Date of Award

May 2020

Degree Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

Department

English

First Advisor

Tami Williams

Committee Members

Elana Levine, Jocelyn Szczepaniak-Gillece, Michael Newman, Jessalynn Keller

Keywords

Celebrity, Digital media, Girlhood, Labor, Media culture, Television

Abstract

The achieving “can-do” girl, who thrives in her personal, academic, and aspirational endeavors, emerged in response to self-help crisis literature of the 1990s urging mothers to manage their daughters’ low self-esteem. However, even as media industries have adopted the successful girl subject in popular film, television, and digital marketing campaigns, public conversations of tween and teenage girls still identify rising levels of anxiety and self-doubt that diminish girls’ confidence well into adulthood. Responding to what critics call the “confidence gap,” girl culture of the twenty-first century has organized itself around the affordances of social media and digital celebrity in the creation of a professionalized girl self-brand. This project addresses the media discourses of confidence and anxiety that shape expectations of girlhood achievement and examines the use of celebrity as a tool of professionalization in the reproduction of race and class hierarchies under neoliberal capitalism.

This project explores four modes of cultural production that demonstrate what I call “the professional lifestyling of the self” that invoke the practice of celebrity and branding in the construction of the professional girl subjectivity: lifestyle media featuring mothers managing their daughters’ entertainment careers; girl prodigies and performers competing on reality talent shows; girl influencers building their business on YouTube and Instagram; and girl activists negotiating humanitarian agendas in networked microcelebrity spaces. Critical to each mode is how celebrity reinforces confidence, authenticity, and relatability in the creation of a professionalized girl subject who acts as a point of stabilization during uncertain economic times. The chapters survey the progression of girlhood in her professionalization, from her initial appointment as daughter carrying on the mother’s postfeminist legacy, to agent of social change navigating the pressures of promoting her cause in a commodity culture. Along the way, the girl learns to brand personal obstacles, insecurities, and anxieties as part of her authentic journey to professional achievement. I argue that this procession, as it operates within the surveillance framework of media convergence, reveals that attaining confidence is a commercial endeavor rather than a feminist one that promises social and economic independence while maintaining structural inequalities.

This dissertation seeks to understand digital celebrity not just as “a pedagogical tool in the discursive production” of the girl, as P. David Marshall has argued, but as a professional aid in the construction of the gendered, racialized, and classed girl who can prosper in the shifting labor economy of the early twenty-first century. Girlhood relies on the technologies of branding and promotion to reimagine, rather than close, the confidence gap by assigning cultural value to traits like low self-worth that were previously blamed for holding girls back. This project ultimately interrogates how the commercial industries conceptualize the girl as a business whose confidence and anxiety are managed and whose work is crucial to the regulation of a capitalist society.

Available for download on Friday, May 20, 2022

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