This April, I attended the first International Girls Studies Association Conference (IGSA) in Norwich, UK. Having immersed myself in Girls Studies for the past several years as part of my dissertation research, this conference felt like academic paradise.
The conference opened with a keynote by Catherine Driscoll, a leading scholar in the field who authored the book Girls: Feminine Adolescence in Popular Culture and Cultural Theory. In her keynote “The Girl: Dynamics of Anxiety and Reassurance,” she discussed how the girl is both “fantasy” and “fact.” She noted how anxieties about girls are fixed within historical and cultural contexts. For example, she argued how she believes the current fourth-wave of feminism is nearly “an exclusively digital event.” Quite interestingly, Driscoll returned to Simone de Beauvoir’s Second Sex as a lens for re-thinking girlhood. What I was most excited to hear in Driscoll’s talk was her emphasis that “leaving the figure of the girl open to anxious irresolution may be more productive than….proliferating attempts to formulate reassuringly certain answers.”
In her talk, Driscoll also critiqued terms that are often employed in Girls Studies like neoliberalism and post-feminism, arguing that these words have simply come to mean something “bad” that “we don’t like” and that they have lost their specificity through overuse. Of course, this comment resonated throughout the conference—and anyone who had used the words post-feminism or neoliberalism in their paper (or in some cases, their title) felt the need to defend or acknowledge the term. (I have to admit, I was glad to find neither of these words in my own paper when I went to check).
Although I attended three conferences in a month, the IGSA Conference was the only one I attended for the entire duration, due partially to a Richard Beaupre Hope & Heritage Fund grant and a travel grant from the Graduate Assistants Union. Over the course of the three-day conference, I went from panel to panel, hearing dozens of papers.
Some highlights included:
Melinda Luisa de Jesús in her paper “Re/Constructing girlhood: Transgender girls in girls studies” posed the question, “What would a trans-inclusive non-binary girls’ studies look like?” She referenced several of her own students’ work making handmade ‘zines, which is something I will definitely be using in future classes. The link to her presentation is online (including some of the ‘zine samples) at http://prezi.com/ozfkvyqfxxlc/
New York school teacher Ileana Jimenez (feministteacher.com) spoke as part of the Plenary Session “Pedagogies of Girlhood: Schools, Feminism, and Media” calling the conference a “historic” moment, not only because of how it has brought together girl studies scholars, but how it integrated the conversation with university scholars with feminist educators of girls, like herself.
Since as Driscoll had noted girls are both ‘fantasy’ and ‘reality’, both real girls and imagined girls were the subject of conference presentations. Media scholar Sarah Projansky presented her paper “Finding gender in media franchising,” in which she investigated what trends emerge by looking closely at the highest grossing franchise films between 1990 and 2015, while Rosemary Carlton, from the University of Montreal, presented her paper “Failing to self-protect: Responsibilsation for risk in child protection practice with sexually abused teenage girls,” which outlined some of the complexities of agency and coercion emerging from her conversations with sexually abused girls who live under the government’s child’s protection laws in Canada.
Several scholars pondered how media and merchandising specifically affects girls, like Halliday’s paper “My anaconda feminism: Nicki Minaj, consumption and Twitter/Instagram (re)production”; Jessalynn Keller’s “#CropTopDay: Girls’ media activism as a challenge to normative girlhoods”; and Emily Aguilo-Perez’s “I hated her, she loved her! Barbie in intergenerational Puerto Rican girlhoods and familial relationships.”Aria
Others looked at girls’ production or critiques of media. Fiona Handyside, Danielle Hipkins and Alexandra Allan from the University of Exeter presented on a joint panel “What it feels like for a girl: Filming, girlhood and emotion,” in which they reported on their experiences encouraging girls to create their own media. They raised several important points, like the way that girlhood is “intensely local” while media is “transnational,” and key questions,
such as, what should we do when we feel girls are making their films not for themselves
One of my favorite presentations was “The (Un-) Making of a feminist cool girl: A cross-generational dialogue,” a conversation between feminist scholar Annalie Branstrom-Ohman from Umeå University, Sweden and her fashion model/writer daughter Amanda
Brohman. In their dialogue, mother and daughter presented their own unique views on what it means to be the ‘cool’ girl both in their own worlds—academia and fashion. Although their talk provided no pat answers, they raised crucial questions about if or how one can embody feminist choice.but for us? And Kirsten Pike in her paper “Complicating Second-Wave Feminist Media Histories: Girl writers and activists” looked closely at the diaries from 1968 to 1980 of feminist activist Trina Porte to show how we might sometimes overlook how girls are not only consumers but more consciously critics than we might suspect.
And then, of course, there was my own paper, “A Dangerous Girl or a Girl in Danger?: Shifting Sexual Agency of the ‘Long Island Lolita’” in which I look at the media narratives that emerged in the early 1990s about Amy Fisher, the seventeen-year-old girl who shot the wife of her lover Joey Buttafuoco. In the presentation, I show how narratives of the “dangerous girl” perpetrator or the “girl in danger” victim oversimplify the complexities of desire, consent and coercion embedded in Fisher’s story.
Certainly one of the highlights for me was meeting Mary Celeste Kearney, author of the book Girls Make Media, and having the opportunity to hear her review the impact of her book and where we go from here in her closing keynote “Girls Make Media: Then, Now, and So What?” Kearney’s talk highlighted how technological changes have offered new opportunities for girls to make and distribute their own media, while acknowledging that there still exists a dearth of women and girl filmmakers in both mainstream and independent cinema. Certainly, for me, it felt like a call to action, and I was glad that I already have another film in post-production and have been helping my nine-year-old daughter to make her own media as well.
For more information about the International Girls Studies Association, visit www.girls-studies.org.
Author Michele Meek’s most recent film Imagine Kolle 37 (www.kolle37.com) is in post-production, and she is finishing her dissertation Consent Puzzles: Locating Girls’ Sexual Agency in Narrative Ambiguities of Literature and Film of the 1990s. For more information about her, visit www.michelemeek.com.