A monthly guide to stuff we think is cool

A new issue every
Friday morning


Teaching media literacy and culture jamming at Girls Rock Camp Boston / by Kelsey Truman

Amplification is powerful. That is the main lesson I learned the first time I volunteered at a Girls Rock Camp, in Indianapolis in the summer of 2010. I’m not sure that I understood, coming in, the full scope and impact of rock camp. It’s about teaching girls to play music, sure, and to work together in bands, and to write original songs together in the space of five days. That in itself is an incredible accomplishment, for the girls who participate and for the volunteers who make it happen. But there’s a larger arc to girls rock camp—about building self-esteem, about recognizing discrimination, about fostering a community of supportive girls and women. It’s about girls feeling confident, supported, and strong enough to take up space, to make mistakes, and to make themselves heard—to be LOUD.

Girls are not socialized to be loud. They are not often given leeway for imperfection or messiness. Girls are taught that their most formidable enemies, their primary competitors, are other girls. Girls are not socialized to play rock music. A few campers shared stories of boys at school who, upon hearing of the girls’ plans to attend Girls Rock Camp, told them that there could be no such thing. Boys and girls alike are steeped in restrictive conventions about gender, enough so that to the mind of a 10-year-old boy, a place where girls are encouraged to play rock music simply could not exist.

Fortunately for these girls, and for the folks who volunteer, it does. As a volunteer at Girls Rock! Indianapolis and at Girls Rock Campaign Boston, I’ve experienced firsthand how eager girls are to defy expectations about their gender and age, and just how expertly they accomplish that.

At Girls Rock Camp, instrument instruction and band practices are supplemented with a variety of workshops—I’ve seen Women in Rock History, self-defense, DJ-ing, gender equality, zine making, and screen printing offered, just to name a few. I lead a workshop on media literacy, run as a big conversation and centered on a small group activity in which the girls talk back to sexist print advertisements, in the spirit of culture jamming. Girls are frequently reduced to passive consumers, but this workshop is about giving them tools to talk back to media.

Leading this workshop is inspiring and a little bit crushing. It’s amazing to see how astute these girls are already, but it’s awful to know that they can define words like “sexism” and “misogyny” because at the age of 8, or 12, or 15, they’re already experiencing these things on the regular.

We start out the workshop by defining media literacy. Media literacy is not about simply rejecting the mainstream, or cultivating guilt around your love of pop music—it’s about being able to take a step back and think about the messages that film, television, news, music, and social media send out, to determine who sends these messages and to what end, who benefits and who suffers. Specifically, we talk about depictions of women and girls in media and how to resist some of the toxic messages about beauty, bodies, relationships, and girl-hate. The girls come up with definitions for terms like sexism, misogyny, gender roles, and feminism, and generate lists of gendered stereotypes for men and women as they have observed in media.

For the older girls, I open by sharing statistics about how much media teenagers consume, which comes out to about 10 hours and 45 minutes a day, according to MissRepresentation.org. Even the savviest media consumer must acknowledge that we are constantly surrounded by images and messages about how girls and women should look and behave, and even if the effects of media bombardment are subtle, they’re there.

With the younger girls, I talk about Barbie’s unrealistic proportions, projecting Galia Slayen’s model of what a real-life woman with Barbie’s measurements would looks like. We segue into an examination of Taylor Swift dolls. Lots of the dolls, like “Camera Ready Taylor,” do not come with a plastic guitar, or even a mic—just outfit changes, shoes and wigs. The message the girls read from this example is that toy companies do not take successful female artists like Swift seriously, nor do they understand why Swift’s fans admire her. “Camera Ready Taylor” reduces a young woman who writes and performs her own music to an object to be primped, photographed, and put away.

We move into the small group activity. Each group of five or six girls gets a copy of a print ad and the worksheet with guiding questions. Armed with markers, their task is to respond to the ad. Creativity is encouraged. Snark is too. Each group comes to the stage and shares the mic, explaining their responses to the whole group. (Some scans of the girls’ responses to the advertisements are included here.)

There are a few dangers in this workshop. One is the idea that conforming to conventional femininity is oppressive, or a sell-out move. I try to stress that any expressions of self are valid—if you want to wear make-up, wear make-up because you can have fun with it. Don’t wear make-up because you feel like you are expected to, or because you feel like you’re not good enough without it.

Another problem is that a lot of girls want to respond to sexualized, barely-clothed images of women with directives like “Cover up.” Something else I try to emphasize is that we should be angry at companies who manipulate and use women’s bodies and exploit sexuality to sell products—not at the models who appear in these ads.

One thing I was not prepared for was how eager the girls are to discuss race and sexuality. They are already totally aware of, and enraged by, how society restricts and shuns people based on these intersections of identity. It is inspiring to see girls developing a sensitivity to intersectionality, especially considering the lack of understanding many adults, even feminist ones, have of the concept.

The beauty of this workshop is that it cannot function unless the girls are willing to speak up. They always are. Toward the end of the 90-minute period, with a little extra time left, I ask the girls to come up to the microphone and vent about their experiences with sexism. One girl told us about how she disappointed and angry she felt about the lack of women artists booked on the Warped Tour. Another shared her frustration when her karate teacher told a boy in her class, “you hit like a girl,” and everyone recognized it as an insult. Another girl talked about looking through her older sister’s magazines and feeling overwhelmed by how each model looked practically identical, and how this contradicted the various and beautiful people she knew in her real life.

When I asked a room full of girls ages 8 to 11, “has anyone ever told you that you couldn’t do something because you’re a girl?” practically all thirty had stories and were ready to line up at the mic. It is disheartening that girls as young as 8 are already being told that their gender would limit them for life. It sucks that their boy peers are often the ones telling girls that they can’t, that boys have internalized their role in perpetuating oppression. It rules, however, to know that these girls are cultivating their brilliant, independent, compassionate, hardcore rockin’ selves despite the messages they receive about what’s appropriate for nice young ladies. It’s heartening to see that these girls are equipped to recognize injustice and empowered to shout back.

ABOUT                              CONTACT                              CONTRIBUTORS                              DONATE