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Rebel Girls: Youth Activism and Social Change Across the Americas

reviewed by Erica Townsend-Bell - June 02, 2011

coverTitle: Rebel Girls: Youth Activism and Social Change Across the Americas
Author(s): Jessica Taft
Publisher: New York University Press, New York
ISBN: 0814783252, Pages: 256, Year: 2010
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Jessica Taft’s Rebel Girls is a stimulating book about youth activism among teenage girls throughout the Americas. As Taft convincingly argues, girl activists are almost entirely absent from the social movement literature, a surprising finding given the great emphasis on teenage girls in other academic literatures and intellectual conversations, such as girls’ self-worth, sexual behavior, and consumption habits, as well as broad focus on their “empowerment.” And yet, Taft claims, this widespread attention to girls has gone unrecognized within social movement literatures. Taft’s interest is in gaining some traction on the transnational community of girl activists, which she does via interviews and ethnographic study of teenage girl activists in Vancouver, San Francisco, Mexico City, Caracas, and Buenos Aires. Taft illuminates the activist identities of girls in a variety of “activist hotspots,” arguing that the work they do and their activist interest is often overlooked and unappreciated. Instead, activist youth are a much more widespread phenomenon than often recognized, and this phenomenon is particularly notable among teenage girls, who are much more active in left and progressive social movements than typically credited. As such, Taft’s interest is in detailing how girls construct their activist identities, with a particular focus on how they define and redefine notions of girlhood within and alongside an activist frame, as well as the way in which they claim authoritative political space. The book attends to three major concerns which the author summarily describes as identities, culture and strategies, asking about the “shared (and divergent) cultural toolkits and symbolic meanings that girl activists draw upon and reproduce as they formulate their political practices and develop their strategies for social movement activity” (p. 7).  In sum, Taft’s findings show that girl activists across the Americas are surprisingly more consistent in their behavior and ideas than we might think, sharing similar understandings of the meaning of girl, youth and activist, and a similar ambivalence to the importance to their identity as girls and girl activists.  

The topic of this book is very compelling, although the book is a bit uneven. The crux of my concerns tends toward methodological issues that remain unaddressed or underaddressed throughout the book. First, though the book’s focus on teenage girl activists is both intriguing and insightful, there is a troubling lack of discussion about how the author defines said girls. The book lacks a clear explanation of who does and does not count in the community of teenage girls, and what the cut-off is. For instance, I was unclear as to the status of 13 or 14 year old girls, but more importantly, I was unclear as whether a 20 year old girl might count, and if not, why not? A part of Taft’s argument for case selection is that girls share a marginalized structural location, in that they have very little access to formal power, and thus very little political authority or public voice. This point is quite convincing, though I do wish Taft had been more attentive to the limits of that supposedly shared structural location. Still, the reader is left to wonder where this marginalized structural location halts, or shifts. What constitutes a teenager is left undefined, though one gathers that a 20 or 21 year old does not count. That these ages do not end in “-teen” may automatically disqualify them, though the implicit argument that 19 year olds and 22 year olds have widely different capacities and authorities is not entirely convincing; these ages are not necessarily differentiated even by the capacity to vote in some of the countries Taft includes. Similarly, the author makes the argument that girl activists are underappreciated by adult activists, who disregard the girls’ youth and hopeful countenances as naiveté. This argument appears fairly straightforward, but over time the reader realizes that a systematic exploration of what constitutes and differentiates an adult is equally unforthcoming. For instance, the girls note that they often do not participate in peasant or worker rallies out of a sense that they do not belong. But what stimulates this sense of outsiderness? In other settings and conversations, the girls indicate that these are identities they claim as well. Thus, the answer to whether these are adult spaces because they consist of older people, or they are not optimistic and hopeful, or because of some other configuration of reasons, remains unclear.

Another concern is that in a book that focuses on girl activists, the author eventually notes that many of the girls she includes do not see that as a primary part of their identity, preferring to emphasize their general youth status on a broader activist status instead. To be fair, Taft herself makes this point clear, though she does not do so in any detail until roughly 90 pages into the book. Prior to, and often after that the reader is left to wonder why she continues to reference a specific girl activist identity when so many of the points she makes and so much of the girls’ own language speaks to a more generalized youth identity. As Taft eventually affirms, this occurs in large part because girl is a complicated identity that many of her respondents actively reject due to its connotations with “girly” accoutrements and behavior that they find somewhat abhorrent. In essence, because they feel they cannot rescue a definition of girl that they feel to be fitting of their more serious and expansive personalities, they vary between outright rejection of a girl identity and an uncomfortable association with said position. This is a very convincing and powerful argument, and thus I wondered why the author did not make this ambivalence a much more central component of the book, highlighting this hesitant embrace throughout the text, and perhaps even in the title. It seems that such a continuous emphasis would have gone a long in way in clarifying the real difference between girls and youth activists and girls and adult activists that is frequently murky throughout the book.

My final concern with this book is its theoretical point. Taft indicates that her major theoretical intervention is that identity can determine strategy and that the relationship between these two concepts is best illustrated by attention to identity narratives and claims. I do not take issue with this theoretical claim, but neither was I entirely clear as to its newness. Perhaps a part of the problem is that the book is written in a very conversational style, which makes it engaging, but which leaves its academic place unclarified. Where arguments about theoretical interventions are typically counterposed to highlights of the oversights and silences of traditional academic work, making quite clear where an author is intervening in and adding to the literature, there is less of that work in this text, leaving the reader unclear as to how the author is building on the insights of scholars like Mary Bernstein, Francesca Polletta, or James Jasper, all of whose works she cites, but with which her level of engagement is not fully apparent.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: June 02, 2011
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16439, Date Accessed: 1/20/2022 11:45:57 AM

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About the Author
  • Erica Townsend-Bell
    University of Iowa
    E-mail Author
    ERICA TOWNSEND-BELL is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Iowa. Her academic interests are comparative racial and gender politics, Latin American politics, and social movements. Her most recent publication “What is Relevance: Defining Intersectional Praxis in Uruguay,” is a one part of a larger book manuscript that she is currently completing, titled Incorporating Difference: Implementing Intersectionality in Latin America.
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