Meanjin: What’s in a girl?

This essay first appeared in the Winter 2018 edition of Meanjin.


When she says, ‘we run this motha, girls’, Beyoncé may be onto something. The Young-Girl is everywhere in popular culture: there are the nostalgia-draped girls of Stranger ThingsRiverdale and Twin Peaks; the pop-punk stylings of the Broad City girls; Lena Dunham’s Girls; the Gilmore duo; the never-ending parade of international bestselling books with one titular aspect in common; the virginity-obsessed Jane the Virgin and her more anxious British counterpart Tracey from Chewing Gum. Yet we can’t claim actual flesh-and-blood girls are any more likely to run the world because of this apparent ubiquity.

This is not to say that the Young-Girl is without power. If we consider ‘power’ to encompass both an individual’s capacity to act as an independent agent and their ability to influence others’ behaviour, then the Young-Girl’s power is precarious. For she is not a figure of authority; her age and gender constrain her. Yet she does have the ability to exert power through influencing others’ behaviour. The Young-Girl’s is an ambiguous, soft power. For philosopher Thorsten Botz-Bornstein, the essence of seduction is ‘strength implemented through weakness’—a notion that captures the Young-Girl’s ambivalent influence. But what is this precarious power? Who or what is its object? And what is the relationship between the idealised, figurative assemblage of the Young-Girl represented in popular culture, and the flesh-and-blood girls of our contemporary world?

The Young-Girl is a social category created through film, television, media, magazines, the social imaginary, the arts and literature. This social category is at once ephemeral and the standard by which all flesh-and-blood girls are measured.

The category ‘girl’ did not exist before the eighteenth century. As historian Philippe Ariès has argued, childhood as a recognisable social category—as a state separate from and preceding adulthood—did not exist as a concept until at least the seventeenth century. In the medieval and early modern periods, ‘children’ were understood and depicted as small, weak adults. It was not until the nineteenth century, and the associated emergence of modern society, that the concept of ‘child’ was fragmented into its dominant categories of ‘boy’ and ‘girl’. The girl did not exist until the labour requirements of modern industrial capitalism created the need for an ‘adolescent’ stage of social existence in which individuals would be trained for their gendered, heterosexual roles as productive citizens.

Yet if we consider the characters of Shakespeare’s plays, we see a familiar association between girls, sexual morality, purity and social change. Ophelia (possibly) gifts her virginity to a nonchalant Hamlet and pays with her life for this transgression. Juliet suffers a similar fate. Lady Macbeth sacrifices her sanity for her ‘vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself’ to be as powerful as a man. In contrast, the women of A Midsummer Night’s Dream demonstrate a laudable docility. Helena pleads with Demetrius to ‘use [her] but as [his] spaniel’, promising that the more he beats her, the more she shall fawn on him. And, like Hermia with Lysander, by the close of the play she is richly rewarded for her patience and virtue with marriage to her lover. So it appears the Young-Girl of Shakespeare existed before the social category. But this is not surprising.

When the notion of childhood emerged as a category in the nineteenth century, its proponents looked to classical literature to find evidence of the differences between children and adults, and between boys and girls. They looked for evidence that these differences had always existed and were a part of the natural order. As gender theorist Catherine Driscoll points out, ‘If our idea of youth has been shaped by Shakespeare, it is not surprising the plays should fit it.’ Drawing upon these classical representations of girls, the Young-Girl’s supposedly natural state was found. And in the Victorian period, the Young-Girl really came into her own, congealing out of contemporary anxieties around modernity, sexuality and gender.

Carl Larrson, Girl by a Flowering Hawthorn Bush, undated (1853–1919), 36 × 45.5 cm, oil on canvas, collection: Gothenburg Museum of Art

In 1868 notorious anti-feminist campaigner and writer Eliza Lynn Linton wrote in the British Saturday Review a diatribe against ‘The Girl of the Period’. She lamented the disappearance of ‘ideal womanhood’ beneath the dyed hair and painted-face monstrosity of the modern girl. Her essay marks a moment when the Young-Girl emerges as an idealised figure with which flesh-and-blood girls can be compared. From this time on, we see how flesh-and-blood girls recognise and model themselves on representations of the idealised Young-Girl.

The publication Girls’ Own Paper (1880–1956) featured stories from across the British Empire and, later, the Commonwealth. It also included letters, recipes, anecdotes, even workout advice sent in from readers. This new print technology was active in producing girl identities and modes of being a girl. It helped to create and perpetuate the overarching category of the Young-Girl while also producing her various manifestations in identity categories such as the sporty girl, the bush girl and the bookish girl.

Film studies scholar Cecily Devereux notes that these identity categories created a ‘Made in Britain’ femininity. The Young-Girl of the Girls’ Own Paper was ‘an agent of empire, an advertisement for and consumer of its products and technologies, and an imperial commodity in circulation in and through the mobilising of her represen-tation in print’. She was an assemblage of the ideologies, discourses, technologies and conspicuous-consumption cultures of the British Empire, and she adapted them to localised milieus.

But this process is not limited to the postwar period, nor to the British Empire and its self-representations. Photographer Rania Matar’s late-2000s work captures teenage girls and their bedrooms in the United States and the Middle East. These girls’ bedrooms are sites where social and personal identity converge: where the ephemera of the idealised Young-Girl meets these flesh-and-blood girls’ individuality. Despite the geographic, ethnic, linguistic, cultural, religious and class differences that exist between these girls, Matar’s photographs reveal some startling similarities.

Their walls are decorated with posters of celebrities, beautiful women and snappy, aspirational catch-phrases. They show these girls looking to a shared, idealised assumption of what the Young-Girl’s bedroom would look like, while also creating their own subversive spaces of personality. The bedrooms show them navigating representations of the Young-Girl in film, television, media, magazines, social imaginary, arts and literature. They do this to find themselves in that representation and to note—often explicitly and sometimes triumphantly—the ways in which they diverge from it. Mara in Boston (2009) scrawled on her wall a reminder quote from her friend, Kate: ‘I will never deep throat a penis of cheese.’ Sound advice. 

These girls’ posters, soft toys, music and clothing may be examples of them internalising the performative rules of the social category of the Young-Girl, but their rooms also show them using those objects in different ways to retain an individuality—and a power and agency—that is often lost in discussion about girls and girlhood. The Young-Girl may well be the standard by which all flesh-and-blood girls are measured, but individual girls are still tasked with finding a way to re-create themselves in and beyond her image.

The Young-Girl is synonymous with consumer culture.

The Young-Girl as we know her today emerged from late capitalism and the ashes of the British Empire and the First World War. 

In 1999, at the height of postmodernism, we recognised that knowledge and experience are plural, contextual, historically and culturally contingent. It was in this moment that an anonymous collective of French philosophers named Tiqqun presented their Preliminary Materials for a Theory of the Young-Girl. The text was playful and serious, satirical and sadistic, feminist and misogynistic. It drew on traditional ‘sources’ of girlhood—excerpts from fashion magazines, philosophy, history and etiquette texts—as well as offering the authors’ own opinions on how we might define this idealised yet somehow vacant category of the Young-Girl.

Tiqqun’s argument was based on the notion that, in contemporary late-capitalist society, individuals cannot be separated from their value as commodities. The Young-Girl understands this more than anyone: ‘The Young-Girl would thus be the being that no longer has any intimacy with herself except as value.’ This is key to her precarious power of seduction. The Young-Girl exemplifies two of the most desirable aspects of late-capitalist society: youthfulness and femininity. But despite their desirability, these attributes are also evidence of her weakness: the combination of her age and gender renders her an individual not to be taken seriously. Her age and gender, then, act as markers of both her desirability and her frivolity. And this extends to her interests, her hobbies, her desires and her representation of herself.

In a late-capitalist context where consumption is associated with morality and surface becomes the measure of intrinsic value, the Young-Girl is model citizen. At once lauded for her devotion to the trends, products and activities of conspicuous-consumption culture, she is simultaneously judged for her choices, her tastes, preferences and desires. The Young-Girl thus also becomes an object of consumption: a commodity that is at once desired and disregarded. The Young-Girl’s function is to produce nothing but her self. She constructs her self-representation in line with the desirable and frivolous pillars of youthfulness and femininity. It is her success in this self-creation that will determine her social value. It is her success that will relegate her to an inferior status.

In Tiqqun’s terminology, then, the Young-Girl is an |absolute|, a tautology. Consumed because she has value, imbued with value because she is consumed; desirable because she is frivolous, frivolous because she is desirable. Like a snake eating its tail, the Young-Girl co-habits with her image, which is the only thing she has to offer either herself or society. Created out of her consumption, the Young-Girl is at once incredibly powerful and incredibly weak. She seduces by consuming. And the victims of this seduction are the flesh-and-blood girls encouraged to re-create themselves in her image.

In 2015 Melbourne-based toy maker Moose Toys created a new product called Shopkins. That same year Shopkins were named Girls’ Toy of the Year by the US Toy Industry Association. Their success led to CEO Manny Stul being inducted into the Australian Toy Association Hall of Fame in 2017. Shopkins are tiny anthropomorphised groceries sold as collectable items in bright coloured packaging covered in bubble letters. Each character has a name and a story, fleshed out through an online portal featuring games, colouring-in sheets, interactive activities and a web-based animation series. The Shopkins world is rounded out with trading cards, clothing lines and even a newly launched live-show extravaganza—all celebrating the notion and act of shopping. Alliteratively named, generally gendered feminine and absolutely adorable, Claudia Cake, Molly Mop, Bettina Bag and friends are just so excited to teach you all about consumerism!

In December 2015 a one-of-kind glass Shopkins called Gemma Stone sold on eBay for $21,500. Each new series incorporates more than 140 characters, each with their own playsets and accessories. More than 600 million of the characters have been sold worldwide. They out-sold Star Wars toys in the US Christmas rush in 2015. Stul, who has gone from managing a company worth $10 million per annum in 2000 to a $600 million turnover in 2016, is now a Forbes-listed billionaire.

Many in the industry have suggested that the success of Shopkins stems from an unfilled market niche. Although trading baseball or Pokémon cards has long been popular with children of all genders, there was an absence of a collectibles range aimed specifically at girls. This absence allowed Moose Toys the freedom to create a range of small, youthful, feminised, ultimately disposable and replaceable objects.

By the rules of our capitalist society, the Young-Girl’s synonymy with consumer culture enforces her social position, making her incredibly powerful as an assemblage, a collection of representations. At the same time, it sacrifices her identity—she is not allowed to be an individual. According to Tiqqun, ‘the Young-Girl resembles her photo’. She is all image, all surface. The Young-Girl is denied singularity, personality, depth. 

At the Shopkins website you will be introduced to its embodiments of the Young-Girl. Unlike most of the products, these figures aren’t anthropomorphised grocery items. They are your guides through the Shopkins supermarket. With names such as Macy Macaron (France), Bubbleisha (China), Spaghetti Sue (Italy), Sara Sushi (Japan) and Rosa Piñata (Mexico), these girls ostensibly act as emissaries from around the globe, and they suggest that you buy the Shopkins accessories associated with them and their cultures—tea ceremony sets, tacos, lanterns. Yet with their colourful hair, luminescent skin, wide round eyes and waif-like waists, they all look startlingly similar. They don’t just lead you through the products, they are the products. They turn the flesh-and-blood girls who are seduced by them into products, too.

Buy our accessories and you can be and look just like us; we will re-create you in our image!

The Young-Girl is inherently white, urbanised, sexualised. The Young-Girl is marginalised, but nevertheless makes invisible others (black girls, country girls, poor girls) who have even less power.

We’ve seen how the notion of the Young-Girl as assemblage created from various narratives and representations has become pervasive. We’ve also seen how the Young-Girl’s synonymy with consumer culture leads to her replication regardless of where she is in the world. Now we must acknowledge how that representation edges out others who cannot see themselves reflected in her radiant image.

Driscoll has noted that ‘in her dominant form, the Australian bush girl is not Aboriginal’. Locating the ‘Australian country girl’ as a type at the intersection of history, image and experience, Driscoll argues that the dominant imaginary of the Australian country girl is ‘the wild colonial girl, the intrepid squatter’s daughter, or the bush-bride as icon of stranded modernity’. But she is never Indigenous. This is because, while she is physically in the bush—‘straddling the past and future’—and while her narratives ‘foreground a meeting of nature and culture’, the Australian country girl remains an index of modernity and its associated anxieties. She is the stranded urban, in contrast to the Indigenous girl’s rurality; she is the rapidly changing culture to the Indigenous girl’s perpetual state of nature.

In Destiny Deacon’s 1993/2000 print Adoption, plastic black babies, enticing in their guilelessness, sit in individual white paper patties carefully arranged on an orange-dot platter. The platter’s colour and pattern—and its presentation of chocolate crackle–like black baby treats—is reminiscent of the 1970s dinner party aesthetic. Or of the kitschy Australian vernacular so wonderfully captured by architect Robin Boyd in his book The Australian Ugliness (1960). Either way, we sense we’re somewhere in the suburbs. The black baby figurines are presented to the viewer either in preparation for baking or as an invitation to sample and to consume them.

These Indigenous baby treats are placed in a powerless position, left to the whims of those who would bake them, eat them, salivate over them, display them to their friends. Given the suburban framing, and policies of Indigenous child removal in Australia, there is a sense that these are stolen children; removed from their own mothers, countries and homes, and placed into the hands of a white Australian suburban woman. Katherine Mary Clutterbuck ate my baby, as it were.

Much of Deacon’s work uses visual cues and strategies to contrast the sickly-sweet image of white suburbia, draped in gastro-racist sugar and nostalgia, with the violent destruction of the black body. Indeed, in Deacon’s work these two things are inextricably linked. As Adoption’s juxtaposition of white suburban bliss and violent consumption of the vulnerable black body demonstrates, the former causes the latter, even if done unthinkingly. In Adoption, baking in white Australian suburbia is an expression of violence against an Indigenous body.

Destiny Deacon, Adoption, 1993–2000, Light jet print from Polaroid, image courtesy of Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney, and the artist

This is not peculiar to Australian race relations or art. Set amid the wreckage of post-Depression Lorain, Ohio, Toni Morrison’s debut novel The Bluest Eye (1970) opens with protagonist Pecola being sent to live with a foster family after her alcoholic father burns down the family house. In her new home, Pecola develops an obsession with Shirley Temple, white dolls and other objects of white American girlhood. Pecola, subjected through the course of the narrative to racism, incestual rape and poverty, initially finds comfort in these icons of white girlhood. She drinks almost two litres of milk in a single week, an excuse to drink from a glass emblazoned with Temple’s image. But by the close of the novel, the reflected perfection of those baby-blue eyes reveals its true danger: Pecola stands in her yard, rambling to herself, holding a mirror in her hands, believing it to show her that her own eyes have turned blue. This new, distorted image of herself becomes both her last vestige of comfort and the marker of her final fall into insanity.

For Pecola, violated by family, society and her own mind, being/becoming a girl is a violent process. Pecola’s girlhood is destructive because of her experience as an inherently precarious body in the society she inhabits—she is black, poor and rural.

Yet this sadistic and violent experience of being a girl extends in its own way to Pecola’s icon of girlhood, Shirley Temple. A child film star at the age of three and an international sensation by age five, Temple was the darling of the Hollywood golden era. When she lost her baby teeth, Temple was forced to wear dentures to maintain her perfect smile. But since she never appeared to lose teeth, there were rumours that she must already be an adult; a dwarf, people speculated, because of her chubby frame. Dubious about her apparent perfection, strangers would yank at her hair to check it wasn’t a wig. Although it was not a wig, it also certainly wasn’t natural, subjected daily to curlers and hairspray, and weekly to vinegar baths that made Temple’s eyes sting.

Pecola tries to emulate Temple, but faces ridicule and disgust as a result. While Temple’s girlishness is the source of her desirability, Pecola is constantly reminded by family, friends and strangers of what an ugly child she is. Temple’s naivety is taken for sweetness; Pecola’s is taken for stupidity. While Temple managed to navigate her changing body and continue making films into adulthood, Pecola’s changing body exposes her to ever more violent and disturbing sadism. Temple lived to 85, but Pecola is lost to madness in her teens. Temple experiences violence because she is made to be the Young-Girl; Pecola experiences it because she never can be.

Adoption and The Bluest Eye demonstrate a link between girlhood and a particular form of feminised and infantilised whiteness. This is the outcome of the Young-Girl’s myth of innocuousness, normality and innocence. Like the social category whiteness, she is the norm by which all deviance is measured.

In 2013 social media activist CaShaw Thompson presented a challenge to these dominant notions of the Young-Girl with the hashtag #blackgirlmagic—and struck a chord worldwide. This movement brought together black girls and women across the globe in celebration of their achievements, destabilising the Young-Girl’s constructed invisibility of whiteness. Thompson said she used the word ‘magic’ to capture the sense that black girls’ and women’s accomplishments ‘seem to come out of thin air’ because they are so rarely objects of positive attention before they are successful. Yet the white, urban and sexualised Young-Girl of the Girls’ Own Paper, of the bedroom wall, of the Shopkins trolley cart remains the standard by which all others are measured across the globe. And this does real violence, real damage to flesh-and-blood girls.

The Young-Girl is a mythology of sugar and spice and all things nice.

The 1957 anthology of essays Mythologies by Roland Barthes included one entitled ‘La littérature selon Minou Drouet’, which explored the myth of France’s child poet whose childhood had the semblance of a fairytale. It is said that at age six Drouet was still mute, but an encounter with a recording of a Brahms symphony made her ‘swoon’ and when she revived she was able to speak French in ‘complex sentences’. Most importantly, she began to write haunting poetry. Artist–historian Carol Mavor says that Drouet’s moment in the 1950s was a time when, in both the United States and France, a ‘girl sensation’ had erupted:

The public has fallen in love with girls who are roughly 4,562.5 days old (12.5 years). And, for those less Humbert-Humbertish, there are child-women who are older, but somehow not. (Was Brigitte Bardot really so naive as to believe at age eighteen that mice laid eggs?)

This was a sensation that would not lose its momentum. The story of a child prodigy of amazing talent, subjected to lessons in continuous improvement, whose abilities were harnessed and promoted by an overbearing parent is familiar, and one that has been often repeated.

In the United States, Drouet’s counterpart can be found in 1970s child model and actor Brooke Shields. Like Drouet, Shields was an especially talented, and beautiful, child. She excelled at piano, dance and acting, was famous before she reached double-digits, and inhabited an ambiguous space in her nation’s imaginary.

In 1975, the aptly and unironically named Garry Gross photographed then ten-year-old Shields full-frontal naked for a series published in Playboy imprint Sugar ’n’ Spice. In these photographs Shields’ eyes are heavy with make-up and her limbs slick with oil. These photographs were taken with the consent of Shields’ mother Terri, who sold the unlimited publication rights to Gross for US$400. Reaching legal adulthood in 1983, Shields attempted to prevent further production of the photographs, but was halted by a judge who ruled that their use was enabled by the consent already given by her mother. One of the photographs—renamed Spiritual America—attained the dubious honour of ‘high art’ when it was reproduced by US artist Richard Prince. For a time it hung in the Tate Modern, London, before its removal by Metropolitan Police. It would eventually sell at auction for US$3,973,000.

Prince is known for his fascination with the icons and motifs of US popular and visual culture—cars, cowboys, celebrity culture. His work recontextualises famous and obscure images from magazines and advertising to critique it. Spiritual America was first exhibited in a gallery in New York’s Lower East Side to viewers who were admitted by invitation only. It was the sole piece on display, forcing gallery-goers to acknowledge they were only there to view this borderline child-pornographic image. They were made complicit in the ongoing exploitation of the body displayed by the work, and of bodies like it.

Drouet and Shields—incredibly young yet incredibly mature—confuse us with their simultaneous signification of child and woman. Drouet could write with a wisdom and beauty that extended beyond her years; Shields’ was a body that, although barely a decade old, did not look out of place in a girlie magazine. Their womanish talents combined with their youthful naivety made them mysterious and desirable but also exposed them to exploitation, violence and humiliation.

Echoes of Shirley Temple. Echoes of Pecola.

While these girls have been used by others for their own material gains, they still make us feel uncomfortable for the pleasure we may take in their work or image. Although this is not power or agency in a traditional sense, it does create space for flesh-and-blood girls to make their own powerful and creative response. Drouet abandoned poetry to create her own idyll in the French countryside where she now teaches primary school. Shields would eventually re-create Gross’s photograph in her own photoshoot as a middle-aged adult: a reclamation of her image.

Following Tiqqun, the Young-Girl is ‘a lie whose apogee is the face’. She is nothing more than appearance: all surface, no depth. A smiling resentment. Her most extreme banality is to take herself for an original. The Young-Girl is an empty vessel. And this is because—like Temple, like Drouet, like Shields, like Pecola—she does not exist for herself: she exists only for the pleasure of others in society, for the impossible example she sets for flesh-and-blood girls. Her existence is only to embody the meanings—always in service of another’s ends—with which she will be imbued.

The Young-Girl was created by patriarchy, capitalism, and by white supremacy and its colonialist drive. She is the most brilliant jewel in the crown worn by the beneficiaries of contemporary power imbalances and social injustices. She mutilates, deforms and harms the flesh-and-blood girls she moulds to her image—especially those who are Other.

And so the girls of our communities are left in the unenviable position of finding a space for their own powerful and individual response to the Young-Girl’s impossible image; to find their strength, implemented through weakness, against the Young-Girl’s sugared and spiced mythology of perfection. To attempt a shift in who gets to tell what narratives of girls and girlhood. A shift in who gets to play with dichotomies of self and representation. •

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