Global Girlhoods: Aims and Origins
The module behind this website began to take shape after a shared viewing of the film Somewhere (Coppola, 2010) in South Devon in 2011. The bucolic green countryside that surrounded us on leaving the aptly-named ‘Barn Cinema’ formed a disorienting and galvanizing contrast with the electronic swell and desert landscape of the film’s final sequences. However, Coppola’s depiction of how Los Angeles’ fêted, star-studded lifestyle might play out for a pre-pubescent girl spoke to how privileges of white girlhood might travel and resonate powerfully across diverse national contexts. Certainly, from the perspective of our own privileged white girlhoods in seaside towns of Devon and Lancashire, it perhaps doesn’t take such an enormous leap of the imagination to get to the neon glitz of Hollywood’s palm-lined avenues, but a girl’s eye view of that space was a topic all-too-rarely privileged, particularly on the auteur screen. Responses to Sofia Coppola’s work are a good starting point to debate that question of whose experience should and shouldn’t be seen in cinema. The stomping ground for literally thousands of heroes and heroines of the twentieth century, why did the Hollywood playground suddenly become problematic when it was a young girl’s feelings at stake? Fiona’s book on Sofia Coppola went on to provide some fascinating answers to this question.
Our students’ own knowledge of cinemas of girlhood initially seemed to suggest that one element of innovation in Coppola’s work in the US context was certainly a question of genre transgression. The girls’ feelings properly belong in the teen movie, we seem to be told, and many of our students were most familiar and comfortable with these stories of girlhood from the US high school, always remembering when and where they first watched Mean Girls. Which school didn’t have its own version of the ‘burn book’? Easy A and Juno are other films our students love to remember (and so do we!). More recently, the Netflix romcom has produced a new development in the form of the female-led teen films from To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before to Dumplin’. Teaching a module about girlhood allows for that crucial reversal of ‘knowledge capital’ that Brenda Weber maintains is a key aspect of teaching popular culture in the classroom. Experiencing or living alongside girlhood a good 20 years after us, our students, male and female, could tell us a lot more about how profoundly rooted in the stories of girlhood popular culture has become. As Weber, again, puts it:
popular culture is perhaps the single greatest influence in how members of a particular culture learn to, as Judith Lorber phrases it, “do gender.” Popular culture is […] the primary mechanism through which postfeminist ideas are communicated. In this regard, both male and female students enter the popular culture gender studies class with certain forms of literacy and knowledge that can contribute to the professor’s expertise. (p. 6)
That has been our experience. Mean Girls didn’t always open our module – it’s there by popular demand, offering precisely the way into postfeminist theory that our students can already engage with. Teaching cinema to students of English, Film and Modern Languages has opened up all sorts of new avenues for thinking about how girlhood appears in both popular and arthouse cinema, often troubling that distinction. We have shaped this module over the last six years in response to our students’ own choices and experience, as well as our own discoveries, aiming to think across the boundaries of nation and genre, and to think about how personal taste and aesthetic pleasures are formed and re-shaped by the encounter with diverse narrative accounts of girlhood on screen. Since we began, seven years ago, to think, research, write and, most importantly, discuss with our students the ways in which a girl’s story gets told across a wide range of different national cinemas, the profile of the girl on screen has become steadily more diverse and frequent.
Although we did not set out to privilege female directors, the work of women like Susanna Nicchiarelli, whose Cosmonauta re-considers the space race from a female, Italian perspective, or Celine Sciamma, whose Bande de Filles brings black girlhood into the international mainstream have become significant, and now it is our own students who first discover similar works on Netflix, like Divines, an account of Islamic girlhood in the Parisian banlieu. Reaching beyond the UK, and eventually, we hope, Western cinema, this website aims to expand the parameters of our debate, and to increase gradually that pool of films on which anyone interested in girlhood on film can draw, creating a plurivocal and safe space in which to debate the ways in which ‘becoming a woman’ is represented on screen. Most importantly, it aims to value, and at the same time reach well beyond the perspectives of the Anglophone, middle-class white girls that we, as teachers, once were.