Girlhood in popular culture | Work of Arts
Girlhood in popular culture | Work of Arts

Girlhood in popular culture

Women’s & Gender Studies researcher Cristina Stasia studies the depiction of girls and female action heroes in popular culture and how that impacts the formation of girls’ identities

It’s been a great year for Cristina Stasia, faculty lecturer in the Department of Women’s & Gender Studies.

Earlier this year she won two teaching awards — a UAlberta William Hardy Alexander Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching and a Contract Instructor Teaching Award from the Faculty of Arts — and, in recognition of her volunteer work and contributions to the city, was recently named one of the 2014 Top 40 Under 40 by Avenue Edmonton magazine.

stasia-a0018213_fWhile these acknowledgements are a huge achievement in their own right, they are especially meaningful for Stasia because it validates her approach to research, teaching and volunteering. “[The awards recognize] the work I do in the classroom and recognizes that the work extends into the community and [also] has real-world impact beyond the classroom. It’s thrilling!” beams Stasia.

Stasia researches action cinema, genre theory, post feminism and more recently, girlhood studies, which is an emerging field of research. “Girlhood studies looks at where we get our understanding of what a girl is,” explains Stasia.

“We need to get away from looking at what adults are making up about girls, and looking at what girls are actually saying themselves.”

This understanding is problematic because what we know about girls and the measures for what it means to be a girl are usually set by adult women or men. For example, early research on girls was conducted by male psychoanalysts and philosophers. Similarly, the popular notion of “Girl Power” is ultimately represented by adult women such as Charlie’s Angels and the Spice Girls.

“[We need to get away] from looking at what adults are making up about girls, and looking at what girls are actually saying themselves,” says Stasia. “We need to start looking at the culture they are producing and how they engage in the pop culture they are given. This is how they form their identities and negotiate their worlds, and we need to listen to them.”

In addition, the depiction of girls in popular culture tends to default to “pretty, little, white, straight, blonde girls,” which discounts the experiences of girls of colour, queer girls, trans girls, girls of lower classes, homeless girls and more, adds Stasia.

Female action stars

Stasia also looks at active femininity and female action stars such as Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games and Hit Girl from Kick-Ass. She recently published about the representation of the “violent girl” in film — a new inflection of girlhood that is gaining popularity in pop culture. “These are girls that use weapons, who are not sexualized in conventional ways…. I’m looking at the way that action films represent girlhood and the ways girls are taking up these representations of girlhood.

cristina-cropped-2“Girl Power didn’t tell girls to be powerful, it just told them to buy more stuff,” explains Stasia. In contrast, the violent girl encourages girls to become active. For instance, there has been a huge upswing in girls who have taken up archery since The Hunger Games was released. “Now we have all these girls whose identity isn’t located in shopping or consumption or in their sexuality but in being active.”

Being active is also something that characterizes Stasia’s teaching methods and community service. In addition to serving on a number of local boards, she is an in-demand public speaker on topics such as constructions of femininity and masculinity, pop culture and female empowerment. Stasia has had a number of people audit her Women’s & Gender Studies classes — including a radiology professor and a social worker for the Provincial Government — simply after hearing her speak at an event.

“Put your money and time where your outrage is”

When her students get angry over social issues they discuss in class, Stasia asks them: “What are you going to do about it?” She regularly assigns a social media “intervention” as a class project, in which students are encouraged to intervene in the toxic online culture for women.

Earlier this year, Stasia’s students waged a “girlcott” of local radio station 100.3 The Bear over its contests that objectify women; other students petitioned the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra to include more compositions by women and have female conductors.

In the wake of the Jian Ghomeshi scandal, one of Stasia’s current students is rallying people to donate $1 to their local sexual assault centre. Although $1 may seem like a small amount, the cumulative total could be significant. This effect mirrors Stasia’s philosophy to activism: as a proponent of “putting your money and time where your outrage is,” she asserts that there are always little things people can do and small steps people can take to make a difference.

IMG_5175_Photo by Ed Ellis
Photo: Cristina Stasia (centre) receiving her Contract Instructor Teaching Award from Vice-Dean Lise Gotell (L) and Arts Dean Lesley Cormack (R) at Arts Awards Night in May 2014.

“The three — activism, research, teaching — are so intertwined for me because if I come across something academically, I’ll write an article. But if there’s a practical solution, then I’ll pursue that as well. My academic article will impact my academic field, but it won’t necessarily have real-world changes, at least not for a long time, so I like to bring that into the community — speed up that process.”

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