‘Female Masculinity’ and ‘Male Femininity’: Pupils’ Constructions of Gendered Identities in the Secondary School Classroom
This paper is based on research findings conducted as part of an ESRC-funded project looking at the gendered subjectivities of high achieving pupils in English Secondary Schools. The project is led by Professor Becky Francis, Roehampton University, and the team also includes Professor Christine Skelton of University of Birmingham, and Dr Barbara Read from Roehampton University. The project included classroom observations and semi-structured interviews with over 60 pupils in year 8, from 10 different secondary schools in urban, small town and rural locations in England. The project runs from June 2007 to March 2009, and the paper will be an presentation of some of the initial findings from the study.
The paper itself draws on both the observation and interview data to explore how useful Halberstam’s (1998) concept of ‘female masculinity’ and ‘masculine femininity’ is in understanding the ways in which high achieving male and female pupils construct and present their gender identities in classroom interactions with their teachers and peers. In particular, I will be focusing on gender constructions in relation to peer friendship groups and the power relations embedded in the concept of ‘popularity’ at school.
Theoretical debate concerning the performance of gender and gender in/stability has recently been reinvigorated by poststructuralist work. A number of researchers, including Judith Halberstam (1998, 2005) have drawn on Butler’s (1990) notions of gender performativity, and her argument that sex is, like gender, socially constructed, to experiment with the notion of gender as disembodied. In this paper I will be drawing particularly on Halberstam’s (1998, 2005) influential work on ‘Female Masculinity’, exploring the ways in which subjects discursively sexed ‘female’ perform masculinity. These ideas are beginning to be applied innovatively to education settings, although there remains extensive debate about the legitimacy of identifying/categorising ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’ (e.g. Francis, 2002; Renold & Allen, 2004; Mendick, 2005; Paechter, 2006). As Skelton and Francis (2002) have noted, these approaches may risk gender essentialising expressions (as masculine or feminine) as opposed to bodies. This paper explores both the benefits and limitations of a poststructuralist, ‘disembodied’ approach to gender by applying these concepts empirically in an educational setting.
The research was conducted at 10 different schools across England, with the aim of achieving a diverse sample in terms of school location, and pupils’ ethnicity and social class. At each school the researcher first distributed a short ‘scoping’ questionnaire to a year 8 class, designed to ascertain which pupils were perceived as ‘popular’ in the class. From the results of this questionnaire, from previous results/school data, and from teacher consultations, the researcher then identified 6-8 high-achieving pupils (3 girls, 3 boys) to be interviewed, incorporating a mix of those regarded as ‘popular’ and those not regarded as ‘popular’ by their peers. Each of these pupils were interviewed for approximately 30 minutes on topics relating to their perceptions of school life, work and friendships. The final sample includes over 60 pupils (50% female, 50% male). Additionally, the researcher spent one school day observing lessons and break times taken by the pupils in the sample, providing ethnographic information on high achieving pupils’ work orientation, social behaviour/ interaction with teacher and peers, gender performance, and the teacher’s approach to them; as well as documenting aspects of classroom organisation and management practices which may have a bearing on these behaviours.
The paper will present findings relating to the ways in which female and male pupils in our sample construct their gendered identities, particularly in relation to also being perceived by peers and/or teachers as high achieving, and – for some of the pupils in our sample - in relation to also being perceived as ‘popular’. How does being perceived as ‘(un)popular’ and or ‘clever’ by peers and/or teachers impact on an individuals’ gender construction and performance in the classroom, and how far does Halberstam’s notion of ‘disembodied’ gender help us to understand these processes? Responses will be analysed according to ethnicity, gender, and social class. In addition, we shall be attuned to issues of embodiment and presentation such as physical size, ‘fashion-consciousness’, and so on (Francis, 2000; Archer et al, 2007). The findings will be illustrated by extracts from both pupil interviews and ethnographic fieldnotes taken by the researchers in conducting their observations. It is envisaged that the research will be of interest and relevance to policy makers, practitioners and journalists interested in gender and achievement, as well as to researchers in the field of educational achievement and in gender theory.
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Butler, J. (1990) Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York: Routledge).
Halberstam, J. (1998) Female Masculinity (Durham & London, Duke University Press).
Halberstam, J (2005) In a Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives (New York & London, New York University Press).
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