Against the cultural backdrop of girl power narratives in popular media, from the anthemic popularity of Beyonce’s “Run the World (Girls)” to the huge box office success of Wonder Woman, research suggests that the notion that girls can do anything boys can does not come without obstacles. A six-year study that unpacked the implications of these “alpha girl” female empowerment narratives is proof.
Brock University professors Shauna Pomerantz and Rebecca Raby, who published their interviews with girls between the ages of 12 and 18 in Southern Ontario in their book Smart Girls: Success, School and The Myth of Post-Feminism, found that, at least in Canadian secondary schools, girls tolerate blatantly sexist comments without always realizing their sexist nature or standing up to those who perpetuate these attitudes. Standing up for themselves “would make them look like a feminist, and feminism was a potentially damaging label,” a report on the study in The Atlantic reads. “It had too many implications: that you were a prude, that you couldn’t take a joke, that you were a ‘man-hater’ or a ‘bitch.’ It was much cooler to say nothing. To laugh it off.”
According to Pomerantz and Raby, part of the reason girls find themselves reluctant to confront a boy who says “go make me a sandwich” can be attributed to the prevalence of post-feminist narratives in the media. This is where girl power narratives can go wrong: In portraying beautifully-empowered girls on television and sending the message that this status is easily attainable, the reality of sexism in Hollywood, the workforce and schools often goes ignored and dismissed.
These narratives, as University of London professor Rosalind Gill has concluded, give their audiences the sense that they live in a world that has already reached these ideals—in other words, a post-feminist one. As part of the pressure to conform to this unrealistic image of girlhood, girls find themselves either unable to recognize the existence of sexism in their lives or so afraid of losing hold of that ideal that they restrain themselves from appearing too smart or unattractive for popular femininity:
“Girls are told that everything is equal and that they are maybe even ahead of the boys,” Pomerantz said, referring to a range of studies showing that girls earn higher grades in every subject. “But the reality is that they’re facing all of these elements of gender inequality all the time,” she said. Earlier this year, a study from researchers at the University of Illinois, New York University, and Princeton found that girls as young as 6 years old believe that “brilliance” is reserved for men. The girls in the study also believed that, unlike boys, they don’t have the innate abilities to get good grades at school. These findings supplement extensive data that show women not only get paid less than men for the same jobs, they also hold fewer CEO positions and are highly underrepresented in elected office.
Yet the post-feminist idea persists, including among women. More than 45,000 people, for instance, have liked the Facebook group for Women Against Feminism. In February of this year, the writer Jessa Crispin’s Why I Am Not A Feminist blamed the failure of feminism on the dilution of its message. Crispin argued that feminism has become another corporate slogan, a watered-down lifestyle brand. (In an interview with The Guardian, she cited a $600 Dior t-shirt that reads “We Should All Be Feminists” as an example.) A 2016 Harvard Public Opinion Project Poll of Americans ages 18 through 29 found that while roughly half of those surveyed supported feminism, only 37 percent of women actually identified as a feminist. Pomerantz and Raby wrote the book in an effort to spark a conversation that would challenge the “super-girl” narrative. “This tension between feminist narratives and post-feminist narratives and girls navigating that tension,” Raby said, “these things are messy.”
The reasons for resistance to feminism against a backdrop of female empowerment narratives are numerous and diverse—from the “lifestyle brand” images into which corporations have co-opted it to the genuine belief in a contemporary post-feminist world. However, one thing rings true at the heart of these influences: The notion that girls are treated equally as boys and that girl power stories are the norm does not line up with the reality of everyday sexism in America. And for black girls, the depth of this discrepancy is even more severe, as black girls are more harshly disciplined in schools and viewed by adults as “less innocent” than their white counterparts.
While girl power narratives can be just that—empowering for girls—it becomes easy to mistake these positive messages for an accepted state of reality. There is still a lot of work to be done—and we cannot allow cultural ideals to overshadow the sexism that pervades the everyday.