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Introduction: Willful Girls

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  23 August 2019

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Summary

THIS BOOK EXPLORES the depiction of girls and young women in contemporary Anglo-American and German literary texts. It focuses on how the novels in question portray the process of “becoming woman,” and on the role of will and willfulness in this becoming. “Becoming woman” is an allusion to Simone de Beauvoir's famous 1949 pronouncement “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.” This assertion, perhaps the defining statement of second-wave and subsequent feminisms, highlights the constructed status of gender. Gender is not a given; rather, it is a cultural construct. I am interested in what kind of becomings are possible in the context of neoliberalism and postfeminism. How do people become what they are? How do they fail to become what they might? What is at stake, politically and ethically, in such becomings or failures to become? I identify four sets of concerns that are integral to the notion of becoming: agency and volition; body and beauty; sisterhood and identification; and sex and desire. These clusters of concerns are all crucial to feminist thought, and urgent for anyone interested in understanding subject formation—especially, but not only, gendered subject formation—in the contemporary context.

The literary texts I examine, all published during the last twenty years in German or English, tease out the complex processes by which female subjects become women in the context of a globalized, neoliberal world. The introduction delineates the theoretical and cultural context for this study and justifies the comparatist approach it adopts. It examines the notion of becoming in gender and feminist theory, putting forward a conception of this process as affective, bodily, and relational. It also argues for negativity, failure, and anger as crucial to conceptualizations of femininity. It then turns to Sara Ahmed's productive notion of willfulness, as developed in Willful Subjects. Willful Girls tests out Ahmed's concept and expands its implications for understandings of literature and of the contemporary context more broadly. The book demonstrates that femininity is a site of identification and disidentification, of interpellation and resistance, of desire and disgust. It thereby crystallizes and develops ongoing feminist debates concerning agency, embodiment, relationality, and sexuality.

Art and affect are crucial to this project. Art—which, as Elizabeth Grosz suggests, connects us to our animal lineage—involves bodiliness and eroticism.

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Willful Girls
Gender and Agency in Contemporary Anglo-American and German Fiction
, pp. 1 - 16
Publisher: Boydell & Brewer
Print publication year: 2018

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