by Gina L. Grandi, Artistic Director
Let’s get academic for a minute, shall we?
Girls represent a marginalized population in this largely patriarchal society (Abrams, 2002), and gender expectations and ‘norms’ are internalized from a young age. Socialization plays a significant role in the way gender stereotypes manifest in young women. It’s impossible not to grow up without internalizing systematic misogyny. Hillary Clinton is criticized for her outfits and for ‘not smiling enough’. News coverage of the male athletes in Rio focuses on athletic prowess, while commentators discuss the age, marital status, and appearance of female athletes. The number of films that pass the Bechdel Test remains astonishingly low.
This evidence isn’t merely anecdotal. Studies have found links between the way in which girls define gender roles and gender identity and the way gender impacts identity formation (Corby, Hodges, & Perry, 2007). One study reported that girls who learned about feminism and are exposed to the notion of endorsing gender equality early in their lives were more likely to be motivated in math and science (Leaper, Farkas, & Brown, 2012). While another found that girls with “higher levels of internalized sexualization” tended to have lower grades and perform lower on standardized tests (McKenney & Bigler, 2016, p. 34).
It’s not enough to merely be aware of these issues. Researchers have reported finding dissonance when working with adolescent girls, in that study participants would question, speak against, or acknowledge the limitations of cultural expectations and assumptions, while, at the same time, perpetuating these stereotypes when discussing their own desires, expectations, and ideals (Edell, 2010; Thomas, 2015; Walton & Fisette, 2013).
It is difficult to shift thinking and behavior. It is difficult to break out of patterns. So what do we do?
I think part of the answer is to do more listening. When we talk with the young women and girls in our life, to what degree do we let them speak honestly? How often do we let them explore their options and come to their own decisions? How often do we truly honor their voices, instead of dismissing ideas and concerns with ‘you’ll understand when you’re older’?
For the last month and a half I’ve been working with a group of adolescent girls to create an original performance. They have talked a great deal about questions they wish they could ask and those things they’re not allowed to say. “We know we’re supposed to listen to our own voices and have confidence in ourselves,” they have said. “But we’re conditioned not to.” They speak of the well-meaning influences in their lives, their desire not to disappoint parents, the realities of the school system. They have questions and opinions, and, according to them, not many are interested in hearing them. “We know who we want to be,” one of them said, “but someone else always holds the key.”
All of this is a fancy way of saying: let’s listen more. When we talk to girls and young women, let’s let them do the talking. Is there a girl or young woman in your life? Does she have a space to ask questions, real questions, about life, school, and her future? Does she have someone in her life she can voice her opinions to without judgment, without worrying that her thoughts or questions might disappoint or worry? What kind of opportunities can you give her to talk, to question, to explore? How can you ensure she has opportunities to see herself represented on stage, in film, on television, in media? How can you help to provide that space?
As a society, we’ve got a long way to go. At home, we can talk about that.
Want to do some more reading? Let me recommend some of the works cited above:
Abrams, L. S. (2002). Rethinking girls 'at-risk': gender, race, and class intersections and adolescent development. Journal of Human Behavior in the Social Environment, 6(2), 47-64 18p.
Corby, B. C., Hodges, E. V. E., & Perry, D. G. (2007). Gender Identity and Adjustment in Black, Hispanic, and White Preadolescents. Developmental psychology, 43(1), 261-266.
Edell, D. (2013). “Say It How It Is”: Urban Teenage Girls Challenge and Perpetuate Stereotypes Through Writing and Performing Theatre. Youth Theatre Journal, 27(1), 51.
Leaper, C. c. u. e., Farkas, T. t. g. c., & Brown, C. c. b. u. e. (2012). Adolescent Girls' Experiences and Gender-Related Beliefs in Relation to Their Motivation in Math/Science and English. Journal of Youth & Adolescence, 41(3), 268-282. doi:10.1007/s10964-011-9693-z
McKenney, S. J., & Bigler, R. S. (2016). High Heels, Low Grades: Internalized Sexualization and Academic Orientation Among Adolescent Girls. Journal of Research on Adolescence, 26(1), 30-36. doi:10.1111/jora.12179
Thomas, E. (2015). The Dance of Cultural Identity: Exploring Race and Gender with Adolescent Girls. American Journal of Dance Therapy, 37(2), 176-196. doi:10.1007/s10465-015-9203-z
Walton, T. A., & Fisette, J. L. (2013). "Who Are You?": Exploring Adolescent Girls' Process of Identification. Sociology of Sport Journal, 30(2), 197-222.