Friday, 13 April 2012

Inside/Outside: A Critical Comparison of London’s ‘Adult Image Girl’ Against The Literal Experience of Girlhood and Childhood in London

Current essay I am working on for CSM, it is only a draft but I think it really reflects the current theories and concepts that are in my head right now regarding the concept of girlhood. 

“It happened for instance that from my balcony I would notice a lighted window across the street and what looked like a nymphet undressing before a co-operative mirror. Thus isolated, thus removed, the vision acquired an especially keen charm that made me race with all speed towards my lone gratification. But abruptly, fiendishly, the tender pattern of nudity I had adored would be transformed into the disgusting lamp-lit arm of a man in his underclothes reading his paper by the open window in the hot, damp, hopeless summer night.”[1]
Vladimir Nabokov, ‘Lolita’

This essay intends to deconstruct the culture of the London ‘Adult Image Girl’, understanding her influence through situating her within the context of contemporary London, most notably the London riots of 2011. The manner in which literal girls and children contrast to the ‘Adult Image Girl’ will be a particular focus in this analysis. Questions of race representation will be at the forefront of this study, and shall be addressed through studying the fear of the black male youth and debating the issue of representing migrant identity and women of colour in the culture of girlhood. In understanding the gulf between the literal girl and the ‘adult-girl’ the question of a new model of girlhood will finally be explored, achieved through a sustained analysis of Meadham Kirchoff’s Spring/Summer 2012 collection.
In order to examine the position of the girl in London it is first appropriate to consider what the term ‘girl’ is in reference to. Humbert Humbert places strict boundaries on his definition of nymphet girlhood, identifying the brackets as between the ages of nine and fourteen.[2] However, when considering the various incarnations of the girl in London, which are both seemingly diverse, yet also militantly identical, the distinction appears less rigid. Thus, we find that there is no singular narrative that may represent a definitive ‘girl’ in London, in the same way that there is no singular definition of ‘woman’.[3] The girl is rather a moveable concept which, despite her many faces, is obliged to adhere to a distinct framework, most notably the ideology of whiteness, capitalism, heteronormativity and cissexism.[4] She is, generally, coded as white and heterosexual, she is never transgender, and is preferably advertising some form of product. In the Victorian age she can be identified in the subtle blend of innocence and eroticism in John Everett Millais’ ‘Cherry Ripe’, and, also in Charles Dickens  “hopeless longing for unavailable young girls” which manifested in such characters as Little Nell.[5] Yet, the powers of the girl also potently resides in the adult image girl, a subject that will be a particular focus in this essay. The adult image girl can be most notably identified in the ‘super waif’ brand of femininity that dwells in ‘the London It Girl’, most strikingly seen in the figures of Alexa Chung, Kate Moss and Twiggy. Consider also Lewis Caroll’s most famous creation, Alice, who is, crucially, a girl of moveable size. The childhood historian, Patricia Holland, supports this sense of the moveable state of girlhood in her study, ‘Picturing Childhood’, she argues “the word girl can refer to a woman of any age, implying a continuation of her defenceless availability.”[6] This question of vulnerable availability is crucial. For the girl is as free from sex and gender as humanly possible, yet also wholly about sex and gender, she is the closest man has to an angel, this is the essence of her seductive powers. It should be remembered that a critical analysis of the girl is as much a study of childhood as it is of gender. For gender and childhood are both artificial and overlapping realities, which, revealingly, culminate in the position of the girl. It is important to note that both these constructions rely on the fundamental belief that the subject in question is a passive commodity to be controlled by the ruling ideology.[7]

The intricate structure of girlhood is rendered even more complex by the fact that the literal child has been removed from the city of London to be replaced with the aforementioned adult child. Professor Jenny Bavidge and Professor Andrew Gibson explore this theory in their essay ‘The Metropolitan Playground’, which critically explores the paradoxical state of childhood in London society. Bavidge and Gibson argue, “the only children who can enjoy the freedom of urban life are no longer (legally) children at all.”[8] Thus it can be seen that the infantilised adult child has usurped the role of London’s youth, performing the potential that the true child could not achieve, what the adult child as a real child could not have achieved.

At this point it is appropriate to situate the adult image child within the framework of contemporary London society, particularly considering the true children of London. For, to truly understand the construction of the London girl, it is of critical importance to consider, what Libby Brooks deems as, the ‘unchildren’ of London.[12] This term refers to young working class youths and children, particularly young black males, who refuse to adhere to the inside/outside framework of childhood. The ‘unchildren’s ominous, quasi-demonic nature culminated in the London riots in the summer of 2011, itself a parallel to the fear of the feral child in Victorian London.[13]Thus, it could be inferred, that the white coded image girl is desired to such an extent, as the model of London, as she is the very opposite of what the city fears, the black male teenager, who, unlike the seductively innocent girl, is presented as violent, id driven and hypersexual, a harbinger of death and disorder.[14] The journalist, Max Hastings’, description of the young people involved in the 2011 London riots, boldly illustrates this negative perception of the working class ‘unchildren’ of London. He argues:

“They are essentially wild beasts. I use that phrase advisedly, because it seems appropriate to young people bereft of the discipline that might make them employable; of the conscience that distinguishes between right and wrong.
They respond only to instinctive animal impulses — to eat and drink, have sex, seize or destroy the accessible property of others.
Their behaviour on the streets resembled that of the polar bear which attacked a Norwegian tourist camp last week. They were doing what came naturally and, unlike the bear, no one even shot them for it.”[15]

Thus, it can be inferred that childlike innocence operates as an ideological trope to contrast to the Otherness of the real child.[16] For “historically poor kids and children of colour have been considered to be beyond the boundaries of both childhood and innocence.”[17] As a result, the adult image girl renders the true child criminal by its very existence. Here we find that the ‘unchildren’ of London are seen as inherently deviant and unquestionably disposable.

Whilst the ‘unchildren’ of London are inherently of the outside it is clear that the girl is contained to the inside, supplemented by the outside adult image child, who can be found in London Fashion Week, the billboards of Oxford Street and the street fashion of Brick Lane. It is this sense of distance, whether found on the photography of a street fashion blog or a passing glance on the tube, which sustains the “sunny blur” of formless lust.[18] The literal girl will not and must not go to the ball; her absence is needed to maintain her magic. She is obscene and to be censored and it is this censored version, the adult girl, which denies both woman the literal girl. Thus we find that the trap of the visible adult girl cunningly veils “a generation bred under captivity.”[19] For it is the phenomenon of ‘the indoor girl-child’ that is monitored, tested, digitally altered, photographed, regulated and isolated.[20] The question of isolation is particularly key to the ‘indoor girl’ for it is important to remember that the Disney princesses cannot and must not look at one another in the Corporations marketing campaigns. They must only gaze blankly into the distance.[21] For the essence of girlhood is to be trapped, isolated in the physical world and to waste your flesh in fantasy, or in the case of the Lisbon sisters, escape it in death.[22] It is this intrinsic alienation of female identity, which allows this systematic appropriation of the girl’s identity by the adult to take place. This lies in the belief that if a woman is anything, she is a copy, a malfunctional copy of Adam, to be reproduced and altered at will.

The delicate relationship between fantasy and reality is critical in our understanding of the girl as vessel for the city of London. The Indian feminist theorists Kalpana Kannabiran and Vasanth Kannabiran argue that, “the identity of a community is constructed on the bodies of women”.[23] Thus, the unchanging nature of woman renders the feminine body an ideal museum to house the ideology of her environment. However, there is an important flaw to this set up, for the female body, importantly, does change, transcending from girl to woman and so forth. This cannot be. For flesh is the death of fantasy, the girl is, seemingly, situated as furthest away from flesh and away from death. This is the reason why she is selected as the mascot of London. It is the adult girl that fixes the boundaries of girlhood to render her eternal, therefore preserving the belief system of her city as eternal also. For the worship of the girl child is in turn a rejection of the tomb of the maternal body, itself a precursor to death.[24] In this incidence it is appropriate to consult the original Lolita of Vladimir Nabokov’s novel. For Humbert’s nymphet is revoked of her goddess status, transforming from glorious nymphet to the “hugely pregnant” abject mother who dies giving birth to a stillborn boy.[25] Through taking on the role of the mother Lolita is rendered the equal to the “stale” “bulky” flesh of the “human females”, these are the “odious spinsters”, “insolent hags” and “loathsome creatures” that Humbert abhors so violently.[26] For the hyper-femininity model of the capital construction of girlhood affirms biological determinism of innate gender roles and cissexist values without acknowledging the abjection of motherhood.[27] It is important to remember that Barbie has no sex organs and no nipples and her waist is too small to house a womb[28] This sense of fixing the boundaries of time in the female body is achieved through manipulating the natural phases of life in such a way that they blur into one another. Here we find that “girls are simultaneously getting older younger and staying younger older.”[29] Consider the fact that, in 2009, 12,000 botox injections were administered to 13-19 year old.[30] This is a point developed by the critical theorist of youth culture Henry Giroux. Speaking on the ‘super waif’ model of London beauty he argues, “Lolita grows up only to retreat into her youth as a model for what it is to be a woman.”[31] For the seduction of London is based entirely on potential, the anticipation of what could be, what you could be. We desire the bride and not the wife, thus the illusion of the adult image girl veils the monstrous nature of the ordinary, sustaining the belief that the streets are indeed paved with gold. She also, importantly, provides comfort to the bitter disappointments of the reality of adulthood, the reality of London. Thus we seek the girl for salvation who in her “mystifying ideology” of appropriated innocence paints London as a dream world, her body serving as a vehicle for the corporate consumption of the capital.[32]

Yet, it is reactionary to deny London’s girlhood in favour of the masculine, for this suggests the male to be superior. Thus, the Otherness of the artificial construction of girlhood needs to be acknowledged and critically reinterpreted in order to negotiate a true identity for the literal girl. A crucial example of the potential of London girlhood can be identified in the Dalston based designers Meadham Kirchoff’s Spring/Summer 2012 collection, itself a celebration of the subversive models of girlhood found in riot grrrl and the work of Courtney Love. The exaggerated use of forms, particularly the large bodies of the feathered multi-layered skirts, tall pastel and paint splattered wigs and glitter platform shoes subvert the traditional structure of the vulnerable girl child of London, creating a towering all-powerful character, a parallel to the young girl as super hero model identified in ‘Sailor Moon’. For the spectalist nature of the collection holds a magical realist quality, drawing a parallel to the “distorted mirror” image of London cultivated by Angela Carter in works such as ‘Wise Children’ and ‘Nights at the Circus’.[33] This sense of magical realism holds particular relevance in the apocalyptic dream world of London 2012, itself as a spectalist utopia of the physical.

Eleanor Hardwick, ‘Pretty on the Outside’, Rookie Magazine (10/10/2011)
Available at:  [last accessed 01/03/20]
The selection of black, dark skinned, models should also be emphasised in Meadham Kirchoff’s Spring/Summer collection [see image eleven]. For the relationship between whiteness, femininity and beauty is an insidious one. Thus it is important to consider this particular image of a dark skinned model used in their show [see image twelve]. For the juxtaposition between the whitewashed model of Western girlhood the designers are referencing and the physical model is vast, a parallel to the gulf between the adult-image girl and the literal girl. Whether this is an intentional statement is debatable. Nonetheless, it can be read as a satirical reference to the belief in London that, “your culture is acceptable as part of ‘multiculturalism’ so long as it doesn’t assume that is matters too much, so long as it doesn’t take itself very seriously.”[34] The placement of blue long lashed eyes, a definitive symbol of white girlhood, over the models breasts extends this relationship between race and girlhood identity further. The eyes invoke both the social problems facing the girl in London, rape, street harassment, sexual violence and so forth, and the harmful nature of whitewashing gender identity, rendering women of colour invisible and abject.[35]

For in deconstructing Meadham Kirchoff’s collection we are reminded of the fact that “the mythology of what English culture has taken to be ‘the capital’ are being transformed and in many instances disintergrating.”[36] Yet, in analysing the relationship between race and the girl, whether in the folk devil of the young black male or in the ‘invisible’ woman of colour, it is clear that further development is needed in order to shift the boundaries of girlhood away from the white coded cis-gender image-girl and towards a more representative and inclusive model. Remember the post-colonial theorist, Homi Bhaba’s argument, that “the historical and cultural experience of the Western metropolis cannot now be fictionalised without the marginal, oblique gaze of its post colonial migrant populations.”[37] In achieving this alternative model of girlhood it is necessary to adopt Meadham Kirchoff’s framework, addressing and exaggerating the inherent unreality of both the capitalist construction of the girl and London itself. This is particularly important in relation to questions of migrant identity and girlhood. Consider that Samuel Selvon, when writing on the subject of West Indian people migrating to London, in his text, ‘The Lonely Londoners’ (1978) regarded London as “some strange place from another planet.”[38] This sense of uncanny dislocation can be developed through addressing the placement of digital culture in the inside/outside framework of girlhood, a new development to this framework. This is a topic that Meadham Kirchoff notably explored, seen in their close working relationship with the fifteen year old blogger Tavi Gevinson and the designer’s choice to name one of their pieces in their collection after Arvida Byström, a teen photographer and artist who holds a prolific online presence. Yet, even in this model of alternative femininity we see that the space of girlhood still holds a privileged exclusivity, contained in many incidences to the white, cis-gender, conventionally beautiful upper and middle classes. Thus, in order to critically address the true experience of London girlhood, greater efforts are needed to shift the insidious hierarchy of whiteness. Until this point the heritage of the London girl, and the heritage of the capital’s youth in general, shall always be a shallow and misleading portrait of the city.



Auchmuty, Rosemary, ‘A World of Girls’ (The Women’s Press Ltd 1992)
Brooks, Libby, ‘The Story of Childhood’ (Bloomsbury Publishing 2006)
De Beauvoir, Simone, ‘The Second Sex’ (Vintage Classics 1997)
Eugenides, Jeffrey, The Virgin Suicides’ (Bloomsbury 2002)
Foucault, Michel, ‘Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison’ (New York: Random House, Inc., 1995)
Gedalof, Irene, Against Purity: Rethinking identity with Indian and Western Feminists’  (Routledge 1999)
Giroux, Henry A, Stealing Innocence’ (St Martins’ Press 2000)
Greer, Germaine, ‘The Whole Woman’ (Anchor Books 2000)
Holland, Patricia, ‘Picturing Childhood’  (I.B.Taurus 2006)
Lynch, Annette, ‘Dress, Gender and Cultural Change: Asian American and African and American Rites of Passage’ (Oxford International Publishers 1999)
Moore, Alan, Lloyd, David, ‘V for Vendetta’ (DC Comics 1989)
Moss, Marie Y, ‘Hello Kitty’s Little Book of Big Ideas: A Girl’s Guide to Brains, Beauty, Fashion, Friendship and Fun!’ (2001 Harry N. Abrams)
Nabokov, Vladimir, Lolita’ (Penguin Classics 2000)
Orbach, Susie, ‘Hunger Strike: The Classic Account of the Social and Cultural Phenomenon Underlying Anorexia Nervosa, Bulimia and Other Eating Problems’ (Penguin 1993)
Orenstein, Peggy, Cinderella Ate my Daughter’ (Harper 2011)
Sasek, Miroslav, ‘The is London’ (Universe Publishing Inc. U.S.2004)
Serano, Julia, ‘Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity’, (Seal Press 2007)
Sinclair, Marianne, ‘The Hollywood Lolita’, (Plexus 1988)
Totman, Richard, ‘Kathoey: Thailand’s Lady Boys’ (2003 Souvenir Press)
Walter, Natasha, ‘Living Dolls’ (Virago 2011)
Wolf, Naomi, ‘The Beauty Myth’ (Vintage 1991)

Essays, Articles and Editorials

Bavidge, Jenny and Gibson, Andrew, ‘The Metropolitan Playground’, From: Ed. Kerr, Joe and Gibson, Andrew, London: From Punk to Blair’ (Reaktion Books 2003)
Bhaba, Homi, ‘Novel Metropolis’, New Statesman and Society (16th February 1990)
Brady, Jeanne, ‘Multiculturalism and the American Dream’ in: Ed: Steinberg, Shirley R, Kincheloe, Joe L, ‘Kinderculture: The Corporate Construction of Childhood’ (Westview Press 1998)
Editorial, ‘Mix Master’Instyle Magazine, September 2011
Available at: [last  accessed 1/03/2012]
Hardwick, Eleanor, ‘Pretty on the Outside’, Rookie Magazine (10/10/2011)
Available at:  [last accessed 01/03/2012]
Hardwick, Eleanor, ‘Miss World’, Rookie Magazine (06/02/2012)
Available at: [last accessed 01/03/2012]
Gibson, Andrew, ‘Altering Images’, From: Ed. Kerr, Joe and Gibson, Andrew, ‘London: From Punk to Blair’ (Reaktion Books 2003)
Jipson, Jan, Reynolds, Ursi, in: Ed: Steinberg, Shirley R, Kincheloe, Joe L, ‘Kinderculture: The Corporate Construction of Childhood’ (Westview Press 1998)
Max Hastings, ‘Years of liberal dogma have spawned a generation of amoral, uneducated, welfare dependent, brutalised youngsters’, The Daily Mail (10/09/2011)
Available at: [last accessed on 20/09/2011]
Steinberg, Shirley R, ‘The Bitch Who Has Everything’ in: Ed: Steinberg, Shirley R, Kincheloe, Joe L, ‘Kinderculture: The Corporate Construction of Childhood’ (Westview Press 1998)

‘Lolita’ [Film] directed by Stanley Kubrick, 1962 USA: Seven Arts, AA Productions,
Anya Pictures, Transworld Pictures
‘Jubilee’ [Film] directed by Derek Jarman 1978 UK: Second Sight

[1] Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita’ (Penguin Classics 2000) p.20
[2] “I would have the reader see ‘nine’ and ‘fourteen’ as the boundaries-the mirrory beaches beaches and rosy rock-of an enchanted island haunted by those nymphets of mine and surrounded by a vast, misty sea.”
Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita’ (Penguin Classics 2000) p. 16
[3] Irene Gedalof, Against purity: Rethinking identity with Indian and Western Feminists’  (Routledge 1999) p. 31
[4]The belief that transsexuals' identified genders are inferior to, or less authentic than, those of cissexuals.”
Julia Serano, ‘Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity’, (Seal Press 2007) p.11
Cissexual or cisgender is term used to describe the  ‘non-transgender’ individual. These are the people whose body is in alignment with their gender identity.
[5]“The word little is never merely factual, but serving to add an emotional sweetening.” 
Marianne Sinclair, ‘The Hollywood Lolita’, (Plexus 1988) p.13
[6] Patricia Holland, ‘Picturing Childhood’  (I.B.Taurus 2006) p.194
[7]  “The word [girl] summons up childhood as a paradigm for dependency, vulnerability and subordination and imparts those characteristics to the whole female group. The domination-subordination relationship between men and women is paralleled and reinforced by the domination relationship between adult and child.”
[8] Jenny Bavidge and Andrew Gibson, ‘The Metropolitan Playground’, From: Ed. Joe Kerr and Andrew Gibson, ‘London: From Punk to Blair’ (Reaktion Books 2003) p.43
[9] Patricia Holland, ‘Picturing Childhood’  (I.B.Taurus 2006) p.188
[10] Alexa Chung, quoted in: Editorial, ‘Mix Master’, Instyle Magazine, September 2011
Available at: [last accessed 1/03/2012]
[11] Henry A. Giroux,Stealing Innocence’ (St Martins’ Press 2000) p.18
[12] Libby Brooks, ‘The Story of Childhood’ (Bloomsbury Publishing 2006) p.262
[13] Patricia Holland, ‘Picturing Childhood’  (I. B .Taurus 2006) p.122
[14] Consider the art work “Go West Young Man’ by the artist Keith Piper which explores the object body of the black male as a site of both desire and repulsion.
The fifth panel of ‘Go West Young Man’ Part Two reads:
“As I said before”, he began, “you’re the image ingrained into their Nightmares, haunting the front pages of their tabloids. Yours is the image of their decline, the personification of a degenerate social order, the New Black, the black of social disorder. As they said already ‘Go West Young Man’. The rest is history.”
[15] Max Hastings, ‘Years of liberal dogma have spawned a generation of amoral, uneducated, welfare dependent, brutalised youngsters’, The Daily Mail (10/09/2011)
Available at: [last accessed on 20/09/2011]
[16] ‘Henry A. Giroux,Stealing Innocence’ (St Martins’ Press 2000) p.62
[17] ‘Henry A. Giroux,Stealing Innocence’ (St Martins’ Press 2000) p.9
[18] Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita’ (Penguin Classics 2000) p.13
[19] Michel Foucault, ‘Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison’ (New York: Random House, Inc., 1995) p.200
Libby Brooks, ‘The Story of Childhood’ (Bloomsbury 2006) p.30-1
[20] Libby Brooks, ‘The Story of Childhood’ (Bloomsbury 2006) p.33, 42
[21] Peggy Orenstein, Cinderella Ate my Daughter’ (Harper 2011) p.23
[22] Jeffrey Eugenides, The Virgin Suicides’ (Bloomsbury 2002) p.42
[23] Quoted in: Irene Gedalof, Against purity: Rethinking identity with Indian and Western Feminists’  (Routledge 1999) p.34
[24] “The coffin of coarse flesh within which my nymphets are buried alive.”
Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita’ (Penguin Classics 2000) p.175
[25] Ibid. p.269
[26] Ibid. p.18, 21, 26, 180, 189,206
[27] Peggy Orenstein, Cinderella Ate my Daughter’ (Harper 2011) p.202
[28] Ibid.
[29] Peggy Orenstein, Cinderella Ate my Daughter’ (Harper 2011) p.139
[30] Ibid.
[31] ‘Henry A. Giroux,Stealing Innocence’ (St Martins’ Press 2000)
[32] Ibid.
[33]Andrew Gibson, ‘Altering Images’, From: Ed. Joe Kerr and Andrew Gibson, ‘London: From Punk to Blair’ (Reaktion Books 2003) p.292
[34] Ibid. p.298
[35] The woman of colour is both invisible in the white male mainstream world and the white feminist world.”
Anzaldúa, Gloria E,  ‘Speaking in Tongues: A Letter to Third World Women Writers’ ‘This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Colour’ (Kitchen Table Press 1983) p.165
[36] Ibid. 293
[37] Bhaba, Homi, ‘Novel Metropolis’, New Statesman and Society (16th February 1990) p.23

[38] Andrew Gibson, ‘Altering Images’, From: Ed. Joe Kerr and Andrew Gibson, ‘London: From Punk to Blair’ (Reaktion Books 2003) p.297

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