English Teaching: Practice and Critique

Exploring “girl power”: Gender, literacy and the textual practices of young women attending an elite school

Volume 6 Number 2 September 2007

Dr Claire Charles (Deakin University, Australia)

Popular discourses concerning the relationship between gender and academic literacies have suggested that boys are lacking in particular, school-based literacy competencies compared with girls. Such discourses construct “gender” according to a binary framework and they obscure the way in which literacy and textual practices operate as a site in which gendered identities are constituted and negotiated by young people in multiple sites including schooling, which academic inquiry has often emphasized. In this paper I consider the school-based textual practices of young women attending an elite school, in order to explore how these practices construct “femininities”. Feminist education researchers have shown how young women negotiate discourses of feminine passivity and heterosexuality through their reading and writing practices. Yet discourses of girlhood and femininity have undergone important transformations in times of ‘girl power’ in which young women are increasingly constructed as successful, autonomous and sexually agentic. Thus young women’s reading and writing practices may well operate as a space in which new discourses around girlhood and femininity are constituted. Throughout the paper, I utilize the notion of “performativity”, understood through the work of Judith Butler, to show how textual practices variously inscribe and negotiate discourses of gender. Thus the importance of textual work in inscribing and challenging notions of gender is asserted. I argue that critical literacy is just as important, but perhaps no more guaranteed, within elite girls’ education as it is within boys’ education.