Children play an active role in ‘doing gender’ and constructing their own gender identities. Differences in gender identity are developed dynamically as children interacted with several other children and adults throughout their childhoods.
There are not simply two sets of male and female gender roles or identities, there is a much more complex variation: not all boys respond in the same way in the same situations, and neither do girls.
However, despite their active role in the process, children still tend to adopt existing gender roles and thus reproduce gender inequalities.
The material below summarises the work of Barrie Thorne, primarily her 1993 book Gender Play. Thorne was a feminist researcher who developed her interest following her experience of attempting to bring up her own children in a gender neutral way, which didn’t quite work out.
Feminist theory applied to gender socialisation
Thorne argued that gender is not just something we passively receive through socialisation, rather gender is something that we actively do in our day to day activities. There are thus multiple different ways of interpreting and expressing masculinity and femininity, and the construction of gender identities is fluid.
This theory of the development of gender identity broadly draws on Ervin Goffman’s work on the presentation of the self in everyday life.
She discusses her theory in the context of wider power relations, particularly those of men, but believes there is no fixed patriarchal structure and emphasised that groups of women can have different interests to others and follows the theory of postmodern and difference feminism.
School organisation and gender relations
Thorne found that some primary school classes were organised by teachers into boys only and girls only tables, but even in those classes where pupils were given freedom of choice, boys tended to sit with boys and girls with girls. So in terms of the organisation of the classroom it was either teachers or pupils who chose to reinforce gender segregation.
Some teachers, but not all, further reinforced gender differences by organising teams for games into boys and girls or having boys and girls lunch queues, and such situations could lead to antagonism or rivalry between the two genders.
However at other times children would work in mixed gender groups and generally got on with it and worked co-operatively when gender was not brought to the fore and made an issue out of.
Peer groups and gender socialisation
At play time children had much more freedom of choice over who they could hang out and interact with and children chose to organise themselves in a gender segregated way.
Friendship groups tended to be either all male or all female and you could visibly see in playgrounds that there were distinct boys and girls games, with boys being in one area and girls another.
Boys tended to take up most of the space in the playground, playing football and baseball while girls tended to play closer to the school buildings and play games such as skipping and hopscotch. Boys also actively excluded girls who wanted to play football and vice versa with girls who wouldn’t allow boys to join in with skipping.
Thorne developed the concept of borderwork to describe the active process of marking out the boundaries between male and female social groups.
One form of borderwork was ‘cross-border chasing’ the most well known form of which was ‘kiss chase’, ‘a ritualised form of provocation‘.
Girls chased boys and tried to kiss them, sometimes wearing lipstick so as to leave a visible mark on their ‘victims’, and boys tried to avoid being kissed to escape the embarrassment. Boys who were caught were teased by other boys complained about getting ‘cooties’, or germs from the girls who kissed them.
The lowest status girls were given the term ‘cootie queen’ to signify that spending too much time chasing boys (and thus being in boys’ territory) was not a good thing, not something that girls should be doing, other than occassionally to annoy boys.
A second form or borderwork was more deliberate cross-gender interrupting of activities, such as boys deliberately stepping on girls skipping ropes to annoy them.
Borderwork served to dramatise the difference between boys and girls, exaggerated the differences between them and reinforced the idea that the two were opposits.
Borderwork also tended to reinforce male power with boys being much more likely to use physical power to disrupt girls games and girls having to chase them off.
Why gender segregation?
Thorn argued that there was no one reason why boys and girls separated themselves along gender lines in school, socialisation alone certainly wasn’t enough to explain the obvious gender segregation, but she highlighted the following:
School playgrounds are crowded environments in which it easy for groups to police behaviour. Because of the relatively high population density it makes it easy for boys and girls to call-out those who don’t conform to their expected gender identities, and, following Foucault, it also means boys and girls are more likely to police their own gendered behaviour because they know they are under constant surveillance by their peers.
Some games in school involved public choosing, and under such circumstances boys tended to select boys and girls to select girls, reinforcing gender segregation. However with handball students tended to just line up behind the team leaders and here there was less gender separation.
Thorne noted that were adults were not present pupils tended to police behaviour along gendered lines more vigorously, but when adults were present, they were more likely to encourage gender mixing.
However some teachers could also reinforce gender segregation by warning boys off going into girls areas in the playground for fear that they might cause disruption.
Overlap between genders
There were plenty of activities in which traditional gender norms were challenged in the school, and there was not a straightforward duality of distinct male and female cultures.
Some games, such as handball, were gender-mixed and there were cases of ‘braver’ boys and girls crossing traditional gender lines to play games, with some boys playing skipping and some girls playing football, for example.
It was especially the more popular boys who could get away with playing girls games without being teased and the stronger girls who could get away with playing boys games and developing a ‘tomboy’ identity.
Thorne’s study challenges simplistic dualism behind early Feminist conceptions of dualistic gender norms, divided simply into masculinity and femininity.
Her concept of ‘doing gender’ reminds us that passive notions of socialisation are not sufficient to explain the very active and animated process through which the taking on of gender roles.
Her in-depth ethnography allows us to trace the subtle differences in interpretations and interactions through which gender identities are constructed.
On the downside she doesn’t really explore the role which structure plays in channelling pupils towards traditional gender identities, even though she makes such a big deal about how active the process of doing gender is.
This material is primarily relevant to the compulsory education module taught as part of first year AQA A-level sociology.
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Barrie Thorne (1993) Gender Play: Girls and Boys in School.
Part of this post was adapted from Haralambos and Holborn (2013) Sociology Themes and Perspectives 8th Edition.