Here’s the simple truth...Gender and biology are not one in the same. This notion is incomprehensible to many, but at the same time essential for people to understand. Take my parents for example: they are in their early sixties and moderately progressive in their ideas and opinions. However, they were dumbstruck by Caitlyn Jenner’s gender transformation. They simply could not fathom that a biological man could feel inherently like a woman and take the necessary steps to changing that identity. To my parents, gender is synonymous with biological sex. I tried talking to them about gender “scripts” and how “biology is merely one prop, albeit it a crucial one, supporting the larger performance” (100). Unfortunately, they weren’t too keen on these ideas, and we ended up agreeing to disagree on the subject. What my parents couldn’t seem to understand is that Caitlyn Jenner changed her script by “modifying and breaking out of it which takes extraordinary acts of insight and courage” (100).
Gender scripts are so ingrained in our culture, and we constantly utilize these scripts to define our “maleness” or our “femaleness.” I think the first step to having gender discussions with our students should be acknowledging that gender is not based solely on a person’s sex and that a lot of what we think we know about gender is deeply internalized through traditional gendered norms.
Gender norms and stereotypes affect and limit both boys and girls. It’s difficult to be an adolescent girl, and it’s difficult to be an adolescent boy. [As a woman and a feminist, I might argue that it is more difficult to go through life as a female; however, for my purpose here I want to talk about the difficulties as I’ve noticed in my own students (male and female) and my own children (female and male).] Nakkula argues that schools are gendered spaces, and that these gendered spaces can be limiting. Even names schools and teachers use to label students are drenched in gender scripted language. “‘Ophelia’s,’ ‘queen bees and wannabees,’ ‘odd girls out,’ ‘lost boys,’ ‘bad boys,’ ‘real boys,’ and ‘super predators’ remain dominant monikers for the gendered way in which educators are taught to frame youth identities and behaviors” (105). Students are constantly labeled in gender specific language, and it is so entrenched in our collective memories that we might not even realize we are using this type of language. I’m sure I’ve called some of my students (not to their faces necessarily) “bad boys” or “queen bees” without even realizing the gender implications of those names. Since taking Dr. Bogad’s class last semester, I am definitely more aware of times when I label students as having specific gender roles, and I am trying to change some of these habits in my classroom. I am also trying to have more regular conversations about gender as part of classroom discussions.
In terms of my own children, Gwen and Zach, I have noticed how gender expectations have limited them in certain ways. For example, Gwen was placed in all honors and advanced placement classes in middle and high school except for math. As I am thinking about gender, I’m now questioning whether she actually struggled with math (as I always assumed) or if her placement was (subconsciously) due to her gender. “Girls are highly underrepresented in advanced placement math and and science classes” (105). There’s nothing I can do about this now in terms of Gwen considering she’s in college, but I can certainly look at my own students and encourage girls to try and push their way into those classes.
In terms of my son Zach, I also see some of the limitations gender scripting has placed on him. He, as a male, cannot appear vulnerable enough for fully engaged learning to take place. He feels pressure to “measure up,” “be tough” and “be a real man” (112). These gender specific norms can be difficult and unrealistic for any male to live up to, but it becomes even more difficult when learning is to take place because true learning requires a sense of vulnerability. “Learning-fully engaged learning-requires vulnerability. It requires the capacity to leave oneself open to criticism and to willingly seek and provide support. These are not ‘masculine traits,’ which is why for so many boys, particularly from late elementary school onward, ‘school learning’ is seen as the educational terrain of girls.” (113). I’ve seen this play out in Zach. I often think he is not truly and completely engaging in the learning process because he is afraid of looking weak or unsure. I am doing the best I can to make him more comfortable, but again, the gender script is there and subconsciously playing out in his actions.