Photographs//Grant Oyston
Photographs//Grant Oyston

Girlhood is a contested terrain. The term “girl” is often defined as “a female child” but it is loosely applied to females from pre-pubescence up until their late twenties or older. Every girl must navigate her girlhood within a range of competing definitions, most of which are filtered through adult-dominated media.

So what is “girlhood” and why is it relevant to people who aren’t girls?

These issues are tackled in the Politics of Girlhood, a women and gender studies course much bigger than the New College basement classroom it inhabits.

Hannah Dyer, PhD candidate at U of T, designed the course based off her own research, which focuses on popular culture, gender and sexuality, transnationality, and child/youth studies.

The entry of girlhood into academia coincides with the recent attention on girls in media popular culture. Girl power isn’t a new phenomenon by any means—it’s been almost two decades since the Spice Girls and polarizing Riot Grrrl movement—but recently there’s been a fresh wave of girls whose voices and work are being seen and heard.

Dazed and Confused magazine’s February issue bore the title ‘Girls Rule the World’; Tavi Gevinson, 17-year-old blogger and media mogul, released her book Rookie Yearbook 2 last November; Petra Collins, 21-year-old artist behind American Apparel’s vagina T-shirt, just unveiled Discharge, her first solo exhibit; and Girls, created and written by Lena Dunham, is currently on its third season.

These are examples of young females exercising their agency and influence through popular culture. Clearly the importance and commercial vitality of girls’ voices is finally being recognized., an online magazine, is one of the only platforms with an editor-in-chief who is the same age as her teenage reader demographic. This is a stark contrast to publications like Seventeen which, written by adults and influenced by corporate advertisers, targets a much younger demographic than its name suggests. The projection of adult perspective onto girlhood is an issue brought up often in Dyer’s course, as well as the commodification of the girlhood experience.

Dyer broaches an interest in the lives of girls with careful curiosity: “There is a tendency to re-narrate girlhood experiences through an adult perspective. However, this is a course on ‘girlhood’ and not just ‘girls’, so our focus is the interrogation and study of girlhood as a concept and idea (with an understanding that this ‘idea’ shapes the lives of girls).”

It is, therefore, the  intersection of both real experiences and pedagogic ideas of girlhood that makes the course relevant and engaging for students. Classroom conversation may use M.I.A.’s “Bad Girls” music video as a starting point, but from there diverge into a nuanced discussion of gender and race.

In the music video M.I.A. puts forth an image rarely seen in western media: a group of young women wearing niqabs while drag racing. Is M.I.A. presenting a powerful song of resistance and female power, or is she, like many other artists, simply reappropriating another culture for the benefit of her own work?

“Recently, there has been a trend in popular music to claim that girls have a unique capacity as social and political leaders (i.e., Beyonce and M.I.A.). Applying diaspora and transnational theories of gender and sexuality to this trend produces some really exciting dialogue in the classroom,” said Dyer.

While girls have not always been taken seriously for their ideas and knowledge, they are most definitely recognized as active and key consumers of products and pop culture.

The politics of girlhood takes a critical stance against corporate-controlled media and the ways they influence girls and ideas of girlhood. is a website owned by Proctor and Gamble that provides puberty information and advice. The question arises of what is lost when narratives of girlhood experience, like puberty, are controlled and dictated by adult-led corporations.

Alongside its focus on pop culture and media, the course also looks at how girls are exposed to oppression and violence and critiques the ways in which girls and girlhood are co-opted within feminist discourse and activism.

“Girls are expected to represent ‘the future,’” said Dyer. Recently, many campaigns have promoted educating girls as the answer to raising the standard of living in “developing countries.”

Girl Rising is one such example of an international movement that seeks to empower and educate girls. Their website states that, “educating girls can transform societies” and in 2013 the organization released a documentary which used girls’ stories from nine different countries to expose experiences of girlhood around the world.

But it is important to look critically at how transnational movements use girls as tools to conform “developing countries” into western ideas of modernity. The desire to educate girls is a noble and worthwhile pursuit that can sometimes rely too heavily on a long existing white, western saviour complex.

“Girlhood studies puts pressure on how girls are used in such campaigns and also explores the historical, transnational and contemporary definitions attached to ‘girlhood,’” explained Dyer.

The study of girlhood is a growing field and it is exciting to have it at U of T, as it is  vital to constantly expand the amount of voices present in the already diverse women and gender studies program.

Dyer saw the necessity in creating a course on girlhood from working with girls in group homes and shelters. “The complexity of their lived experiences and the stories they shared with me helped to inspire a course that explores how class, race and sexuality, for example, come into contact with ‘girlhood,’” said Dyer.

And Dyer does believe academia has the power to change the lives of girls: “It’s my opinion that students and academics can make an important contribution to lessening the amounts ofviolence that girls face by reshaping discourses surrounding girlhood.”

The emergence of girlhood studies, alongside a boom of media made for girls by girls, suggests a hopeful step away from narrow ideas of girls and the lives they lead. Too often girls are commodified, fetisized and categorized. But girls are also greatly underestimated, and therefore we must acknowledge their present, not just future power, to run the world.

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