Twitterstormclouds passing over the #sharedgirlhood hashtag, so I thought I’d add my twopennorth.
At first blush, the concept of shared girlhood is inimical to intersectionality. It is absurd to pretend that there is anything “shared” between the experiences of a displaced girl in North Kivu, with limited educational opportunities and a hugely elevated risk of sexual violence, and the experiences of a girl brought up in North London. Educationally and socially, my childhood experiences have more in common with the writer Jane Fae, who was raised as a boy.
But. Girlhood is not restricted to a set of experiences. It depends not just on how you view the world but also on how the world views you, and for women who were not raised as girls, the world did not view them and did not treat them as girls during their childhood. It would be equally absurd to pretend otherwise.
There has been research showing that pregnant women subconsciously treat their bump differently when they know the soon-to-be-assigned sex of the baby [Cordelia Fine, Delusions of Gender]. Those carrying boys remark on the strength of the kicking; those carrying girls describe the baby’s movements as “not violent, not excessively energetic, not terribly active.” There is of course no difference for those who don’t know. The different treatment of male-assigned and female-assigned children begins in the womb, and doesn’t change afterwards. Little girls are given toys which require them to sit still and focus (threading beads, My Little Pony, dolls) while little boys are more likely to be given toys that involve running around and making a noise. A “boisterous” boy is a “difficult” girl and while girls win praise for behaving well (read: quietly and subserviently) boys win praise for strength, and a quiet or effeminate boy creates concern. Random adults, unsure of what to say to a child, will reach for “Aren’t you a big strong boy!” vs “Aren’t you pretty in that dress!”
The teaching of quiet subservience to girls is pretty universal. At best it can mean they get better GCSEs (all that practice at sitting still and focusing) but at worst it leads to episodes of appalling abuse perpetrated upon them for no other reason than their gender.
These are generalisations, of course they are. Perhaps you are reading this and thinking “What nonsense! My little boy plays quietly with books and lego,” or “Rubbish! My daughter plays football and nothing else.” But even the most gender-neutral parent must be forced to concede that they cannot prevent their child from absorbing the social memes around them at school, through media and advertising, packaged by Disney, and from other children and adults, and nobody with an understanding of science would dispute that anomalies do not affect a broader general theme.
There is a truth in a #sharedgirlhood, in that female-assigned children are treated differently to male-assigned children by the world around them, whether or not those girls grow up into women or those boys into men. The reality is that patriarchy gets ‘em young, and girls live in that power structure just as much as women do. Recognising that is not harmful. Trying to claim a universality of shared female experience on the other hand is: it presupposes a particular set of experiences.
It strikes me that a lot of people arguing against the concept are not arguing against shared girlhood as a concept but against universal girlhood experience. They are different things: one is so self-evident as to be unremarkable and the other is ludicrous and potentially dangerous.