Girls, Construction of

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Girls, Construction of

Girl is a gender assigned to female children at or before birth. Though there is generally a biological basis for the assignment, children born with both male and female genitalia are usually surgically altered and, in most cases, assigned a female gender. By the age of two, most children have developed an awareness of themselves as boys or girls and understand other people—peers and adults alike—in these same terms. From early childhood on, children evince an acute awareness of the differing appearances, dress, and behaviors of boys and girls and utilize this awareness to construct their own gender identity and to police that of others. Research conducted in elementary schools has highlighted the active role that even very young children take in constituting themselves in relation to dominant frameworks of gender, power relations, and sexuality. Identification as a girl is thus a multivalent process: Female infants and children are designated and constructed as girls by family and health professionals alike, but quite quickly become active in negotiating the terms and meanings of this identity. Although the word girl is strongly associated with childhood and immaturity, it is commonly used—by girls and young women themselves, young men, and older adults of both sexes—to refer to women throughout their teenage years and into adulthood.

The various historical and contemporary connotations of girl form a nexus around issues of power, gender, and sexuality. In its earliest English usage, girl referred to both male and female children and youths. By the sixteenth century, its definition had narrowed to include only females, though through at least the nineteenth century, the term was commonly used to denote any unmarried woman. In spite of its association with physical immaturity, the word girl has often been and continues to be used to refer to adult women. Such usage associates the female with childhood and invokes a gendered power relationship that, in opposition, associates adulthood with the male (Renold 2005, p. 24). This power disparity manifests as well in a sexualization of female children and an infantilization of sexually mature women. Similar negotiations of power and gender can be seen in the use of the term by an older speaker to indicate a generation gap between two adult women, or in the use of girl by men to refer to adult females. These negotiations are overtly sexualized in the use of phrases such as "working girls" to refer to prostitutes and rendered in terms of race, class, and power in the use of "girl" to connote a maidservant or, in pre-World War II U.S. society, a black woman.

Sociological research in elementary schools in the United States, Britain, and Australia has emphasized the complexity of children's gender negotiations. As early as preschool and kindergarten, girls are more likely to engage in gender-stereotyped play, including playing house, pretend cooking, and dress-up activities; when boys and girls play together, each is likely to select and perform a role that accords with stereotypical gender norms. In their interpretations of books that actively try to subvert gender stereotypes, even very young children have been found to rely heavily on gender stereotypes. Though many have suggested that very young children's reliance on stereotyped gender roles in their own play is a reflection of the gender roles they see at home, others have noted that even children from households with a working mother or a stay-at-home father evince an awareness of and often an adherence to more stereotypical gender norms. The situation is further complicated by the correspondence between gender and maturity that many schools demonstrate: in some preschools, the term "big girl" or "big boy" is used in opposition to "babies" to identify acceptable behaviors. Kindergarten and first-grade classrooms often continue this practice, encouraging mature behavior and attitudes by attaching approving gender identities to them. Though the use of "big boy" and "big girl" disappears by the fourth grade, teachers and administrators often make reference to adult genders (such as ladies and gentlemen) to request appropriately mature behavior. The correspondence between gender, behavior, and maturity is thus set up very early for children.

In classrooms, girls are often quieter than boys, are more likely to be rewarded for being quiet, and, when bored or disengaged, tend to withdraw rather than acting out. As a result, girls demand less, and are accorded less, class time and attention than boys. As a great deal of research has identified boys' lack of motivation and interest in reading, publishers and teachers alike tend to believe that adventure stories with highly active male protagonists are the only sort that will appeal to and engage young boys. As a result, girls are more likely to be presented with stereotypical gender roles in their school-assigned reading: male protagonists who are active, independent, problem-solvers, and weak, dependent female characters. Even books with strong, independent female characters tend to present them as anomalies whose rejection of social norms is the cause of their problems. While girls have been shown to read resistantly, finding positive female role-models and points of identification in gender-stereotyped texts, their exposure to more positive female role-models in their reading has been consistently limited by the perceived needs of boys.

Though boys and girls commonly interact a great deal in neighborhood and family settings, researchers have consistently noted the degree to which they self-select into gender-specific groups in schools. This tendency to separate by gender increases with age and peaks in early adolescence. Girls construct themselves as a group based on their difference from boys, and they police their own behavior and that of others according to group definitions of what it means to be a proper girl or boy. Playground spaces likewise tend to be divided into boy and girl sections, with girls controlling much less physical space. Much definition and negotiation of gender identities occurs through the types of contact experienced between boys' and girls' groups. Girls are often excluded from boys' games (and vice versa) on the grounds that they are girls; invading the boys space and insisting on a place in a game can be a source of power for girls, but can also jeopardize their identities as girls. The more acceptance by boys that a girl experiences, the more likely she is to face others girls' opprobrium for acting too much like a boy. Girls are more likely than boys to devote time to discussing appearance and their bodies, and this too is often conducted with reference to gender expectations. Girls tend to be highly aware of the gender implications of their clothing and makeup choices, trying to adopt a look that proclaims their individuality and fashion sense, even as it walks a line between being acceptable to other girls and attractive to boys. As girls get older, this negotiation occurs more explicitly in terms of sexual attractiveness and availability; girls often use fashion as a means of exploring sexuality and femininity, but run the risk of being judged as trashy or slutty by their peers.

Many researchers have noted the degree to which gender norming among children is really a mechanism for enforcing heterosexuality. Until adolescence, girls are most likely to spend their free time in school in same-sex groups, but these groups are usually structured around interaction with boys. As early as kindergarten, children adopt a language of boyfriends and girlfriends that pairs different members of the class together. Boys and girls who spend too much time together risk teasing by their peers, but group pressure and intermediaries also often work to bring a couple together in a relationship. Interactions between boys and girls are thus fraught with a sense of heterosexual pressure, danger, and excitement: the attraction of games where boys and girls chase and kiss one another, games of contamination (such as "cooties"), and games of invasion (where girls or boys will invade each other's spaces) hinges on a sense of heterosexual interaction as risky, exciting, and promising.

Girls are particularly likely to position themselves and one another in terms of heterosexual norms. As they grow older, girls are increasingly likely to view their bodies and appearances in terms of social ideals and consider their bodies desirable only when validated by others. As they enter adolescence, much of girls' activities center on developing a femininity based in heterosexuality. Much discussion surrounds the question of which boys and girls are dating or breaking up, and significant energy is channeled to conducting and regulating relationships with boys. Girls are also more likely than boys to be positioned according to their relationships with boys, which often dictate the status and nature of their relationships with other girls. The understanding of boy-girl friendships in terms of boyfriends and girlfriends is organized and maintained almost exclusively by girls, and in many cases schools place on girls additional responsibility for regulating appropriate sexual behavior. Boys' sexuality is often constructed as a response to natural and curious urges, while responsibility for controlling and reining in these urges is placed largely on girls.

see also Boys, Construction of; Femme; Gender Identity.


Blaise, Mindy. 2005. Playing It Straight: Uncovering Gender Discourses in the Early Childhood Classroom. New York: Routledge.

Kimmel, Michael S., and Rebecca F. Plante, eds. 2004. Sexualities: Identities, Behaviors, and Society. New York: Oxford University Press.

Lehr, Susan, ed. 2001. Beauty, Brains, and Brawn: The Construction of Gender in Children's Literature. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Renold, Emma. 2005. Girls, Boys, and Junior Sexualities: Exploring Children's Gender and Sexual Relations in the Primary School. London: Routledge Falmer.

Thorne, Barrie. 1993. Gender Play: Girls and Boys in School. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

                                         Maureen Lauder