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You cant play with He-man, hes not for girls! This phrase still echoes in my mind as I reminisce about my childhood playtime. As I reached for a He-man action figure from the toy box, I was handed a Barbie doll or a My Little Pony figurine. At that time, I was too young to realize the great chasm that gender had created for such a simple task as playing with toys. However, looking back, it becomes clear that gender, itself, plays a key role in the everyday lives of boys and girls.
In Barrie Thornes book, Gender Play, this role is depicted in various ways through participant observation, or ethnography. By researching the ways that children play an active role in doing gender, analyzing the neutralization of this socialized role, and displaying the effects that education, primarily those with a classroom setting, has on gender, Thorne provides ample support of the notion that gender is a social construction. From my experiences with the He-man doll, one can deduce a certain boundary line for activities between girls and boys.
Barrie Thorne provides explanations of these boundaries by analyzing the ways that children play an active role in creating them.
By having shared interests, or behavioral compatibility, girls and boys contribute to the act of gender. Although there is not overwhelming support, boys find it more rewarding to interact and play with boys, and girls to interact and play with girlsgirls more often gravitate to housekeeping corners and doll-play, and boys to the area with large blocks and toy cars(Thorne 57).
This example explains the division between boys and girls as one of shared interests. Because girls enjoy the same activities as other girls, and boys enjoy the same activities as other boys, a boundary for gender is marked. In choosing to play with a Heman doll, I crossed this boundary. However, in defining why children create such boundaries, an origin such as behavioral compatibility does not provide for the deviation from this norm. Therefore, Thorne uses the theory of psychoanalytic processes to further explain this gender phenomenon. As we learned in lecture, various sociologists have hypothesized the reason for gender, such as Freuds penis envy, or Chodorows maternal rejection theories. In Gender Play, Thorne uses Chodorows explanation that boys are motivated to separate from and to devalue things feminine in order to gain separation from their mothers. Because mothers do the bulk of primary parenting, both boys and girls initially identify with and are strongly attached to a woman (59). Therefore, Thorne suggests the reason for boys to identify with other boys is due to their acute awareness of being a different gender than the mother (59). This then creates a separation between girls and boys, as boys seek to consolidate their somewhat shaky gender identities (59).
This psychoanalytic process, which is inherently developed, can explicate the tendency for boys to interact with boys and girls to interact with other girls. Finally, Thorne states that the acts of gender labeling and identity can produce the gender division as well. Being labeled a boy or a girl creates an awareness for a child, which consolidates around age two (60). In learning these gender categories, such as male/female, boy/girl, or man/woman, children are able to apply them in relation to others. Thorne proposes that this act may set processes of gender separation into motion (60). Gender identity, or the deep sense of self as either male or female, can produce this separation as well. As a girl realizes the similar characteristics she shares with other girls, and a boy realizes the similar characteristics he shares with other boys, that awareness, in itself, may lead boys to want to interact with boys and girls to want to be with other girls. (60). As boys and girls avoid those of the other kind, they establish the meaning of doing gender.
This allows them to hold different gender identities and establish their own discovery of self. Clearly, shared interests, psychoanalytic processes, gender labeling, and gender identity all play a key role in the establishment of the chasm we know as gender. Just as it is important to understand how children do gender, it is also vital to understand why some children deviate from this norm. Thorne explains this deviation by introducing the neutralization of gender, or the decrease in importance of gender divisions. When the level of analysis shifts from the individual to groups and situations, gender becomes more fluid(85).
Thus, a girl may always be a girl, and that will be a key factor through most of her daily life, but in some interactions she may be much more aware of this factor than in others. This case of gender neutralization is prevalent in interactions dealing with a childs ability. For example, when the classroom was divided into groups by reading levels, boys and girls interacted with each other. Here, gender was not a factor solely due to the division of ability. However, a second aspect joins the neutralization of gender the aspect of different cultures. Thorne defines different cultures by stating that [groups of boys and groups of girls] act upon different values and pursue divergent goals; in many ways they live in separate worlds, or different cultures (89). Thus, when the neutralization of gender occurs, the crossing over from one culture to another simultaneously occurs as well. Evidence of these cultures can be seen in such simple actions such as different types of rhetoric. When referring to same-gender relationships, boys talk about buddies, teams, and being tough, whereas girls more often use a language of best friends and being nice (90). More in-depth inquiries depict the complex nature of these different worlds. For instance, boys tend to play more outdoors, taking up more space, while girls organize themselves into more intimate groups, or friendships. On the same level, boys tend to revolve around themes of physical strength and force, while girls have a tendency to structure themselves around physical appearance. This defined division between the boys world and the girls world depicts the complexity of gender neutralization.
Thus, in the neutralization of gender, or genders momentary loss of significance, one not only crosses the gender chasm, but also enters into an entirely different world. Just as the neutralization of gender proved to be of key significance, so the effects of larger social forces greatly impact the construction of gender differences. The large social force of education, primarily classroom education, greatly influences the separation of gender. Thorne states that there are several basic features of schools that distinguish them from neighborhoods, or environments where boy/girl interaction is more common. The first is that of formal age grading, or the division of children, not only by gender, but also by age. Schools use age grading in a myriad of ways, but principally in terms of a class structure. Thorne explains genders are more likely to separate from one another in same-age than in mixed-age contexts (52). Thus, by dividing students into classes, schools are in turn creating these same-age contexts producing gender separation. The second impact that schools have on gender separation is due, in large, to their crowded and public nature. Since schools are densely populated, they provide more potential companions of the same gender and age, unlike that of a neighborhood. Neighborhoods, therefore, contain fewer companions; without as much choice, children are more likely to interact with someone of another age or a different gender. Thus, the mere population of schools provides gender differences. Finally, the overall power involved in the school setting offers much explanation for the gender chasm. Thorne states that, students have little choice about being present, and members of a smaller, more powerful group (the staff] regulate their use of time, space, and resources(20-21). This presence of authority contributes to many of the gender differences within individual classrooms.
As Thorne points out, in Ashton school, Mrs. Johnson often walked around the room saying, Theres three girls need to get busy You two boys ought to be busy (34). This depiction of gender, by someone of authority, aids in the separation of gender solely due to the concept of hierarchy. Most importantly, by frequently using gender labels when they interact with kids, adults make being a girl or boy central to self-definition, and to the ongoing life of schools (35). Clearly, the school structure affects gender dynamics and in turn has a great impact upon gender differences. Thornes Gender Play highlights the significance of various factors on gender as a social construction. In depicting childrens behavioral compatibilities, their psychoanalytic processes, gender labeling and identity, she successfully proves that children play an active role in gender. By emphasizing the importance of neutralization, Thorne is able to justify the significance of different cultures. In analyzing the structure of the education system, the author relates the magnitude of age grading, crowds, and power in gender separation. Undoubtedly, the socialization of children is largely in part due to gender. Just as I was swayed from playing with He-man, gender is persuaded to remain separate.
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