Bad girls, mean girls, girls gone wild—there’s no shortage of stereotypes associated with young women in mainstream culture, clichés that are rarely ever applied to boys. (Ever heard of a ‘boy gone wild’? Me either.)
Montreal-based authors and activists Tatiana Fraser and Caia Hagel attempt to correct that state of affairs in their new book, Girl Positive: Supporting Girls to Shape a New World . Together, Fraser, a co-founder of Girls Action Foundation, and Hagel, a journalist and co-founder of the entrepreneurial collective HungryForFortune, were determined to challenge prevailing notions about girlhood, ideas that, “just didn’t line up with the realities that we saw in girls’ lives,” says Fraser.
The book opens the girlhood franchise to all young women, breaking out of the white, middle-class status quo that dominates popular culture. Girl Positive—which, BTW, is blurbed by none other than Sophie Grégoire Trudeau, who calls it a “call to action”—also serves as something of a contemporary handbook on how to encourage girls to develop a clear sense of autonomy and individuality.
We talked to Fraser and Hagel about why girls bear the weight of our cultural stereotypes, why adult women need to be mentors and why it’s so important to involve boys in conversations about sex and gender equality.
Girls are often presented as a problem or a subject of concern in pop culture. We’re fascinated by girls gone wild, mean girls, etc. Why?
TF: What we unpack in the book is how popular narratives are rooted in outdated values and belief systems that still echo of sexism and racism. For example, we look at girls and the narrative of hyper-sexualization [around them], which is really rooted in a moral panic and fear of girls’ sexuality. It’s the same-old issue of power and control over girls’ sexuality but repackaged for our era. This positions girls as victims and denies them the opportunity to be empowered in their sexuality. One of the ways that this can be reframed is to really look at girls’ sexuality as desire and pleasure and ask, ‘How are we educating girls and boys about girls’ sexuality?’
You travelled to 11 cities during your research for the book, from Whitehorse to San Francisco, meeting a very diverse range of girls and letting them speak for themselves about their experiences. Why do so few people speak to real girls when they talk about youth culture?
TF: Adults tend to want to see themselves as experts and it negates that girls are actually experts in their own lives. A lot of the ways that issues around girls have been taken up is through a lens of psychology—we tend to individualize girls and not see the broader social structures that they’re swimming in. Also, I think adults have a hard time seeing and embracing their perspectives as legitimate. This comes back to the idea of the narrative around girls being centred on a white middle-class girl. There’s an investment in protecting that kind of pure vision of a girl, and within that there’s a need to control it, so girls are seen as objects instead of subjects in their lives. Part of this is unpacking that so we can reframe girls as agents in their lives and agents for change in society.
CH: Girls are already reframing themselves as agents and that’s what’s interesting about this time in history. Because of the Internet, and the voices that different girls are pushing onto the world stage, there’s no longer any room to deny those voices.
I related to some of the things girls were saying and feeling in the book, especially their struggles around sexuality and freedom and who they are within the culture. In a way, I felt like the girls in the book and adult women readers are drawn together in that way…
CH: Imagine if we had had those issues addressed and those needs met when we were girls! We might not still be struggling with them as adults.
TF: I think the book is an invitation for women of all ages to really reflect on where we are as women—our power and our quest for equity in society. It’s the first step towards transcending those limits and barriers and finding solutions for change.
Girl power can often feel like a consumer trend. In the book you underline the idea that we need to locate female power politically. How do we do this?
TF: Over the past 20 years a lot of girl empowerment has been [commodified], so it starts by not being duped by this kind of corporate engagement. At the same time, it’s a really interesting time because there’s so much going on in popular culture around feminism so the opportunity is there to take it to a deeper level. We’re trying to provide that deeper dive into the issues so that we can connect the dots and really start to see how girls and women’s day-to-day lives and experiences are connected to broader social and political issues.
CH: We have a lot of celebrity feminism now. It seems really sexy and it seems as if the project is complete because we can name these people that are so-called feminists, but when you look at the real statistics not a lot has changed. We might have Beyoncé or Zendaya or Lena Dunham, but women still only earn 72 cents on the dollar.
Very often we act as if women should be guardians to girls, but in the book you really emphasize how important it is to play the role of mentor, too. How important is mentorship for girls’ development?
CH: That’s a really big theme in the book. We reached out to a lot of mentors who had been involved for many years with the Girls Action Foundation [a v. cool Canadian non-profit that provides leadership programs and many other resources to girls], and through them we met with communities of girls who all talked about their mentors as being indispensable resources.
TF: The value of mentorship through peers was also a theme in the book. Learning from their peers and hearing from their peers is really important to them.
You make a point of not only talking about boys in the book but you also talk to them. Why are we so reluctant to involve boys in discussions about sexuality, violence and gender equity? And what’s the harm, for them, in not doing that?
TF: Society still continues to blame the girl, to blame the victim of sexual violence, and so I think we just haven’t gotten good at engaging boys in the conversation. They want to be included; they want to be part of addressing these issues so that’s pretty hopeful and inspiring. One successful way of involving boys is through consent-based sex ed that is sex-positive towards girls, that centres on pleasure and desire.
CH: As much as we’re talking about smashing the outdated cultural beliefs and attitudes around girls, we also have to smash them around boys, too, because boys are taught to be manly and tough and never to complain and to put their ego first, and all these old macho narratives. But in fact, the truth about boys is that they’re emotional. They want to have emotional connection and dialogue and they want to participate in creating tomorrow’s world with girls.
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