From Spice to Riot, GW professor researches pop music’s `girl’ image

When budding pop icon Gwen Stefani belted out “I’m just a girl in the world, that’s all that they’ll let me be,” exactly what was she talking about?

The No Doubt lead singer was 26 – clearly not a “girl” – when her chipper anthem “I’m Just a Girl” sailed up the pop charts in 1996.

Most men pushing 30 don’t revel in their “boyishness,” so why has the image of “girlness” captured the imagination of so many of rock’s female creative forces?

Dr. Gayle Wald, an assistant professor of English at GW tackles that question in “Just a Girl?: Rock Music, Feminism, and the Cultural Construction of Female Youth,” published late last year in a special edition of Signs: Journal for Women in Culture and Society. Ward’s research will be on display at the third-annual Scholars’ Showcase Tuesday in the Marvin Center.

Her longtime interest in American popular culture led her to explore the image of the “the girl” in current rock music. In her article, she probed the performances of artists such as Stefani, Madonna and Hole’s Courtney Love to determine how female rock musicians weave “girlness” into their total image and production.

She also examined the extent of the girl image in the Riot Grrrl movement, a collection of hard core female punk bands that urge their contemporaries to fight the music industry patriarchy, and its dominant exploitation and denigration of women.

Wald identified several variations on the girl theme. Though the girl image is wildly popular, it exists in many incarnations – from Love’s original baby doll dress-clad, sloppily made-up “Kinderwhore,” as Wald puts it in her article, to the overtly commercial brand of “Girl Power” manufactured by the platform-shoed, blow-dried Spice Girls.

“For artists like Love and even Madonna in the early years, acting like a girl was meant as an ironic statement to counter prevalent condescension and objectification of women in the music industry,” said Wald.

In other words, some women artists became exaggerations of what they were presumed to be all along to fight stereotypes.

“Acting like a girl became a way of responding to the trivialization of women in the music industry,” Wald said, citing the common criticism of female rockers who “can sing all right but can’t play their instruments.”

Wald’s research showed that Riot Grrrl’s message embraced another vision of girlhood.

“Those bands constructed their girlhood at a powerful time, before girls lost their innocence and confidence,” she said.

Decoding the layers of “girl identity” in mainstream pop music took Wald nearly half a year. To do so, she collected magazine articles, researched Internet sites and attended numerous concerts until she had seen every artist she writes about live on stage.

She said it taught her a lot about analyzing “girl studies,” a relatively hot field in American cultural studies.

“We have to be careful before celebrating girlhood,” she said. “What the girl image represents can be a contradiction. It can be strong, but it can also be extremely weak. It’s a slippery concept as a symbol of women’s power.”

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