Telling lies to little girls: the sexual politics of mothering girls

Harrison, Ryl Julie (2013) Telling lies to little girls: the sexual politics of mothering girls. PhD thesis, James Cook University.

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In this thesis I present feminist qualitative research that explored what it is like for women bringing up girls aged between nine and thirteen years. Young girls are the focus of intense scrutiny as a fierce debate continues unabated over the way their sexuality is embodied under the terms and conditions of the contemporary political economy. Practices and representations from the sex industry – pornography, in particular – are understood as becoming increasingly mainstream, but there is little agreement as to what this means in the everyday lives of girls and the women who mother them. Women who are mothering daughters in the harsh light of a male gaze, filtered through a commodified pornographic aesthetic, face particular challenges in meeting the needs of girls through what Sara Ruddick called 'preservative love', 'nurturance' and 'training'.

Within the 'sexualisation' debates, there is very little literature which critically explores women's experiences of bringing up girls. If mothers are considered at all, it is usually only to point the finger of blame. Women are the target of 'parenting' advice, advice that often rests on unexamined assumptions about mothers' culpability. The research reported in this thesis brings mothers' voices in from the margins. To strategically step back and widen the deep concern that is felt for girls to include a concern for women, it is possible to consider issues of responsibility, powerlessness and relationships of dependency alongside the fashionable focus of much recent scholarly enquiry within the sexualisation debates – girls' agency. This study captures the contradictory spaces between women's and girls' experiences in the present moment, as well as the differences over time through women's reflection on their own girlhoods.

The study, conducted between 2010 and 2012, involved semi-structured in-depth interviews with twenty-four women living in regional Australia. Eighteen of the women participated in a follow-up interview after twelve months. The study considered broad questions of present and future possibilities for women and girls in their personal relationships and in the public worlds of work and politics. The interviews happened in an interesting historical moment, just prior to former Prime Minister Gillard's misogyny speech where, arguably, she opened up the possibility of naming the relentless sexism that thrives in modern Australia.

The women's stories led me to conclude that women and girls are yet to achieve equality in the private or public sphere. Women are excluded from the neoliberal subjectivity they are supposed to be engendering in their daughters. Yet, the discursively-produced, neoliberal ideal – 'the woman who can do anything!' – prevails to the extent that she is left unpoliticised, robbing women and girls of a language to describe their oppression. This illusory subjectivity requires both the women who are excluded from it, and their daughters who are groomed for it, to draw on a range of psycho-social narratives which are intensely individualised in their explanatory powers. Women have been left with the psychological task of 'putting our mind to things' which, more frequently than not, is about seeing 'the big picture' where narratives of women's struggle and sacrifice are valorised, and anger is laughed away.

The key contribution and challenge that feminism makes is naming the ways male supremacy is disguised as being in the interests of all. I argue for an account of women's and girls' lives which puts individual material experiences within the context of the sexual political economy, an account which is able to ask 'who benefits' from the assumption of a post-feminist meritocracy when none actually exists. This research, then, seeks to contribute to a radical political project of feminist change.

Item ID: 34419
Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Keywords: feminism; girls; mothering; mothers; mums; pornography; prostitution; sex industry; sexual politics; sexuality; women
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For this thesis, Ryl Harrison received the Dean's Award for Excellence 2015.

A book chapter arising from this thesis is available from the Related URLs field. The publications is:

Harrison, Ryl (2015) Telling lies to little girls: motherhood, girlhood and identity. In: Raith, Lisa, Jones, Jenny, and Porter, Marie, (eds.) Mothers at the Margins: stories of challenge, resistance and love. Cambridge Scholars Publishing, Newcastle upon Tyne, UK, pp. 187-203.

Date Deposited: 20 Nov 2014 00:02
FoR Codes: 16 STUDIES IN HUMAN SOCIETY > 1606 Political Science > 160609 Political Theory and Political Philosophy @ 50%
16 STUDIES IN HUMAN SOCIETY > 1699 Other Studies in Human Society > 169901 Gender Specific Studies @ 50%
SEO Codes: 94 LAW, POLITICS AND COMMUNITY SERVICES > 9402 Government and Politics > 940299 Government and Politics not elsewhere classified @ 34%
94 LAW, POLITICS AND COMMUNITY SERVICES > 9401 Community Service (excl. Work) > 940113 Gender and Sexualities @ 33%
97 EXPANDING KNOWLEDGE > 970116 Expanding Knowledge through Studies of Human Society @ 33%
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