Girls’ media studies is a unique area of feminist media studies that examines the intersecting dimensions of age and gender alongside other identity formations. Girls’ media scholarship covers studies on a diverse range of entertainment media, including film, television, magazines, music, comics, and video games, as well as digital communications technologies, platforms, and practices such as smartphones, social media, and sexting. Many researchers in girls’ media studies are concerned with how discourses of girlhood are constructed through representations of female youth. Other scholars focus on girls’ reception and uses of media, while still others analyze the production of girls’ media. And many do more than just one of these things. To date, the vast amount of girls’ media studies scholarship has centered on mainstream commercial media culture. Yet several researchers have focused on girls and independent media, particularly as produced within youth cultures like hip-hop and riot grrrl. Critical attention to younger girls’ media has risen in recent years, especially because of the Disney princess craze. However, most research on girls’ media has focused on texts created for, about, and by teen and tween girls.
When I entered my doctoral program in 1992, the subfield of girls’ media studies did not exist. No professors taught classes specifically related to girls’ media, and no one organized conference panels to promote girl-centered media scholarship. In turn, no special journals or anthologies were devoted to the study of girls’ media. The late 1970s and early 1980s had seen a few groundbreaking studies in this area, particularly from Angela McRobbie.1 Yet prior to the late 1990s few researchers demonstrated an ongoing commitment to studying girls’ media culture. Therefore, scholars like me who were invested in such research had to rework adult-centric feminist media scholarship by deploying critical theories of age and generation developed in such disciplines as sociology and literary studies, where research on youth and youth cultures had a much longer history.
Although McRobbie had written on girls’ media culture earlier, it was the publication of her first book, Feminism and Youth Culture: From Jackie to Just Seventeen (1991), that spurred the rise of girl-centered media research in England, Canada, Australia, and the United States during the mid- to late 1990s.2 In addition to reprinting McRobbie's pioneering works on gender and subcultures, Feminism and Youth Culture modeled a feminist approach to cultural research, raised attention regarding nonnormative girls’ cultural practices, and offered poignant critical analyses of girls’ dance and teen magazines. Other important monographs from the first decade of girls’ media studies include Lisa Lewis's Gender Politics and MTV: Voicing the Difference (1990), Carol Clover's Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film (1992), and Susan Douglas's Where the Girls Are: Growing Up Female with the Mass Media (1994).3 In addition, several edited collections, like Marion de Ras and Mieke Lunenberg's Girls, Girlhood and Girls’ Studies in Transition (1993) and Sherrie Inness's Delinquents and Debutantes: Twentieth-Century American Girls’ Cultures (1998), promoted media-centered girls’ studies during that period.4 Many pioneering journal articles and book chapters were published in the 1990s also (too many to cite here, unfortunately). Together with the books mentioned above, such essays were crucial for the development of girls’ media studies into a legitimate form of feminist media studies all its own by the turn of the twenty-first century. Representational studies dominated scholarship on girls’ media during this period. Yet studies like Dawn Currie's Girl Talk: Adolescent Magazines and Their Readers (1995) and my own “Producing Girls: Rethinking the Study of Female Youth Culture” (1998) modeled different methodological approaches that encouraged other scholars to explore girls’ practices of media consumption and media production.5
With academic roots in film and television studies, communication studies, sociology, literary studies, and, of course, women's, gender, and sexuality studies, scholarship on girls’ media is broadly interdisciplinary.6 Moreover, it is the most productive area of research within the larger field of girls’ studies, with new anthologies publishing some of that scholarship every few years.7 (As of yet, no academic journals are devoted to girls’ media studies.) In turn, several universities offer courses in girls’ media studies at the undergraduate and graduate levels on a regular basis.
As a result of these practices, girls’ media studies has expanded considerably since 2000, broadening to include not only new scholars and new topics of inquiry, but also new methodologies and theoretical perspectives. While representational and discursive analyses remain go-to methods in girls’ media research, a considerable number of scholars also employ ethnography to collaborate with female youth and to privilege their perspectives. In addition to the medium-specific research already mentioned, some of the most significant topics explored by girls’ media scholars over the past seventeen years include discourses of girlhood in media culture; the history of girls’ media; female youth as media producers; girls and digital media technologies; girl-centered media franchises; young female media fans; girls’ sexualities and the media; feminism in girls’ media culture; and girlhood and postfeminist media culture.8 While the development of convergence culture has caused media scholars to reflect critically on our understanding of specific mediums, researchers focusing on girls’ media scholars are increasingly interrogating the concepts of “girl” and “girlhood” via attention to other identities beyond age and gender. Meanwhile, queer theory and recent research on effeminate “girly boys” and transgender girls in media culture are challenging the very basis upon which girls’ media studies has been grounded, provocatively pushing scholars to rethink our objects of study and the theoretical perspectives we use to analyze them.9
The growth of academic attention to girls’ media culture over the past twenty-some years is certainly worth celebrating. But there is still work to do. In particular, more research on nonnormative girls is needed to subvert the white, heterosexual, middle-class, ableist, Christian, Western framework that continues to dominate this field. More attention to girls’ differences will not only expand popular knowledge about girls’ media culture, but also help to legitimize nonnormative female youth and their media practices. In turn, we need more historical research to understand girls’ media cultures of the past and their impact today. Our current moment also demands more attention to how girlhood and girls’ media function within the contexts of neoliberalism, globalization, religious fundamentalism, challenges to democracy, and climatological catastrophe.