* Activism, Culture, Featured

Interview with Ashley Remer of Girl Museum (Part One)

In this three-part interview, Feminista Journal sat down with Ashley Remer from Girl Museum for a wide-ranging conversation covering topics from: what girl-centred feminism is, the safety of girls on the internet and the impact of social media, the gendered socialisation of young children, and the importance of cultivating empathy for social and cultural change. Drawing from Ashley’s extensive academic and practice background, as a scholar and as a museum professional, we engage with theory and practice to uncover and challenge some of the trends and norms we take for granted. Speaking directly to our audience, girls and women and mothers and mothers-to-be, we grapple with the question of what it takes to raise children in ways that raise their agency and protect their vulnerability – and in ways that transcend gendered stereotypes. Join us for an inspiring, empowering and very practical conversation about how we can collectively transform and lift up ourselves, each other, and society at large.

(FJ) I’d love for us to get started sort of concretely, which is ironic given that being virtual or digital might be a theme that comes up today. Could you place us inside Girl Museum? If I were to step inside as a visitor what is my experience?

(A) Well, what’s interesting about that concept is that when I founded Girl Museum https://www.girlmuseum.org/, I was very obsessed with that idea. Going back 11-12 years, the internet was such a bizarre new thing, and the concept of walking into the space was really important. I felt that for legitimacy – and for having those conversations like ‘Imagine yourself…walking up the stairs…’ – was really crucial to a museum experience no matter what. No matter where you were experiencing it, you had to leave your other world behind.

Then I had a conversation with someone who I thought was quite traditional in the museum world and he said to me: ‘Why? That is completely the patriarchal vision of what a museum is. Why are you trying to make your alternative space look and feel like this traditional space?’ And it was all wrapped up in that legitimacy thing and trying to feel like I have a right to be here and we have a right to call ourselves a museum. So, I just went ahead and made a webpage!

Starting from there, when you walk in now – it’s just meant to feel welcoming. It’s meant to feel like a place where you can find out – you as a girl, you as a woman, you as any other kind of visitor. You can find something out that you didn’t know. Or have something affirmed that you thought you knew or that you felt. And you can always make a comment. It is meant to be a place where you feel safe to be whatever it is that you are. And believe me, people who are not pro- what with we do feel very comfortable in saying that they don’t agree with what we’re doing. But you know, if you’re making people angry then you’re doing the right thing.

Really, it’s not highly theoretical about the space.

It’s really just trying to be a safe platform for girls on the internet because there are so many unsafe spaces. As a first stopping point, that’s what we’re meant to be.

Interestingly, something that you had mentioned in the question, about Covid, we fought for so long to say online museums are real, and suddenly everything’s online and everyone’s like ‘Oh! Why didn’t we think of this?’ We didn’t have to change anything we were doing. We just added a bit more content, we brought some things forward that we could – because the demand was so high. I was quite pleased that there was that possible turning point. And maybe going forward with funding – people may realise that the online content is important.

(FJ) Engaging with this aspect of Girl Museum as a ‘safe space’, safe spaces have been a topic of debate in recent years. What does this concept mean to you? In particular, one of the areas of controversy around safe spaces is around how to navigate negative commentators or engaging with people not identifying with or even opposed to that space. How did you navigate this in creating Girl Museum as a safe space?  

(A) So, we have a project coming up called ‘I am a Girl’ https://www.girlmuseum.org/i-am-a-girl-contributions/and that’s going to be our big attempt to explore identity. Through that, we hope to come to multiple conclusions about how we go forward. We aren’t exclusionary. If someone comes to us online and says ‘I am a girl’, I have no reason not to believe them. However, I have also learned that I have to vet, as people lie. For the most part though, this has not been an issue. In terms of transgender kids, we’re not excluding anyone, it’s about self-identification.

In terms of who we include in dialogue, however, this is something we are extremely careful with. Because the one thing we take as the most important, is protection. We are a pro-girl organisation and we do everything we can to not exploit, re-exploit, or harm.

I learned this in one of our first shows, called ‘Girl for Sale’ https://www.girlmuseum.org/project/girl-for-sale/which was about child sex trafficking. This was in 2010, and the idea of ‘clickbait’, the idea of ‘triggering’ titles really hadn’t come into the conversation and I didn’t realise that the title was as provocative as it ended up being. It was only titled that way because “Girl Not for Sale” was already taken as a domain name.

Through that show we had so much happen. Including, people trying to sell us girls, people trying to buy girls from us. It was extremely traumatising for the staff. I was collecting emails of the people who were writing to buy or sell girls, to send to the FBI. Then in 2017, the show, which was a standalone website because it was a collaborative project with another museum – it was hacked and completely destroyed. I was able to recover the content because we had all of that, but those people who wrote us, all of that was gone. They got away with it.

That show taught me that people can say some horrific stuff, and I’ve got to be able to mediate it, deal with it, and not pass it onto my staff because I need to protect them. I thought I’d created a safe space, and I was able to manage that safe space for the people who were looking at the show, because they didn’t see any of that. It was a safe space for my staff because I could protect them from that. But it was certainly wasn’t a safe place for me because I was very traumatized by the things that I saw.

I come from an advocacy background, and I knew about issues like abuse, and I do feel I have a thick skin, but it was difficult. And that’s when my eyes were opened to the dark web and to all of these sorts of things that are going on and how most of the internet is a dangerous place. It’s actually a very tiny part of the internet that is safe at all, for any children.

The internet is so much bigger than it was a decade ago, in terms of stuff out there, and it’s terrifying. I did a series called ‘Why do we need girl studies?https://www.girlmuseum.org/category/why-we-need-girls-studies/. We interviewed girls study scholars, and a question that we always ask anyone that we interview for anything is ‘Do you think the internet is a safe place for girls?’ And I was really surprised that most of these women said yes.

I felt it was a bit of a blinder situation because most of these scholars decided that they would look at how the internet and how social media has benefitted girls and how girls have used it. Which, to me was a real insight into the way that in girlhood, womanhood, girl-centred feminism, feminism – we want to ascribe agency – agency is the thing. And it’s like, well, yes, girls have power, ‘girl power’, all of that. But if you don’t also protect girls, some of them don’t get to grow up.

I felt like these scholars were so busy trying to think about girls as active agents that they weren’t trying to protect them as well. So, it’s an ongoing conversation about safety.

And just to tie that up, I’ve recently been approached by some teenage girls in the states who started a non-profit to help support girls out of social media. Out of that, we talked about the irony of being online to get people offline, but there they were. They came to us and said: ‘We see you as a safe space, a space where we can talk with girls without them having to be on social media.’ So that was an interesting development in just the past few months.

(FJ) We’re going to get into blind-spots, I think. And to start with, something I’m picking up as important is the way that feminism might have a blind-spot when it comes to girls, and I would love for you to help us understand what girl-centred feminism means.

(A) Starting with girl-centred feminism. I grew up wearing a ‘Girls are People Too’ t-shirt. I’m from the ‘free to be you and me’ generation. And there is something so absolutely important about our childhoods as that period of life where we are formed.

My son is six. And before I was six, I had the Free to be You and Me album and I knew it by heart. I remember that time and at that age wanting to go to protests. I feel like I peaked when I was six, because at that age, I was not editing myself. I was so, so thrilled to be who I could be.

So, what is missing from the conversation about girls and women is that feminism spent so long trying to say ‘We’re not girls. Treat us like adults. We aren’t little dolls that make dinner.’ Which is absolutely important and legitimate and needed to happen, but so many women spent so long doing that. Such that to even be a girl is pejorative and derogatory. It’s a negative thing. And that to me is the first linguistic step that we have to take, to take back the word.

When I first started Girl Museum, when I first talked about it at a conference, this man came up to me and said ‘The Grill Museum?! That’s a great idea!’ I thought, ‘Having listened to everything I said about Girl Museum – you still thought it was the grill museum? Okay. Oh, what a male response.’

This was at the American Museums Conference in Houston, Texas. But that doesn’t excuse anything.

The legitimacy of the word ‘girl’. The legitimacy of girls as people – is still a fight that we are having at the theoretical level, all the way down to literally – not making women stressed about having a baby girl, if they’re thinking about getting pregnant. It goes all the way back. Even before conception, there’s already stress on the child that has yet to be born.

The girl that gets conceived has to hope she doesn’t get aborted because she’s a girl. And then, hopefully she is born into a place where she is not thrown away. And if she is fortunate, she will be fed enough to live rather be neglected. There are so many milestones that a girl has to go through just to have her first tooth.

At Girl Museum we want to show that this is not a thing that happens only in some places. This happens everywhere in the world. It is not a regional thing or a cultural thing. It happens everywhere.

It was the same with our human trafficking show. We wanted to show that this happens everywhere. There is nothing that happens only over there. Everything is here and especially when it comes to girls.

Fighting for the word – the right to the word, and then the right to be, the right to exist – to live. All these things are still in progress.

To say ‘girl-centred feminism’, I still get lots of people going: ‘What do you mean? What could that mean?’ It just means putting girls in the picture. For my work with Girl Museum, even just saying that I’m going to look at girls as a subject – seems kind of not a big deal, but it is such a big deal. For example, when I was shopping my PhD topic around, I received a lack of interest from people who I thought were feminists. And I thought ‘Okay, this is good. This means definitely means I’m onto something if they’re scared of it.’

Describing the blind spots, we get to the point where, now, we are painfully aware of the irony, and the hypocrisy of being online and then saying that the internet is bad. We see it every day when people say, ‘I’m getting off Facebook man.’ Well, they say that and then they don’t. It’s really, really hard. Human beings are really complicated. But it shouldn’t be complicated to say that. I mean, I tell them, this is like the Hillary Clinton line that women’s rights are human rights.

You don’t have a future without girls making it. And what we have had for so long is this patriarchal structure that is perpetrated by mothers. Fathers don’t do it as much as mothers do. We have to have the baby and let the man teach the boy or girl how to be the thing that upholds the status quo. And that’s some hypocrisy and irony there too.

It’s not about laying blame at anyone else’s feet. It’s everybody’s fault. It’s everybody’s responsibility. Whoever you are, you have a choice to bring us forward, or keep us where we are. And that can be – if you’re not a mum – be a mentor. There are so many ways to have an effect. Like you were saying, you’re friends with your friends’ kids. That’s so good. I’ve always been that person. Because when I was a little one, I was always wanting to be friends with that adult and wanted to know what she did, how did she get there? It’s so important to have those role models.

We have an exhibition called ‘Heroines’ Quilt’ https://www.girlmuseum.org/project/heroines-quilt-i/and that was one of my first projects. Every other year, we ask people to contribute a girlhood heroine, and they don’t have to be real people. That was actually part of our analysis: How many people looked up to real women that they knew, versus real women they didn’t know; the number of fictional women; the number of women from literature versus women from movies. It was quite interesting analysing all these different types of girls and women that girls and women looked up and I thought that was really important, because role modelling was always hugely important to me.

(FJ) Everything you just said resonate on so many different levels. I was particularly struck by the point you made about the safety of girls on the internet. I wonder if you could speak more to this viewpoint of the internet not actually being a very safe place for girls or women or potentially anyone – but specifically for girls. What might some of the blind-spots be for those who discuss technology and feminism? And what might those blind spots mean for girls, perhaps given particular vulnerabilities?

(A) To me, the danger of the internet is that it’s a predatory place. They either want your money or your body, if you’re a female. It’s reductive but it runs through the history of girls becoming a category to market to – marketing to young girls, such as through Instagram, by the diet industry, the self-care industry. And with that, influencing dysphoria. I hear about girls having dysphoria from Snapchat filters, and I see all this marketing towards them. It’s madness.

And I think that is where humans have such a problem with memory and learning from the past and caring about the past. And that’s what we at Girl Museum try to do – we try to take the past and show how it’s affecting the present, so that we can change the future.

For example, one of our exhibition streams is called ‘Girls of Women’ https://www.girlmuseum.org/project/girlsofwomen/and that’s where we look at contemporary social issues and how we got there.

And in terms of body dysmorphia, by looking at history, we can see that since the beginning of photography, photos have been manipulated. They have always been trying to make people prettier. Even in the earliest portraits – artists put beauty marks on their subjects. Since painting portraits, no one has ever been represented as they are, because the artist wants to put their mark. This history is just a thing that not enough people know about, and the people who do know, either use it to manipulate others, or they don’t care enough to try to use it to make a difference.

I was having a conversation with someone about deep fakes and there was a law case – from around the 1910s or 20s concerning photographs of artworks where the original artwork was a nude. The issue was: Was the photograph pornography, even though it was just a photograph of the thing? One of the arguments that come out of this case was about how it was possible to take the photograph and put the face of a famous person on the image and wouldn’t that be scandalous because that could get passed around?

But the point is that they were having that conversation then.

So maybe we should start looking at the past and look at the ethics of how we’ve behaved and go – ‘Hmm … That was not good’ – and reflect on its continuity with the present and move forward a bit on that.

That’s a big blind spot. You know, the number of underage girls that got married in the United States last year, you would be shocked. Girls whose parents said ‘Yes, my 12 year-old can get married’. If you asked anyone in America, they would say, that doesn’t happen here. And that’s NIMBY, it’s blinders, all of that.