Gender Matters: Girl Up and Inclusive Feminism

girlafestoToday I am headed to the Gender Matters Conference at DePaul University in Chicago. I am super excited, because this conference looks fantastic.

Highlights include a keynote by J. Jack Halberstam about Gaga Feminism (see explanation of Gaga Feminism), there’s also going to be a one-woman comedy, “Booby Trap,” about surviving breast cancer, and a screening of Rokia: Voice of a New Generation. I’m pumped. The theme of the conference this year is Continuities & Instabilities, which  “focuses our attention on the ways gender and sexuality stay the same and change over time and in relation to cultural shifts at the macro level, as well as how they are (re)constructed moment to moment through unstable micro-practices. While conference planners invite work on all matters of gender, we are particularly interested in work that explores how the mutable character of gender and/or sexuality is used to both maintain and resist existing social relations historically and contemporarily.”

I’m presenting a paper called “‘The Other’ Sister: Constructions of Girlhood and the Rhetoric of Sisterhood in the UN’s Girl Up Campaign,” in which I am finally speaking about issues I’ve wanted to write on since I started my PhD in 2011. The tricky thing about conference papers is that you only have about 12-15 minutes to talk, so you can only do so much. In this case, that’s forced me to narrow down a lot–which can be helpful to the thought process.

Basically, in my paper I am discussing how the rhetoric of sisterhood in the Girl Up Campaign marginalizes girls in the developing world–the very girls the campaign seeks to help–and undercuts its own effort to empower girls. In my paper I discuss:

  1. The ways that the campaign defines girlhood in a way that positions girls in developing nations as just like girls in the United States. Through the repetition of rhetoric of sisterhood or the phrase (just like me)–most blatantly manifest in the Girlafesto (at right)–the campaign constructs girlhood as homogenous within both American culture and other world cultures, and also minimizes or obscures the socioeconomic and gendered oppressions that it’s setting out to fight.
  2. The representation of American girlhood relies on shallow notions of girlhood and a middle-class subjectivity that also fails to prompt girls to think critically about their relative privileges or the role intersectionality plays in access to power, education, etc.
  3. I argue that to actually empower girls through the campaign, Girl Up could articulate its mission through a more thoughtful vision of inclusive feminism that builds a coalition while still acknowledging intersectionality. For example, Chandra Talpade Mohanty argues that solidarity is essential to transnational feminism, but is difficult to accomplish because of the power imbalances that give white middle-to-upper class western women more voice and power than women of color, poor women, and women in the south or eastern hemispheres. For Mohanty, solidarity, or “mutuality, accountability, and the recognition of common interests as the basis of relationships among diverse communities” creates the space for feminist work by “communities of people who have chosen to work and fight together” (Mohanty 7). It’s pretty easy to see that Girl Up’s rhetoric of sisterhood is trying to build a coalition of teenaged girls based on a shared cause. The problem, however, is that the campaign does not even acknowledge intersectionality. In effect, Girl Up brushes aside cultural differences whether or not they contribute to limiting girls’ access to power while also obscuring the relative power and privilege of girls in the United States. It seems to me that the more productive discussion would merge rhetoric of solidarity with intersectionality, teaching instead that girls are fundamentally equal regardless of race, class, or nationality, but that some girls have a leg up over others based on powers outside their control. This is the very situation that the campaign seeks to correct, but without providing its teen activists with the vocabulary to do so in a serious way, turning them more into mascots that empowering them to think critically about making a difference.
  4. The campaign could also limit the ways in which it uses American girls as the mouthpiece for girls in the developing world, which continues the trend of girls and women in developing nations being portrayed as the unwitting victims of oppression and white, Western women as their saviors (yuck). Perhaps the campaign could include the voices of girls in their clubs overseas or even include educated girls from developing nations as Girl Up Adviors along with their American counterparts. This aspect is changing a bit as Girl Up teams with 10×10-Girl Rising, about which I will be writing after I see the film next weekend.

For me, it’s a complicated position to write from. On one hand, I think that universal education is an incredibly important issue and I think that Girl Up has the potential to do good work. I think their goals of sending girls to school, ending child marriage, and providing girls more access to health care and information are wonderful. At the same time, however, I think that money only goes so far and the campaign could be so much stronger and actually empower girls, rather than just saying that they’re empowering girls, if their materials and programs included a more nuanced rhetoric of inclusive feminism and more diverse voices. Recently a wonderful member of my committee talked with me about the valuable way that transnational feminism engages with difficult issues and wades into the grey areas because so much rhetoric about helping girls and/or women relies on sentimentality or pretty shallow ideologies. Just imagine how much more good we could do if we not only addressed practical hardships, but also taught the girls involved in this campaign to think critically and deeply about the systemic issues in a meaningful way.

What I’m not getting to speak about tomorrow is the problematic connection between the campaign and a com modified version of girl power. As Sinikka Aapola argues, “girl power’s popularity is credited to its very lack of threat to the status quo for the ways in which it reflects the ideologies of white- middle-class, individualism and personal responsibility over collective responses to social problems” (30) and as a result attention is diverted from the continuing exploitation and degradation of women worldwide often in systems that produce the products of girl power (t-shirts, dvds, etc.). By not only couching Girl Up in terms of “just like me” sisterhood, but also relying on the portrayal of girl power in popular media, the campaign undermines its potential for changing systems of oppression by playing it safe. Furthermore, the vision of girlhood they rely on is an essentialized middle-class American girlhood.

Angela McRobbie argues that increasingly the task of enculturing and producing girls as subjects has shifted from schools, families, and other such institutions to mass media and consumer culture. She writes, “This appropriation of the site of girlhood actively draws on a quasi-feminist vocabulary which celebrates female freedom and gender equality” (McRobbie 532). “Seemingly supplanting feminism per se, and appearing to adopt the interests of girls and young women, commercial culture finds a license to speak on their behalf. Companies draw on the language of ‘Girl Power’ as though to bestow on their products a sense of dynamism, modernity and innovation” (533)

This dynamic plays out in the very language used to describe the partnership between Girl up and their new corporate sponsor, JC Penny. In a blog post, called “A Brand to Be Proud of,” teen advisor Ying Ying Shang describes how JC Penny came to Girl Up’s teen advisors for consultation on youth culture. Shang writes, “In turn, JC Penney has the ‘brand equity’ and reach that could bring Girl Up to new audiences in stores as well as revenue to fund the in-country programs that help adolescent girls.” Further, she quotes JCPenny executive Ariel Graham, “Teens are a brand in themselves. You’re constantly defining and reinventing yourselves in a way that companies can only dream of emulating” (Shang).


Recent, strong articles about girls’ education:

Gordon Brown: Girls Who Risk Their Lives for Education

Hillary Clinton at Women in the World

Aapola, Sinikka, Marnina Gonick, and Anita Harris. Young Femininity: Girlhood, Power, and  Social Change. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005. Print.

McRobbie, Angela. “Young Women and Consumer Culture: An Intervention.” Cultural Studies 22.5 (2008): 531-50.

Mohanty, Chandra Talpade. Feminism without Borders: Decolonizing Theory, Practicing Solidarity. Durham: Duke UP, 2003. Print.

Shang, Ying Ying. “A Brand to Be Proud Of.” GirlUp | United Nations Foundation . GirlUp, 22 Mar. 2013. Web. 06 Apr. 2013.


3 thoughts on “Gender Matters: Girl Up and Inclusive Feminism

  1. This is a great post Kasey! Very valid points. If you could create a campaign/non-profit that promotes the growth and education of girls what would be the top 5 things you would focus most on? Also, I can’t wait to read your reaction to the Girl Rising documentary.

    • Thanks! Really, I think that focusing on universal education is fantastic, but I’d like to see education worked with in a way that 1) doesn’t feel the need to erase cultural differences in order to assert the humanity of other people 2) understands education as empowering without having to see it as an economic investment to make the movement compelling (Malala’s points here are so great) 3) Didn’t assume that Western modes of education are superior. Frankly we have sexism, racism, and classism in our system too. We don’t have all the answers. So basically, I think that the fight to assure all children access to education should insist on a well-rounded education that is relevant to students’ lives and cultures and that the programs that promote these schools don’t do so in a way that privileges a western viewpoint. I’m not sure what that would look like, but I’m hopeful that it could happen.

  2. Pingback: Conference Wrap-ups | Ph.D.s and Pigtails

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