Girl-Kind event to explore growing up as a girl in the North East

By Sarah Winkler-Reid, Newcastle University and Sarah Ralph, Northumbria University

UN International Day of the Girl – held annually on the 11th October – is a global day of recognition, activism and celebration. Right now, 40 girls from Newcastle and the surrounding area are making films, painting placards and choreographing flash-mobs in preparation for our own Girl-Kind North East celebrations. Friends, family, colleagues and students will gather to see these creations and hear what the girls want to tell us about growing up in the North East.

In 2016 Plan International published a landmark study on girls’ rights in the UK. Notable was the stark geographical divide in girls’ prospects, with those living in inner city areas of the North of England facing the greatest struggle based on life expectancy, reproductive health and educational outcomes. With the highest concentration of poverty in these areas, many of these challenges are faced by children in these locations regardless of their gender. However, in addition to these broader factors, girls also face the burden of gender stereotyping, harassment, unwanted sexual touching, and pressures regarding physical appearance that are more exclusively associated with ‘being a girl’.

Media coverage articulates numerous social anxieties and panic trends about girls: body obsession and unhappiness, disordered eating, sexualisation and consumerism, and ‘narcissistic’ use of social media. But how to understand the violence of intersecting social inequality without reproducing a series of assumptions about what girls are? A pessimistic and ominous tone pervades much reporting, girls are often represented as either helpless innocents or brainless consumers. This reflects – as Sarah Ralph has written about in her work on young women’s responses to stardom and celebrity - a long history of discourse in which media culture, and the ‘masses’ who consume it, are positioned as feminine and then pathologised[1].

Providing an ethnographic view from the ground, Sarah Winkler-Reid’s research in a London School, also challenges assumptions underlying these anxious debates. Rather than passive sponges, she encountered active, skilled and critical meaning-makers and witnessed the amazing achievement of young people’s sociality – who through the sheer force of their actions create friendships, peer groups and cumulatively an adult-free ‘informal realm’ within school. Pupils tenaciously shape each other into acceptable persons, and this policing and punishment can be a source of great pain. These processes are intensely gendered, to be an acceptable girl involves walking many fine lines, not least in terms of sex. As a girl in our study put it “if you do too much you’re called a slag, but if you don’t do enough, you’re called a nun”[2].  But peers also provide each other with much love and support, and are often critical of the social processes in which they are engaged. 

Although school is saturated by these peer dynamics, a dedicated space to explore these issues is rarely provided within the curriculum. Working together, and drawing from both our disciplines, our Girl-Kind project aims to carve a space for girls to explore their selves, relationships and contemporary representations of girlhood. Rather than take a problem-centred approach, pre-defining what issues are most important or troubling, we started with a question: What do you think are the challenges and opportunities of being a girl in the North East? The girls’ answers are the starting point of this project, as they turn their thoughts and ideas into creative interventions for the Day of the Girl Celebration, and let the people gathered know what they’re thinking.

Dr Sarah Winkler-Reid is Lecturer in Social Anthropology at Newcastle University, and Dr Sarah Ralph (@sarah_ralph) is Senior Lecturer in Media and Cultural Studies at Northumbria University. Girl-Kind North East (@GirlKindNE) is a collaboration between Newcastle and Northumbria Universities and is funded by the ESRC Impact Accelerator Award.

[1] Holmes, S., Ralph, S. and Redmond, S., 2015. Swivelling the spotlight: stardom, celebrity and ‘me’. Celebrity Studies, 6(1), pp.100-117.

Ralph, S., 2015. Using stars, not just ‘reading’ them: the roles and functions of film stars in mother–daughter relations. Celebrity Studies, 6(1), pp.23-38.

[2] Winkler Reid, S., 2014. ‘She’s not a slag because she only had sex once’: Sexual ethics in a London secondary school. Journal of Moral Education, 43(2), pp.183-197.

Winkler‐Reid, S., 2017. “Looking Good” and “Good Looking” in School: Beauty Ideals, Appearance, and Enskilled Vision among Girls in a London Secondary School. Anthropology & Education Quarterly, 48(3), pp.284-300.