This post was originally published in the Feminist Book Club’s XX zine issue 2–Girlhoods.
Female adolescence is a time in a girl’s life when she isn’t quite a girl but she is far from being a woman; it is often a time of isolation, fear and confusion. Perhaps some of this confusion lies in the fact that there are very few positive representations of young women. Popular culture often depicts teenage girls as vicious unstable creatures who are prone to gossip and shopping till they drop. They are hyper sexualized but are also expected to be virginal, celibate, and pure. Visual art doesn’t rank much higher in this area. Historically young female bodies have been used to express male sexual desire whether it is in the form of gallantry as in Fragonard’s The Swing, or a more perverse attraction, like drawings by Egon Schiele.
However, there seems to be a contemporary trend of female artists using girlhood as subject matter. I interviewed two emerging artists working with this theme: Simone Melteson is a New York based artist who works in embroidery and soft sculpture, and Heather Kai Smith is a recent ACAD graduate who primarily composes drawings.
JV: What draws you to this particular moment of girlhood?
Simone Melteson: I’m interested in the time before boys mattered. When friendships with girls were more important than anything else; it’s the moment before puberty when interest turns to boys.
Also, parenting books on teen girls like Reviving Ophelia and Queen Bees and Wannabees are infuriating. Reving Ophelia essentially says, “Your teenage girl will become a total mess,” it’s very disempowering. And Queen Bees and Wannabees, the book that Mean Girls was based on, creates a negative stigma about girls’ relationships with other girls. Sure, girls are mean to each other but so are boys. I want to create representations of girls having positive relationships with other girls.
Untitled, by Simone Melteson, 2007
JV: What is the importance of displaying the girls in the wilderness?
SM: I’m interested in the institutionalization of girlhood and girlhood friendships via organizations such as the girl scouts and campfire girls. I think this kind of self-sufficient girlhood could only exist away from a city or suburb, away from the constraints of society’s expectations of what it means to be a girl. The problem with these organizations is that they only take it so far: girls are taught survival skills such as building fires and pitching a tent, but there is tempered by emphasis on traditional feminine domestic tasks. So I create this world of feral girls who live by the ocean where they constitute their own societies and hunt, it’s what I wish the girl scouts could be
From the Beatlemaniac Series, by Heather Kai Smith, 2010
JV:Why are you so attracted to the young feminine girl image?
HKS: I’m really interested in the idea of self-identifying with the media. There is something alluring in that moment when you’re like “Oh I felt myself in that.” Also there is so much access to images of young girls, in magazines and there is this sixth sense of wonder or imagination associated with it.
I’ve always been interested in self-portraiture through not representing myself pictorially but with something that depicts an essence of myself. There is this hand-in-hand relationship with me being a girl and being a young female artist.
When I was still in school I was drawing groups of girls because I was surrounded by [girls in my department] but now I feel kind of alone so I’ve been doing a lot more drawings of girls taken out of a crowd shot as if it were me inside that crowd. These one’s in particular are of girls freaking out for the Beatles.
From the Beatlemaniac Series, courtesy Heather Kai Smith, 2010
JV: That’s funny; the context of her emotions totally changes once she’s taken out of that environment. You can’t tell if she’s freaking out over a celebrity or having an anxiety attack.
JV:How would you describe the relationship between girlhood and the boyband?
HKS: The idea of the groupie as a subculture of a subculture becomes an identity for girls who are not musicians, or who can’t be musicians. There is a history of girls being denied the spotlight and being overshadowed by the male [celebrity]. There is also this idea of worship that goes into the identity of being a girl: worshiping models, worshiping rock stars, worshiping groups.
JV: In these new works you venture away from the saccharine sweet girl image of the 1950’s into a 1960’s tomboyish look. How does the tomboy fit into your conception of yourself and your own understanding of girlhoods?
I was a tomboy when I was a kid. I think it was because I wanted to belong to this really cool group of boys in my neighborhood. I had a mushroom cut but I also wore dresses. I remember thinking that being a tomboy meant that I was going to be a boy for a day and then I was going to be a girl for a day. I didn’t really understand why I wanted to be like a boy except for the fact that I really wanted to belong… I think that strong desire to belong is also important in girl identity.
Girls in the state of puberty are in this flux period of becoming something. So they can go either way, they’re not permanent women or permanent girls; they’re in this mid-state, and that’s totally intriguing to me as a state of being.