On March 5, ABC2 aired I am a Girl. Rebecca Barry’s documentary introduced us to six young women from around the world. They hail from Cambodia, Cameroon, Afghanistan, Papua New Guinea, the USA and Australia.
The doco features girls such as Kimsey, a 14-year-old sex worker who supports her entire family, and Katie, a wealthy, middle-class student getting ready for exams. Their lives may be different but they all share a common dilemma: they live in a world where it’s dangerous to be a girl.
When it comes to girls and media, 2014 looks like a refreshing change from Miley-obsessed 2013.
But funnily enough, I am a Girl helps us understand the hoo-hah over Mouseketeer twerking. How? By reminding audiences of the feminist media scholarship of the 1970s. It was on the money then, and it still is now.
I am a Girl’s premise is that technological and social advances have not produced gender equality. Too many girls are murdered, assaulted and exploited because of their gender. Their resilience and ingenuity simply underlines the need for systematic intervention.
Ironically, it’s the courage and wit of ordinary girls that masks the grinding evil of gender oppression. If you want to think about girls, media and reality, think Malala Yousafzai, not Miley Cyrus.
Barry’s work reflects the influence of British 1970s feminist media research.
Back then, a collective called the Women’s Study Group at Birmingham University argued that any effort to understand the significance of how girls are depicted in the media had to start with an analysis of their social and physical experience. They argued that debates over the liberating or oppressing qualities of onscreen images had to connect with simple political facts: for example, that in the post-war period, social policy wanted women to stay at home and reproduce.
In other words, ideological battles weren’t just being fought on screen: they were being written on women’s bodies.
Are things getting better for girls?
Cultural theorist Angela McRobbie is a key figure here. In recent years, she’s argued that time has only deepened the essential problems with the media. Back in the 70s, media offered girls little to aspire to; they were either invisible, victims or dogsbodies.
Now, things are arguably worse – because they are cosmetically better. Today’s screens are full of girls who can do anything. The real world is full of others who can’t, because they shoulder the burden of economic and social exploitation.
According to McRobbie, thinking about real and media girls means remembering two things.
First, being smart and sassy doesn’t solve anything. Second, because this is true for most girls in most parts of the world, it’s vital to think about how gender inequality is powerful because it acclimatises to different circumstances.
Which is precisely I am a Girl’s point.
There isn’t so much difference between Kimsey, the Cambodian sex worker and Katie, the Australian schoolgirl battling depression against in a world of impossible demands. The documentary doesn’t just open eyes to places that aren’t like the one that viewers live in. It also invites us to consider what these worlds share. Perhaps that is its strongest feature.
The lessons take last year’s controversies about Miley Cyrus in new directions. According to this logic, there’s no contradiction between the arguments that the incident that propelled “twerking” into the Oxford English Dictionary dramatised the inherent sexual exploitation of media industries, versus the counter that it was a feisty piss-take.
The world is full of feisty girls who know what time it is. It’s just that this changes less than we might imagine.
The genius of I am a Girl is that it doesn’t just teach us about a world that we don’t see. It also sheds new light on the media world that we do see.
I am a Girl screens on ABC2 at 8.35pm tonight. Details here.
This story first appeared in The Conversation
New York Field School a ‘life-changing’ experience
Masters students have benefitted from a life-changing experience when they participated in a new Monash overseas program, Journalism Futures: New York Field School.
Students produce digital interactives for industry
To celebrate Australia’s rich history in tennis, Monash University has collaborated with The Australian newspaper and Tennis Australia to produce historical digital interactives of the Australian Open tennis tournament.
Apply for new journalism international unit
Applications are now open for Monash School of Journalism’s new international unit, which will run in 2016 and 2017.
Australian television premiere of Death or Liberty
Documentary drama Death or Liberty will have its Australian television premier this month on ABC TV.
Tiffany secures News Corp traineeship
Monash journalism’s Masters graduate Tiffany Korssen has secured a News Corp traineeship after a competitive selection process.
Saints project highly commended in Ossies
Monash University’s journalism and multimedia students have been highly commended in the Ossie Awards for their historical digital interactive, Saints’ long road to heaven.
Smethurst wins Walkley for Scoop of the Year
Monash journalism graduate Annika Smethurst has won the 2015 Walkley Award for All Media Scoop of the Year for her investigation of the Chopper scandal.
Exciting Asian study tours for journalism students
Monash University’s School of Journalism is proud to announce the creation of a new international journalism unit in 2016 and 2017, in partnership with Engineers Without Borders and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.
State-of-the-art media centre takes shape on B5
A new multi-million dollar media centre will be available to Monash University’s School of Media, Film and Journalism students for semester 1, 2016.
MFJ staff recognised in VC awards
MFJ staff Associate Professor Deane Williams and senior lecturer Bill Birnbauer have been recognised for their outstanding achievements in the Vice-Chancellor’s Education and Research Awards.
Master of Journalism with Warwick University
For those seeking a career in political and international journalism, the Master of Journalism with Warwick University is both an entry-level qualification and a mid-career course for working journalists seeking to extend their expertise.
Author Tom Doig awarded for The Coal Face
Monash University PhD candidate Tom Doig has been awarded the joint winner of the inaugural Oral History Victoria Education Innovation Award for his book, The Coal Face.