Published Manuscript in Families as They Really Are, an undergraduate instructional reader, 2009
by W. W. Norton & Co.
Betwixt and Be Tween:
Gender Contradictions among Middle Schoolers
Barbara J. Risman
Department of Sociology
University of Illinois at Chicago
Chicago, IL 60607
Department of Sociology and Anthropology
North Carolina State University
Raleigh, NC 27695
The authors’ names are listed alphabetically. The authors thank other members of the research team for
their collaboration with data collection. These colleagues include Rena Cornell, Carissa Froyum, Kris
Macomber, Amy McClure, and Tricia McTague. We also thank Pallavi Banerjee, Stephanie Coontz,
Carissa Froyum, Wilfrid Reissner, Kathleen Gerson, and Kelly Underman for their reviews of this
Parents and educators today tell children that they can be whatever they want to be. Children are
taught that women and men and whites and blacks are equal1. Changes in gender norms have created
opportunities for girls that never before existed. For instance, in school, Title IX has encouraged girls'
participation in athletics. But are boys and girls actually free to construct personal identities that leave
behind gender stereotypes, even when their parents and teachers encourage them to do so?
How free are middle-school boys and girls to form identities outside gender expectations that have
traditionally disadvantaged girls in the public sphere and constrained boys from exploring their emotions?
We approached this subject by interviewing 44 middle-school children in a mid-sized southeastern city.
They were not yet teenagers but were already adapting to pressures to view the world through the eyes of
their peers. Middle-school is a time when peers become a crucial reference group. Conformity to group
norms becomes central to popularity, fitting in, and self-image2. What do the experiences and perceptions
of these preadolescent kids tell us about growing up in contemporary society? How much have their
expectations and self-images transcended traditional gender norms?
Peers become centrally important, as tween-agers face new and complicated situations in which
they must negotiate friendships, issues of sexuality, self-image, conflict, stratification, cliques, and the
like. In this so-called “tween” culture, these kids try to make sense of things in their daily lives by using
new tools as well as old ones taken from “cultural toolkits.” The lives of tween-agers provide a glimpse
into how contemporary definitions of race and gender are shaping the next generation, and what new
realities the children themselves may be creating at a time when their core identities are developing.
Our data suggest that American middle-school children, at least in the mid-sized southeastern city
we examined, have adopted an ideal of equality. Nearly all the kids say that men and women are equal,
and that race no longer matters, or at least that it shouldn’t. These children have been raised in a society
1 Researchers have looked at how multicultural education works (Talbani 2003), as well as how education and other cultural
beliefs reinforce white privilege (Wellman, 1993).
2 Eder, Evans and Parker (1995) examined the role of gender in the language and socialization of a group of eighth graders.
that posits the ideals of gender and racial equality, and the kids seem to accept and believe in those ideals,
at least when you scratch the surface of their opinions. But that ideal of equality is not what they
experience in their real lives, and at least half of them recognize and identify contradictions between what
should be and what is.
Despite their acceptance of the rhetoric of gender equality, these tween-agers hold very gender-
stereotypical beliefs about boys, although not about girls. Any male gender nonconformity, where boys
engage in behaviors or activities traditionally considered female, is taken as evidence that the boy is
“gay.” As a result, boys are afraid to cross any gender boundaries for fear of having that stigma attached
to them. By contrast, the lives of girls are much less constricted by stereotypes about femininity. In fact,
girls are more likely to be teased for being “too girly” than for being a tomboy. Girls still police each
other’s behavior, but the rules of femininity that they enforce now seem to focus almost exclusively on
clothes, make-up, diet, and bodily presentation. The girls in our study still “do gender,”3 but mostly with
Research on Gender and Youth
Research on how traditional femininity constrains girls is contradictory. Some studies suggest that
girls are viewed as less feminine if they participate in sports. Others argue that athleticism is no longer
seen as incompatible with femininity and may indeed be part of the “ideal girlhood” package.4
In their study of middle-school cheerleaders, Adams and Bettis also point to fundamental
contradictions in the contemporary ideal of girlhood. Traditional feminine characteristics like passivity
and docility, they argue, have been replaced by independence, assertiveness, and strength, and
participation in sports is considered an “essential component of girl culture today”5. At the same time,
3 “Doing gender” unlinks biological sex from gender by describing gender as not the traits of a person, but the embedded social
actions that person takes to express socially-accepted gender (West & Zimmerman, 1987).
4 Allison (1991), Cockburn and Clarke (2002), and Krane et al (2004) discuss female athletes and the challenge of athletics to
femininity, while Broad (2001) examines queer athletes. Malcom (2003), Adams, Schmitke, and Franklin (2005), and Enke
(2005), on the other hand, discuss the remaking of femininity to include athletics. Adams, Schmitke, and Franklin (2005) find
that girls enjoy athleticism and take pride in being tough and competitive.
5 Adams and Bettis (2003), pages 74-75
when it comes to popularity, attractiveness trumps all other attributes. Cheerleading, in keeping up with
changing gender expectations, has incorporated the new ideals of girlhood, including “confidence,
rationality, risk-taking, athleticism, independence, and fearlessness”6. But it continues to attract girls who
value feminine looks and are interested in attracting boys. Becoming a cheerleader is one way to cope
with the contradictions of girlhood because it allows girls to be athletic and adopt some desired masculine
traits, while retaining feminine characteristics that the girls enjoy and that make them desirable to boys.7
A few studies address how race and class differences among young women affect their standards
of femininity and report class- and race-specific versions of femininity among high school girls8. Lower-
class white and nonwhite girls adopt a more sexualized style of femininity than white middle-class girls.
“Las chicas,” the Latina girls, adapted a style of femininity that emphasized their ethnicity, preferring
darker and more visible make-up and tight-fitting clothes9. Working-class white girls also generally wore
more make-up than middle-class students. While school officials and middle-class peers commonly
interpreted these bodily expressions as evidence of “looser” sexual morals, Bettie found that these girls
were less interested in romantic attachments than outsiders supposed, and that their styles of bodily
presentation had more to do with incorporating racial and community markers into their gender displays.
For example, working-class white girls expressed resistance to middle-class culture by “dressing down” in
torn jeans, whereas Mexican-American girls, feeling that their brown skin was already perceived as a
“dressed down” appearance, would dress “up” in an effort to deny any link between color and poverty.
Bettie also found that although these girls present a very sexualized version of femininity, they do not
want to or expect to lead traditional lives as at-home mothers/wives and they are in favor of gender
equality for adults.
6 Adams and Bettis (2003), p. 80.
7 Adams and Bettis (2003).
8 See Bettie (2003).
9 See Bettie (2003).
Many studies of middle- and high-school girls find strong evidence of pressures to be attractive to
boys.10 Lemish (1998) finds that widely different modes of femininity are acceptable among preadolescent
girls, as long as one is also “pretty”. One of the paradoxes of contemporary girlhood is that there are
confusing and conflicting messages about what a girl should be like as well as what type of girl should be
There is very little latitude or tolerance for boys to behave in ways that have been traditionally
labeled as girlish. Engaging in any traditionally feminine activity, from dancing well, to knitting, to
playing the piano, opens boys up to being taunted as “gay.” Usually it is boys who tease other boys, but
sometimes girls do as well. Researchers suggest that homophobia is not merely anti-homosexual
prejudice. It also reinforces sharp gender divisions through the deployment of fear. This is seen
particularly at the high school level, but some research suggests it is also evident in elementary school and
in middle school.11 By the fourth grade “fag” is sometimes used as an insult, but homophobic language in
grade school does not actually carry much sexual meaning12. Rather such taunts are used to tease boys
who are different, including boys viewed as effeminate. The use of homophobic terms increase with
adolescence as a ritualistic way to assert masculine dominance and further isolate the lowest on the peer
hierarchy. Homophobic insults also serve a self-defense mechanism in identifying oneself as heterosexual
and normal. By middle school, any sign of gender-boundary crossing by boys is taken as signifying
homosexuality, and elicits strong homophobic teasing.
As boys get older the gender expectations appear to become more rigid and regulated. Among
high-school youth, masculinity is defined as toughness: a potential if not an inclination for violence, lack
10 For more on peer groups and cliques, both Eder, Evans and Parker (1995) and Adler and Adler (1998) explore adolescent
culture. Cockburn and Clarke (2002), Adams and Bettis (2003), and Adams, Schmitke and Franklin (2005) all examine these
pressures to be attractive to boys in the context of female athletes.
11 Eder, Evans, and Parker (1995) map the gendered dynamics of teasing. Several researchers examine how this teasing
functions to control boys through fear (Kehily and Nayak 1997; Burn 2000; Plummer 2001; Phoenix et al. 2003; Chambers et
al 2004), including Pascoe’s (2005) “‘Dude, You’re a Fag’”. Thorne (1993) and Plummer (2001) describe this behavior in
elementary school and Eder, Evans and Parker (1995), Adler and Adler (1998), and Phoenix et al. (2003) discuss it in middle
12 See Plummer (2001).
of emotion, and sexual objectification of girls. By high school it is a major insult for a boy to be called
gay and the label may be applied to any boy who is different from his male peers in some way, any boy
who is considered feminine or unpopular, any boy who is a target for being bullied. Among some young
people, the word “gay” has acquired such a negative connotation that it is commonly used to describe
anything that is bad, undesirable, or “lame.”13
Research has identified a “fag” discourse through which high-school boys use the term as an
epithet on a daily basis14. Any boy may be temporarily labeled a faggot, and so all boys continually
struggle to avoid being stigmatized. With the possibility of being called a faggot only an insult away,
constant work is required to be sufficiently masculine to avoid the label. In fact, the primary use of
homophobia in policing the activities of boys is not to root out, expose, or punish potential homosexuals,
but rather to regulating gender behavior and narrowly channel boys toward accepted activities and away
It is not clear whether or how this use of homophobia to police boys’ gender varies according to
race. In a study of a high-school in a working-class city in California school, there was some evidence
that behaviors that incur a “fag” stigma for white boys, such as attention to fashion, or dancing with
another man, are accepted as normal by non-white boys. This might suggest the use of homophobic
insults is more common among white than non-white teen-agers.15 Yet, in a study of very poor African-
Americans who attended a free summer program in a large East Coast city, heavy policing of
heterosexuality was reported among both boys and girls. In this economically impoverished
neighborhood, urban kids use heterosexuality to carve out some self-esteem from the only stratification in
which they can feel superior to someone else, and take solace in the fact that “at least they aren’t gay”16.
13 Pascoe (2003, 2007) and Phoenix et al. (2003) have written about masculinity and toughness, while Plummer (2001) and
Pascoe (2005) write about teasing.
14 See Pascoe (2005).
15 For uses of these insults among white and non-whites, see Pascoe (2007).
16 This comes from research by Froyum (2007).
The authors and their colleagues interviewed 44 middle-school students. We asked the children a
set of question, told them stories and solicited their responses, and had them draw pictures, and write
poems in order to find out what these boys and girls thought about their own lives, their friends, and their
interactions with peers at school. We wanted to delve into middle-school students’ expectations around
gender and examine how it feels to grow up in a society that proclaims gender equality and encourages
We wanted to find out if children today still see limitations based on their sex, or if they really feel
they live in a post-feminist world. We asked about family life, friendship, popularity, cliques, pressures to
conform to stereotypes around being a boy or a girl, what “girl power” means, and attitudes regarding
racial inequality. This was a diverse group of children, mostly white and African-American, and we paid
careful attention to whether the answers to our questions differed by race and/or ethnicity.
The interviews took place between the fall of 2003 and the summer of 2004. They typically lasted
between one and two hours and were tape-recorded. Respondents were in the sixth, seventh, and eighth
grades and ranged in age from 11 to 14. The children were recruited at a racially integrated magnet
middle school, a diverse YWCA after-school program and summer camp, and an urban, mostly black
youth program. All attended public middle schools in a mid-sized city in the southeastern United States.
Because we did not get data on many topics of interest for this paper from two of the middle-schoolers,
we reduced our sample discussed here to 42. The pseudonyms and specific demographic information for
each student are listed in a chart in the appendix. Most were from solidly middle-class backgrounds,
although a few were from working-class or upper middle-class professional families. We paid careful
attention to any racial differences in the responses. However, having only four non-white boys, two of
whom are black, hampered our ability to examine racial or ethnic differences among boys. We hoped to
learn something about what it is like to grow up in today’s world. Interviewers asked the children many
questions. How are you similar to other boys/girls? How are you different from other girls/boys? We
also asked about likes and dislikes, activities, friendship groups, cliques at school, and favorite subjects.
Many of our questions dealt specifically with their perceptions of gender. What does it mean when
someone is called a girly-girl? What does it mean when a girl is called a tomboy? Is there a word like
“girly” that refers to boys who are really tough or macho? Is there a word for a boy who is quiet and
thoughtful and likes to do arts and crafts, one who likes the kinds of activities that girls more often like to
Using a hypothetical scenario to draw them out, we asked students to describe what their lives
would be like as the opposite sex. We asked if an alien with supernatural powers came into your bedroom
one night and turned you into a boy/girl, how would your life be different in the morning? We also asked
how your life would be different if an alien made you gay. Students were also asked to write a poem or
paragraph beginning with “If I were a boy/girl…” If they preferred they could draw a picture elaborating
on that theme. We also explored their acceptance of nontraditional gender behavior, by using vignettes
and asking how they would or their peers would react to a person who crossed a gender boundary.
Students who seemed mature enough were asked about homosexuality, including how they and their peers
would react to a gay student.
To understand the boundary of female behavior, we used this vignette:
Pretend for a moment that there is a girl in your grade named Jasmine. Jasmine is
very athletic and loves competition. She decides that she wants to start an all girls'
football club at your school. She places posters all over student lockers and the
hallways promoting the girl’s club and asking for players. Then she approaches the
principal and asks if she can start the team.
To understand the boundary of male behavior, we used this vignette:
“Imagine that there is a boy in your grade named Marcus. He loves to dance.
He has taken gymnastics since he was little, and is very good. Now that he is
older, he wants to be a cheerleader. He knows that [Name of University] has
male cheerleaders and he wants to join that squad when he goes to college.
Due to time constraints, variations in maturity levels, and the occasional tape malfunction, we do
not have responses to all of these questions from every student. With such open-ended qualitative data it
is very challenging to compare responses across kids, but we do have a wealth of information from almost
every student to utilize in our analysis.
There were several limitations in the methods we employed. We did not directly observe
interactions between these middle schoolers and so had to rely on what they told us, and how they
explained their thoughts on boys, girls, gender nonconformity, gender expectations, homosexuality,
heterosexuality, and life in general. Nonetheless, we believe the method is useful because the thoughts
and feelings of these pre-adolescents help us understand how they experience and react to peer pressure.
Moreover, in one-on-one interviews children may reveal more about their thoughts and feeling than they
would if others were present.
Contradictions in Equality Rhetoric
When we asked these students questions about gender or race, their responses indicated that most
have assimilated both the feminist-inspired ideology that women and men are equal and the post-civil
rights ideology that all races are equal. Nine out of 12 male students and 17 of 22 female students (for
whom we have appropriate data) professed some belief in gender equality. For example, Molly finished
the phrase “If I were a boy” in a poem that read: “If I were a boy, Nothing should be different, Because all
people are equal.” For the same exercise, another student, Marney, wrote that “I think I would be treated
mainly the same by parents, friends, teachers.” Brady similarly argued that “all people should be treated
the same,” although he felt life would be “very freaky” if he were turned into a girl. Micah told us that
girl power means that girls now have every right that boys do. The kids appeared to believe that males
and females either were equal in reality or ought to be.
Despite this equality rhetoric, there were serious inconsistencies in their responses. For example,
when the kids answered questions about what would happen if they were turned into the opposite sex,
most expressed a belief that gender stereotypes were based in biology, despite earlier declarations that
“we are all the same.” With these questions, we found that many kids were well aware of the
consequences for not conforming to gender norms.
This contradiction between the rhetoric of equality and more experience-based appraisals of
gender inequality was further revealed when we asked the children to place cards with occupations
written on them under the categories “men,” “women,” and “both.” They were first asked to place their
cards according to whether men or women are more likely to hold each job, and afterwards according to
how they think it should be. This activity showed us whether students felt there was occupational
segregation by sex and how they judged it. None of the boys and only five out of 23 girls thought that
men and women were equally distributed among all occupations. Six of 12 boys and 10 of 22 girls told us
that all occupations should be distributed equally amongst men and women. The others, who believed
gender segregation was appropriate, usually explained that men and women were different. In most cases,
when asked how it should be versus how it really is students put more occupations under the category of
“both”. Nurses, secretaries, and librarians were commonly thought to be women’s jobs, whereas police
officers, firefighters, mechanics, and engineers were often seen as men’s jobs. Sixteen out of 34 students
expressed the belief that men and women were or should be “equal” and that girls and women should be
able to do anything they want.
These children, even those consistently committed to equality in theory, often expressed
contradictory views in other parts of the interview, displaying belief in the essential differences between
boys and girls or holding their peers to gendered expectations. In many cases, advances in ideology were
not consistently guiding reported behavior.
Between Tomboy and Girly-Girl
We asked boys and girls to answer questions about what girly-girls and tomboys are like. We
asked girls to think about how they were similar to and different from other girls. And we asked boys how
they thought life would different if they were “turned into a girl”.
At least five kids indicated that being a tomboy was positive in some respect, but no one
indicated that tomboys were considered the popular or privileged girls. One female middle-
schooler suggested a tomboy might have difficulty getting a boyfriend. In the interviews, being a
tomboy was associated with being athletic, although girls could be athletic without being seen as a
tomboy. It is also noteworthy that only three girls identified themselves as tomboys but not at all
girly, although this was more than the number who considered themselves “girly-girls.”
Nearly 80 percent of those who responded provided what we interpret as a “negative” description
of a girly-girl, and the rest gave neutral responses. Of the nine males, five gave negative descriptions and
four gave neutral descriptions of girly girls. A neutral response, for instance, might refer to girly-girls as
wearing pink often, without indicating that wearing a lot of pink is objectionable. There was not a single
overtly positive definition of a “girly-girl.” No one told us, for instance, that girly-girls are kind, looked
up to, or even desirable to boys. We did not count suggestions that girly-girls are the most popular as
being positive in itself, because these comments were often paired with expressions of disdain for the
Common responses about defining girly-girls included fear of getting dirty, breaking a nail, or
getting sweaty. Seven girls and two boys used the word “prissy.” Samantha suggested that a girly-girl is
“prissy,” wears make-up everyday, and is obsessed with hair. She mimics such a person: “Oh my gosh, it
has to be perfect. I have to put hairspray in it.’ Glitter, gel, whatever. Like, always running around
screaming [high-pitched], ‘Oh my God, a spider! Oh my gosh, my nail broke!’ Just little things that are
like your nail breaking. Crying over it or something. That’s a girly-girl.”
Girls were careful to distance themselves from girly girls although how many girls actually fit the
exaggerated description often offered is unclear. For example, Kerry told us
there are a lot of them… I don’t know a lot of girly-girls. I know I don’t mind wearing
skirts and I don’t mind wearing make-up but I’m not a girly-girl. And I know what a girly
girl is. It’s when you’re all obsessed with make-up and looking good and I mean all the
girls I know play at least two sports and they own make-up, and they’re, I mean, my room
is blue and pink and yellow but you’d have to look around and see all my soccer pictures
and all my basketball trophies. And I mean if you just looked in my room, didn’t see any
trophies, you’d think I was a really big girly-girl.
Girls were, overall, more censorious, but boys sometimes described girly-girls in a similarly
contemptuous fashion. With a disgusted expression on his face, Jason told his interviewer that, “To me, it
means make-up and a whole lot of other girlie perfumes and…lipstick and mascara and eye shadow and
other make-up that they put on that I don’t even want to mention.”
At the same time, when we asked explicitly whether “being a girly-girl is a good or bad thing” the
kids were divided. Karlin, for example, initially portrayed girly-girls in a contemptuous fashion, saying
that they are girls who would say, “’Guys are better. I don’t do sports. I might get my shoes wet.’ Or like,
‘I can’t kick a ball. I try to look good but I don’t have any specific talent.’” But when asked directly
whether being a girly-girl is a bad or good thing, her response was that it depends on the person. If they
are selfish, that is bad, but if this is just how they were brought up, then “it’s fine.”
Several kids indicated that being girly made a girl popular, whereas others (and sometimes even
the same respondents) suggested that it was annoying, or that they themselves did not like these people.
Mona talked about the “bad preps” -- girls who dye their hair blonde, wear too much make-up, wear
revealing clothes, and draw their eyebrows in after waxing them. She reported that she and her friends
despise this group and frequently make jokes about them. However, in other parts of the interview she
associated girl preps with playing a lot of sports. Girly-girls were often defined in the abstract as girls
who do not play sports, but in actual references to peers, being a girly-girl and playing sports were not
Although students tended to associate girly-girls with being popular and being more feminine,
stereotypical girls were subject to substantial ridicule by girls and boys alike in these interviews. None of
the female respondents identified themselves to the interviewer as exclusively girly-girl. And all three of
the girls who did say they thought of themselves as at least part girly, also described themselves as partly
or occasionally tomboyish (and none of these girls considered herself a “typical girl”). This reflects the
negative connotations associated with being a “girly-girl,” which was usually defined contemptuously or
with reference to activities and concerns generally seen as narcissistic and trivial (e.g., wearing too much
make-up too often, afraid of breaking a nail, excessive shopping).
Most girls clearly do not place themselves in either of these two extreme categories, girly-girl or
tomboy, although they often suggest that they have characteristics associated with both. These two
extremes bracket the spectrum of gender meanings for girls, but do not represent the majority of identities.
Some girls embraced the label of tomboy (often while simultaneously embracing aspects of bodily
femininity) as a strategy to avoid negative associations with being female. For example, one girl told us
“we’ve actually made up, like those ten girls, we’ve made up the tomboy club because we don’t mind
competing against the guys for stuff, and we, I mean I actually liked being called a tomboy because then I
knew people didn’t just look at me as a girl. That they could actually see me as doing something more
than being just a ballet dancer.”
These disdainful descriptions of what it means to be a “girly-girl” tells us that too much emphasis
on femininity is looked down upon at this age level. No matter where they fell on the girly-girl/tomboy
continuum, the girls saw themselves as different from the category of the prototypical feminine girl, who
was seen as narcissistic, vain, and silly. They did not want to be identified as that type of girl. But in the
process of rejecting this stereotype for themselves, they generally conferred it upon others.
It’s All About the Body
The girls in our study also felt that girls should display some level of femininity, especially when
it comes to looks. Several girls, black and white, indicated that being too much of a tomboy could be a
bad thing. Karlin, for instance, chastised tomboys who fail to “recognize the fact that they’re a girl.”
According to her, playing sports should not get in the way of “being a girl.”
Nearly all the girls adopt some aspects of traditional femininity. They wear make-up or lip
gloss, enjoy shopping for and dressing up in gendered clothes, or like talking about boys. This
becomes apparent in the interviews where girls discuss how they are similar to other girls, what
they like to do, and how they spend their time. It is also apparent in some of the field notes written
by interviewers, who noted details about how the students dress and present themselves.
The female middle-schoolers criticized only extreme forms of femininity such as wearing lots of
make-up everyday, dressing in too revealing a fashion, worrying about looking good all of the time, and
especially having a “girly-girl” identity. Jamie, for example, said she is similar to other girls in that she
likes clothes and guys, but says she is not girly like the ones who are “prim” and “afraid to get dirty, to get
down and goof around.”
When it comes to untangling the gender expectations that these middle schoolers hold and
perceive, contradictions abound, but all agree that bodily presentation matters. In one part of her
interview, Lola said that “there’s just some traits that all girls have in common…Ability to accessorize
[laughs]. Just stuff. You can always tell who’s a boy and who’s a girl. It’s different. Like boys like video
games and girls like make-up.” It is clear that girls perceive pressures both to be identifiably feminine and
to take on some traditionally masculine characteristics like assertiveness, fearlessness, rationality, and
independence in order to be taken seriously.
While girls face less restrictive norms for gender-appropriate behavior, there still seem to be
limitations, especially in regard to ideals of beauty. Girls are still expected to demonstrate a type of
femininity, although one that is no longer threatened by participation in traditionally male-dominated
activities. Our story about a girl who wants to start a football team elicited a few worries that she might be
teased because she did not play well, but there was little concern that Jasmine would be teased for
violating norms of femininity. Girls who play sports run the risk of being seen as or teased for being
incompetent as athletes rather than for displaying behavior inappropriate for girls17.
The girls in this study felt a girl can ignore many gender boundaries (in fact playing sports is no
longer even considered a gender boundary). But in their view, girls are still expected to display some
markers of traditional femininity. Put another way, appropriate femininity does not require avoidance of
traditionally masculine activities, but is accomplished through attention to how the girl displays her body.
Femininity has become very body-centered and many respondents simply equate femininity with “looks.”
As might be expected given contemporary social norms, girls were very clear that being thin matters. A
white girl, Krista told us, “Being skinny is like the base of being popular…I think thin makes you in.”
Cynthia, an African American girl responded similarly that weight really mattered to other girls and that
boys will respond to girls’ size. She told us that the “most popular girl would not remain popular if she
gained weight because like all of the people in my school, if they see someone overweight they will
either make fun of them or they’ll just stare at them or something like that. So if she ever gained a lot of
weight, nobody would hang out with her anymore, they’d call her names and um, like on the bus last
week, they were talking about their weight and she said she weighed 104 and all the boys thought she was
fat.” Cynthia told us boys were not subject to the same teasing about weight.
Girls are quite aware that spending time and energy on their self-presentation is important for
other girls’ approval and sometimes for their mother’s approval as well. Krista, a white girl, articulated
this peer pressure clearly: “When I went to my friend Angie’s sleepover and she had a whole bunch of her
other friends that I’d never met before and they all acted like that [girly] and we had to do, like, manicures
and pedicures and do our hair and stuff like that. And, I mean, I didn’t know any of them so I tried to fit in
and do the same stuff, to fit in.” Jackie, an African American girl told us, “My mom, she wants me to be
17 See Malcolm (2003).
really girly. Like, I hate curls, like spiral curls, and she’s like, ‘why don’t you add some curls to your
hair’, but I usually just get a flat…Then she’s like…well she used to say I need to wear more skirts, but
once I got to middle school I wore a lot of skirts, mostly like mini-skirts.” We did not hear similar stories
of peer groups or mothers who pressured girls to focus on more feminine hobbies rather than sports, or
cared more about their grades in English then in math or science.
When asked about how life would be different if they woke up one morning as a boy, most of the
girls answered with responses about appearance and self-presentation. Cassie, an African American girl,
told us, “Um that wouldn’t be cool…I would have to wear boy clothes and I hate wearing boy clothes.”
Alison, a white girl similarly remarked, “I wouldn’t be able to wear the clothes I have. I wouldn’t be able
to wear makeup or anything. I’d have to go out and buy a whole new wardrobe. I wouldn’t go shopping
as much. I wouldn’t paint my fingernails and I wouldn’t put on any makeup. If I were a guy I wouldn’t
spend forever doing my hair and I wouldn’t have the clothes I have now.” Kirsten differentiated herself
from her brother with this question, implying that how boy’s dress isn’t as important to them, “I enjoy
getting dressed up for my parents’ parties or something. He doesn’t. And we care what we wear and boys
probably don’t care quite as much.”
But it is interesting that even on this dimension, girls tend to look down on and avoid extreme
femininity. For example, several girls criticized pop stars for dressing in tight, revealing clothing, even as
they also understood this to be a requirement for celebrity.
We only have very suggestive data in our sample on how gender norms varied by race. But in
three interviews, white girls criticized black girls for overly emphasizing the sexualized aspects of
femininity -- dressing in tight, revealing clothing, wearing inappropriate make-up, and engaging in
inappropriate bodily display. Kerri, a white girl, related the following story about a black peer:
And the girls, we won’t really make fun of her but we just ‘why? Why is she wearing that?’
Because like if she combed her hair and put on some makeup and wore pants she’d be very
pretty. But she doesn’t. She has to wear the tightest skirts. She never combs her hair.
She’ll put on make up but she doesn’t put it on right. She’ll put on like this dark blue and
like gold mascara and she doesn’t look right and she’s trying, but she’s not using the right
stuff. So all of us got together one recess and we, not to be mean, but to say okay we could
give her a makeover and this one girl, who could really draw. We said okay, we’re gonna
give her- if we could give her a makeover this is what we’d do. Some girl said okay I’d
pick out all her makeup and I’d tweeze her eyebrows and I’d like shave her legs or
something. And one girl said, I’d get her on Slimfast. And all this stuff. And like she drew
a picture of what she’d look like if we all worked with her and she looked kind of looked a
lot like me, but kinda, it looked like all the girls had given a part of themselves to her so
that was really fun and we thought if she did all of those things she’d look like that.
We also have suggestive data that African-Americans girls sometimes try to adapt “white” beauty
norms. Three black or biracial girls indicated that they wished they had physical traits more often
seen in Caucasian women. For example, Joleesa, an African American sixth-grader, wished she
had long, soft, smooth hair and blue eyes. We do not have a large enough sample to have strong
evidence of racialized femininity, but we do find suggestions that white and black girls value
white markers of femininity, and that black girls are criticized by white girls if they exhibit more
sexualized forms of femininity.
When boys were asked how they would be different if turned into a girl, several indicated they
would act the way girly-girls are described. Four boys thought they would act “girly” in some way. Boys
spoke of girls with stereotypical language. Tyrone, an African American boy, drew a picture of a
woman’s make-up table and explained that “I drew a vanity, which is a mirror with bulbs around it, and it
usually has make-up and perfume around it, and then I drew a little girl stretching since it’s been a long
day and she’s about to go out to the movies with her friends…I drew the vanity because they like wearing
tons of make-up.” By referring to an exaggerated, abstract notion of femininity when asked to imagine
themselves as a girl or to describe girls in general, boys are implicitly defining masculinity as the opposite
of girly-girl body focused femininity. Girls as well as boys distance themselves from this feminized,
stereotypical “other” when they try to construct valued images of themselves.
Our respondents described preadolescent masculinity in very narrow and uniform ways. The most
common response was that boys like sports (sometimes specific sports like football and basketball are
emphasized). Other responses included competitiveness, hating losing to a girl, playing video games,
general rowdiness, and being different from girls in that girls want to “really impress people and boys
want to have their own way.” When boys talked about themselves, sports, video games, and competing
with male friends were commonly mentioned interests. But they almost never mentioned “liking” girls,
flirting with girls, or talking about girls. It appears that at this age, romantic interests figure prominently
among girls, but not among boys.
A boy who is perceived as too feminine is subject to much more ridicule than a girl who is seen as
either overly masculine or overly feminine. If a boy tends to be quiet, shy, bookish, artistic, and/or non-
assertive, his sexuality is called into question and he loses respect among other boys.
We saw this in the way students made sense of our hypothetical story about Marcus, the boy who
wants to be a cheerleader. We asked students whether Marcus should be allowed to join a cheerleading
squad when he gets to high school, whether he would be teased by others, and whether the student
her/himself would remain friends with Marcus, even if he were teased.
Many pointed out that Marcus would be the target of substantial ridicule because not many boys
are cheerleaders. In Lorenzo’s opinion, “yeah [Marcus should be allowed to join a cheerleading squad],
but um, he’s probably gonna get made fun of by like a lot of boys.” Asked what the boys would say,
Lorenzo, a Latino boy, responded, “Like um, they’re like homosexual or something.” Krista, a white girl,
told us that “people think that a male cheerleader is always gay, and, I mean, people would make fun of
him. Or if he does stuff that people only think girls should do…” Deirdre replied that the kids would call
Marcus a sissy, and the boys especially would “call him gay.” She also suggested that even if they had
been friends, she would not stay “close friends” with him because “everyone [would be] calling him gay,
and if I hang around him, they’d be like, ew you’re gay too.”18 Other questions also revealed the middle-
schoolers’ fear of peer disapproval. For instance, when we asked Samantha if she would still dance if she
were turned into a boy, she responded “probably not” because she would be “made fun of.”
Deviating from masculine norms inevitably led to teasing, according to student reports. While
only two kids suggested that a tomboy might have her heterosexuality questioned, many suggested that a
boy who liked girl-type activities would be called gay. Some of the terms the students applied to girlish
boys were “wimps,” “tomgirls,” “weird,” “geeks”, “weak,” and “punk.” Because of the stigma associated
to being considered feminine in any way, it is not surprising that some girls described themselves as
tomboys, but not a single boy described himself in any way as “girly.” A few female students, however,
indicated that some of the girls would appreciate such a boy, even though other boys would make fun of
him. The threat of being stigmatized as “gay” or a “faggot” plays a big part in policing and enforcing
Anti-gay sentiment is widespread among these youth, although there was a total confusion
between sexual preference and gender behavior, which led to very low tolerance for gender non-
conformity among boys. Usually we broached the topic of homosexuality toward the end of the interview
and only with those students who seemed relatively mature or comfortable enough with the topic.
Typically the researcher asked how the student would respond if a friend revealed to him/her that she was
gay. They were also usually asked how their own life would change, or how they would feel if they woke
up one morning gay.
In all, 34 students answered one or both of these questions (22 girls and 12 boys). Most of these
children expressed opposition to homosexuality in general, although white girls were more accepting than
others. Most of the boys who discussed homosexuality in any way were clearly homophobic, although
18 This gender-specific cheerleading is very region-specific. In some schools on the West Coat, cheerleading squads are either
all-male or mixed sex. As cheerleading has become more athletically demanding, more men are often included to lift and throw
one boy seemed unsure and another indicated some acceptance of gays. Jason was adamant that “guys
should go with girls and girls should go with guys.” “It shouldn’t be the same sex… that is eeww.”
Micah thought “it’s nasty to be gay.” When Dante was asked what would happen if he were turned gay,
he replied, “It would be extremely different and I would hate myself.”
None of three nonwhite boys felt comfortable about homosexuality. The two African Americans,
Marc and Tyrone, told interviewers that they thought being gay was wrong and “nasty.” Lorenzo, a
Latino American, did not condemn homosexuality, but neither did he indicate much tolerance for it.
In many instances, a feeling of disgust was cited as a rationale for judging gays, as in Jason’s
interview. This was especially common among boys, somewhat common among non-white girls, and the
least common among white girls. Marc said, “I think they would be like, ‘Stay away from me, I don’t
want you doing this and this,’ and some people, when they go to the bathroom they always be looking
over their shoulder.” Cynthia claimed that teachers might “pay close attention” to a gay student “just to
make sure he doesn’t do anything nasty around other kids and stuff.”
Several of the respondents were horrified at the suggestion of being gay. Jason claimed he would
shoot himself if he woke up gay, and Micah said “I would be suicidal. I know that’s wrong, but I would.”
Deirdre responded that if she were gay “I would like girls, which would be nasty.” And Kay would be too
embarrassed even to go to school. Heterosexism appears to be very much internalized by most of the
A substantial minority, however, expressed tolerant views. Katie felt that people should love who
they want to love. When Jack, a seventh grader, was asked what life would be like if he were gay, he said
nothing would really be different. He also claimed that he would remain friends with a gay boy, as long
as the friend did not “like” him. But even the eleven tolerant youths expressed concern over the reactions
of other people, especially peers, toward any indication of homosexuality. The fear of associating with
gay peers was quite strong, even among the otherwise tolerant girls, who exhibited some sense of
discomfort to the idea of a friend coming out as gay.
This confusion of sexuality and gender stereotypes feeds into the fear boys have about crossing
gender boundaries. Responses to the hypothetical scenario about Marcus, the boy who wants to be a
cheerleader in high school, often raised doubts about his sexuality, even though there was absolutely no
reference to sexuality in the scenario. All these responses were volunteered by the kids themselves.
Nearly all of the children told the interviewers that Marcus would be teased. Forty-one percentage
of boys and 43 percent of girls suggested that other students would call Marcus gay, but more girls voiced
support for the hypothetical Marcus. None of the respondents believed that Marcus must be gay if he
wants to be a cheerleader. Rather, responses focused on the idea that he would be called gay and would
have to prove his heterosexuality.
There was a widely-held conviction that Marcus’ peers would verbally abuse him. Jason admitted
he would directly taunt Marcus: “I’d go up to his face and say, ‘You are a little fruitcake, do you know
that?’” But most students seemed to want to protect Marcus from taunts and bullying, especially from
other boys. Ten girls and three boys who discussed Marcus getting teased mentioned boys as the primary
teasers. Some students recommended that Marcus should “keep it hush-hush” or even reconsider his
decision, because of the negative peer reaction it would invite. Jack said “if I were him I would choose
not to say anything about it or else everyone would make fun of me.”
Most students acknowledged that a boy wanting to cheerleader in high school does not mean he is
necessarily gay, but 40 percent suggested their peers would operate on such an assumption. A few
students thought that Marcus might not face much disapproval—that it would not be a big deal. But most
kids told us that their peers severely tease male gender nonconformity. No one policed girls’ sports
behavior by insinuating female athletes must be gay.
Homophobic Taunts to Enforce Masculinity
The Marcus scenario was not the only part of the interview that brought out the gender
nonconformity = gay phenomenon for boys. When we asked students to give us a word to describe boys
who are shy, quiet, maybe artistic or creative, and who like activities that girls usually do, four students
asserted that such a boy is or would be called gay or some variant thereof. Jeffrey, for example,
volunteered that there is no word for boys who act like girls, the way tomboy describes girls who act like
boys, but he has heard such boys called “fruit.” When we asked Marshall for a term to describe boys who
like to do the kinds of activities girls usually do, he responded that “a lot of people call ‘em gay.”
Similarly, without hesitation Deidre gave us the word “fag.” Other responses to this particular question
indicated such a boy would be teased in some way, even if he was not called gay.
Just as kids interpret boys’ gender nonconformity as evidence of homosexuality, the flip side is
that they also consistently associated homosexuality with gender nonconformity. Middle-school students
assume that someone who is gay will violate gender norms. One male student told us that if he were gay,
he would no longer like sports. In general, the kids assumed that gay males are more feminine than
straight members of their sex. Jeffrey thought that if he were turned gay he “might like to hang around
with girls a little more. Not like flirting, but acting like a girl or around girls.”
Such presumptions lend legitimacy to the regulation of male gender non-conformity through anti-
gay remarks. The stigmatizing of Marcus was in sharp contrast to responses to the hypothetical scenario
about Jasmine, the girl who wanted to start a girl’s football club. None of the students suggested that
Jasmine’s sexuality would be suspect, although a few suggested she might be teased or thought “weird”
by other students. It seems that gender non-conformity is less policed among girls than boys, and is
much less likely to be presumed a marker of sexuality for girls.
Boys fear being labeled gay by their peers, which makes this a powerful tool for policing gender.
In general, when the kids were asked “what if you were turned gay?,” their first response was to discuss
the reaction of their peers, rather than their parents or family members, providing further evidence that for
preadolescents peers form a critical reference group. In fact, 18 of 21 girls referred to peer disapproval
when responding to hypothetical questions about being gay themselves or having a gay friend. Seven of 9
boys did the same. Boys and girls consistently suggested that their peers would react negatively to them
if they came out as gay. In several cases respondents acknowledged that they might react negatively or
would apply some type of sanction to a gay student.
Being called gay is evidently the worst insult and the most effective way to shame another student.
When Cynthia spoke of a male friend of hers who is frequently bullied, she claimed that “most of the time
he ignores it but if somebody ends up calling him ‘gay’ or something, he takes it really bad.”
Interestingly, Cynthia and others do not consider this friend of hers to be particularly feminine, although
he was described as “scrawny” and “short.” Rather, she believes that he is called gay because it is a
dependable way for his attackers to insult him.
Branding nonconformists as gay in this middle school context constitutes a primary form of
regulation as well as harassment. When a boy is labeled gay, it is not necessarily about his sexuality, but
is rather a surefire way to insult him. The gay stigma is not primarily used to tease someone as
homosexual, but to deprive a boy of the status that comes with masculinity.19
Paradoxically, we have some very suggestive evidence that if a person actually does embrace a
gay identity, he or she is freer to cross gender boundaries and to enjoy activities usually limited to the
other sex. Several of the children told us that a gay student they knew was taunted by peers for awhile,
but the bullying leveled off substantially with time. Jamie told us that she has a gay female friend who
had some problems with other students, “but people kind of just got over it, and said, ‘hey, so what?’”
Jackie claimed that other people were initially standoffish with her gay female friend, but they forgot
about it by the next year.
In some cases, when discussing other students who are openly gay or lesbian, a student would
claim that the teasing was not that bad. Cynthia said that her gay male friend is called names by “like two
19 For more on this, read Kehily and Nayak (1997), Plummer (2001), Pascoe (2003, 2005, 2007) and Phoenix et al. (2003).
or three” of the girls in her class, but the boys do not really make fun of him. She thought that is because
although he’s told all the girls, he probably has not told the boys. When asked if the boys would make fun
of him if they knew, she replied: “No, I think he has told them but they probably really don’t consider it
In response to the story about Marcus the cheerleader, Mallory described her gay friend, Jo, as an
exception to the gender rules. She said, “Now, I know for a fact that [Marcus would] be made fun of for
that. Except Jo. Everybody knows Jo’s going to do something like that, so nobody really cares if Jo did
something like that. But if that boy is not Jo, he will probably get made fun of.” When asked why people
do not make fun of Jo, Mallory explained that he’s friends with half of the seventh grade, even though
there are some people who “hate him.” Jo, as openly gay, seems accepted by most of his peers. Mallory
indicated that Jo enjoys some girl-typed activities like dancing, but it is accepted because he is gay.
It is not possible to conclude from our data that openly gay students are not harassed precisely in
ways similar to male gender nonconformists, but further research would do well to investigate the
possibility. It is notable that all three examples of gay and lesbian kids being exempt from sustained
harassment in this study related to a specific person that the respondent knows, whereas most of the
respondents who thought a gay person would be subject to significant harassment were dealing with an
imaginary scenario. Since stereotypes about gay people being gender nonconformist were common
among our respondents, it makes sense that gay peers are not harassed for gender nonconformity in the
same ways that others are. Openly gay kids, having already acknowledged they are gay, face different
challenges than their peers who are anxious to avoid the taunt of being a faggot or gay.
The data clearly show that most middle-school children in our sample still hold stereotypical
views about gay people. For boys, no distinction is made between same-sex attraction and gender
nonconformity. The children expect that boys who break gender norms will be teased and called gay. But
the children in this study are quite diverse in their own opinions and many feel that although harassment
would occur, it should not.
Discussion and Conclusion: Femininity on the Body, Masculinity as the Boy
Our findings confirm other studies about the narrow confines in which boys need to stay in order
to avoid being teased by peers. What is perhaps more unexpected in our findings is that girls are now
stigmatized for displaying some of the traditional markers of femininity. Girls look down on peers who
are ultra-feminine, “wimpy”, and afraid to get dirty or to be competitive. The responses from girls in this
study suggest that the way girls now “do gender” is similarly restricted to “looks” and the body.
Girls have come to expect and take advantage of access to traditionally masculine arenas such as
sports, and they display heightened expectations of academic success in all subjects, and are willing to
compete with boys in those arenas. None of the girls discussed personally shying away from competition
with boys, or worrying about their popularity if they did well in school, and no mention at all was made of
fear of math and science. Girls in this study took for granted that they can be involved in different sports
and they rarely mentioned any constraints in their academic pursuits or their career plans.
The girls consistently expressed disdain for exaggerated notions of femininity and looked down on
other girls who were seen as too passive, too prissy, or too vain. Girls who are good at sports and still
exhibit a feminine bodily presentation are looked upon with favor. The traditional aspects of girlhood
most related to subordination to boys are no longer revered or even accepted aspects of femininity. In a
world where most mothers work for pay and all the girls expect to do so themselves, it makes sense
they’ve adopted the means to develop strong bodies and competitive minds.
In our view, the new concept “undoing gender” is the best framework for understanding
contemporary girlhood20. These girls do not “do gender” the way generations before them did. They
20 “Undoing gender” was recently offered by Deutsch (2007). For another example of “undoing gender”, in Gerson's (2002)
article, she describes the process of young men an women choosing lives that are distinct from traditional gendered
compete with other girls on the field and with boys in the classroom. They get dirty, and they expect to be
taken seriously by teachers, parents, and boys.
While these girls have begun to “undo gender” as we knew it, they have not undone it completely.
Their focus on femininity seems to have narrowed to concern and attention, even if sporadic, to their
looks. For most girls, being feminine meant wearing nice clothes, being thin, applying lip gloss, and
paying attention to hair styles. While girls are allowed, and perhaps even encouraged, to “undo gender”
in how they behave, they still face pressures to be attractive, to be good looking.
But the norms are contradictory. Most girls we questioned believe they should do gender with
their body display. But if they concentrate too much on this aspect, they risk being looked down upon as
overly feminine. They want to be seen as feminine but not too much so.
On the other hand, boys gain no social approval by deviating from traditional definitions of
masculinity. Any behavior remotely stereotyped as feminine is intensely policed by other boys and some
girls. Being stigmatized as “gay” is the primary way masculinity is policed and enforced because it is a
potent insult among young males. Being gay and being masculine are seen as contradictory, just as
femininity and masculinity have traditionally been. The gay stigma among middle schoolers is really
about deviating from gender expectations rather than about homosexuality, although it may draw upon
insecurities about sexuality. It is a way of enforcing masculinity, and when boys live up to those
expectations they not only establish themselves as masculine, but also assert their superiority to girls.
Boys who hesitate to participate in homophobic or gender policing activities open themselves up to
Despite our society’s success in boosting acceptance of gender equality and women’s rights, the
peer culture of these tween-agers remains incredibly resistant to any changes in defining masculinity for
boys. While middle-school girls now are free to sometimes act like boys, as long as they make an effort,
at least occasionally, to look feminine, the fear of being called “gay” quite effectively polices boy’s
gender behavior. Boys’ lives seem hardly influenced by any feminist transformation except that they must
compete now with girls as well as each other, at least in the classroom.
For both girls and boys the truly feminine is looked down upon. For boys, this means that to be
respected by other boys they must make continual efforts to act in masculine ways. Girls walk a different
tightrope. They are strongly pressured to do gender with their bodies, although not so much as to be seen
as too girly. But they are free to cross gender borders in the other aspects of their lives.
Boys now have to compete with girls in nearly every realm of life, and can no longer take for
granted that because they are boys they are smarter or superior in any other way to the girls they know.
The fear of being teased leaves boys more constrained by gender stereotypes than are girls. Perhaps boys
cling to narrow definitions of masculinity is an attempt to hold onto the last remnant of male privilege
available to boys of this generation. Ironically, gender expectations box them in so tightly that they are
easily subjected to teasing for the slightest transgression. Boys just may need a gender revolution of their
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Demographic Information for Middle Schoolers in the Study
Pseudonym Sex Race Grade
Alison Female White 7
Audrey Female White 6
Brady Male White 6
Candace Female White 6
Cassie Female Black 6
Cynthia Female Biracial (black/white) 6
Dante Male White 6
Deb Female Asian-Indian 6
Deirdre Female Black 6
Eric Male White 6
Erica Female White 6
Eve Female White 6
Isabel Female Black 7
Jack Male White 7
Jackie Female Black 8
Jamie Female White 8
Jason Male White 7
Jeffrey Male White 7
Joleesa Female Black 6
Kamry Female White 8
Karlin Female White 8
Kay Female Black 7
Katie Female White 7
Kerri Female White 6
Kirsten Female White 8
Krista Female White 8
Lana Female Biracial (black/white) 6
Lola Female Biracial (black/white) 6
Lorenzo Male Latino 6
Mallory Female White 7
Marc Male Black 6
Marney Female White 6
Marshall Male White 8
Max* Male White 6
Micah Male White 6
Molly Female White 6
Mona Female White 6
Nathan Male White 6
Reese Male White 7
Samantha Female White 6
Samir Male Asian-Indian 6
Shawn Male White 7
Tyrone Male Black 6
Wayne* Male White 7
*Due to missing data, not included in this study.