“We seek to go beyond ‘girl power’ as a marketing slogan and to engage in discourses that allow girls, scholars, and activists to become allies in creating a world that is respectful of female youth.” Letter to Participants, Reimagining Girlhood: Communities, Identities, Self-Portrayals, SUNY- Cortland, 2010
This weekend on the campus of SUNY Cortland scholars, activists, authors, and artists from a diverse range of disciplines and representing 14 countries, gathered to participate in the Reimagining Girlhood Conference. SUNY colleagues Caroline Kaltefleiter, a former Riot Grrrl and current Girlhood scholar, and Colleen Kattau, organized the three day event with the goal of “initiating innovative directions in Girls’ Studies and to encourage collaborative work across non-profit agencies, activist groups, and academic institutions.” Highlights included panels such as “Girls, Violence and Peace: Global and Local Perspectives,” “Fine Tuning the Politics of Girls Rock Camp,” “Re-signifying Girl On and Off the Web,” artistic performances and interactive workshops, and a dialogue fueled presentation by Keynote Speaker, Sharon Mazzarella.
Girlhood Studies is a relatively new discourse within academia but for those of us in the field it is a site of exploration deeply entrenched in our personal and political self-narratives. I began researching girlhood out of a personal desire to more clearly understand my own experiences and how they were relevant to my participation in the world. For me, academia has always served as a site for biographical exploration – theory doesn’t mean much without practice. I clearly remember the moments in my life when it became apparent to me that I was a girl; socially coded and culturally expected to perform gender appropriate behaviors regardless of my personal desire to express myself. For the past ten years, both in and out of the academic realm, I have struggled to legitimize my research, my values, and my experience of being “girl.” This is why it was so invigorating to enter a space where I was not only validated but also recognized, supported and encouraged.
As Mazzarella eloquently articulated, there is a significant difference between Girlhood Studies and the more traditional studies of girls. The latter, rooted in a traditional research process, pathologizes girlhood and “constructs girls only as vulnerable and only as needing adult intervention.” In contrast, Girlhood Studies posits girls as active agents of their own accord and provides a space for researchers, activists and allies to engage a dialogue about the diverse experience of girlhoods via real girls’ lived experience. It is inclusive, malleable and specific to the female embodiment of youth and its multiple expressions. Director of The School of Communication Studies at James Madison University and one of the most prolific voices in the Girlhood Studies community, Mazzarella’s address offered a reminder of how the term “girl power,” originally coined by the Riot Grrrl movement, has been co-opted as a marketing tool to lure a young generation of female consumers. In order to evolve this work both in and out of the academy, Mazzarella encouraged the audience to resurrect girl power in a way that is “true and authentic to the experience of all girls.”
Indeed, the most uniquely signifying element of Girlhood Studies is the inclusion of girl’s voices – in the dialogue, in the research and, most importantly, in the development of action. A primary example of this inclusion was enacted during the conference by Mary Celeste Kearny and Cynthia Sarver who hosted a Participatory Media Workshop inviting local middle and high school aged girls to work together creating original films. Kearney, well-known for her groundbreaking research “Girls Make Media,” and Sarver, an English Literacy professor, are grad school buddies re-united by their shared passion to encourage girls’ activity behind the camera while providing an innovative model for collaboration. Mission accomplished. After being interviewed by one group whose film was entitled “Inner Beauty,” I asked one of the girls how it was going. “Great!” she exclaimed, “We’re like a little family.”
There is a tangible energy that radiates in a room full of women inspired by memories of their own girlhood and connected by the desire to manifest their experiences and understanding into support for the next generation of women. Introducing the filmmaker’s final project, a teary –eyed Sarver cited her friendship with Kearney as a site where scholarship and real life connect. Admitting that she was reluctant to attend due to the overwhelming responsibilities of her administrative position, Mazzarella turned to me over dinner Saturday night and lamented, “Now I don’t want to go home.”