American Culture Studies Ph.D. Dissertations


What Are Little (Empowered) Girls Made Of?: The Discourse of Girl Power in Contemporary U.S. Popular Culture

Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)


American Culture Studies/Popular Culture

First Advisor

Ellen Berry (Committee Chair)

Second Advisor

Cynthia Baron (Committee Member)

Third Advisor

Kimberly Coates (Committee Member)

Fourth Advisor

Lesa Lockford


Beginning in the late 1990s, U.S. popular culture has been inundated with messages promoting "girl power." This dissertation examines representations of girl power in the mass media, as well as popular literature and advertising images, in order to interrogate the ways in which the discourse of girl power has shaped cultural understandings of girlhood in the past twenty years. It also examines the ways in which that discourse has functioned as both an extension of and a response to social concerns about the safety, health and emotional well-being of girls in the United States at the turn of the millennium. Girl power popular culture texts are often discussed by commentators, fans and their creators as attempts to use media narratives and images to empower girls, either by providing them with models for how to enact empowered femininity or by providing them with positive representations that make them feel good about themselves as girls. However, this project is arguably limited by the focus in girl power texts on girls' individual (as opposed to their structural) empowerment, as well as the failure of these texts to conceive of the exercise of power outside of patriarchal models. Girl Power as it has been articulated in U.S. popular culture is full of contradictory messages about adolescent female empowerment, as well as girls' places within U.S. society. This dissertation argues, however, that rather than trying to reconcile these contradictions, girl power must be understood in terms of the inconsistencies in and tensions between its varying articulations, all of which shape how we as a culture understand what it is and what it means to be an empowered girl at the present moment.