Growing Up With Girl Power

Girlhood On Screen and in Everyday Life

by Rebecca Hains (Author)
©2012 Textbook XIV, 315 Pages
Series: Mediated Youth, Volume 15


For more than a decade, girl power has been a cultural barometer, reflecting girlhood’s ever-changing meanings. How did girl power evolve from a subcultural rallying cry to a mainstream catchphrase, and what meaning did young girls find in its pop culture forms? From the riot grrrls to the Spice Girls to The Powerpuff Girls, and influenced by books like Reviving Ophelia and movements like Take Our Daughters to Work Day, Growing Up With Girl Power charts this history. It considers how real girls who grew up with girl power interpreted its messages about empowerment, girlhood, strength, femininity, race, and more, and suggests that for young girls, commercialized girl power had real strengths and limitations – sometimes in fascinating, unexpected ways. Encompassing issues of pre-adolescent body image, gender identity, sexism, and racism, Growing Up With Girl Power underscores the importance of talking with young girls, and is a compelling addition to the literature on girls, media, and culture. Supplemental resources are available online at GrowingUpWithGirlPower.com.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • Chapter One: The Girl Crisis and the Riot Grrrls
  • Chapter Two: Girl Power Goes Pop: The Spice Girls and Marketed Empowerment
  • Chapter Three: Did the Spice Girls Kill Feminism? Young Feminists Speak
  • Chapter Four: Girl Power on Screen: The Rise of the Girl Hero
  • Chapter Five: Methodology: Researching Girl Power with Girls
  • Chapter Six: Girls Rule! Sexism, Strength, and Intelligence
  • Chapter Seven: Girl Heroes and Identity: The Limited Typology of Girl Power
  • Chapter Eight: Girl Heroes and Beauty: The Visual Limits of Girl Power
  • Chapter Nine: Beyond Girl Heroes: Girl Power, Racism, and Power Relations
  • Conclusion
  • Epilogue
  • Works Cited
  • Index
  • Series index

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It takes a village to raise a child—and I’ve learned the same is true of writing a book. This project was helped along by many people. I would like to thank the community of colleagues, friends, family, and participants who supported this project’s evolution from dissertation to book.

At Temple University, my dissertation chair and adviser, Carolyn Kitch, and my dissertation committee members, Fabienne Darling-Wolf and Renee Hobbs, offered a range of helpful insights that shaped my study of girl hero cartoons and my research with young girls. I thank them for their methodological and theoretical contributions to this project and their years of intellectual support.

I first met Sharon Mazzarella, this book’s series editor, after presenting my initial textual analysis of The Powerpuff Girls at the International Communication Association’s conference in May of 2004. I was already a fan of her work with Norma Pecora in Growing up Girls and appreciated her enthusiasm for my research. She has maintained an ongoing interest in my work and has become a valued collaborator and mentor. I am grateful for her support and feedback at every stage of this book’s progress—as well as the ongoing help of Mary Savigar, Bernadette Shade, Sophie Appel, and other great folks at Peter Lang Publishing.

I would also like to thank Lauren Minco, the artist whose illustration graces this book’s cover. Her depiction of a real girl looking dubiously at the normatively ← vii | viii → feminine girl hero flying overhead skillfully sets the tone for this book. I am a fan of her work (see laurenminco.com), and I am so grateful for her engagement in this project.

As I set out to develop the proposal for this book, Dafna Lemish of Southern Illinois University-Carbondale, Jody Lyneé Madeira of Indiana University, and Claudia Mitchell of McGill University all offered excellent guidance and a range of helpful hints. I am also grateful to my Salem State colleagues Guillermo Avila-Saavedra, Robert Brown, William Cornwell, and Chris Fauske for providing feedback on my book proposal draft.

During the early stages of drafting this book, Jody Madeira and my fantastic sister, Sarah Jackson, were generous with their time, reading early drafts of the first few chapters. Sarah and my friend Tom Dawkins also kindly read a later chapter draft when I was seeking some quick feedback. Finally, April Logan of Salisbury University and Tiffany Chenault of Salem State University offered invaluable suggestions regarding my work on Chapter Nine. I am grateful to them for their time and advice.

A majority of this book is based on qualitative human subjects research, and when analyzing hours upon hours of interview data, quality transcripts are essential to the process. A huge debt of gratitude goes to my friend and transcriptionist Florrie Marks for the care with which she treated and presented my data. Her impeccable work is bar none.

I am also grateful to the undergraduates who helped me with a few additional transcripts. At Emerson College: Maxwell Peters, Benjamin Bradley, and Hyojin Sonia Byun; at Salem State University: Christopher Ethier and Amy Latka. I am also grateful for the literature review provided by some Communications Laboratory Practicum students at Salem State: William Addison, Ryan Freeman, Joseph Ialuna, Logan McClory, Laurie Moon, Olivia Swanson, and Johnson Tang.

I was delighted when my student Jenna Austin, now a Salem State alumna, wished to conduct a directed study in girlhood studies the summer before she graduated. As part of her directed study, she trained in interviewing techniques and acted as a research assistant, collecting half of the data I used in Chapter Three of this book. I have such gratitude for the dedication with which she approached this work. In locating interviewees for that data set, I am also indebted to my colleague Jennifer Jackman at Salem State, who helped me reach to the Feminist Majority Foundation for recruitment purposes. It was a delight to interview some of the young feminists from their National Young Feminist Leadership Conference, and I am thankful that the FMF responded so positively to our request. ← viii | ix →

Special thanks also go to Salem State's College of Arts and Sciences Dean Jude Nixon and the School of Graduate Studies for providing me with a semester-long research assistant while I wrote this book, and to my department chair Judi Cook for her ongoing advocacy for my research projects. I am grateful to graduate student Timothy Magill for the quality and utility of his work during his research assistantship and wish him the best of luck in his continuing studies. I am also thankful to have received funding for my research from Salem State’s Faculty Research Mini-Grant program; the Provost’s Office; the Department of Communication; and the School of Graduate Studies.

The International Central Institute for Youth and Educational Television (IZI) in Munich, Germany, supported the publication and presentation of an earlier version of part of this work in their journal, Televizion, and their “Heroes and Heroines of Children’s Television” conference in 2007. I am grateful to IZI and their director, Maya Goetz, for this support, as well as for their permission to include a revised and expanded version of this work in Chapter Eight of this book.

Throughout the years, the Girls’ Studies Scholars group on Yahoo has been a helpful resource. The group is located at http://groups.yahoo.com/group/Girls_Studies/ and moderated by Ilana Nash of Western Michigan University. To Ilana and the group members, thanks for the ongoing exchange of information.

On a more personal note, I would like to thank my parents, Anthony and Lucie Consentino, for fostering my intellectual curiosity by raising me to ask questions and look for answers. I would also like to thank both my mother Lucie and my friend Mira Clark for countless hours of childcare while I worked on this project. My toddler Theo is the delight of my life, and I could not have asked for better babysitters to dote upon him. I am also infinitely grateful to my husband, Tyler Hains, for believing in my studies and scholarship through the years. With his loving support, anything is possible.

Finally, I would like to thank the women and girls who so generously shared their lives and perspectives with me. This book is dedicated to them.

This book was written on a MacBook Pro with Scrivener.

| xi →

In the 1990s, girl power saturated the marketplace, infusing empowerment rhetoric into all aspects of girls’ culture. Exclamations such as “Girls rule!” and “You go, girl!” became commonplace. Along with “Girl power!”, these phrases appeared on countless products available for purchase—everything from pop music to pillowcases; clothing to car seat covers; eyeglasses to embroidery patterns; pocketknives to posters (Hains, 2009). For a generation of girls, girl power discourse has always existed, promoting the ideas that girls are strong, smart, and empowered and that their interests are of cultural value. Girl power rhetoric has also been full of contradictions, however; it has often implied that there is a limited range of acceptable physical behaviors and appearances for girls, and critics have argued that girl power’s mode of empowerment problematically targets slender, white, middle-class girls above all others (Durham, 2003; Hains, 2004). Thus, girl power is empowering ← xi | xii → but also constraining; feminist but also postfeminist; progressive but also regressive (e.g., Banet-Weiser, 2004; Driscoll, 1999; Lemish, 2003; Newsom, 2004). What have real girls—girls like Angela and Bobbi and Roshanda, quoted in the epigraph—made of all these mixed messages?

Growing up with Girl Power addresses this question, focusing in particular on girl power’s manifestations in children’s popular culture. It considers music (particularly the Spice Girls), then prioritizes television in light of cultural critics’ argument that television serves a socializing function in our society. As social learning theory (Bandura, 1977) suggests, when we watch television, we learn. When television characters are shown being rewarded or punished for their actions and attitudes, we learn about cultural norms: what behaviors, roles and expectations are appropriate for various people—including ourselves—within the existing social order (Gerbner and Gross, 1976). In this context, television’s girls are symbolic models (Ormrod, 1999) through which viewers—male and female, adults and children—learn about girls’ status in society, their relationships to others in our social structure, and the possibilities and limitations culturally proscribed of girlhood.

Forty years of studies have confirmed that children’s programming is rife with gender stereotypes, influencing cultural ideas about girlhood. Time and again, girls have been depicted as passive and uninteresting, as objects instead of subjects—as people whose stories are less attention-worthy than those of boys. Boys have been depicted as having agency, status, and power while girls just looked pretty. In children’s television programs and advertisements, boys have been featured more frequently, more prominently, and in a wider range of settings and activities than girls (i.e., Barner, 1999; Browne, 1998; Larson, 2001; Seiter, 1992; Signorielli, 1989; Sternglanz and Serbin, 1974). This constituted a symbolic annihilation (Tuchman, 1978) of girls, who were omitted from or trivialized in a range of story lines, and condemned if they failed to meet a very narrow range of standards for acceptable female behavior and appearance.

In the 1990s, pro-girl rhetoric gained traction in U.S. culture and many other countries, lessening girls’ symbolic annihilation and the perpetual reinscription of restrictive female sex roles. Children’s television networks began airing shows internationally about complex, interesting female protagonists, such as Nickelodeon’s Clarissa Explains It All (1991–1994), The Wild Thornberrys (1998–2004), and As Told by Ginger (2000–2009). Sarah Banet-Weiser (2004) considered these programs to be girl power texts in which “empowerment and agency define[d] girls more than helplessness and dependency” (p. 136). This was the opposite of much prior children’s television programming. Banet-Weiser (2004) noted that despite this ← xii | xiii → progress, these girl power shows have been criticized as commercial texts devoid of real political engagement (p. 137)—but she argued that they nonetheless “provide[d] a different cultural script for both girl and boy audience members, a script that challenge[d] conventional narratives and images about what girls are and who they should be” (pp. 135–136).

This positive change also extended into action-adventure television cartoons— a remarkable improvement, given that in this genre, story lines consistently had trivialized or omitted girls altogether. As Ellen Seiter (1992) observed, in the 1970s, action-adventure children’s television included girls on only a token level, and by the early 1990s, girls were typically excluded altogether. Yet in the late 1990s and early 2000s, many action-adventure cartoons featured girls and teams of heroic girls who would always save the world—fists first, if necessary, harnessing and owning their anger. In programs like Cartoon Network’s The Powerpuff Girls (1998–2005), Totally Spies (2001–2007) and Disney’s Kim Possible (2002–2007), girls were superheroes in their own rights—smart, strong, and savvy. Their acts of strength and bravery were the rule, not the exception, in their behavior. It was an unprecedented televisual representation.

This book documents how girl hero cartoons emerged and contributed to cultural discourse about pre-teen girls. It begins by situating girl hero cartoons within other major discourses about girlhood. Chapter One considers studies by the American Association of University Women, books by popular authors such as Mary Pipher and Peggy Orenstein, and the riot grrrls’ creative output, including the concept of girl power—as well as their media reception. Chapter Two explores the mainstreaming of girl power effected by the Spice Girls and what it came to mean in their hands, while Chapter Three describes how young feminists who grew up with the Spice Girls recollect receiving the band’s discourses on girlhood. Through retrospective interviews, I consider whether and how they feel the Spice Girls’ mainstreaming of girl power influenced them and informed their feminist identities.

Chapter Four builds upon the first three chapters by unpacking the stories girl hero cartoons have told, examining their discourses about girlhood and empowerment. Then, Chapter Five describes the research methodologies used for the studies described in Chapters Six through through Nine. These latter chapters explore what the girl hero cartoon’s discourse on girl power meant to pre-adolescent girls in the cartoons’ target audience while the cartoons were popular. In the research that underpins these chapters, I viewed and discussed girl hero cartoons with real girls. We explored what it meant to grow up with girl power, contradictions and all. Through these conversations, I learned how girls have negotiated the cartoons’ ← xiii | xiv → representations of sexism, strength, intelligence, identity, femininity, and race, and how they related these readings to their everyday lives. Chapter Nine moves beyond the girl hero cartoons to investigate other modes of girl power preferred by the African-American girls in my study. It focuses especially on the Bratz brand of diverse dolls that many of the girls loved—and used in surprising ways. Thus, Growing up with Girl Power both analyzes discourses on girlhood and reveals how real girls have drawn upon girl power discourse while negotiating pre-adolescent identities.

Although Growing up with Girl Power examines girl power within a U.S. context, it may be read in relation to the girl power literature previously published in other nations. The Spice Girls were a British pop music act who gained global popularity, making girl power a truly international phenomenon. As such, scholars beyond the U.S. have published numerous internationally situated interrogations of the Spice Girls and other girl power vehicles. These publications include the works of Catherine Driscoll, Anita Harris, Dafna Lemish, Valerie Walkerdine, and Rebecca Willett, among others. Growing up with Girl Power provides a perspective on girl power’s reception by U.S. girls that both informs and is informed by studies in Australia, Canada, Israel, the United Kingdom, and other nations.

This book also has deeper implications beyond our understanding of girl power alone. Its overarching goals are to enhance our understanding of girls as audience members and of girls’ identity development processes. How do girls negotiate the media’s representations of girls, and how are these negotiations influenced by their broader cultural context? How do girls then inform their self-images and identity construction through the consumption of these representations and related social influences? Engaging with feminist theory and cultural studies scholarship, Growing up with Girl Power offers answers to these questions.

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XIV, 315
ISBN (Hardcover)
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2019 (February)
pop culture race identity femininity strength Pre-adolescent Gender Identity Sexism Racism Girls Media Culture
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2012. XIV, 315 pp., num. ill.

Biographical notes

Rebecca Hains (Author)

Rebecca C. Hains received her PhD in mass media and communication and a graduate certificate in women’s studies from Temple University. She is Assistant Professor of Communications at Salem State University in Salem, Massachusetts.


Title: Growing Up With Girl Power