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"We are not just painting our toenails and having pillow fights" : adolescent girls questioning gender and power within a secondary school setting Higginson, Stephanie K.

Abstract

In today's modern world, girls are represented in confusing and contradicting ways. Media portrays girls as dealing with epidemic levels of depression and self mutilation while at the same time point out that girls are participating in alarming levels of violence and competition. Layered within these media images is the popular culture driven commodification of all things pink and powerful which gives the public perception that girls ought and do feel confident in their bodies. All of these confusing messages leave teen girls with very little room to negotiate their own gendered identity as they make their way through secondary schooling. This research focuses on an on-going school-based gender awareness program entitled Girls' Nite. Girls' Nite is designed to encourage girls to make sense of and redefine the confusing and often competing discursive messages presented to and about girls within the secondary school setting. I conducted a month long study in the urban Canadian secondary school in which this program is running. During my time at Westside High I conducted interviews, observed classes and supervised the Girls' Nite sleepover. I also assisted some of the participants to make educational documentary films about their experiences with the Girls' Nite program. These films accompany the thesis and readers are asked to view them as part of the process of reading this thesis. This research is also informed by my 4 years spent as a staff member at this school and by my position as a staff advisor to the Girls' Nite program during those years. My findings suggest that Girls' Nite is successful in its attempts to allow young women the space to make sense of and re-envision what it means to be a young women amongst confusing and competing discourses about girlhood. Through their involvement in Girls' Nite, the young women were better able to understand how they are positioned within the discourses of gender and power and, in some cases, race, ethnicity and sexuality. As a result, the research participants re-envisioned the way they defined and enacted power and resistance. Finally, they challenged others in position of power within the school to question expectations of femininity and the impact that those expectations had on the female students of their school. By placing this research at the intersection of girl studies and education, I draw attention to the complex ways that girls are constructed within the school setting and examine the ways that girls can construct their own meaning about girlhood within this school setting. Through examining the complexity involved in the way young women worked to produce and promote change amongst themselves and others within their school, I hope to show that girls are not passively shaped by active others; rather they can and will actively re-envision the discourses through which they are shaped. Through the inclusion of a discussion on where boys fit into this program, I hope to offer the possibility that under the right circumstances, girls and schools can be used as sites for social change in order to combat the current backlash against girls' newfound social visibility.

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