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Debating the Meaning of Girlhood in the 1990s

Janice Radway to deliver Northwestern Evanston Humanities Lecture April 24

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April 17, 2013 | by Wendy Leopold
Riot Grrrl

• Zines of the 1990s challenge notions of girlhood
• Girls talk back about widely held ideas about them
• The relevance of zines and girl power today

EVANSTON, Ill. --- In 1984, Janice Radway wrote a provocative book called “Reading the Romance” that explored the romance novel’s popularity by interviewing the women who read them. On Wednesday, April 24, Radway will talk about another writing phenomenon -- the self-published girl “zines” of the 1990s -- when she delivers the Evanston Northwestern Humanities Lecture at the Evanston Public Library.

Radway, the Walter Dill Professor of Communication Studies in the School of Communication, will discuss “Debating the Meaning of Girlhood in the 1990s: How Girls Talked Back and What It Means Now for their Futures” at 7 p.m. in the Community Meeting Room of the Evanston Public Library, 1703 Orrington Ave. Her talk is free and open to the public.

During the 1990s, everyone seemed to have an opinion about girls and girlhood, Radway says. The Spice Girls, Britney Spears and Brenda of TV’s “Beverly Hills 90210” fame modeled highly sexualized and consumerist notions of girl power.

At the same time, Radways says, Harvard psychologist Carol Gilligan (“In a Different Voice”), Mary Pipher (“Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls”) and others lamented that, on entering adolescence, girls lost their feisty voices and sense of agency.

Radway focuses on a distinct cohort of girls who criticized many of the ideas circulating about girlhood in the 1990s. In self-published magazines or “zines,” they actively talked back to the widely held ideas about girls in the 1990s, their abilities and what their futures might look like. In their own words, these self-publishers produced an astonishing archive of real girl thoughts, emotions and hopes for the future.

At Northwestern, Radway teaches a popular course on girlhood and another on the American high school. She views the self-published magazines that arose out of the 1990s punk movement as a challenge to notions of the day about girl power. “With lots of exclamation marks and hearts, these girls spoke to the language of feminism,” she says.

Radway was drawn to the zines because they arose at a time when many people were claiming that feminism was dead or no longer timely. “Here were these girls, aged 14 and up, addressing exactly the same questions that second wave feminists (in the 1960s and 1970s) did,” she says.

Zines quickly became interesting to academics like Radway and to librarians and others who saw them not only as incredibly vibrant and original but as one of the rare records of the voices of young girls speaking on their own. “Adolescents generally appear in the historical archive in the voices of adults,” Radway says. “Zines weren’t edited by publishers and, in essence, weren’t censored.”

With titles such as “Bikini Kill,” “Jigsaw,” “Cupsize” and “William Wants a Doll,” zines proliferated in the 1990s. For Radway, a past president of the American Studies Association, they are proof that feminism remained alive and well in the 1990s despite widely circulating assertions to the contrary.

The Evanston Northwestern Humanities Lecture Series is an ongoing collaboration between The Alice Kaplan Institute for the Humanities and the Evanston Public Library. In the lecture, Northwestern humanities faculty share their research with members of the Evanston community.

For more, call Beverly Zeldin-Palmer at the Kaplan Institute for the Humanities at (847) 467-3970.

Topics: Campus Life