach across the world, thanks
to the new forms of communications.