Performing the good girl

Reading Time: 6 minutes

Chris Curtis’s latest blogpost – https://learningfrommymistakesenglish.blogspot.com/ – chimes with some things I’ve been writing / thinking about for a while now, about the ways that girls adopt different personas depending, in large part, on the expectations they experience in different places.

I’ve had conversations at parents’ evenings that reveal the dilemma he describes, that “The home persona will say something and challenge things when the school persona will not, because they are worried they’ll get told off. Life for them is the battle between these two versions of themselves.” Working at a girls’ school for a decade, I’ve had lots of conversations that come down to this. The home persona is chatty, bubbly, bright – confrontational perhaps but in a way that suggests a developing strength and independence. At school, they’re quiet, do the work and what they’re asked. The brightness might also be there (“friendly”, “personable”) but it’s channelled differently.

The thing is though, the more I start talking about this, with colleagues and friends, the less sure I am that these two personas ever really resolve themselves into one. It feels like instead, the conflict deepens as those expectations take hold. They might shift slightly, but they’re still very much into the ‘good girl’ bracket, primarily resolving itself into discussions or requests for caring, nurturing, putting others first. While the self-care explosion might seem like a positive thing in light of increasing mental-health problems, it also seems to me like a massive red warning flag that it’s something to add into an already-busy life of caring for others. Here’s your allotted self-care slot, take a bath and light a candle (but just for twenty minutes or so, then it’s back to caring for everyone else).

It is far too easy, at schools and at home, to create the girls Chris describes, the ones who are asked to do everything when you need someone kind, reliable, someone who’ll just get on and make it work. The ones who won’t push themselves forward to do something they really, really want to do – but need that ‘permission’ or ‘to be asked’. Instead, then, it’s the extroverts and popular girls who get to do the different, exciting things because they push forward. I don’t think, in some respects, it’s not a question of confidence either. It takes a lot of self-confidence to do the tasks they’re asked to – making new friends and showing someone round, mentoring them, doing presentations to staff or speaking to new teachers, or helping on interview panels. But it’s too simple to push them into that box and not enable them to do things that would really push and stretch them, and provide them with some different opportunities.

We expect girls to have intrinsic motivation. We expect them to want to be ‘good’  – whatever that might mean in our particular situations and settings – and to perform the right behaviours to fit in. But those behaviours aren’t, often, the ones that get you far – or, I’d say – get you to happy, either. It’s a strange contradiction. Intrinsic motivation, according to all popular psychology, produces happier people than relying on extrinsic (the praise, reward etc). And relying solely on extrinsic motivation is likely to lead to unhappiness when people’s expectations change. But that, I feel, is the point when it comes to expectations of girls being good. It might feel like it’s based on intrinsic motivation but it’s not. It’s based on internalising this idea of what good is – and that is liable to shift over time and place, in turn shifting the very foundation of some girls’ core understanding of themselves and that’s incredibly dangerous. It leaves us, as adults, uncertain of who we really are and the conflict of who we really want to be versus the ways we’ve been told we should be.

I believe gender is performative. we ascribe it characteristics and demand varying degrees of it depending on what we’re doing and where we are. And schools have an often-bizarre mixture of the masculine and feminine being demanded of them which leaves girls destined to fail in some ways. (Like Mary Portas – fab book – I’m using the ‘gendered characteristics’ because they are so often, rightly or wrongly, ascribed to characteristics. Introvert = feminine, extrovert = masculine and so on. I’m fully aware of the blurring of these, but I honestly don’t think it’s as blurred as we’d like to think it’s becoming. Just look at the different in Lego since the 70s to see how polarised it’s actually become). There’s a strange conflict in schools. To get great exam results, you have to be ‘good’ – do the work, get it right, adhere to the mark-scheme, work consistently and it will pay off. Feminine, valuing intrinsic qualities and behaviours because these will get you the extrinsic rewards of grades. so often, girls take this grade-awarding as evidence of being worthwhile and good. The grade defines them – one reason why I’m so glad my school’s scrapped them entriely as KS3, but it’s a massive up-hill struggle to get the girls to do the same and stop searching for numbers to define themselves by. I think this increasing focus in secodnary also hardens the ‘good girl’ mentality – this is what it takes to be good, so I’ll stop doing the other things.

Yet at the same time Chris is right – the extrovert reigns supreme elsewhere in schools. The plays, the sports-days, the house competitions. There are very few spaces in schools for introverts to find a safe haven (slightly more if you’re staff, but few and far between for students) and part of the result there, I think, is that you’re always ‘on show’ as a student. Particularly in these teenage years, there’s always groups watching each other, checking behaviour and performance. As teachers and adults we need to be very conscious of not fuelling this performance through our expectatiosn of the ‘good girl’.

Undoubtedly more to follow on this. Thanks for reading.

What do you think?

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