From Iceland — What It Feels Like

What It Feels Like

Published March 27, 2012

Margo Dooney delves into the life of the modern Icelandic girl

What It Feels Like
Rex Beckett
Photo by
Margo Dooney

Margo Dooney delves into the life of the modern Icelandic girl

What is the condition of being a teenage girl in Iceland today? It is a heavy question with no singular, simple answer, nor has it ever been in any given time or place. Finding some of the answers has been the lofty goal of American artist Margo Dooney, who is doing a SÍM Residency in Iceland.

Margo, a 24-year old New York City resident, has spent the past two months documenting ten local girls from various walks of life between the ages of 15–19. She describes this as a period when one is on the cusp of becoming a woman, rapidly developing both emotionally and intellectually. She has gone about this by immersing herself in their worlds, living vicariously through them in a sense.

“The participants have been so warm and welcoming, sharing their lives with me,” Margo says. “The process follows more or less the same pattern; I go to their home, sometimes meet parents and siblings, get a tour of the house, photograph the girls, their rooms, and their favourite possessions, followed by a discussion where I ask what it means to be a teenage girl in Iceland. The answers are limitless.”


The idea for the project actually came from a distant spark that spread like a wildfire: an outsider’s perception of Icelandic hetero-mating dynamics, in particular the visible aggressiveness of females versus males. Wondering if there is indeed an imbalance, Margo began to do her research—speaking with female professors she knew and reading about women’s issues and history. 

“Icelandic women have an incredible history,” she says, “Over the past century, they’ve made remarkable progress. If I had grown up in a place like Iceland, where it’s possible for a woman (and a gay woman!) to hold a political office, how would I have developed differently? How would those crucial developmental teen years have changed?” Using this question as a launch pad, she found a clear concept for a complex topic.

Of course one may wonder: why Iceland? “Well, I’m here,” Margo answers candidly. However, the location did play an important role in the inception of the project, Iceland not only being a hospitable environment for it, but a crucial element. “If I wasn’t here, this project wouldn’t be happening, since it’s country specific, historically and culturally,” she continues. “It’s all very admirable, especially to someone like myself, since my home seems so far from being this progressive. And the girls I’ve met with are both very aware of and proud of this progression, but it’s second nature to them. It’s all they know.”


This pride and awareness of their history has also transcended their political psyche, with a strong realisation that all is not won yet. “What I found interesting is that when asked about teen life as a girl here, they immediately wanted to talk about the freedoms of women,” says Margo, “how fortunate they are to have this sense of ‘social freedom without judgement’ as girls in Iceland. The other issue that surprisingly comes up with the handful I’ve met is the idea of gender equality and inequality in both political and social realms. They’re feeling some sort of an imbalance, and they want to level it.”

She points out that there is a sense of respect for mothers and the importance of women within the family structure, but also their strong distaste for the wage gap, turning some of them off from the idea of work entirely.

Regardless of their seemingly intrinsic ideologies, labelling one’s desire for equality is still mighty unpopular. “Obviously this is a sensitive subject,” Margo concedes. “They’re not running around calling themselves ‘feminists’ as they believe it would only gather negative connotations, thus standing in the way of what they’re striving for—gender equality, but they are educating themselves, encouraging conversation about their concerns with teachers and classmates, both male and female, and I think that empowers them—to have a sense of community, and an understanding of what they are feeling.”


Margo says that the ultimate goal of her project is to comprehensively document them and pick up all the artefacts of who they are. The end-result will be put together in a multimedia installation incorporating still and moving images, sounds, text, music. Additionally, she is reconstructing an amalgamation of their bedrooms into her studio space, where one can take part in the immersive experience.

So what does it feel like for a girl? The answer is obvious: it’s different for everyone. “I’ve only met a clip of them, a small handful that doesn’t fully represent or speak for the entire teen girl population here,” she says, “but from who I’ve spoken with, these are a very hopeful group of young women. Not just for Iceland, but for everywhere.”

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