Straight A and Okay? Researching Academically Successful Girls in the Wake of Post-Feminism

We began studying academically successful girls in 2007. Some researchers and the popular media had already been asking “What about the boys?” for over a decade, but the discourse was becoming a runaway train in the new millennium. Everywhere we looked, magazine covers and newspaper headlines anxiously suggested that girls were now the “new dominant sex,” and that their success had come as a result of a “feminized” education system and at boys’ expense. So ingrained was this panic that whenever we discussed our interest in girls’ academic success, someone would invariably ask, “Why are you studying girls? I thought boys were the ones who needed to be studied now.”

Implicit in this gender-and-education debate is the belief that because some girls seem to be doing better than some boys in school, girls must no longer need feminist intervention. In fact girls, as Beyoncé roars in her recent pop hit, “run the world.” Somewhere between “girl power” and neo-liberal equality, girls have become the poster children for individualized success. And if girls can do, be, and have anything they want, then feminism has done its job and is, therefore, no longer necessary.

Our current article in Gender and Education (23.5) is set against this post-feminist framing of girls’ academic success. Celebratory narratives touting gender equality permeate the media and saturate popular discussion of gender. So we began the pilot study on which the article is based by asking the following questions: Does being academically successful mean that girls no longer experience sexism in the school? Do girls now exist in a gender-neutral universe? Are all academic girls thriving? Our article discusses girls’ complex negotiations of “smart girl” identities by focusing on their contradictory positioning within feminist narratives of gender injustice and post-feminist narratives of gender equality. These competing discourses highlight girls’ everyday experiences of sexism in the school while simultaneously showcasing girls’ neo-liberal drive for individualized success.

This article has now become the springboard for a large, federally funded study in St. Catharines, Ontario, Canada. We have interviewed 50 girls about their experiences of academic success in the wake of post-feminist victory narratives that tell girls they “have it all”. We recruited participants from diverse backgrounds in order to understand their academic identities as they intersect with “race,” ethnicity, class, sexuality, and religion. To complement this sample, we have also recruited and interviewed a sub-sample of boys. The boys have offered a fascinating perspective on not just their own negotiations of academic identities, but also on how they perceive smart girls.  As we now begin to analyze this rich data we are finding that the arguments set forth in our Gender and Education article are strengthened, deepened and complicated by these intersections, as well as the ongoing, related relevance of popularity, conventional beauty, and compulsory heterosexuality. What has become clear to us is that academic success does not equal gender neutrality; smart girls deal with sexism as a regular part of their everyday experiences of schooling.

Shauna Pomerantz and Rebecca Raby (Brock University, Ontario).

Shauna and Rebecca are co-authors of the article “Oh, She’s So Smart”: Girls’ Complex Engagements with Post/Feminist Narratives of Academic Success, which appears in Gender and Education 23.5

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