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Young Femininity: Girlhood, Power and Social Change
Sinikka Aapola, Marnina Gonick, & Anita Harris
Basingstoke & New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.
£17.99 / $24.95, 248 pages, ISBN 0-333-96512-4 (paperback).
£52.50 / $75.00, 248 pages, ISBN 0-333-96511-6 (hardback).

Malie Montagutelli
Université Paris III

The three authors of this book have formed a multidisciplinary team, each located on a different continent. Sinikka Aapola is a sociologist and youth researcher who teaches at the University of Helsinki, Finland. Marnina Gonick specializes in gender, education and cultural studies. She is a Canadian currently teaching at Penn State University, USA. Anita Harris works in political science and sociology and teaches at Monash University, Australia. Since 1995, they have been working together on the topic of girlhood and young women, both globally and locally. As they explain in their introduction, the present book is truly collective “in the sense that the framework has been created together, and that [they] have all contributed to the discussions in each chapter.” The book investigates the changing meanings of girls and girlhood and how these meanings are negotiated and lived by young women in the authors’ respective countries, that is in late modern Western societies.

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.

Having 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.

The interest of this book is that it looks at young women in postindustrial and postmodern Western societies in truly fresh ways, taking into account the most recent changes that occurred in political, economic and social structures and how these affect their lives. By introducing a sense of unity beyond the dualities and dichotomies, the authors attempt to make sense of the apparent complexity and diversity of contemporary life. A sense of dynamism and optimism pervades the book and what ultimately comes through is the positive energy of the subjects under study.


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