I’ve been wanting to do this episode for a loooong time. We covered episodes a long time ago on how children form social groups, and what happens when they exclude each other from play, but I wanted to do an episode exploring this issue related to slightly older girls, and from a cultural perspective. There are a lot of books and articles out there on the concept of mean girls and I wanted to understand more about that. Why are girls ‘mean’ to each other? Is it really a choice they’re making…or is it a choice in response to a complex set of demands that we put on them about what it means to be female in our culture?
I had a really hard time finding anyone who was doing current research on the topic, and I mentioned this on a group coaching call in the Parenting Membership. A member, Caroline, said: “I know someone who can speak to this!”
Caroline had explored girls’ relationships in young adult literature for her master’s thesis, and knew Dr. Marnina Gonick’s work. Caroline introduced us, Dr. Gonick agreed to talk, and we all had a great conversation about girls’ role in our culture, how they are affected by it, and how they are agents of change as well. Dr. Gonick is Canada Research Chair in Gender and also holds a joint appointment in Education and Women’s Studies at Mount St. Vincent University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. She has written two books on the topic of girls’ relationships as well as a whole host of peer-reviewed articles.
Dr. Gonick also introduced me to an expert on boys’ relationships and we’re currently working to schedule an interview in a few weeks so there should be more to come on that soon!
Dr. Marnina Gonick’s Books:
Jump to highlights:
(03:36) How changes in cultural norms influence our understanding of what it means to be a girl.
(05:27) The way in which a change in behavior can help us understand the experiences of girls in general.
(06:36) What does the school curriculum say about girls that causes them to be disadvantaged in schools.
(08:35) How damaging it is for girls to be victims in a patriarchal society.
(10:25) Why our social systems aren’t necessarily organized around girls’ well-being
(12:50) The concept of girl power can be seen as either working for or against females.
(14:46) The Social Barriers to Girl Power.
(16:44) Criticisms of the movie “Mean Girls” and how they relate to the topic of empowering women in general.
(18:34) The relational aggressiveness between boys and girls.
(21:45) Why school cultures play a significant influence in bullying.
(24:19) Finding acceptable ways for girls to show their relational aggression.
(26:17) Factors that influences a child to become racist and disrespectful.
(28:07) A growing number of institutions and businesses have taken an interest in the girl power movement.
(31:34) Girls’ ways of discovering their sense of identity/sexuality.
(35:16) Different notions of sexiness in girls.
(39:28) How heterosexuality highlights femininity.
(41:24) Girls are going to be mean to each other human nature makes it inevitable.
(43:37) How important is it to understand our feelings and the feelings of our children.
Aapola, S., Gonick, M., & Harris, A. (2005). Young femininity: Girlhood, power, and social change. Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan
Bethune, J., & Gonick, M. (2017). Schooling the mean girl: A critical discourse analysis of teacher resource materials. Gender and Education 29(3), 389-404.
Dellasega, C., & Nixon, C. (2003). Girl wars: 12 strategies that will end female bullying. New York: Fireside.
Gonick, M. (2003). Between femininities: Ambivalence, identity, and the education of girls. Albany: State University of New York Press.
Gonick, M. (2004). VII. The ‘mean girl’ crisis: Problematizing representations of girls’ friendships. Feminism & Psychology 14(3), 395-400.
Gonick, M. (2006). Between “girl power” and “Reviving Ophelia”: Constituting the neoliberal girl subject. NWSA Journal 18(2), 1-23.
Gonick, M., Renold, E., Ringrose, J., & Weems, L. (2009). Rethinking agency and resistance: What comes after Girl Power? Girlhood Studies 2(2), 1-9.
Gonick, M., Vanner, C., Mitchell, C., & Dugal, A. (2021). ‘We want freedom not just safety’: Biography of a Girlfesto as a strategic tool in youth activism. Young 29(2), 101-118.
Goodwin, M.H. (2006). The hidden life of girls; Games of stance, status, and exclusion. Malden: Blackwell.
Kehily, M.J., Ghaill, M.M.A., Epstein, D., & Redman, P. (2002). Private girls and public worlds: Producing femininities in the primary school. Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education 23(2), 167-177.
Ludwig, T., & Adams, B. (2012). Confessions of a former bully. Decorah: Dragonfly.
Renold, E. (2006). ‘They won’t let us play…unless you’re going out with one of them’: Girls, boys, and Butler’s ‘Heterosexual Matrix’ in the primary years. British Journal of Sociology of Education 27(4), 489-509.
Hi, I'm Emma, and I'm listening from the UK we all want our children to lead fulfilled lives. But we're surrounded by conflicting information and clickbait headlines that leave us wondering what to do as parents. The Your Parenting Mojo podcast instill scientific research on parenting and child development into tools parents can actually use everyday in their real lives with their real children. If you'd like to be notified when new episodes are released, and get a free infographic on the 13 reasons your child isn't listening to you and what to do about each one. Just head on over to your ParentingMojo.com/subscribe, and pretty soon you're going to get tired of hearing my voice read this intro. So come and record one yourself at your ParentingMojo.com/recordtheintroJen Lumanlan:
Hello, and welcome to the Your Parenting Mojo podcast. Our conversation today builds on conversations we've had in the past about aggression that children can show towards each other. And so a while ago, preschool teacher Karen helped me to interview Dr. Jaime Ostroff, who studies the behavior of young children who exclude each other from their play. And then we also talked with Dr. Yara Dunham about how children form social groups and my daughter is going to turn eight this year and I've been wanting to dig deeper into children's relationships as they get older for a while but I couldn't find anyone who was both deep and current in the research particularly on girls relationships in those teen years. And I mentioned on a group coaching call for the parenting membership recently that I was looking for someone and Caroline said, I know somebody and it turned out that she had studied femininity and girls literature for her master's thesis and was pretty familiar with folks working in this field. And she put me in touch with Dr. Marnina Gonick and both of them are here with us today to talk about aggression in girls relationships. And I am hoping to do a very similar episode on boys relationships as well soon so Caroline's here and she studied heteronormative White femininity in young adult literature, a lot of Dr. Gonick research took place when Caroline was an adolescent and sort of resonates for her and she continues to be interested in it even though she is actually now raising two male identifying children and Dr. Marnina Gonick is a Canada Research Chair in gender and holds across appointment in education and Women and Gender Studies at Mount Saint Vincent University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. She has co authored two books on this topic, young femininity girlhood power and social change. And between femininities ambivalence, identity and the education of girls as well as a number of peer reviewed articles. She takes an intersectional feminist approach to her work, so she looks at the culture that girls operate within and not just at the girls themselves. And also refreshingly doesn't consider the middle class White girls experience to be representative of all girls experience. So welcome, Caroline, and welcome Dr. Gonick. It's so great to have you here.Dr. Gonick:
Hi, thank you.Jen Lumanlan:
Okay, I'm not sure how this conversation is gonna go today. But just as a warning to listeners, it's possible we're in describing the language girls use with each other, we're going to use some words that you might not want your youngest children to hear. I don't know if that's going to come out yet. But just in case, I wanted to put that disclaimer up there. So Dr. Gonick, so start us off. In some ways, I think this is sort of a circular conversation. And I don't really know where to start whether we should start with the girls or with the culture that they sit in. And it seemed to me as though starting with the girls is sort of where most parents are thinking about this. And so that made sense for me to start there. And so you start one of your books by arguing that "any topic of understanding the experience of girls, or even a particular girl must be seen as problematic. Not only are there shifting meanings of what a girl is, but these meanings shift and contradictory ways. Therefore, there is no way in which girls as a group, or as individuals can be fixed in our understanding." What did you mean by this? And where can we go in this conversation?Dr. Gonick:
Well, I guess the first thing to point out is that I come from this as a culture analyst, not so much as a parent or a teacher, or a psychologist who would be more interested maybe in the individual girl and the individual girls behavior. For me, the area of interest is how it is that socially that we collectively understand what it means to be a girl of what it means to be gendered in particular ways. And so that quote that you started with is about trying to move away from thinking about individual and individual behavior of girls and trying to think of kind of assigning behavior to a particular category, like all girls do this or all men are like that, and rather to think, what does it mean to be be a girl living in a particular time period, a particular social context, a particular historical moment? And what kind of ideas about girls and girlhood or even childhood or adolescence are available for girls, for parents, for teachers, for education systems to understand or to kind of create meaning around femininity and what it means to pick girls. So the idea really, is that these ideas are constantly changing. That's really what that quote says is that these ideas are changing and that we have to betting girl but as a cultural phenomenon we need to be able to move away from kind of a unifying, you know, biologically determined idea of what it means to be girls, and gendered in particular ways and to kind of look more at the specific the local, the changes, the disruptions, and so on.Jen Lumanlan:
Okay, why does that help us? If I'm a parent listening to this? And I'm thinking, why do I care what the experiences of girls in general, I care about my girl? Why bring it up that meta level?Dr. Gonick:
Because no individual lives kind of on an island. So our ideas about girls and girlhood what it means to be a person or totally developed and lived within a social context. So in order to change something, we have to understand the context in which it's happening so that we can change that phenomenon or the conditions that bring about that phenomenon. Rather than assuming as you know, perhaps some in the field of psychology with that we have to change the behavior of an individual. So from where I come from, it's not so much about the individual, but rather understanding what are the social conditions that are bringing about these behaviors of these phenomenon or these understandings. And so that change can happen at more than just an individual level.Jen Lumanlan:
Yeah. Okay. Perfect. Thank you. And I think that's one of the reasons I was attracted to your work, because it doesn't locate behavior that we might think is difficult as a problem within a girl that needs to be fixed. Maybe you can help us to see some of the evolution of these ideas a little bit over time. And I know you've written a lot about this narrative that was popular in the 90s described in the book Reviving Ophelia, can you tell us a bit about that and your perspective on it?Dr. Gonick:
Yeah. So I became aware of this, I call it a discourse of reviving ophelia. So as again, as a cultural analyst, what I'm looking for what are the discourses or narratives or storylines that are circulating within our society, through media, through literature through, you know, education curriculum that are telling us something about girls. So in the 90s, Mary Pfeiffer, who is a PhD in psychology and a practicing psychologist, published a very important book and became very, very popular, best selling book about girls. And in that book, you know, she followed a number of other research within education that had been coming out about looking at the ways in which girls are disadvantaged at schools, because the ways in which, you know, women and girls are not represented in the curriculum, teachers tend to favor boys over girls in terms of answering questions, allowing computer access, all those types of things. So she picked up on some of those early studies in education. And through her practice, as a psychologist, she recounted some of the things that she was saying, in treating young girls about the ways in which when they reached a particular point in time, early adolescence that that kind of feisty, spirited, young girl yet diminished and become kind of wracked with anxiety, uncertainty, vulnerability, that became the reviving ophelia discourse, you know, it did draw a lot of attention, both in the media and within social services and education systems, and so on to try and you know, that recognize this as an issue and trying to address it and saying, you know, we can't leave girls in the margins in the way that they have been. And you know, this is a serious problem and needs to be rectified.Jen Lumanlan:
I think a big part of this is sort of the victim mentality, right of this narrative, and also what girls are doing with that, and how they're expressing themselves. Can you say a bit more about the victimhood, how that's expressed as well? What about the aggressor and the victim is important for us to know?Dr. Gonick:
I don't know if I would use the term victim mentality. I'm not exactly sure how you're using it. But this idea of like girls, as in the reviving ophelia book, the idea was very much like girls are a victim of a patriarchal society. And that being a girl is really positioned a disadvantage in a worldview that doesn't acknowledge them as important beings that doesn't acknowledge their characteristics as relevant or their voices as you know, things that need to be taken into account. So you know, while I had my critique of the reviving ophelia phenomenon, I also recognize that there were some elements to it that were really important at the time, and probably still continue to be important around acknowledging that, you know, we live in a society that isn't necessarily organized around, you know, girls and women's best interests, let's say and that reviving ophelia discourse really brought that to the forefront how damaging it can be. And we still hear some brands of that when recently a study came out about the dangers of social media to young girls in particular. So there are still strands of that that are in circulation. But I don't think it's about foisting an idea of victimhood on girls that isn't there until they learn about it through being exposed to it in this discourse that's separated myself from the idea of a victim mentality.Jen Lumanlan:
Yeah, I fully accept your position on it. And I think I was thinking of the introduction to your book Beyond Femininity is about the teachers describing the children that you're working with as having a victim mentality. It was more the teachers were describing that than you were describing that. So thanks for for teasing that out.Caroline:
And Dr. Gornick. Just to add to that, would you say that the reviving ophelia discourse positions girls as victims, in that sense?Dr. Gonick:
In a way does it positions girls as victims of a system that isn't designed to support them, their growth, their well being and so on. You know, I guess my caution around the term victim, I guess why I'm kind of reactive to it at the moment. It's just how it's been demonized, so much, you know, necessarily in Canada, but the culture wars and how, you know, claiming victimhood is seen as you know, something that is shameful, and, you know, needs to be negated, and so on. So I think that's why I'm reacting to the victimhood thing is the way I'm right now, I said before, although I'm very critical of many aspects of the book, I think it does make some very important points around understanding how socially, you know, in the 90s, and elements of a continuing even now, our social systems are not necessarily organized around the well being of girls and young woman or, you know, maybe anybody really, except whenever the elites of the top economically advantaged people.Caroline:
And on that note, we're kind of wondering as well about the alternative discourse to reviving ophelia, which would be I think, based on your work girl power, do you think girl power messaging helps girls?Dr. Gonick:
Yes, when I found really interesting is in the 90s, they were these two competing discourses that kind of emerged around the same time in my early work, what I was facing is how it is that they both emerged almost simultaneously and what that was about and at first, as I write, I had thought that they were kind of opposite discourses, then I'd kind of concluded that they're not, in fact, opposing discourses, they actually work together in various ways. But I think the girl power discourse like the reviving ophelia discourse, I mean, in and of itself, no discourse is either good or bad. It's kind of how it's used and taken up. And so I think there's some ways in which the girl power discourse has been taken up in very positive ways for girls. And there's some ways it hasn't necessarily been good for girls. But it really depends on how discourse is mobilized, who's using it, for what purposes, how its interpreted and lived at the local level of girls themselves in that way. That's what I mean, when I say no discourse is inherently good or bad, it's how it you know, used and how it circulates.Caroline:
So could you say that the girl power discourse has been taken off as a sort of non political non threatening alternative to feminism, that's how it sort of exercised by girls or has been?Dr. Gonick:
In some instances, I would say, girl power commercializes a certain feminist message and kind of evacuate the politics of feminism in promoting it. So for example, you know, this idea of girl power girls who can do anything, girls who are you know, can compete, they can they can be superstars at school, they can be excellent athletes, they can have all these, you know, after school activities and be good at everything they do, does do certain things around positive things around highlighting, you know, the strengths of girls, the unfettered access that girls can claim to resources and positions of power in society. I mean, whether or not that's actually true is another story. But I think that discourse does promote those ideas that you know, and unless girls have access to what's possible, then you can't dream it right. If there's a discourse available to you that thing, you know, you're not constrained by gender in terms of the choices you have to make in your life in terms of the career options that you have in terms of your physicality and what you can do with your bodies and that improvement, say, then maybe discourses that were available to young women, a generation before that, or you know, 10 or 15 years before that even but the downside of the girl power discourse, in my view, is the way in which it was commercialized in a way that did evacuate the feminist politics of it so that it became about positioning girls as consumers who could buy their way into the identities that they aspired to, rather than understanding the girl power as a practice of politics that you, you know, can organize in community, with others with peers in your schools to change things that are working against girls and young women. So that's, I see, you know, girl power, both working for and against girls.Jen Lumanlan:
Yeah, it's almost like we're telling girls, the more you're like boys and men, right, you have all these options open to you. You can be your track star, you can do well in school, you can do all these amazing things and go out into the world and choose any career you want, but it better not be teaching, right? or caregiving or anything that's seen as traditionally feminine. And boys certainly shouldn't be doing that either. Because that's, you know, women's weren't and devalued. That was like, it's building on the patriarchal narrative that whatever boys and men are doing is the best. And girls should aspire to that, it seemsDr. Gonick:
It's true. But the other thing that it does is, and this is something else that I critique is that it again, like I was saying earlier, kind of individualizes things. So if a girl wants to do those things, and strives to do them, but somehow fails, or isn't able to meet that, then it becomes about a girl not having the right attributes are not trying hard enough, rather than offering a way of analyzing that as a structural problem where yes, you can say a girl can have any job she wants. But most corporations and most businesses, and most organizations are not all that friendly to, for example, you know, providing childcare, maternity leave, or other ways in which you know, to support women, and so on. And that's been, you know, demonstrated over and over and over again, and may, you know, especially maybe in the world of technology, and social media, and so on. So that's another problem with girl power is that it does individualize things so that the understanding is only about, you know, you personally can strive for something that you want, but there's no built in understanding of what are the social barriers that continue to exist, it doesn't provide young girls or women with a way of understanding ongoing disadvantage. It just says if you're facing problems, it's your own fault. It doesn't say that there were things around you that are creating issues or barriers for you to be able to achieve your wishes and dreams.Jen Lumanlan:
Yeah. And we're not going to help you try and change them. And you'd better not ask for them to be changed either.Dr. Gonick:
Yeah. Okay, so all that was happening in the 90s. And then in the 2000s, the Mean Girls phenomenon happened. What kinds of things were researchers and observers noticing? And why are girls labeled in this way in the media? And how can we get past this, you know, nice, mean, good, bad, dichotomies that we set up?Dr. Gonick:
Well, in some ways, a lot of feminist research, both the relationship, these aren't just individual discourses that kind of pop up unrelated to each other. So there's some research shows how the Mean Girl discourse was very much related to the girl power. Mean girls kind of emerged as a critique of the girl power. And the girls who, you know, were thought to be have come to empowered and result of all this power was to become mean to their peers, to overshadow boys in test scores, and in school and do better than boys and curriculum, and so on. So in some ways, the mean girl discourse, I think, is a response to girls empowerment, and often it was considered was also rationalized as a critique of feminism, and that feminism has ruined young women and girls, because, you know, we can't count on the sweet and innocent girls of the past, because, you know, now they're aggressive, or as boys, you know, that's just not acceptable.Jen Lumanlan:
Right. Women are expected to sort of have this natural capacity and women and girls by extension for relationships built on care. And when we see girls taking actions that seem counter to that, I mean, there's a lot of research on things girls say to each other, the language they use to each other, the way they exclude each other from activities. It seems as though that doing these things is almost like a way of expressing agency, right? Like this system is constraining to me, and this is a way that I can show that I can have agency and then I can show that I have agency. Do you see it in that way? Or do you see it differently?Dr. Gonick:
Yeah, in some ways I do. I mean, I think studying of mean girls, I mean, in some texts, it's called, you know, relational aggression. And some of the early research, the idea was to even the scales in terms of thinking about, you know, it's not only boys who have aggression, girls also have aggression, because prior to that, there was a sense that only boys are aggressive. And girls are like, as you described, you know, just inherently innately, biologically not aggressive. So the original intention of studying girls aggression was to say, you know, girls are aggressive, they just have a different way of expressing it. But unfortunately, what happened after those early studies came out and taken up as a way to, not to kind of even the scales between boys and girls, but on the pathologies girls, as you know, the girls, boys form of aggression is normal, unexpected and reasonable. But the way that girls express aggression is pathological, dangerous, dangerous to their peers. You know, girls, friends are their worst enemies. So all that kind of got tagged along with this idea of relational aggression. And I guess my critique of the way relational aggression been taken up is that again, it kind of creates a category you know, that has lots of leakage, but no one acknowledges the leakage. So for example, it's not just girls who are relationally aggressive, but boys are too it's just that when girls express it, it's seen as something that girls do. And not boys, when boys do it, it's labeled as something else altogether. And so that's my critique of how these categories are created, and then the dangers that are attached to them, because then it becomes something, again, that's understood as inherently feminine, or, you know, it kind of leads into, like, old narratives or old myths about how women are competitors with each other, and only competitors. And, you know, not real friends are not, you know, not sisterly, you know, that's been my critique of that discourse and the dangers of it.Jen Lumanlan:
Yeah, it's almost like this, the White girls particularly are caught in a trap of having to be nice and is thinking about, but girl wars, which acknowledges this trap is there. And then the rest of the book is basically a set of instructions on how to be nice. Even the kids book confessions of a former bully, I got out of the library to have a look at it, because I think you and others have done some analysis of that book. And it's essentially locating the problems in the individual again, and saying that bullying is a choice, and you get to choose whether you're going to be a bully or not. And if you decide to be a bully, it's wrong. If you decide to enact bullying behaviors, it's wrong. And you need to decide to choose different behaviors, I just want to sort of brings us to a practical level for a parent who is maybe worried about their child being on the receiving end of relational aggression. But for every number of those parents, there's another number of parents whose children are engaging in it. And my assumption is, there's a lot of circularity, this is not one child is the bully, and another child is the victim, that this is sort of a way of communicating that a lot of girls are participating in this in both ends of the spectrum. Should parents be worried about this, I guess, is my first question. And then if they should be worried, is there anything they should be doing? And if so, what?Dr. Gonick:
I think you framed it really well, I think, of course, individual parents don't want to see their children bullied, nor do they want to see them being the bully, but I think action definitely shouldn't be taken. I know, of course, it is a real thing. It's not just a discourse that's out there, though, my analysis tends to be at that level. Unfortunately, I don't kind of do a lot of a practical how to use that how to work with a skin in like a scenario of how to fix the problem. But I definitely I acknowledge that it is a real thing. And it does happen to kids. And it's extremely traumatizing when it happens, and you know, definitely needs to be taken seriously within schools, and so on. So I do see that I think a lot of attention has been given to kind of looking at the cultures within schools, so that and trying to create cultures within schools that are less kind of aggressive, like that, and less likely to produce the kinds of behaviors that are so problematic. So there's a lot of work being done mainly in Europe that I've been able to find around thinking through what is it about school cultures that produces this behavior? What are some of the remedies around, you know, changing cultures within school? So again, not so much an individualized approach, but looking at the kind of whole context for understanding what's producing them? And then of course, you know, the other issue is that again, my critique is that often because the idea of girls bullying other girls is so sensationalized for some reason and it became a huge media story. And every time there was like a instance of, you know, girls fighting in school, or whatever, it became front page news for quite a while, I think that's not happening so much anymore. But then what gets lost is, you know, all the instances of sexual harassment of girls by boys. So that's not seen as bullying, but of course, it totally is. And there's almost no language or no way schools to address those both types of issues, which are very serious as well.Caroline:
I'm just thinking to you as a parent who's studied and researched this a little bit. And as a parent with school aged children, I think having more conversations around the culture that girls set within the cultural context is one way that we can have a better idea of what's happening rather than just individualizing what's happening with the girl herself having more conversations around the cultural context is one sort of thing we can do as parents maybe just normalizing that kind of conversation more I would love to see it normalized in schools more too.Dr. Gonick:
Yeah, and you know, finding ways for girls able to express aggression that isn't about taking it out on other girls but having you know, a social and cultural acknowledgement that there needs to be some way of expressing aggression for young girls that is acceptable and again in my writing when I talk about is how for boys that exists boys are expected to be physically play fighting with each other out you know, doing sports competitively and and so on, but there's very few outlets for girls and when this you know, relational aggression idea came about, like I said, it was seen as like that's not the right way to be Be aggressive. But then what's the alternative? What other examples of acceptable aggression are there for girls? And it just very limited?Jen Lumanlan:
Yeah. And I think the school culture is a big part of that, right? I'm just thinking about your point about how do we change the culture of schools and was reading a book outside of the work that you've done by I think it was called the hidden life of girls games of stance status and execution, the exclusion sorry not execution, and was talking about a school where basically using a curriculum of tolerance in the school, and yet, the whole book is about this group of girls who's mostly White, and there's one Black girl who is kind of on the periphery of their group, and they're using the most racist language towards her, and they're treating her in an absolutely terrible way. And I'm just thinking, okay, and this is happening within a school where this culture of tolerance is being taught, we don't know very well how to work with schools to create a culture in a school, where genuine respect for people is practiced that in the classroom is like, yes, yes, I know, it's bad to be racist. And I know I shouldn't say these things. And then they get out on the playground, and it's still happening. So are you aware of successful programs that have truly shifted that culture and not just sort of, you know, you shouldn't say those things. And then actually, once you get on the playground, everything is just as it was before or worse, maybe?Dr. Gonick:
Yeah, I think there's no kind of cure all available. I mean, I support, you know, looking at school culture and programs that can be done within schools, you know, schools don't also don't exist on islands are in a vacuum. There's also, you know, schools are located within neighborhoods and societies. And you know, kids are watching television and engage in social media, we're all that kind of aggression, social media, what counts is humor is often extremely racist, homophobic, it's not respectful. I mean, it's almost like, you know, you get a huge amount of accolades for being as disrespectful as you can. And that's what counts for humor. So it's not going to be solved within schools alone. And I think you know, what, maybe what schools can do is help kids understand that there's going to be these competing ideas coming at them constantly, and how to evaluate and how to register them as out there and being able to analyze understand what, you know, the differences between them. And I mean, it is a really tough task, because obviously, you know, there is a huge amount of social power that comes from being racist and being disrespectful to others. And so it kids are extremely intelligent, and they they read the world constantly. So they are reading these things, even as they might be being taught in school not to do it. So then it becomes, you know, a kind of, you know, difficult scenario where, you know, schools want to continue to be relevant in children's lives, however, they're getting these messages elsewhere, that kind of counter what schools are trying to promote. So it is a very complicated situation.Caroline:
Have you noticed Dr. Going like any new discourses emerge? Like we've talked a lot about girl power? And the idea of the mean girl, had there been any changes over the past few years to those discourses? or have there been any new ones emerge?Dr. Gonick:
I think both the girl power and the reviving ophelia have taken shape in really interesting ways outside the Global North. And so we're seeing now a lot of focus by major corporations and major institutions in the west of focusing on girls in third world countries, for example, and trying to promote girls education and girls empowerment, I see these discourses traveling, but like I said before, they don't necessarily travel coherently. So they don't necessarily move and mean the same thing and a new contact. So for example, on the surface level, you think, well, this is great, you know, to be promoting girls education, that's exactly what we want to be doing. We want to, you know, create options for girls and alternative ideas about what life can mean. But on the other hand, what often comes attached to with those discourses is the idea of we're doing this where our interest in girls is because it improves future competitiveness of these migrations, because they're creating a new market for their products and their goods and potential future employees and that kind of thing. So I do see the ways in which both of those things, you know, reviving ophelia. But in that context, in the Global South, it's not so much about girls psychological vulnerability, as much as it is about economic vulnerability and the idea of corporations having to come in and save girls from their culture to promote, you know, later marriage or later childbirth so that they can become productive, both consumers and producers before marriage and childbirth and that kind of thing. So a lot of attention, academic and otherwise has focused on tracing the ways in which these discourses have traveled and moved and what are the effects in different contact? How are these discourses changed in new contexts? So it is a really interesting question. Like I haven't had it has to do this. But I hope to, you know, soon to think through like, when did corporations become interested in this girl power movement? Was it as a result of what was happening in the 90s? And then they thought, oh, aha, like we have to get in on this? Or did it happen again? Was there like a third strand of discourse that is now being revealed? That wasn't necessarily apparent then? So did they emerge? You know, together? I'm not sure if I answered that I have.Jen Lumanlan:
That sounds like a topic for another episode, I'm actually thinking about the Millennium Development Goals, where I'm not familiar enough with them to be able to recite them up on my head. But I'm guessing there was something in there about women and girls and corporations were really encouraged to sign up to support those, which were then replaced by the sustainable development goals and the same. So I wonder if there's a linkage there. And I'm already thinking about other potential episodes. I think part of what you're alluding to is that as this discourse is traveling, what we're teaching girls, corporations eventually mean White people, right, who we're owning and running these corporations, we're teaching girls, what does it mean to be feminine? What is an appropriate expression of your sexuality, and we're teaching it not just in contexts in countries that we would traditionally call, you know, third world developing countries, but also we're learning and teaching these lessons here at home as well. And so I'm wondering if you can say something about how girls learn about femininity, about sexuality about what it means to be a girl as they're growing up in this environment to know things like as they stop being friends with boys and girls and start to move into a single gender and friendships as they're learning to control their body to control their thinness, their fitness, their muscularity, their attractiveness? And how does that process happen?Dr. Gonick:
Yeah, that's a really good question. It's a very complicated question. I think it happens in multiple ways and different layers. So obviously, it happens through school, you know, through peer culture, as well as through the media, family life and culture, we know what's happening in their communities, what are the kind of resources individual girls within a particular community have available to them? And so on. I think it's a really complicated question. You know, in that way, like, certainly representations of girls in media has moved even, like just unbelievably in new directions, and quickly now, but I think there's a lot of positive changes and that way, so there's, you know, much more representation of girls of color, for example, girls that like to be active physically, not just the pretty princess idea, girls who are smart, a huge thing right now in the media. And that's also relatively new, you know, girls who are failures of their communities are saved the day, and a solve the problems they're encountering. So in those types of ways, all these things are much improved from the recent past in terms of the kinds of representations that are available to girls, you know, the reason representation and media so important, as these are all sites of learning for girls, it's not just what happens formally, within schools, it's also what they're watching on TV, what movies, they're watching the books that they're reading, and so on. So these are all really important avenues for girls to create a sense of identity and learn what it means to be a girl. I know what femininity means to them, and so on.Caroline:
And I think this kind of connects to the idea of girlhood as a social construct, something that's always evolving and changing. And I think you've talked a lot about this in your research, something that girls engage with and disengage with and take up in different ways. That's not a unified process. It's helpful for me to understand my own girlhood experience that way, and also helpful for me, you know, if I was a parent of a female identifying or a girl, I would probably find that useful to just seeing how children, I have two boys, but seeing how they identify and take up certain things at six years old already, through watching television and reading books, it's helpful to me to understand it in that way, and to understand their experience in that way.Dr. Gonick:
Yeah. And it's useful to think about, you know, how children recognize and engage with contradiction, and being alright with having contradictions, because kids like adults will notice and then perhaps work through those contradictions and are able to live within the contradictions rather than kind of having to resolve it or kind of come to a resolution of only, you know, one strand and so on. So, you know, I think we live in a very contradictory world and kids are having to navigate so many different things, it's much more complicated than it used to be particularly around notions of gender femininity, masculinity, and so on. So I think, you know, providing the tools for young people to be able to engage in these things, supporting them in you know, talking through what they're seeing how they're understanding it, how they're taking on those discourses because that's the other thing that through watching media, through reading books, through learning, you know, through their peer culture and so on, pick on those aspects or attributes yourself just see them and others you some of the new take off, some of them, you reject some of them you have at one time and then set aside and take up something else later.Caroline:
Yeah, and just as a parent being able to address those complexities of those contradictory messages helping them navigate that write those complexities being my Women's Studies degree, really the main thing that I have gotten from that, and how that applies me today is being able to understand how complex certain narratives and messages from popular culture are.Jen Lumanlan:
I don't think we're very good at that, though, right? We're much more comfortable with binaries. And I'm thinking about girls clothing choices, right. And we put girls in this place where they feel this huge tension between respecting their parents wishes to dress conservatively, but also they want to be perceived in a as attractive by boys if they're in heterosexual relationships. And so they're trying to navigate this, you know, I want to present myself to the world in this one way. And my parents are telling me to do it the other way, the other girls around me are saying, you know, it's good to be sexual, but not to sexual because otherwise, we're going to call you slutty. I don't think we're very good at helping girls to see those things and navigate those things, because I'm not sure we even see them ourselves all the time. I'm curious about what both of you think about that.Dr. Gonick:
Yeah, I think you're right, I think we do tend to, again, blame girls for wanting to take on the sexy look. But again, as if the fashion world isn't totally implicated in the choices that are available to girls, and as you say, kind of promoting a version of femininity, that is, you know, dominant at this particular time, which definitely is the sexy girl and the revealing clothing. And some of the really interesting research and perspectives on this has been able to track the ways in which that idea of femininity as necessitating a certain kind of sexiness is rising in tandem with the other options that are available to girls in terms of like success at school, so or a success in the work world. So it's almost like yes, women, you can have that success. But in order to retain it, or in order to live in that world, you also have to be hyper feminine, and you have to be able to guarantee or show your femininity if you're going to have success in this world, because you don't want to be ambiguous in terms of that. Because what success in the work world might mean to traditional notions of femininity. So there's been this real heightened attention to femininity in a very conservative way in a certain kind of, as well as in tandem with, you know, huge amounts of progress and education and work.Jen Lumanlan:
Yeah, so it's almost like be successful, do anything you want to do. But don't be too assertive, because otherwise, you know, you're aggressive. And we'll call you a bitch, right? It's like we're walking on this hair line, what's available to me, but I can't overstep otherwise, I'm not feminine enough,Dr. Gonick:
Right, be successful. But do it looking at particular kind of way.Jen Lumanlan:
Yes, yes. And Whiteness is inherent in that right? I do not want to leave this conversation without talking about the intersection of this issue with race. What do you see as important in terms of how race and class as well intersect with these issues?Dr. Gonick:
It's crucial to understand the ways in which these courses that we've been talking about have mainly been focused on White girl, the concern about the vulnerable girl has always been about White middle class girls vulnerability in communities of color can show up very differently than just a kind of low self esteem, say, I mean, there's issues of homelessness or, you know, economic precarity, or not having enough food to eat. So all of that is definitely a social issue. But it doesn't show up as kind of vulnerability in the same way that the middle class idea of girls who suddenly lose their spirit and kind of lose self esteem at a particular time in life. So that's, I should say, what the mean girl, the mean girl phenomenon, as I write about is also mainly written about as a White middle class issue. And, you know, there and then analysis, I say that in some ways, it's because girls of color are I mean, the idea of aggression and femininity works differently, I would say, for communities of color where there is maybe the opposite assumption, which is they're inherently aggressive, obviously, in a very racist understanding, right? And so there is an expectation that of that happening, whereas it's really Whiteness and femininity that gets attached to this idea of passivity, innocence, vulnerability, sweetness. So all of that is very much attached to the idea of Whiteness.Caroline:
We haven't touched on this yet either. But how would you say that reinforces heterosexuality because one thing that I was particularly interested in, when I was doing my research was the intersection of femininity and heteronormative femininity in particular, how reinforces heterosexuality really?Dr. Gonick:
Yeah, well, I think you're right, It totally does, and they're very closely linked. And there's ways in which when we're talking about children, it's like the always already assumption is heterosexuality. Because when we're talking about children, there's often a kind of discomfort of even thinking about sexuality at all. So there's so that it just gets understood as heterosexuality you can see that what's happening in debates, particularly in the US right now around you know, so much fear and so much anger attached the idea of any talk of sexuality in school That isn't kind of assuming a heteronormative idea of family and so on. But definitely, I do think that it's important to track or understand the way that all these discourses are intertwined together and how they work together to produce the effects that they do. They're not just kind of individual strands that do their own thing, they are working in tandem, or, you know, more than two, but you know, working together as a kind of a braid. And if you want, you have an image together all the time. And yeah, heterosexualarity is definitely a huge part of that. So that emphasize femininity, that I was talking about this kind of idea, it draws on, you know, very heteronormative ideas about what femininity is, and what it looks like who inhabits it, and so on, that is very much about meeting a heteronormative idea, and ideal.Jen Lumanlan:
It's almost like we're teaching girls and girls and learning to police each other to be as close to Whiteness as possible, right? In a White supremacist understanding, so exists within a patriarchal system, that girls role is to attract and then defer to boys and a capitalist system, we're really rewarding these demonstrations of wealth. And it seems as though it's the whole thing is just reinforcing the systems that are already causing so much hurt to us. I'm wondering if I even dare ask this question. Are there ways that we can support all girls and maybe even broaden and expand our current understanding of girlhood? Is some of this stuff inevitable? Your girls in books "girls are going to be mean to each other human nature makes it inevitable." Do you see it that way? Or are there things that we can do to support girls in these interactions?Dr. Gonick:
Well, I think people are going to be mean to people. And I think that part of it, as you referenced is our capitalist system, which is set up to create competition. And so even schools are set up for that as well. So it's not unreasonable to think that kids are learning the lessons that are actually being taught to them, which is that there's hierarchies and not everyone can win. There's, there's a winner, there's a loser.Jen Lumanlan:
The subtext of what's going on in school, right. And grades. Yeah.Dr. Gonick:
So again, I think a lot of the social behavior that's getting acted out within pure culture is about learning those lessons and expressing them in ways that you know, when adults see it, they don't like what they're saying. But they're maybe not understanding that this is actually part of the system that's that's been set up at within schools to be competitive, to learn how to compete often, for example, activities that are organized for kids around sports, for example, is precisely articulated that way is about learning to be good to competitors think that all these lessons are being learned. I think maybe there's ways that schools are parents, families, different communities can talk about ways to help kids communicate their feelings about each other, or events that are happening in ways that don't, that can communicate unhappiness, or communicate hurt feelings, or can communicate competition without having to be mean about it, if something negative is is happening, or if something uncomfortable is happening, that that kids have the tools to be able to address those with each other. And that's I'm not saying that lightly. I mean, most adults can't do that. So I'm not saying that, like kids have to be able to do it. But I think adults could also learn a lot from communicating in ways that work towards navigating different. And rather than doing it in a kind of aggressive mean way, which I mean, it happens in work contexts, it happens, homes, I mean, it happens everywhere. So think taking that on as a project be really interesting for some schools to do, how do you teach good communication skills?Jen Lumanlan:
For me, it all comes back to understanding each other's needs. And this is sort of the the entirety of my work focuses on is how do I understand my needs? And how do I understand your needs? And how do I hold those two things with equal weight and find ways for both of us to have our needs met? I really believe that when we can do that for ourselves, we can help our children to do that, we're going to be able to address some of the challenges that have been so intractable up to now.Caroline:
Yeah, and for me to just add on to that, you know, that's how I navigate raising two boys is, you know, I see that a lot of traditional parenting is rooted in patriarchy, and White supremacy. And so I'm trying to find ways that I can, you know, I see that my boys are going to be gendered and groomed in a certain way. And as a parent, it's a little bit scary. Finding a way to parent that disrupts that is really important to me. And it's one way that I can do that.Jen Lumanlan:
I'm curious, do you struggle with this at all? Caroline, do you have a question for Dr. Gonick on how we can do this? Maybe?Caroline:
Yeah, I would love to know, I don't know there's an answer. And what a one does linear or even like any answer at all, but I would love to know your thoughts on that. Dr. Gonick in that, like, you know, one thing for me is I see aggressive behavior. I see the way that voice are sort of gendered to be aggressive and it's very, you know, weird to see it happening in front of me as somebody who is a feminist as somebody who studied this research, so any suggestions or ideas are always much appreciated. And yeah, In wasy to think about that. New ways I think about it.Dr. Gonick:
Well, I've said the focus of my work is, you know, kind of tracking these things socially as they happen, rather than really knowing a whole lot about individual solutions are very practical solutions at all. But think in some ways, like I was saying before, I mean, it's a very tricky thing as a parent to not allow the expression of certain kinds of masculinity or femininity, when it's happening all around a child, I guess it's about being able to navigate or be able to explain to a child, what you're seeing, and maybe what you're helping that child in maybe perhaps their own analysis of understanding what the pressures are, what the demands of them are to perform their gender in particular kinds of ways. And if there's alternatives or not, I mean, I think it's a lot to put on a child. Yeah, because, you know, kids just want to fit in with their peer group, they don't want to be the exception, they don't want to be the one who isn't allowed to watch whatever TV show or play with whatever toys, that's really hard. It's really hard on parents to insist on that difference as well. So I do think it's about maybe offering kids a range of options. And like I was saying before, helping them understand the contradictions and working towards alternatives rather than demanding a particular one idea, or one way of being having them discard all others. So that would be my approach. Not that not that I have kids. ButCaroline:
Yeah, but that's actually that's very helpful. And I think that's kind of what's in the back of my mind, sometimes without realizing it. Just to add to that, maybe also having empathy and compassion for the gendering process. And so seeing, you know, our kids, girl, or boy, or identifying another way, having empathy for that process and wanting to fit in, I think I tried to not shame my children around that, given our systems in our society, it's a natural, human experience to want to fit in and feel like you belong. And so having empathy for that, I think, is really important.Dr. Gonick:
Yeah, I think so too, instead of giving the message that, hey, if you want those things that all your friends have, there's something wrong with you, I'm disappointed in you for wanting that or being like that. I think your approach is, is good, yeah, to kind of understand that the pressures and stresses that even kids go through around these ideas about gender, because getting your gender right is so important at different ages, like from a very early age. And so the activities, the attributes, the possessions that kids want, are often about being able to get their "gender properly performed," so denigrating that, or telling kids it's wrong to want that or to be like that, or to want both things. I think that's hard for kids.Jen Lumanlan:
Almost seems like it comes down to maybe the parents sharing, here's what I see. This is what I see about what's happening here. Tell me what you see, why do you want to play this game? Why is this game important to you? And really hearing that and seeing the child as the expert on themselves, rather than assuming we know everything? And then maybe working with the child to say, okay, knowing what we know. Now, how do you want to move forward here, what feels right to you what feels fair to you to in how we treat other people and how we show up in the world and really seeing them as active people with agency in this rather than we have to feed them the answer and get them to do the thing we want them to do to match up with our vision and how they should be performing their gender.Dr. Gonick:
Totally agree with that.Jen Lumanlan:
Thank you so much, both of you for being here. For Caroline for making the connection. I've been waiting for this for so long. And then Dr. Gonick, for jumping in so willingly on all these thorny questions. So thank you both so much for being here.Caroline:
Thanks, Jen.Dr. Gonick:
Thank you.Dr. Gonick:
It's been pleasure. Thank you.Jen Lumanlan:
Thank you. You can find all of the references from today's episode, as well as links to Dr. Gonick's book at YourParentingMojo.com/youngfemininity.Emma:
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