Wednesday, May 28, 2008

'Girls Make Media' (we really do!)

I've always fancied myself a rocker chick, so to speak. After many years of lip syncing to the Go Go's in my garage with my next-door-neighbor, Kim (she played the tennis racket, I was lead singer and had a Mr. Microphone), I joined my first rock band when I was in 9th grade as the keyboard player. We were a hair band cover band with the unfortunate name of Public Menace (changed to "pubic" on all the posters we made for our show at  our  junior high school) -- "Talk Dirty to Me" by Poison, "Home Sweet Home" by Motley Crue, "Animal" by Def Leppard, and "Jump" by Van Halen were in our repertoire. The Go Go's would never have rocked enough for us even though the bands we covered probably stole some of their make-up and hair secrets.  
In high school and  college, I stuck to jazz and classical, but I was the singer/keyboardist in an 80s/90s cover band after college when I lived in D.C. (Gwen Stefani and Shirley Manson from Garbage were my specialties there), and when I moved to Chicago in 1999, I took up the bass because I knew  it was probably going to be my best chance to really play in a rock band. I was right. I joined three guys in a band we called Brother Lowdown (that's me on the left at our farewell show last summer), and we played from early 2000 until I moved to Minneapolis last fall, starting in small grungy rock clubs (OK, we continued to play a lot of small grungy rock 
clubs up until the very end) and moving up to some fairly legendary places, like Chicago's Metro. We opened for bands that you've possibly heard of, made two EPs and a full-length CD (which we fully recorded and produced on our own), and generally rocked out.

Aside from the lip syncing, however, I always played in bands with guys and no other women (which was circumstance and never choice). And even though I played the bass and wrote songs for Brother Lowdown, people always asked first if I was the lead singer. For whatever reason, that bugged me and still bugs me, but I get it. There are still too few women in bands who are actually playing instruments and actively writing songs that the band will play (our lead singer/guitarist regularly sang songs that I wrote), or at least it would seem that way from the stories we usually read about rock bands. 

But that really isn't the case. Girls throughout history have created various kinds of media and art and music -- long before Sleater Kinney and the riot grrl movement. I didn't necessarily recognize that I was making media myself as a kid (through diaries, songs, stories), but I was. This is one of the greatest points of Mary Celeste Kearney's book "Girls Make Media" -- the simple title really emphasizing the direct action of the process. Furthermore, she says we should not only analyze the texts that mainstream media produce for girls and how they affect girls, but what girls themselves do when left to their own devices. Seeing girls as producers of cultural artifacts tells a much more complete story about identity, gender and feminism. It does a service to the girls and women that they become. (She also talks about how specifically marginalized a lot of DIY artists -- filmmakers in particular -- have been with regard to mainstream acceptance. Again,  why didn't anyone ever ask me if I was the lead guitarist in the band before they asked if I was the singer? And why didn't anyone ask about songwriting? Why is it a big deal when a female musician writes a band's songs?)

So both the rocker chick and professor in me recommends "Girls Make Media" as an excellent read but also a very sophisticated understanding of how cultural theory and critical studies of media explain how gender and power come in to play with girls' creation of media.  (Beware that the theory might be a bit thick for a non-scholar, but Kearney's writing style is still easy to digest.) 

And just as an aside, Kim -- the next-door neighbor rocking the tennis racket -- and I both wound up rioting beyond the garage ourselves. She's now a big-shot competing skateboarder (and kindergarten teacher!). Check her out. (She's in Montana now, but we're still close friends after all these years.)

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Girls' Gains Have Not Harmed Boys

Have you heard of the "boy crisis," the notion that boys have suffered because we've paid so much attention to girls' issues in the classroom over the past several years? This argument has always really bugged me because it essentializes both boys and girls in so may ways, and it pits the sexes against one another instead of looks for solutions that work for all children and adolescents. It is an unproductive argument.

Fortunately, the American Association of University Women decided to get to the bottom of the rhetoric about "boys crisis." They did some research, crunched some numbers and found out that even though boys and girls may (or may not -- it's still a debate) learn differently and succeed in different atmospheres, in general, girls and boys who are white and from a middle to upper class background, have approximately the same level of success in the classroom. Boys outscore girls in some areas (notably on both math and verbal parts of the SAT), girls graduate from high school at a higher rate than boys (though the AAUW points out that women on average still earn less than men in the workforce, suggesting the classroom gains are all for naught).

The real issue is that while boys and girls of color and lower income levels have made some gains over the past 30 years to catch up to their Caucasian and middle class to wealthy peers, they are not succeeding in the classroom and graduating at lower levels all around. The AAUW leadership says the lobbyists for the "boys crisis" (notably, Christina Hoff Sommers, who wrote "The War Against Boys: How Misguided Feminism is Harming Our Young Men") are distracting the country from this much larger problem. The New York Times article is fairly short and admittedly, a little one-sided on the side of the AAUW; you might want to check out the full report yourself. Beware: It's 124 pages and takes a minute to download.

Putting on my college professor hat for a second here, I'd say the research seems credible and is based on massive amounts of data over a long period of time (all kinds of standardized test scores from 1971 to 2007, high school grade point averages from 1990 to 2007, graduation rates from 1969 to 2007, bachelors degrees conferred from 1971 to 2006 -- all broken down by gender, race and class as well as various math and verbal proficiency scores). The authors are a credentialed cultural anthropologist, an education policy person and public policy person who focuses on women's economic status and oversees research for AAUW.

One thing the report does not offer: Any concrete solutions. Perhaps this keeps the data politically-neutral in the eyes of the AAUW, though I'm pretty sure a lot of people would argue that it is not possible for anyone to be objective, and that an advocacy organization like the AAUW should be acting as a powerful advocate to make policy recommendations.

I do wonder what we can do improve the educational system for all students nation-wide. (I'm actually getting involved in a project at a lower-income school in Minneapolis to provide a curriculum that is centered largely around digital media production and literacy, and I think it will be an interesting approach. I'll write more about it as the project unfolds this summer.) So much of this depends on government and funding, and I often feel like such a passive, un-empowered person in that process. It's difficult to see gains even when you are working hard on an individual level to push for reform and help individual students.

On a personal level, I also wonder what I'll do with my own (still non-existent) kids when the time comes. Would I send them to the most diverse school possible so that they have a classroom that actually mirrors the world around them? Do I send them to the nearby private school that has very little diversity, costs a ton and regularly has graduates going to the Ivy League? Should I seek out a school that does some single-sex classroom teaching? I have lots of well-adjusted successful friends who went to single-sex Catholic schools growing up. Maybe I should think about that...

I find myself having a very hard time writing concluding statements for any of these blog entries, to be frank with you. I'd love to make some rallying calls to action -- but exactly who would we rally against? (Please don't answer The Man.) Maybe I need to listen to more conservative radio and take a few pointers from their rhetorical techniques, huh?

For now, carry on, soldiers. Do not go gentle into that good night. Good night and good luck.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Megan Meier and MySpace

You would have to have been living under a rock over the past two days (or at least ignoring all the shouting on CNN -- when did that start? Didn't they used to be the calm, semi-objective news casters?) to have missed all the coverage of the indictment in the Megan Meier suicide case, but just in case you've managed to avoid it (perhaps by paying attention to news of a massive deadline earthquake in China, a massive deadline cyclone in Myanmar and a war happening in Iraq), here is a link to the latest story on the topic:

Mom Indicted in MySpace Hoax

Really, there are so many fascinating and troubling facets to this story that it is hard to know where to begin a rational discussion. Jacqueline Vickery of the University of Texas-Austin presented a paper at the International Online Journalism Symposium in April about how persons on message boards have responded to the story when it first hit last fall, and she related the various sides of the consequences of anonymity online (for everyone involved, really -- from the original case of masked identity to how audiences of the story, many of whom also responded anonymously, made sense of the story).

Here's a link to the page where you can download Vickery's paper as a PDF:

I'm personally interested in looking at how the media has covered the story with regard to gender and power and in perpetuating this concept of the "mean girl." I've studied this before with regard to the Glenbrook North hazing incident a few years ago, and just to be brief, I found the mass media (meaning print, TV, Internet -- the whole lot) liked to glom on to the cultural rise of the "mean girl." In a short period of time in 2001 and 2002, many articles and books were published discussing how girls were conniving, back-biting, and generally, mean (see the first post of this blog for the NY Times Magazine story by Margaret Talbot that kicked it off). This stereotype of tween and teen girls was generally accepted by people from all walks of life (often you heard after this, "Well, girls ARE mean! Remember when you were 13?" as if all girls have a mean gene that just kicks in and allows them to be passive-aggressive and bitchy at a certain age). I argue that it has also been used to explain and in many cases, dismiss certain behavior. What the Glenbrook North high school girls did in their hazing case, however, was not mean. It was incredibly violent. While the girls were maligned by the media and portrayed as snobby (see the photos of one of them carrying her Louis Vuittan purse to court), they were not so much taken to task for their specific, violent behavior, but they were lumped together in this cultural story about girls being mean. And the media held them up as a perfect example.

This is playing out again now in the case of the videotaped and YouTube-posted beating of a cheerleader by other girls (and two guys -- again see the story I posted on the first day of this blog). And I see shades of it in the Megan Meier case. This time the mean girl is Lori Drew (and by extension, her daughter and her daughter's girlfriend), the mother who sent anonymous messages as Josh, apparently hoping to commit some kind of weird revenge on Megan for a falling out she'd had with her daughter. Before the indictment, the second-day stories like this one were fairly common:

A Hoax Turned Fatal Draws Anger but No Charges

The quotes from the sources here say Drew's behavior was "rude" and "immature" and that she was "messing with" Megan. Later on, Drew reportedly said that she felt less guilty since the girl had tried to commit suicide previously. Certainly, now that the indictment has come through (and as Vickery's paper reported, intense outcry about the case has reverberated through the blogosphere and elsewhere), Drew has become the ultimate mean girl: Lady MacBeth. Before she can brought to trial, we've already categorized her (and her co-conspirators, which it has been suggested, are teen girls).

Conversely, Megan is painted as a weak, helpless victim (which may be true, though the media reports certainly aren't objective in describing her as such). She was "teased about her weight" and switched to a new school and lost the weight. She'd been on antidepressants and had attempted suicide before, according to most stories. She had ADD, according to others. She was sensitive and seemingly very gullible, sweet, and vulnerable. That these descriptions are included in the news stories -- especially in contrast with the descriptions of Lori Drew and what she did -- is significant. Simply describing the victim and the perpetrator in these very gendered, subjective ways -- choosing to tell their stories with these words or quoting only people who use these words -- frames the story in a way that takes away from the truly complicated nature of all of it. It makes it so simple for a reader to see the inherent drama in this narrative. It also reinforces the mean girl bully and the girl-as-helpless victim mentality in every way. And we see it played out both overtly and subtly in every news story we read or hear about this case.

I won't weigh on whether she should or shouldn't be charged. Obviously, this is an incredibly sad, tragic case, and the authorities-that-be did indict ultimately indict Drew so there must be strong legal reason to believe there's a case here. I just would like people to pay close attention to how the case is reinforcing gender stereotypes in a way that is in fact, harmful to girls and women, and that makes it impossible to get to the truth of the matter without falling back on the stereotypes.

And sadly -- as evidenced in Glenbrook North, the YouTube cheerleader beating, and now, Megan Meier -- I'm sure this cycle of framing stories will continue to the detriment of us all.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Entering the Girl Wide Web

I'm just going to begin the first several entries of this blog with some book recommendations. The first is a book titled Girl Wide Web: Girls, the Internet and the Negotiation of Identity (edited by Sharon Mazzarella, who is a girls studies scholar and professor at Clemson University), which was released on Peter Lang Publishing in 2005. Granted, it feels a little self-serving to start off by promoting a book in which I've written a chapter (of course, this is from a person who started a blog, so I clearly must have a self-promotion gene), but this really is a fantastic book, and it isn't so filled with academic jargon that I wouldn't recommend it to a parent.

The book explores a pretty wide range of topics regarding girls and new media (as the title suggests), from how girls use the site (which is owned by iVillage) to discuss sexuality, to online fan communities of Chad Michael Murray (the blonde guy from "One Tree Hill"), to understanding the "Constant Contact Generation" and how the Internet can in fact, bring daughters closer to their families.

See? It's not all bad news.

In fact, the book is interesting in that it looks at how girls use the Internet in constructive ways to articulate identity and negotiate gender norms. However, another theme running through most of the chapters is how girls do this while still existing in a world that let's face it, is full of sexist stereotypes that are frankly impossible to avoid. (For example, in the chapter, the authors note that even though it's good that the girls feel empowered to discuss issues of sexuality that they might be embarrassed to broach in real life, they also tend to use the language that you would hear in pornography and think very little about their own sexual pleasure.)

As you'll see, this "good news, bad news" theme runs through a lot of the research I'll be talking about in the blog. One of the goals of getting this work out there in the public eye should be to get rid of that "bad news" -- from stereotypical portrayals of girls as victims or vixens (borrowing from a Girl Wide Web chapter title) or uber-bullies, to sexist treatment of girls, to girls constructing and identifying themselves in harmful ways. I really do believe that getting the type of research that is found in Girl Wide Web out to the public can help reach this seemingly lofty goal.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Why start a blog about girls and media?

It seems that every time I open a newspaper, I read a story about adolescent girls. The New York Times seems to have an entire beat devoted to the goings on of (mostly Caucasian, mostly middle to upper class) girls and how they are using (or being used by?) media. Lest you think I exaggerate, here are only a few of the more notable ones, including a cover piece on today's Sunday Magazine:

Hurt Girls: The Uneven Playing Field by Michael Sokolove

The Growing Wave of Teenage Self Injury
by Jane Brody (the examples are primarily girls despite the headline)

Revealing Photo Threatens a Major Franchise
by Brooks Barnes

Eight Teenagers Charged in Internet Beating Have Their Day in Court by Damien Cave (the story -- from the lead on -- does not even mention the two boys who were in court and also charged)

A Girl's Life, With Highlights by Camille Sweeney

And those are just from the past month. And I'm sure I've missed a few.

Here are a couple of older takes on girls by the Old Grey Lady:

Girls Just Want to Be Mean by Margaret Talbot

Friends, Friends With Benefits and the Benefits of the Local Mall by Benoit Denizet-Lewis

Looking at the Times' coverage of adolescent girls, we should indeed be worried. Here, we have a troubled lot of bullying, sex-crazed, obsessive (even in sports), mean girls who sometimes cut themselves.

My own research on the topic of girls and how the media represents their use of new media (from Facebook to AIM) has demonstrated a similar result that borders on moral panic. Other scholars have demonstrated the same.

It occurs to me, however, that even though there is so much incredible scholarship -- based on actual in-depth research and not just quotes from "official" sources (as a journalism professor and former journalist, I feel comfortable saying that much of the news that we read about girls is based on testimony from "experts" and quotes that are often fairly easy to get) -- that people have never heard anything about. In many ways, this is our fault as researchers. Our jobs at universities require us to publish in scholarly journals that generally are not read by non-academics and frankly, cost quite a bit. We don't get a lot of credit in our schools for distributing our research to parents, journalists, and generally concerned citizens who might really benefit from it or at least enjoy a different perspective.

That's why I'm starting this blog. I hope to focus on all the fantastic girls studies research (yes, it's a scholarly field!) that is out there and try to bring you some of the main points. Granted, I'm doing this while still trying to publish some of my own research in scholarly journals and teach classes, so please forgive me if I'm not the most prolific blogger. By starting it after my classes were finished for the schoolyear, I'm optimistically hoping I will have time to post relatively often up front.

I look forward to sharing with you and hearing from you.