Girlhood

The Keywords Essay on “Girlhood” by Jacqueline Reid-Walsh describes the state of being a girl as something which is variable. Typically, the definition of girlhood depends on one’s age and psychological development, but sometimes the idea of girlhood is simply considered a cultural construction, or in some cases, as a mixture of the two. Whether or not it’s an ideological identity, girlhood still manifests itself and influences the way we perceive who is considered a girl, and who is not. Reid-Walsh furthers her analysis on girlhood when she asks the question, “Who is included and who is excluded from being a girl?” She explains that geography, culture and race also play roles in determining the definition of girlhood. She also goes into depth about describing the role of children’s books in influencing typical “girl-like” behaviors, especially when she says, “the books serve as fictive conduct manuals for girls, teaching normative values in terms of morality, behavior, and religious beliefs for white, middle-class girls.”

With Reid-Walsh’s explanation of girlhood in mind, our class read “Kirsten Learns a Lesson.” In this story, a young Swedish girl adjusts to her new school and home life as her and her family settle in the Midwest, where she discovers there are Native people residing nearby. Kirsten has a curious spirit, but is often shy in her new school because she is still learning how to speak English. However, when she meets Singing Bird, a young Native girl, they play in secret and Singing Bird teaches her to become more confident in herself. The main issue I see here is that Singing Bird is described very generically, without any explanation of her individual personality, and stays as a flat character all throughout the story. It seems as if Singing Bird is placed in the story to build up Kirsten’s character, but deserves very little attention from the reader. Since this is an American Girl book, I believe the lack of care and consideration to the development of Singing Bird’s character erases her identity as an important character, and as a girl in the story. It seems like the book could have very easily incorporated Singing Bird’s character into the story more to be able to consider her as an American Girl too, but instead, they’ve completely dissolved any chance at making her into a dynamic character by showing us a  bland stereotype of a Native character.

The issue of inaccurate portrayal of Native women in the media is an ongoing problem. The Netflix hit, “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” had the opportunity to change this. Jaqueline, one of the three main characters in the series, is a Lakota woman living in NYC and is struggling to navigate her relationship with her family and her tribe. Instead of advocating for true representation of Native people, the show cast a White woman to play the role. This situation only enhances Reid-Walsh’s argument that certain identities (in this case Native women and girls) have been excluded from participating and representing themselves in film and literature. Native women and girl’s stories are not being told accurately, and if they’re not being seen and recognized, we’re sending the message that they don’t matter.

Jacqueline’s character is meant to break stereotypes of Native women, by showing a present-day urban Native woman on screen. Instead, the show has further marginalized Native women and has stripped them from being able to represent their own culture. In both examples, “Kirsten Learns a Lesson” and in “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt”, portrayals of Native women and girls are severely diminished and given very little representation. This destroys any chance for them to represent their culture, history, and individual girlhood, and any chance us as readers and viewers have at appreciating and learning from authentic Native view points.

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