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Sunday, 8 April 2018

Girls and Power

What is your research about?

I'm interested in the ways in which ideas about gender circulate in popular and institutional settings such as media texts and schools, and how these ideas shape young people's views of themselves, their worlds and their imagined futures. I focus particularly on issues relating to girlhood and power - the spaces that culture creates for girls to grow in, and the ways in which girls inhabit them. I have just published a book on the 'successful girl' phenomenon. This was based on a study which traced 'successful girl' narratives across television screens and web forums and classrooms.

How did you come to choose this area?
Before working in Higher Education I had a career in the secondary education sector, as a teacher and then in teacher professional development. I taught English for some years, and my first and Master's degrees are in English; the sense of narrative still informs my work. As do many teachers, I found the educational inequalities I encountered every day had few adequate explanations beyond individual 'abilities.' I was particularly interested in the ways in which myths about gender and class operate as ways of accounting for unequal achievement. Embarking on a PhD was the beginning of trying the challenge the myths and find better ways of understanding and responding to social injustices. This is not just another task for teachers - my research explores the ways in which unhelpful narratives are circulated in policy committees and science labs, in the television industry and the textbook. One of my research interviewees commented, 'We need better stories.' I couldn't agree with her more.

What makes your research different?

I create methodologies which allow me to explore girl's lived experiences alongside policy and popular texts. This helps build a picture of the cultural world young people engage with and the tools it gives them for creating their sense of identity. I also try to use the digital tools that they adopt, as well as more traditional approaches. At the time I was doing my PhD, teen girl fan forums were very popular online, so I created one for the project, attractive over 160 participants. For my current project I am using visual social media platforms to create collages with participants. These will form a fascinating digital archive.

What are the highlights of doing your research?

The main one is that I get to spend so much time doing something which is both important and interesting. My focus means that I never feel trapped in an academic bubble. I have been all over England, to Australia and New Zealand and a host of European countries to visit schools and interview girls, and to share findings with other researchers and - importantly  - with practitioners. Also, the research community in my field is a supportive one. I've found gender scholars have an inbuilt commitment to equality, generosity, and solidarity.

What is the contemporary relevance of your research?

We are still such a long way form achieving equality, and not only in terms of gender. Looking at the gendering of leadership in the current political climate is highly timely as issues faced by women come into sharp focus. These include the rise of public misogyny, the vilification of women politicians and campaigners online, and sexist representations of political leaders in mainstream media, and the lack of voice and representation, especially for working class and minority women. Exploring girls' ideas about leadership, their experiences and imagined futures is a vital part of trying to create a society in which they might see themselves as decision makers.

Dr Michele Paule is a Senior Lecturer in Culture, Media and Education at Oxford Brookes University

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