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Girls, grrrls, gurls, and the tools they use.

Gerry Bloustien, GIRL MAKING: A CROSS-CULTURAL ETHNOGRAPHY ON THE PROCESSES OF GROWING UP FEMALE. New York: Berghahn Books, 2003. 296p. illlus. bibl. index. pap., $25.00/[pounds sterling]7.00, ISBN 978-1-57181-426-5.

Mary Celeste Kearney, GIRLS MAKE MEDIA. New York: Routledge, 2006. 384p. bibl. index. pap., $29.95, ISBN 978-0415972789.

Sharon R. Mazzarella, ed., GIRL WIDE WEB: GIRLS, THE INTERNET, AND THE NEGOTIATION OF IDENTITY. New York: Peter Lang, 2005. 225p. pap., $29.95, ISBN 978-0820471174.

Shayla Theil Stern, INSTANT IDENTITY: ADOLESCENT GIRLS AND THE WORLD OF INSTANT MESSAGING. New York: Peter Lang, 2007. 144p. pap., $27.95, ISBN 978-0820463254.

When I was a girl in elementary school, a common art project involved piecing pictures together from the "leftovers tray" of construction paper. Some girls went for the obvious and made the traditional milk-carton-shaped house with one lollipop tree. Others varied it a bit, maybe adding a cat on the sidewalk. The boys had different tropes, such as gargantuan trucks and dinosaurs, but that's another story. When it came right down to it, exactly what was being put together didn't matter as much as how it was done. There were only so many themes, after all. The tools and the individual's artistry made the biggest difference. Blunt-ended scissors, the sharp edge of pointed scissors snuck in from home, or the measured strength of small fingers tearing strips into precise shapes to make the gradations of light and color that create dimensionality--those were the tools, and our fingers made the artistry. A deft touch using a mouse or trackpad may be more to the point now for girls who take up the culture of technology, with new media choices such as zines, digital movies, podcasts, or even the seemingly ephemeral text of instant messaging, which often gets saved and repurposed.

The four books under review here--Girl Making, Girls Make Media, Girl Wide Web, and Instant Identity--have much to say about the media employed in identity construction, but the real heart of the issue is how girls use the tools at hand.

A good place to start is with Girl Making: A Cross-Cultural Ethnography on the Processes of Growing Up Female, which offers an international view of what it means to be an adolescent girl--primarily in Australia, but also in the United States and Great Britain. This ethnography centers on a self-filming project in which girls were given camcorders to use for recording self-selected pieces of their lives--a collage in which participants "played with representation, played with image" (p.50). Author Gerry Bloustien sees what the girls produce as an expression of Bourdieu's "nuanced difference" or even Derrida's differance, a treasure hunt of tropes combined and recombined in new configurations that are also a manifestation of Handelman's "serious play" (p. 12).

Bloustien gains much insight by her use of ethnography, having extensive access to the girls' home, school, and social lives over a period of fifteen months, but with the entire project actually taking more than ten years to complete (pp.6-7). She describes and analyzes one participant's reaction to seeing herself looking in a hand mirror while she filmed her own directed gaze:
  So with the representation of the self comes perception, insight, and
  simultaneous delusion--empowerment and alienation. We seem to capture
  the historical specificity of an "essentialist" self, the "authentic
  self"--is it there? Who am I? Do I exist? Again Hilary's visual image
  with the video referred to at the beginning of this chapter was
  striking because at that moment she captured that uncertainty and
  incredulity within the camera frame, underlining it powerfully with
  the words in voice-over, "My goodness, that is me!" (p.50)

The representation of self that Hilary sees on the screen meshes with her inner view, creating a new matrix that meets at the moment of vision, inner vision, and spoken word. It is interesting that the small revelation of self is not complete until she films the insight and the spoken description of inner analysis. The camcorder not only records the moment; it mediates it in the way "media" can.

Subsequent chapters focus on identity seen through the body; defining private space as a reflection of identity; and appropriated public spaces used for expressing identity in the same way as the traditional girl's bedroom, i.e., a construction crafted to express who the girls are. One of the most interesting chapters analyzes acculturations seen through a definition of "cool," which involves how the omnipresent use of the term "cool" as a positive marker for objects, places, or even personal style shapes identity for these girls. Other chapters look at the place of music within identity and how certain parts of music culture have masculine assumptions (e.g., the trope that girls can't rock or can't play certain instruments), which can require more assertion or a purposeful reshaping of gender assumptions for girls who wish to take on particular roles. The last chapter gives a global extension of Bloustien's observations, which are focused for most of the book on Australia. Even though Bloustien deals with these diverse aspects of identity well, the connective force for the book as a whole is the camcorder project.

It was the camcorder project that gave Bloustien access to these young women's lives. But the power of ethnography is such that it situates the researcher as a natural part of the observed landscape. Bloustien went with her subjects to the clubs, the mall, and their schools, and regularly visited their homes as part of the study. Her presence as a researcher provided another lens focused on the scene, one without tape or editing limitations, and allowed her to enter places and experiences she would never, as a "normal mother" of two children, have gotten beyond the smoky surface of. For example, the footage shot by Pat, a self-described "raver" in the study, of preparations for a rave "at the disused Adelaide Gaol" [Jail] (p. 172) shows a transformation through the use of image that anyone but a participant might have missed. Bloustien writes that in Pat's video, "the grim stone walls of the jail gradually became the backdrop for a very different cultural space, a very different social context for ephemeral identities" (p. 172). At the same time, this transformation was not necessarily the inversion of public space "from rule to misrule" that the participants in the event intended. As Bloustien points out, "the commercial aspect of a rave was paramount: if not enough money could be made from the night, if there were not enough potential supporters, then the event would be cancelled" (p. 173). At the same time, this commercialism hinders the otherwise primary function of a rave as identity consolidator and community builder and makes the choice of space less contested and more of a commercial choice.


Clearly, the subject Bloustien tackles is large, and the timeframe equally so. But is the camcorder the only notable technology in these girls' lives? If any of Bloustien's subjects were involved in the social computing activities of the time, such as email, IRC, ICQ, Bulletin Board Services, or Usenet groups, she does not mention it. She does discuss the gendered nature of technology use, noting that "women are not socialized into understanding technical matters" (p.49). In all fairness, it may be that none of the girls in this study had a computer in the home or Internet access either in school or in a public place such as a library or an Internet cafe. Even if that was the case, the exclusion of commonly used technologies from the book merely serves to perpetuate a perception of women as innately technophobic. Despite this oversight, which may have more to do with the place and time of the study than with any intentional exclusion, this is a powerful book with much to offer readers interested in girls' studies. It records and analyzes girls in the act of recording and analyzing themselves, a reflective practice that needs to continue in other media as well if we are ever to understand more about both identity construction and the technical tools that enable or accelerate it.

Using a slightly different approach, Mary Celeste Kearney also deals with identity in Girls Make Media, while at the same time pushing media to the forefront. Kearney sees media use by girls--especially those media normally co-opted by men--as positive in itself, as a form of empowerment. The point is a simple one. Before stereotypical depictions of women in the media can change, more women must become media producers. Kearney provides a detailed view of girls who make movies, produce and read zines (print and Web), and give the lie to the term frontman in rock bands. At the same time, she offers insight about the economic and social capital needed to keep such projects alive, especially the ones geared to adolescent girls who are also economically disadvantaged. It's expensive to make movies, and computers are yet to be a given in the home. Even when a girl's family has a computer, it may be seen as a glorified typewriter rather than as a multimedia producer complete with iMovie, Garageband, Final Cut Pro, Macromedia Flash, or even text- and image-manipulating software such as Adobe Photoshop, Illustrator, or InDesign. Girls Make Media is a call for action, but it is also a good resource for those who wish to know more about the history and present status of media production by girls for girls.

Centering on the concepts behind the DIY (Do-It-Yourself) movement, Kearney analyzes several forms of media production by girls, some organized by adults and some self-generated. Beginning with movie production, she moves on to print, music, and the Web, highlighting work that is being done by girls who believe that in the midst of a society that finds them invisible, they can "do it themselves" and collectively act for change. The chapter on "cybergurls" is especially thorough. Citing Doreen Piano, who has done much work in the area of feminist print and Web zines and their "distros" (distributors), Kearney agrees that distro owners "represent not only a new generation of feminist media distributors, but also a unique type because of their commitment to cyberculture" (pp.284-85). If this is the future for girls in media production, then it doesn't matter whether you call them girls, grrrls, gurls, or cybergirls; the point is that they are there, and they aren't waiting for someone else to "empower" them. Thus, their future is very bright indeed.

Important within the examination of various media production by girls is the author's own study of twelve zine distros run by girls. Kearney chose online distro owners "because their web skills and participation in digital culture are quite high in comparison to other young female web users" (p.255). She writes,
  In addition to creating online businesses [for distributing print
  copies of girl-run zines], which requires regular maintenance, these
  teenage girls and young women are active in web culture via email,
  instant messaging, message boards, and online journals (also known as
  web logs or more commonly, "blogs"). Another reason I am interested in
  studying this specific group of young female web designers is because
  the particular type of website they develop--online distros--allows
  them to merge and thus blur the distinctions between, several
  practices essential to media culture: consumption (most of these girls
  read zines and have created a mechanism by which other zine readers
  can obtain such texts); production (most create zines and have
  produced at least one website, their distro); entrepreneurship (all
  are business owners, even if they rarely make a profit or a living
  from this work); community development (most encourage communication
  with their customers, and all participate in groups related to micro
  media). (p.255)

This blurring between the functions of consumption, production, and distribution, as well as the resulting community-building so valued by feminists, is a hallmark of the DIY movement among feminist women and girls; at the same time, it has side benefits for those interested in how girls take on technology use as a part of their identities.

Kearney finds that these girls "develop interest, training, and experience in computing outside academic settings" (p.290), an observation I also made in my own research on adolescent girls and personal weblogs. Even now, schools that do include technology focus mostly on trade literacies, such as learning to use word-processing, database, and presentation applications of the sort typically needed in a secretarial or other support position. In other words, schools still assume that girls (and to some extent boys as well) will be media consumers rather than media producers. Girls Make Media gives evidence that counters the passive view of women as exclusively media consumers, with its extensive histories and details of grrrls (and gurls) who make media in their own image and in their own words.

Venturing further out into digital space, Girl Wide Web: Girls, the Internet, and the Negotiation of Identity is a collection of articles on how girls use the Web for identity construction, including some older ways, such as home pages, fan-based home pages, and old journalism-style Web magazines; and some newer developments such as instant messaging.

Like most anthologies, this one contains a combination of the good, the bad, and (a little bit of) the ugly, yet it leans definitively toward the good. It was disappointing to me that the essay "Gender, Power, and Social Interaction: How Blue Jean Online Constructs Adolescent Girlhood," by Susan F. Walsh, could apparently not be updated before publication to reflect the fact that the Blue Jean Online website, according to Wikipedia, was disbanded in 2004 (see The website is portrayed glowingly as an alternative to traditional print magazines for girls, with their rigid ideology about what it means to be female. Clearly, the site had a rich history that is worth writing about, but current visitors to will not find examples of the original girl-produced content, but are instead automatically redirected to, a professionally produced publicity site for Sherry Handel that includes promotion for her book Blue Jean: What Young Women are Thinking, Saying, and Doing (2001), which is based on the print magazine that preceded the website. This alone is evidence for the importance of collections like Girl Wide Web; the ephemeral nature of the Web made Walsh's chapter obsolete before the collection could get out in print. On the other hand, print production is flexible enough these days that it seems there should have been time for the author of the chapter and/or the editor and publisher of Girl Wide Web to have inserted a statement about the demise of the site, at the least, before the book was printed in 2005. Sites like this that no longer exist should be written about to keep Web history alive, but should also be placed in current context. I would speculate that Blue Jean Online died not because girls no longer want to write about issues tied to their lives, but because newer technologies--such as blogs, Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter--are better suited to their needs.

That issue aside, the collection strives to meet a high standard for inclusiveness, in terms both of culture and of types of media. Sharon R. Mazzarella, in "Claiming a Space: The Cultural Economy of Teen Girl Fandom on the Web," details the remediation--using the word in the way that Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin do (in their foundational book of the same name (1)) about the process people go through when media use evolves from an earlier medium to a newer, more technologized one--of traditional fandom from print to the Web. Mazzarella also sees those sites as "cultural artifacts" (p. 144) where girls act as cultural producers (p.145) and accumulate "popular culture capital" (p. 150) that they can then share with other online fans, thus "intentionally seeking to create (or join) a community" (p.153). Another chapter, Shayla Theil Stern's "'IM Me': Identity Construction and Gender Negotiation in the World of Adolescent Girls and Instant Messaging," was the basis for the final book reviewed in this essay, Instant Identity: Adolescent Girls and the World of Instant Messaging (also published by Peter Lang).

The last chapter in the book, "The Constant Contact Generation: Exploring Teen Friendship Networks Online," by Lynn Schofield Clark, may also be the most forward-thinking. It ably speculates about and synthesizes the implications of the always "on" adolescent girl, in touch with her peers every waking moment through instant messaging, cell phone, and email. Given this collection's focus on different aspects of the Web and identity, I also wonder how one of the newest social software developments, Twitter--an add-on frequently placed in a block on a user's blog where it is used to note what the user is doing at every moment--would affect Clark's assessment that "today's young people experience constant accessibility, separation from adults, and their multitasking abilities as liberating and empowering, a way to manage risk and to direct one's own life course" (p.218). I suspect that girls' use of such products as Twitter would illustrate the author's point quite well. They would probably also heighten her sense that such a high degree of self-surveillance, while "seemingly empowering," could also "echo a set of employer-defined expectations that end up erecting limits on leisure and personal privacy at later points in life" (pp.218-19). This blurring of the line between public and private has massive implications for "gurls"--and others.


Shayla Theil Stern's Instant Identity: Adolescent Girls and the World of Instant Messaging was a late entry into this review (having just become available from the publisher mid-year), but a most welcome one. Although many books and articles about the Web point out the increasing blurring of the line between what is considered public and what is considered private, this work, in its consideration of instant messaging (IM), describes yet another layer of fuzziness--that between the textual and the oral. In other words, as Theil notes, IM occurs in real time, like a face-to-face casual conversation, yet it can also be saved as a file that can be read later as a record of a memorable conversation or as a type of diary (pp.58-59). Theil uses case studies of twelve (originally fourteen) adolescent girls recruited through word of mouth for an ethnographic study in which IM conversations were collected over a period of eight months in 2001 and 2002 (pp.16-17). As Theil states, IM is "a preferred mode of communication among large sectors of adolescent girls." The book's chapters include a look at how IM is used to "demonstrate social status and in some cases, 'fake' popularity" through buddy list disclosure, how it is used as "a new means of gossip," how IM can be private space within the family home, and how many of the girls found it "easier to disclose personal feelings online than in person or on the phone, and their IM conversations often cover personal topics such as sexuality and religion" (p.25).

Community construction is another aspect of IM, with one common use being that of social planning (pp.33-34), but the flip side of that community is how competitive the girls can be about how many people they can interact with at the same time, as discussed in the chapter entitled "How Many Peeps Are On 4U?" (pp.39-41). Another negative aspect is that IM can be used as a means of exclusion through blocking, both literally in IM and socially in public (pp.41-42).

Overall, this book uses textual analysis and interviews to look at what may be the pivotal medium of communication for adolescent girls at this time. New technologies will emerge, and instant messaging will continue to evolve, adding new features while blending with other social software. In its overall importance, though, I believe IM is at least equal in status to telephone use by girls in the "Princess phone" era of the 1960s and 1970s. With that in mind, until more of the ongoing research on adolescent girls and instant messaging comes out (I'm thinking specifically of Pam Takayoshi of Kent State's longitudinal study on girls and IM, which recently won a grant from NCTE), this densely packed little book gives an accurate and readable look at how girls interact online using instant messaging software.

All four of these books are clearly and unapologetically within the realm of girls' studies. Few scholars would argue that there are too many studies on adolescent girls and identity. Far too many studies focus on the "generalized adolescent," which really means boys only. But for whatever the reasons (and they are complex), adolescent boys and adolescent girls have different approaches and goals when it comes to identity construction. Looking at who girls are as well as what they aspire to through their use of new media continues the thread of earlier identity-construction studies on consumerism and girls' bedroom culture. The history Kearney gives in Girls Make Media, "Girls' Cultural Production Prior to the Late Twentieth Century" (p. vii), contextualizes this history. At the same time, her careful examination of the zine culture complements the camcorder case study of identity-construction used in Bloustien's Girl Making. Finally, Stern's Instant Identity is a welcome expansion and later look at the issues raised and thoughtfully considered in Mazarella's collection, Girl Wide Web. These four works, with their focus on girls, girls' identity construction, and the media girls use in the process, produce a fascinating read that adds much to what we know about "girl-making," no matter how you spell it.


1. Jay David Bolter & Richard Grusin, Remediation: Understanding New Media (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2000).

[Lanette Cadle is an assistant professor of English at Missouri State University, where she is also the acting director of composition. Her specialty is computers and writing, and she is the senior editor for Computers and Composition Online, the Web companion to the print journal Computers and Composition.]
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Author:Cadle, Lanette
Publication:Feminist Collections: A Quarterly of Women's Studies Resources
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 22, 2007
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