Sunday, October 19, 2014

Creating a homespace at school: How do teachers combat prescribed gender roles?

In their chapter "Gender Identity Development", Nakkula and Toshalis introduce a litany of contradictions about the prescribed roles of females versus males in today's society.  They argue that in their adolescence, students learn to acclimate to societal expectations of what being a boy or a girl means; how boys and girls "should" behave in order to be accepted by their peers.  While hormones play a limited role in shaping young men and women, "Much of our gender scripting is implicit.  We internalize gendered norms for masculinity and femininity that are picked up through family life, in the neighborhood, and throughout the media," state relational theorists Sapon-Shevin and Goodman in describing how gender stereotypes become learning guides (p. 100).  When I read and subsequently reread the chapter, I found myself not only nodding in agreement, but also sorting out the myriad of terms the authors introduced with respect to the gender identity "scripts" for girls and boys.

Steve vs. Lisa
As the authors contend, "gender-appropriate" behavior is a force that is already defined for boys and girls by early adolescence.  Freshmen Steve Chang and Lisa Prescott learn quickly in high school to "hide" their true selves in order to conform with the cliques that surround them.  Steve learns that being "cool" means making homophobic slurs, an action that the authors cite as a pervasive part of male scripting (p.111).  On the other hand, Lisa, an intellectual, finds that her attractive physique rather than her intellectual capacity is what is valued by both her clique of girlfriends and many boys in her high school.  Nakkula and Toshalis argue that Lisa, like many young girls, learns "what others want her to be, and in that sense has lost an opportunity to become the person she might have imagined"  (p. 107).  Subsequently, both Steve and Lisa begin to shape their public persona into those of the stereotypical "homophobic boy" and "ditsy girl" in order to conform with their peers. This leads to the next set of contradictions that exists, "going internal" versus "going external".

Going internal vs. Going external
Nakkula and Toshalis show how adolescent girls like Lisa are engaging in a process of going into psychological hiding, or "going underground" (p. 103).  They describe the inward flight of outgoing, predominately white, middle- and upper-middle-class girls; girls who may have confidently soared through middle school academically but feel the need to repress their talent and intellect; to be refined, less outgoing, and less aggressive.  The closing off of oneself or going internal, just as often happens with homosexual students who prefer the refuge of being "in the closet" as opposed to facing public ridicule, denies adolescents of their flow.  Girls, according to the authors, are taught to "act" within their prescribed "supporting roles" (p. 103)  "The energy to hide is lost energy," state Nakkula and Toshalis (p. 114).  It is literally exhausting to play the role of someone you aren't, as I learned myself in my own inward flight as an adolescent female.  I was a tomboy who was initially isolated by my peers school in eight grade for being overly confident, and then at home for being too feminine in the eyes of my doting father who felt "betrayed" by my new feminine conformist identity.  Something has to give, and in the case of Lisa, it is her academics as she exhausts herself socially.

On the other hand, society prescribes that adolescent boys should "perform" as strong, emotionally-controlled leaders (p. 104).  Sadker and Sadker define the "prescriptions of patriarchy" when they show the role of "boys in action" and "girls' inaction" in classrooms.  They argue that value is placed on boys' academic contributions and girls' social skills (p.105).  The authors suggest that boys are preconditioned by society to show toughness; a hyper-masculinity that overshadows showing any sort of vulnerability.  It is a fear that showing any signs of compassion or sensitivity is a weakness, or even worse, feminine or homosexual.  Among of the greatest insults I have seen on Twitter is calling a guy a "faggot" or a "girl."  Using one's gender or sexuality a negative stereotype is not only detrimental to the group being slurred, but also to the psyche of the recipient of the slur.  It is, in effect, the stifling of one's true self, one's dignity, and one's ability to achieve flow.

Interestingly, the same gender stereotypes for middle- to upper-middle-class white girls do not necessarily apply to African-American girls, according to the authors.  In fact, the authors say, a subset of African-American from Philadelphia were shown to feel strong leadership roles in the home environment.  Those girls who tended to drop out of school because they possessed real-life competencies to raise and provide for their families were perceived to be stronger than their in-school counterparts (p. 106).  This example made me think that perhaps the young black girls in this study were not provided with enough power and leadership opportunities in school.  The educational system itself along with culturally-prescribed feminine roles is to blame for these young girls' unwillingness or inability to stay in school.

"Schools themselves are gendered spaces" (p. 105)
Because school have inbred gendered roles as defined by the contradictions above, it is incumbent upon teachers to create "safe spaces" or "homespaces" where the stereotypes can be explored and dismantled.  I felt somewhat heartened by the authors' description of Janie Ward's homespace as "not so much a physical place within a particular system, whether family, school, or community setting, but rather a collective psychological space designed to promote healthy resistance to oppression (p. 110).    From previous chapters, we know that learning requires a certain amount vulnerability in a space where it is safe to take chances and make mistakes.  We are given examples by the authors; mothers read to their children about real world examples of people overcoming oppressions.  Teachers give their students texts and ask them for five-paragraph interpretations followed up by comparisons to their own gender roles and upbringing.  To me, as a female, it seems easier to create homespaces for girls at school.  

The authors admit that most homespaces for boys, whether in athletics or at home on videogames, breed homophobia, male dominance, and uber-masculinity.   As I write this blog, my eleven-year-old son Kevin is practicing his saxophone in our dining room.  He is also a proud member of his middle school chess club and cross country team.  It breaks my heart that Kevin will likely be subjected to ridicule at least once in these formative adolescent years because many "mainstream" boys consider playing music with the school band a "gay" activity.   The arts are perceived by uber-masculine boys as "gay" in many high schools, including my own.  It is evident that football is more valued by mainstream New Englanders in Anywhere, Southeastern Massachusetts than the members of the marching band or the cheerleaders who accompany the players to every game.  I worry that my son Kevin will be faced with abandoning his true self for a conformist, mainstream persona.  I worry as a female white teacher that my solitary homespace in school is not enough to combat mainstream homespaces like the school bus, the locker room, and Twitter, where societal messages of being homophobic prevail.  Kevin, my amazing little intellectual, is embarking on the cruelty of the adolescent society, and I just hope that I help him have the confidence to be who he is; to run, to play chess, and to play the saxophone with passion.   It is something that as a teacher and a mother I find frightening.  As an educator, I feel the authors fell short of providing good examples of how to effectively combat the hyper-masculinity among adolescent boys.


  1. First, I need to say that I stared at the picture in the post for ? minutes trying to figure out what exactly I was looking at (the guys were in their football uniforms, but not really ... was it alumni weekend? ... anyway, it was a great choice for your blog, but it took me to left field).

    I don't want to scare you, but you are right. Your son will be made fun of at least once for playing an instrument in the band. So, begin surrounding him with examples of other really cool guys that play the saxophone now. I used to play the trumpet and violin (pretty well as I am told) ... USED to. I stopped playing because at that time in my life (10 - 11 y.o.) my parents just got separated and I did not have it in me to deal with being made fun of for carrying my instrument around in its little brief case.

    I just had the thought ... Many tribal cultures have some sort of ritual that defines the boys from the men. Other than getting drunk with your friends on your XX birthday, I do not think that we have a really good ritual. I wonder how things might be different for girls and boys if we incorporated a real coming of age ritual to our culture.

  2. That's so funny about the picture, Gabe! I absolutely see what you mean. It really is disheartening about the "machista" guy culture that is promoted here in the United States. I have to would be nice to have something here that celebrates young men's coming of age, like the Bat Mitzvah or the quinceanera. I like your idea of surrounding him with images of cool musicians and saxophone players, but I hope he has the strength to be himself. It really bums me out. Thanks for your excellent input.

  3. Amy, this quote stood out to me so much..."Using one's gender or sexuality a negative stereotype is not only detrimental to the group being slurred, but also to the psyche of the recipient of the slur. It is, in effect, the stifling of one's true self, one's dignity, and one's ability to achieve flow." It is a constant battle in my classroom with what the students are calling each other. I am so curious as to when the labeling of something as 'gay' became something so negative. It makes my heart so sad. And we wonder why people are afraid to be out and proud. There are so many people that still use the word offensively. When I think of people using the word "gay" or "fag" negatively to label someone I think it is just about as severe as using the N word, but very few people think of it that way.

  4. Amy,
    I agree with you and Allie about the quote. We have to be more aware of our speech. I also wanted to say that my oldest son was an athlete all through high school as well as an artist. My husband and I always supported his art. This was not always the case with the rest of the family.
    We have always told him how proud of him we are. Knowing you and the wonderful person that you are....your son will be just fine.