I visited The Maine Girls’ Academy, then Catherine McAuley, maybe 10 years ago. I drove down from Colby College in Waterville where I teach in Educational Studies to talk with students and staff about my book, Packaging Girlhood. My presentation was a riff on a series of popular media images designed to illustrate the limited ways girlhood is marketed and sold to girls. The American Psychological Association’s task force report on the Sexualization of Girls had just been released and the news was not good. Media sexualization and objectification have all kinds of negative effects, from lower self-esteem to lower grades, from higher rates of depression to higher rates of sexual harassment and sexual violence.
The students filed into the auditorium, a visual variation on a theme–shirts and sweaters and plaid skirts. It was a familiar sight. I’d spent much of my graduate school life listening to girls in different private schools. To my once untrained eye, such girls seemed pretty much alike. But I learned quickly that the uniformity of uniforms belies a rich diversity of experience, unique interests, distinctly sharp and clever minds, and a great range of feelings and opinions.
Girls have little patience for adults who act like we know more about girls or popular culture than they do. As I spoke, I did my very best “don’t kill the messenger” talk, assuring girls that when I critique a brand or clothing line for the messages they convey, I’m not critiquing the girls who buy them or the models who wear them. I don’t think girls are dupes. I do think marketers are very clever. I don’t think we should avoid media. I do think it’s good to know what corporations and advertisers are up to and the lengths they’ll go to make a buck. It’s good to have fun, and fashion is creative fun. It’s also good to notice when we’re being played–sold the “freedom” or “power” to choose among different versions of the same thing. It’s especially good to pause and ask questions, even if we ultimately buy a product, because in that pause we give ourselves a little space, a little breathing room to consider our options.
As I spoke about things like Victoria’s Secret’s use of the term “aspirational” to sell their Pink line to tweens and DC’s use of relational aggression to sell their jackets, I saw some heads nodding and a sense of collective interest. I also picked up some resistance. Resistance comes in lots of forms. In public presentations, it’s rarely direct. Working with girls, I’ve learned never to assume silence is acquiescence or nodding is agreement. Resistance is likely to be c/overt—apparent only to the initiated, visible in the mismatch between polite smiles and body language.
Let me be perfectly clear. I love when girls question what someone tells them—especially when that someone is me. I live for it. It’s the sign of a healthy environment, excellent teachers, a first-rate school. And there’s nothing I love more than the girl who cannot contain herself, who just has to speak what she knows, feels, and thinks.
So right away I noticed her, a girl resister, seated about midway up the auditorium to the right of the aisle. As I spoke, her brows furrowed, her head bent to paper, scribbling notes, she fidgeted; everything about her suggested something was up. In my memory she has dyed black hair, cut in punkish fashion. But maybe I’ve added this feature to distinguish her from the girls around her.
I finished my talk and her hand shot up. Lots of other girls raised their hands too—as I said, signs of a great school–but in my head she and I were already in conversation, so I called on her first.
I don’t remember her exact words, but I remember that she pressed me on where I stood—on my loyalty to girls, and by extension, to her. Did I really believe in a girl’s capacity to choose for herself? Would I support her when she chose differently from me? One of my favorite authors, Jeanette Winterson, writes in her coming of age novel, Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, “There are different kinds of fidelity, but betrayal is betrayal wherever you find it. By betrayal, I mean promising to be on your side, then being on somebody else’s.” This girl wanted to know which side I was on. She had every right to ask. We then had one of those brief but intense conversations where everyone else blurs into the background. In the end, we exchanged email addresses. I remember hers clearly because it fit her: spidergirl. A girl with a super power: to say what she thinks.
Spidergirl travels with me; she and other resisters who have questioned me, called me out, caused me to think harder and feel more—girls from other schools, like Anna, Cheyanne, Tierra, Dannie. Girls who dare to interrupt the way things go, to speak up for themselves and for all the other resisters in the room thinking hard and writing down their questions.
It’s been a decade since I visited and much has changed for the Maine Girls’ Academy—a new name, new leadership, new girls. Much has changed in the world, too—a black man is president; a woman may be next. Spidergirl has long ago graduated; she’s an alum, living her life out there somewhere, pushing the boundaries and making the world a better place. As for me, I’m thrilled to be back at MGA, excited to share what she and other girl resisters and activists have taught me over the years.
Lyn Mikel Brown is a professor of Education at Colby College. Her most recent book is Powered By Girl: A Field Guide for Supporting Youth Activists (Beacon Books, 2016).
Join The Maine Girls’ Academy community in welcoming Lyn and local girl activist to our community evening on October 5th, 2016 at 6PM. To learn more about the event click here.
To order a copy of Powered by Girl click here.