A Journey in Gendered Play

This paper reflects the research and thoughts of a student at the time the paper was written for a course at Bryn Mawr College. Like other materials on Serendip, it is not intended to be "authoritative" but rather to help others further develop their own explorations. Web links were active as of the time the paper was posted but are not updated.

Contribute Thoughts | Search Serendip for Other Papers | Serendip Home Page

Sex and Gender

2005 First Web Papers

On Serendip

A Journey in Gendered Play

Amy Pennington

Barrie Thorne argues in her analysis of gender play among schoolchildren that, in opposition to more traditional conceptions of children as being socialized by adults into gendered roles, children themselves also "come together to help create, and sometimes challenge, gender structures and meanings" (4). Children and young adults are social actors, constantly playing a starring role in their own constructions of gender identity. Nevertheless, the roles available to children and young adults as they act out their gender are firmly limited by two factors: the narrow scope of socially recognized gender roles and relationships between the genders, and the further limiting factor of the actor's individual status within his social group (usually of schoolmates). Through the following ethnography of my own personal experiences of gender play, I would like to complicate Thorne's notion of the factors which limit children's gendered interactions and relationships by demonstrating the ways in which individual social status further narrows each child's scope of possible gender roles and actions, past the wider defining lines of socially recognized possibilities. In other words, I hope to show how, within the set of "painfully sparse language that kids have for relationships between boys and girls," each child's potential 'vocabulary' is further limited by their status within their social group. Thus, this essay will use the term gender 'play' primarily as defined by two of Thorne's four OED defintions: as "dramatic performance," and as "scope or opportunity for action" (5).

One of my earliest memories of gender play occurred in Kindergarten. I met Johnny Beski on the first day of school: we began talking and soon discovered our mutual love for playing checkers, so we set off to find a board and were soon playing a competitive game in the hallway amongst the milling crowds of children and parents. While cross-gender friendships were not too common in our class, I was a precocious, confident little girl who had developed a preference for nerdy boys at a very early age. Though I don't have many memories of it, I believe I was one of the less popular, less girly girls in my class; I do remember watching Saved by the Bell and thinking that if I was Jessie, I would totally have dated Screech . At this time in my life, my social status provided me with a wider scope of potential roles in performing and exploring my gender; the fact that I didn't care what other girls thought was, in large part, what allowed me to form my relationship with Johnny. Johnny himself was a nerd, and got picked on by other kids because his ears stuck out so much. As a result of his lowered social status as a boy, Johnny had less concern with establishing himself as 'one of the boys,' and thus was also free to choose from a wider range of gender roles and actions. In this way, Johnny and I came to call ourselves "best friends," and would spend many afternoons together after school, watching "Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?" and playing checkers. In our day-to-day interactions, our genders were insignificant.

However, the ways in which Johnny and I defined our relationship was still constrained by the "painfully sparse language" of which Thorne speaks. Despite the lack of salience of gender in our play, and despite our young age, Johnny and I were already highly attentive to the limited possibilities for boy-girl relationships which were displayed in after-school specials on TV, as well as amongst our peers and parents. Thus, Johnny and I always told people, along with the fact that we were "best friends," that we were also going to get married. Despite the total lack of sexuality in our little bodies, Johnny and I were highly aware of the fact that socially recognized friendships among men and women were almost inevitably tied to romantic interest, being "girlfriend and boyfriend," and future plans of marriage. The influence which common social definitions of male-female relationships had over our friendship increased over time, and was made evident in one interaction which I remember extremely well.

My mother took Johnny and me to the Stock Show in Denver when it came into town; as a part of the rodeo, a stock show comes into town every year, and includes petting zoos and activities for kids as well as the display and sale of high-quality livestock by farmers from all over the state . We all bought hot dogs after visiting the petting zoo and sat down to eat. My mother had brought a camera, and while we were sitting there, I asked her to take a picture of me kissing Johnny on the cheek. This was certainly an act of play, as Johnny and I were both in excited, silly moods and laughed quite a bit about the whole thing. However, this performance was also extremely significant, as I remember regarding that trip to the stock show afterward as a sort of 'first date,' and an event which solidified Johnny's and my status as 'boyfriend and girlfriend.' This performance of gender on my part not only displayed the ways in which cultural notions of acceptable male-female relationships had already been impressed upon me at a young age. As I took a very active role in defining and exploring my own gender identity and the possibilities of definitions for Johnny's and my relationship, I proved not only how significant a role children play in the construction of their own gendered identities; my insistence upon the taking of a photograph in which Johnny was the focus, while I kissed him on the cheek, signaled my simultaneous recognition of the 'proper' power differential between male and female in a romantic relationship. While I showed bold initiative in acting out my own gendered identity, I was also already submitting to the assumed relationship of domination and subordination implied in 'normal' heterosexual romantic relationships.

The salience of this specific power dynamic, as well as the limitation of my scope of gender play opportunities by social status, would become far greater in my middle school years. After losing touch with Johnny and switching schools, I had no other close male friends, though I continued to talk to and play with boys at school. However, with the arrival of middle school, social dynamics between girls and boys changed immensely. The boundaries of male-female relationships which I had already begun to acknowledge eight years before seemed to crystallize overnight, and the "painfully sparse language" within which we could act out and define our cross-gender relationships became much more painful, and much more sparse. Now, I was triply limited, not only by the narrowing of the scope of possibilities for gender roles, but by my status, first as a girl, and second as a less popular adolescent.

Incidents of bra-snapping amongst the kids in our grade prove especially useful as an example of the interaction of gender, social status, and previous gender socialization which would limit to varying degrees our possibilities for gender play. Bra-snapping was an important act of flirtation between boys and girls governed by varying levels of power hierarchy. Firstly, only boys could snap girls' bras; girls had no physical recourse, and could only verbally protest in response. In other gendered interactions, as well, the girls at this age had an extremely limited scope of actions available to them, and were limited mainly to verbal expression. This pattern mirrors the playground behavior observed by Thorne, in which "boys more often see girls and their activities as interruptible," while girls' only recourse is to complain to an adult, as well as adult patterns in which "men more often interrupt or violate the space, as well as the talk, of women" (83). Thus, by middle school, the subordinate female role I had recognized in kindergarten had become highly enforced among all female students. Secondly, this power differential had become highly complicated by the role of status hierarchies within our class. Only certain boys dared to snap the bra of a girl; if a low-status boy were to engage in such flirtation, such action would inevitably be perceived as inappropriate, and he would be ridiculed. Low-status girls had even less power over gender interaction and play. Only the most popular girls, whom it was recognized were already highly desired by the boys, could initiate the verbal teasing which might lead to an incident of bra-snapping. Other girls, uncertain of their status in the eyes of both their male and female peers, could not initiate such interaction for fear of being deemed inappropriately annoying or socially inept, and had only one option: to wait, desperately hoping to have their bra snapped by even a mildly popular boy, and thus have their status upgraded to that of a legitimately attractive female.

Such was my position in seventh grade. In all gendered interactions, as well as in same-gender relations at that age, Thorne's description of girls' induction into heterosexualized femininity on page 170 is incredibly salient:
It is during the transition from "child" to "teen" that girls start negotiating the forces of adult femininity, a set of structures and meanings that more fully inscribe their subordination on the basis of gender. "Emphasized femininity" is based on accommodating to the desires and interests of men. Girls are pressured to make themselves "attractive," to define themselves and other girls in terms of their positions in the heterosexual market...(which) all too often involves exploitation...and the culture of romance perpetuates male privilege.
Thus, for girls especially, in early adolescence both social status and the limited number of socially recognized cross-gender relationships play limiting factors in one's enacting both of gender play and daily life. Girls of low social status, I would argue, suffer the most from these constraints, as they lie nearly helpless at the bottom of a highly imbalanced social hierarchy. While a certain measure of low status provided me freedom at a younger age, my new adolescent self after "the fall" of my self-esteem and confidence was utterly constrained by my low social status. As I watched Titanic over and over again in the theaters and pasted pictures of Leonardo DiCaprio all over my walls, I truly felt that my self-worth was entirely dependent upon my "emphasized femininity," upon whether a boy would deem to rescue me and take me for his girlfriend (Thorne 170).

Looking back on these experiences, I find that I am much more fond of the girl who befriended the smart boy with the big ears than the girl who pined after mean 13-year-old boys and wasted approximately 36 hours of her life watching Titanic (yes, I am still ashamed). And in recognizing the ways in which social status hierarchies served first to liberate me in kindergarten and then to imprison me in middle school, I wonder what it really is that causes girls to experience "the fall" in their transition from childhood to adolescence. Only now, years later, have I managed to recover my balance and learned to prefer the nerds over the jerks. Perhaps if, back in kindergarten, I had been able to be Johnny's best friend and nothing more, or had I been able to tell him to kiss me on the cheek, I wouldn't have fallen so incredibly hard. I hope that if I can provide my daughter with what Thorne calls "more images of, and more experiences with, cross-gender relationships based on friendship," she'll have the chance to stay standing and stick with Screech.

| Course Home | Serendip Home |

Send us your comments at Serendip

© by Serendip 1994- - Last Modified: Wednesday, 02-May-2018 10:51:42 CDT