What's a girl?

Innocent and pure or sexually aggressive and knowing? Helen Laville asks: what's a girl?

What exactly is a girl? It seems the issue is not simple. One could take a serious approach. The exhibition "girl", at the New Walsall Art Gallery focuses on "pre-adolescent girlhood" between three and ten years of age. Ruth Saxton's book The Girl is broader in its definition, applying the label of girlhood to the period "growing up female" or "females coming of age".

There's another, less scholarly side to the matter. Wider cultural debates about "girl power" seem to apply the term to anyone young (or foolish) enough to wear short skirts and platform heels, with an ever-increasing expanse of goose-pimpled flesh in between. "Girlie" has become an adjective, affectionately pejorative. Once applied only to dirty magazines and Walter from the Beano, girlie has become the prefix du jour, liberally affixed to shoes, clothes, nights, films, books, food - every facet of today's lifestyle. No longer merely a chronological or demographic category, "girl" has become a state of mind. Now anyone can enjoy being a girl; middle-aged women, students and busy executives can view, produce and immerse themselves in girlieness.

These representations of girlhood have always said less about the real experience of girls and more about the needs and beliefs of wider society. The first room of the Walsall exhibition gives a historical perspective from late Victorian England. A statue (of Little Eva from Uncle Tom's Cabin, but mistaken by many viewers for Alice in Wonderland) gives way to several pastoral scenes celebrating "girls". The text accompanying exhibits explains that Victorian representations of girlhood focused on innocence, piety, emergent maternal instinct and rural idealism.

Around the exhibition are anonymous comments by visitors to the gallery. Most are notes of approval from girls of all ages, such as the simple but enthusiastic childish scrawl, "girls are better than boys". Some have added recollections of their own girlhood. One visitor, however, offers this stern warning: "Beware the curse of trying to rewrite history - the tone of the commentaries applies today's moral codes to the past. Future historians may criticise us, too."

Victorian visions of girlhood were selective, manipulated and double-faced, celebrating an ideal of girlhood as saccharine as it was false. For every fictional Little Eva, radiating pious goodwill, there was a real street urchin selling her pre-pubescent body to roving "connoisseurs" such as Walter, the autobiographical hero of the pornographic Secret Life. Alice, the most persistent image of Victorian girlhood, was the product of the imagination of a middle-aged clergyman who had what might be regarded today as an unhealthy interest in the ten-year-old daughter of a colleague. Victorian visions of the girl were dis- honest accounts, glossing over poverty, exploitation and cruelty, and clinging to innocence and uncomplicated joy.

Today's constructions of girlhood are no less fraudulent, serving the needs of adults rather than representing the reali-ties of childhood. This year's Oscar-winning American Beauty celebrated girlhood not as innocent and pure, but as sexually aggressive and knowing. The fixation of the central character, Lester Burnham, on Angela, his teenage daughter's cheerleading friend, was explored through his fantasies not of her innocence but of her wantonness. Inverting the narratives of Victorian girlhood, Angela's shame comes when she "confesses" her virginity.

Today's accounts of girlhood celebrate it as assertive and powerful, sexually liberated, untroubled by the responsibili-ties of adult life. This cultural fiction is reinforced by films such as Larry Clark's Kids, sensationalist stories on teenage mothers, and statistics on increasing levels of sexual activities among today's teens and pre-teens. Girlhood today is imagined by adults - weary with their own "grown-up" responsibility and commitments - as one long, drug-fuelled sex party.

Walsall's exhibition reminds us of the wider, more complicated, more honest experience of girls. Meera Chauda's images are hybrids, in her words "part Alice in Wonderland and part Hanuman the monkey god", reminding her audience of the all-white assumption behind ideals of girlhood. Chauda's images echo Toni Morrison's novel The Bluest Eye, narrating the inherent racism in the all-important physical representations of the perfect girl. In her introduction to the exhibition guide, Deborah Robinson recalls her childhood longing for a "Girl's World", a life-sized plastic doll on which girls practise hairstyling and make-up. Chauda's images are jarring, a direct challenge to the blonde, blue-eyed, pouty-lipped perfection of the "Girl's World".

While recognising the importance of physicality, the Walsall exhibition goes deeper in exploring the experience of contemporary girls. The girls' worlds of the exhibition are not moulded plastic models, but secret and hidden worlds in which the artists recall uninhibited self-discovery. Jo Lansley and Helen Bendon explore the way girlhood relationships teach survival through "cruelty, manipulation, coercion and desire". The exhibits of Meloni Poole and Susan Philips are eerie in their familiarity, using tapes of childhood songs to recreate remembered girls' worlds.

The point of these exhibits is not to reflect the way we use constructions of girlhood, but to represent the artists' personal recollections. The difference between these positions is telling. While we may now use the term "girl" or "girlie" to represent a position of modern carefree fun-seeking, not one of us remembers our own girlhood in that way. Even the popular girls in the class would refuse to go back to what was invariably a difficult and complex time.

What we share with the Victorians is a worrying lack of respect for the real lives of real-life girls, as Elizabeth LeMoine's models forcefully remind us. Exquisitely constructed from the plastic of carrier bags, tinfoil, card and nail varnish, they are girlhood "treasure" created from nothing. Claire Carter's display of a thousand gaudy necklaces balanced upon a thousand upended brooms vividly represent how these treasured possessions are trivialised, literally swept into the corner.

The success of Sylvia Rimm's book See Jane Win in the US showed the desire of American parents to encourage their daughters to succeed. In this country, there is support for girls' achievement, as the superior performance by girls at all levels of education demonstrates. Sitting in the gallery cafe after viewing the display, my best friend Maria and I discussed both our experience as girls and our aspirations for Lauryn and Lily, our infant daughters. Both of us had experienced nothing but support from our parents, and in turn we have high aspirations for our girls.

But there is something outside even the most supportive family that threatens girls. Ruth Saxton explains in her book that today's girl is surrounded by contradictory messages: "Told she can do anything and become anything, she is also infantilised and expected to keep her second place in a patriarchal world of glass ceilings and second shifts. Told to develop her mind, she is simultaneously bombarded with messages that reinforce the ancient messages that her body is the primary source of her power, that she is primarily decorative, that she should have a model's body, that she should be beautiful within a narrow range of cultural stereotypes." Today's girls live in a world that labels the things girls have and are as worthless, and then packages this worthlessness up in froth and carelessness, handing it back to them as something to enjoy.

What does the term "girlie" denote? Something frivolous, frothy, probably pink, just wanting to have fun. Something uncomplicated and disposable. Sticking the prefix "girlie" on something essentially trivialises it. "Girl power" is a tragic effort to turn this lack of seriousness and substance into a position of power.

As if one can claim power in this world on a platform of heels.

"girl" is showing at the New Art Gallery, Walsall, until 9 July (01922 654 400)
Helen Laville is a lecturer in American Studies at the University of Birmingham

This article first appeared in the 03 July 2000 issue of the New Statesman, And is there honey by the Tees?