Empowering or Responsibilising?
A Critical Content Analysis of Contemporary Biographies about Women
This article contributes to the limited body of work attending to girlhood in children’s nonfiction, with specific focus on collective biographies about women published since 2016. In recent years, children’s nonfiction books about women have proliferated rapidly in the United Kingdom and beyond. This proliferation has coincided with an intensification of academic and public interest in young people’s engagement with feminist ideas, where female empowerment is often marketed as a commodity. The biographies often present narratives of “empowered” women, and the implication of their framing is that readers will consume the texts and be inspired to achieve empowerment as well. Such discourses of empowerment are conducive to neoliberal subjectivities, where the self is regarded as autonomous, self-reliant, and responsible. This article offers a critical content analysis of Elena Favilli and Francesca Cavallo’s Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls: 100 Tales of Extraordinary Women (2016), Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls 2 (2017), and three of Kate Pankhurst’s Fantastically Great Women books (2016–2020). My analysis is framed by poststructuralist feminist theories and popular feminism as theorised by Sarah Banet-Weiser. I suggest that, despite the important and admirable intentions underlying their publication, the overarching discourses of girlhood that these texts present are problematic. Specifically, whilst female representation is important, there are undertones that render women and girls individually responsible for themselves, especially for their aspirations and successes. As readers are inspired to take responsibility for their lives, other factors that produce and maintain their unequal status in the first place are eschewed.
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