An interview with author Maggie Hamilton
I have had the privilege of knowing and working with author, publisher and educator Maggie Hamilton for the past few years. As well as her own books including What’s Happening to Our Girls? (Viking, Penguin 2008) and What’s Happening to Our Boys? (2010), Maggie is a contributor to my last two books with chapters ‘The seduction of girlhood’ in Getting Real: Challenging the sexualisation of girls (Spinifex Press, 2009) and ‘Groomed to Consume Porn: How sexualised marketing targets children’ in Big Porn Inc: Exposing the harms of the global pornography industry (Spinifex Press, 2011). Maggie decided she had to produce something beautiful for girls as a gift for them, which she’s done. I spoke with Maggie ahead of her book launch in Sydney tomorrow night.
Maggie, I think Secret Girls’ Business (Penguin) would have to be the most gorgeous looking title for girls I’ve seen. What prompted you to write it?
I wanted to put something together that was fun, funky and joyous for girls, as so much of what they experience in pop culture is dark and depressing. It’s concerning to see a whole generation of girls becoming slaves to leading brands, and causing girls serious anxiety around looks and possessions. This in turn forces them to get on the spending treadmill very early.
The book is packed with art and craft ideas, with getting girls back to the soil, to earth, to imagination and discovery. Why do you feel girls have been cut off from what was in the past just considered normal every day hobbies and interests for girls?
Research suggests that almost all the spare time girls have is spent in packaged entertainment or shopping, which is pretty depressing, as there’s not a whole lot of life experience happening there. Living in a performance culture also means girls are constantly trying to keep up with what’s expected of them, so they’ll maintain the acceptance and approval of peers. This leaves little time for anything else.
Girls also take their lead from the rest of us. We’ve all become seduced by endless opportunities for instant gratification. In the process we’ve lost a lot of nuance from our daily lives – the joy of a personal handmade gift, or the fun and real sense of satisfaction at having to work for something, to watch it slowly unfold before us.
I’ve profiled fabulous vintage blog queens from London to Brooklyn, for example, to encourage girls to think vintage. The joy of vintage clothing is that these garments are about story – someone wore this dress or jacket before you and, if you look after it, it will look after you. Vintage items are often better made. Girls can re-purpose an outfit simply by changing the buttons or removing the sleeves or changing the hemline. They can then enjoy wearing a genuinely individual item. Vintage clothing is also great for girls of different shapes and sizes as there’s other decades that work perfectly for their bodies.
With the overwhelming marketing to girls there’s little chance to learn about their own story. There’s something very special about learning a little here and there about your family history from the discovery of an old button, postcard or photo. But as girls are increasingly pre-occupied with lives of celebrities, this isn’t happening. So in the book there’s a number of fun ways to change this.
Clearly we need more than a new book to solve the problem – but what contribution to you hope Secret Girls’ Business will make to helping girls rediscover their creativity and reclaim their imaginations from the onslaught of advertising, marketing and the global beauty industries which demand conformity to an idealised norm?
We are seeing a radical drop in imagination and personal creativity in girls, as they’re growing up in worlds full of branded junk. Crafting helps girls become confident about their own ideas and self-expression. It also helps them unwind from their full-on 24/7 world.
Crafting is deeply personal. You invest your love and time in something which you gift yourself or someone you care about. It can be hugely inspiring and comforting as well. Recently a girlfriend was diagnosed with an aggressive breast cancer. She said all she wanted to do was go home and knit. Handmade is precious, it brings intimacy back into our fast-paced hard-wired existence.
I recall when you were working on your last book What’s happening to our boys, you described feelings of trauma, and needing to recover from what you had learned during the research phase. Is this book part of your healing?
Yes, doing the research I have has taken its toll. When you’re spending a couple of years at a time looking at what’s going wrong for our kids, it can be deeply challenging. There were many times I felt overwhelmed with the issues girls face. Putting Secret Girls’ Business together has been so healing, because creative projects and ideas are life-enhancing. There’s something very profound in these activities. They feed the soul.
Do you think we all need to consider scaling back, getting off the treadmill and discovering places of peace and simplicity?
Putting the book together has made me rethink my own values, how I live and what I want from life. I now see how invaluable it is we reconnect with each other. Our kids need a village to grow up in. They need the support of committed engaged adults, the wisdom of their elders, meaningful rituals, to spend time in nature, to have more fun and laughter, more opportunities for spontaneity.
That’s why I’m now encouraging older women to volunteer to teach girls to knit and hand sew in schools, in community halls, in their homes or wherever. It’s about knitting the generations back together again, providing a fun relaxed space for girls to be creative, where they can make things for charity. It’s also about sharing life stories as you knit or sew. Creativity and fun go together – we need more of it.
A few weeks ago I met a beautiful 28-year-old teacher who’d recently lost her mum who had been a great knitter. She was looking for a way to honour her mum, and is now setting up an SGW group to do just that.
Book launch: Monday 24 September, 6.30pm at Better Read Than Dead, 265 King St, Newtown 2042