Smart Girls: Success, School, and the Myth of Post-Feminism

by Shauna Pomerantz, author of Smart Girls: Success, School, and the Myth of Post-Feminism with Rebecca Raby 

This guest post is published in advance of the American Sociological Association conference in Seattle. Check back every week for new posts through the end of the conference on August 23rd.

Over the last decade we have seen a lot of hand-wringing about girls thriving in school while boys fail, and consequent policy recommendations to shift classroom materials to better meet boys’ needs.  Various scholars have been critical of these generalizations and policy proposals. Given the extent of these debates, what does your book, Smart Girls, add to this conversation?

Various researchers and commentators have rebuffed the universalizing arguments that we have seen over the past ten years, arguments that point to ‘successful girls’ and ‘failing boys’ as evidence that we now live in a post-feminist era where girls thrive and we should worry about boys’ achievements. However, despite widespread critiques that complicate and contextualize the idea that girls are ‘taking over the world’, we continue to see news headlines and popularized books pitting girls and boys against each other, as if gender is a stand alone category disconnected from many other social issues. At the policy level, these concerns are shape school curricula and lead many to assume that we no longer need to worry about girls in school.

In the face of these generalized arguments, we wanted to talk more deeply and contextually about the lives of smart girls in schools today. We wanted rich data that got at the everyday challenges that diverse smart girls, and boys, negotiate in school. We wanted a book that was based in the North American context, and that would be accessible to many readers so that a wide range of teachers, parents and young people themselves could engage with our participants’ stories and reflect on the challenges that girls still face in spite of claims that feminism – and girls – have ‘won’. If girls are doing so well, we asked: why do some girls dumb down? And how do dynamics of gender and smartness continue to play out within peer cultures, especially when smartness does not always sit easily with popular forms of femininity, and in a context where gender inequality is certainly not over. We wanted to talk to smart girls about how they handle being labeled ‘nerd’ or ‘loner’, how they deal with the ‘Supergirl’ drive for perfection and how their negotiations of academic success and peer culture are shaped by ‘race’ and class. We also wanted to learn from smart boys about their experiences in school – and how their challenges are similar to, and different from, those of girls.

The end result is a book that foregrounds young people’s stories about different smart girls’ lives. We hope that these stories and our reflections on them will further shatter common and troubling generalizations about girls’ success that continue to inform educational policy.

In talking to many smart girls and boys, you suggest that it can be hard to be smart while also fitting into popular masculinity and femininity.  Why is it difficult to be both smart and popular?  And how is it different for girls than for boys?

With shows like The Big Bang Theory, it can feel like ‘geek chic’ is in and that popular peer culture has expanded to make room for bookishness. And for some of the young people we talked to, being smart was indeed ‘in’, particularly if they were certain kinds of girls, with supportive groups of friends and going to inclusive schools. But we also heard many stories that indicated a continuing tension between popularity and academics.

Across a variety of schools, girls carefully negotiated their academic identities and many felt that often they had to choose: play down their smartness in order to be attractive (especially to boys) and popular, or sacrifice popularity in order to thrive academically. Girls sometimes found they could also balance out their smartness by being conventionally pretty and nice. Boys also faced challenges: while girls would downplay their smartness, boys did not want to be seen as trying too hard and would counter their studiousness by being funny and athletic. We noticed that girls were often rewarded for how they looked, and for being passive and demure, while boys were more likely to be rewarded for being active subjects who were extroverted, athletic and funny, patterns that reflect and reproduce gender inequality.

While post-feminism posits that we are now beyond sexism, numerous forces, statistics and incidents tell us otherwise. Dominant and hierarchical gender practices endure across society and in the school, which is reflected in much of our data. At the same time, post-feminism thrives as a discourse: in many of the interviews where young people talked about experiencing or noticing gender inequality, they also stated that gender inequality did not exist.

Other scholars have argued that a focus on ‘successful girls’ versus ‘failing boys’ neglects to consider other important social divisions around things like class and ‘race’. Is this something that you found too?

Yes, many researchers have suggested that there is far greater academic diversity within gender categories than across them and that this diversity is linked to significant class and ‘race’ inequalities that permeate North American society. In our book we highlight how class and ‘race’ were powerful forces in the lives of our participants. Class was a significant source of advantage for many of the young people we talked to, often in ways that they did not acknowledge. It shaped the school they were going to, the resources that supported their academic success, and the resources to help them negotiate gendered peer cultures. Class was also used to bolster privilege and exclude others, a pattern that was particularly evident to our working-class participants.

Similarly, ‘race’ emerged as a central feature in definitions of academic success, particularly in relation to the problematic stereotype of the ‘smart Asian’. This stereotype was used to reproduce the narrow idea that being ‘too smart’ is not only anti-social, but also the mark of a cultural outsider.

Shauna Pomerantz is Associate Professor of Child and Youth Studies at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario, Canada. She is the author of Girls, Style and School Identities: Dressing the Part and the coauthor of Girl Power: Girls Reinventing Girlhood.