In Smart Girls: Success, School and the Myth of Post-Feminism, Shauna Pomerantz and Rebecca Raby, two Brock University child and youth studies professors, set out to show how girls in elementary and high school are caught up in a balance between academic excellence, perfectionism and popularity to achieve what media headlines declare about their lives: Girls Are Taking Over the World. Girls Are the New Dominant Sex. During conversations with girls in the study that informs the book, Pomerantz and Raby heard some unexpected ideas about sexism and feminism. In preparation for their Agenda in the Summer interview, I asked them to explain what they learned about next-generation feminism.
When you asked the girls in your study about sexism, what was their response?
Shauna Pomerantz: We often heard them say they didn’t experience sexism and that it’s something that occurs in other parts of the world like Afghanistan, but that here they have all the rights and freedoms that anyone would have. So this is how we discussed the post-feminist climate where young people feel they’re beyond the need for feminism, that feminism is redundant. But at the same time we really pushed this point. We would ask them whether or not they thought boys judged them on their looks and bodies and many of them inevitably would say, “Yeah, we feel judged by boys and other girls.” So sometimes we would come to a point in the interview after a bit of questioning where the girls would say, maybe there is a bit of sexism.
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What’s with boys telling the girls to “go make me a sandwich”?
Pomerantz: We were surprised because it’s such an antiquated notion of women in the kitchen. We heard that comment more than any other in our study. On the one hand [girls] said it’s not fair that boys tell them to go make sandwiches and they say all these sexist jokes and they laugh, but on the other hand actually the boys are struggling too.
Rebecca Raby: In our interviews [girls] were making observations that then other observations would contradict. It does come out as being a complicated web.
The girls you spoke to seem to have internalized the idea of “girl power” – girls are doing it for themselves. How important was it to deconstruct that?
Pomerantz: It's one of the central bases for the book, and it was also really important in our analysis of what girls had to say about themselves and to show that they rely on those narratives a lot. They said, “I can do it. It’s up to me. My friends and I will get through.” And to some extent I think that’s important. Friendships are important and thinking you can handle things and relying on yourself is important. But, we wanted to show that girl power is a discourse of individualism where young women are not at all told that they should be thinking broader beyond their own friendship groups, beyond their own individual experiences. So they’re not given information about sexism, about racism, about classism. They’re not shown ways that they can connect their own personal struggles up with broader structural, social inequalities.
Raby: And it’s where the idea of the “supergirl” comes from – this idea that girls can do it all, need to do it all – that seems to have permeated a lot of the girls’ lives even though it’s really challenging for a lot of them. There’s a sort of darker side that we found where some of the girls are really stressed out in striving for perfectionism.
I found it interesting to read that girls are still softening their intelligence to be more attractive to boys.
Raby: I do think that for some people reading this book that it surprises them to read that girls are still dumbing down. I think that because of post-feminism, because of girl power, there’s a belief that it’s quite easy to be academically successful and popular at the same time and that girls are cleaning up in every area. There are these threads of gender inequality related to girls’ smartness that certainly gave us pause that certain things haven’t changed so much.
In the book you write that sexism is actually flourishing out of girl power. How does that work?
Pomerantz: In the post-feminist culture – the girl power culture – where people feel they are empowered and power comes from their own individual choices, the idea of calling oneself a feminist is tantamount to saying, “I can’t do it, I can’t handle it.” But at the same time in our culture, when we tell young people they don’t need feminism, they’re beyond the need for it, that they should be able to rely on themselves, what we’re doing is enabling post-feminism to flourish because young people aren’t equipped with the language of opposition, with politics that allow them to speak up, to speak against sexist jokes they may be hearing, or to talk about representations of women in the media in a more powerful way. They’re lacking this language, this understanding, that otherwise would allow them to combat and negate some of the stories that are sexist in our culture.
It’s surprising that some girls equated feminism to victimhood. How do you think that happened?
Pomerantz: Feminism really has taken a beating in the media and in popular culture as being something where you don’t stand up for yourself, as being a discourse where you blame other people. It’s been twisted around. But I also want to point out in the book that while there was a lot of discussion about victimhood and “I’m not a victim” and “I can handle myself,” there was also a fair bit of discussion around girls who felt that feminism was still relevant and important. So, it wasn’t all one or the other.
Where did you see hope in these conversations with young people?
Raby: We talked to a lot of girls who are still forging their own way, who said, “I know I’ve been told to dumb it down but I refuse to dumb it down,” “I know I should be doing this to fit in but I’m not going to do that to fit in,” and so we do have girls who are pushing back. We also talked to girls who were familiar with feminism and embraced it and could recognize inequality in their lives, and to really great young women who were poking holes in assumptions, including our assumptions about [what it means to be a smart girl], which was awesome.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.