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Discourses of Adolescence and Gender in the United States

Summary and Keywords

Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook and author of the international bestseller, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead (2013), argues that women need to engage more actively in the workplace and take the professional and emotional risks required in leadership. In many ways, Sandberg’s own story is the fulfillment of the promise of the “Alpha Girl,” Harvard psychologist Dan Kindlon’s name for the new face of girlhood. Kindlon maintains that contemporary young Western women have initiated a new era of female empowerment, with girls interested mainly in future careers and not romantic relationships. Meanwhile, the U.S. public discourse pertaining to boys frames them as troubled and in need of more attention. The popular press notes that girls outperform boys in school; that boys are more likely to repeat a grade; more likely to be diagnosed with a learning disability; and more likely to be expelled, suspended, and disciplined in school. Furthermore, adolescents who do not adhere to gender normativity or who identify as transgender are continually neglected in mainstream considerations of youth, school policies, curriculum, and educational spaces. Over the course of recent decades, U.S. discourses of adolescence and gender, including those found in popular and academic discussions, have shifted. As girls become the new models of success, as boys are deemed worthy of extra attention, and as gender-transgressive students remain absent from the discussions altogether, it is imperative that educators keep abreast of these changing discourses that shape the way we talk about and understand youth.

Keywords: adolescence, youth, gender, boyhood, girlhood, boy crisis, Alpha Girl, discourses, popular culture


The purpose of this article is to map the shifting discourses (or stories) of adolescence and gender over the last 40 years in the United States. Discourses are commonsense ways that people talk about a subject; you can witness discourses at work when people hear a generalization about a particular group (like adolescent boys and girls) and nod affirmatively. These discussions appear to be so obvious or “natural” that few will counter the statements, and they appear in a multitude of forms: newspaper headlines, lyrics of popular songs, conversations at the dinner table, or at work. They are often supported by experts such as psychologists, sociologists, and medical professionals (Lesko, 2012; Pomerantz, 2009). In fact, these academic disciplines usually help produce the various discourses that come to be considered as truthful or natural. For example, when psychologists argue that youth are driven by hormones, which supposedly helps explain some of their behaviors, they do not reflect on the fact that adults might be driven by hormones in some senses as well. Hormones are not typically considered central to adult identities unless applied to menopausal women or men experiencing a “mid-life” crisis.

As such, it might be helpful to examine how adolescence generally, and gendered adolescence particularly, has played out over recent decades in the United States because it can reveal the social constructedness of such discourses and the ways in which they may have been propagated to serve the interests of certain privileged groups. As girls become the new models of success and boys are deemed worthy of extra attention, it is imperative that educators keep abreast of these changing discourses that shape the way we talk about and understand youth. In this article, we offer a brief history of the origins of the concept of adolescence to note how although over 100 years old, the concept and some of its major claims still rely on assumptions from the past, particularly in terms of gender. We also detail the various types of discourses (or stories) told about adolescence by expert social and natural scientists including those from biology, psychology, and sociology. These experts provide a particular understanding of youth, such as a focus on brain development and hormonal changes (biology) and individual identity development (psychology). Thus the public, including teachers, hear “scientific” stories about youth that sometimes contradict each other. Next, we provide an overview of how gender understandings of a particular time and place inform how we think about and talk about girls and boys. Often, the two social constructs of masculinity and femininity are understood as oppositional to each other in that adolescent programming for girls must then result in a denial of the importance of boys’ problems. Following this discussion, we engage with the perennial popular discourse of boyhood, that of a boy crisis, which interestingly was dominant at the turn of the last century and has re-emerged at the turn of this century. We turn next to popular discourses of girlhood and note that in contrast to boyhood, girlhood has been reimagined several times throughout the last 40 years. These competing discourses of girlhood include the girl athlete, victim, mean girl, phallic girl, and the hoped-for Alpha Girl. In closing, we briefly highlight the possibilities that queer theory has offered in rethinking the discourses of adolescence and gender. We end by using the global movie phenomenon, Star Wars, as a popular culture icon to further illuminate how the changing gender and adolescent discourses discussed in this article manifest and have transformed over the last 40 years.

Making Sense of Adolescence

The very concept of adolescence, as a liminal time period for those between childhood and adulthood, is a fairly recent phenomenon. Prior to the early 20th century, the concept did not exist. Babies were born and became children; at some socially deemed appropriate time, which varied by social class, race, and gender, these individuals left childhood and became adults. Sometimes the shift was made when children became full-time workers or reached puberty. The word adolescence came to life in popular usage because of the work of an American psychologist, G. Stanley Hall, whose classic description of this time in the life span was articulated in his 1904 book, Adolescence (Hall, 1904). Hall was greatly influenced by the ideas found in Charles Darwin’s book, On the Origin of Species (1859). He framed adolescence as a time period when an individual re-enacted various early stages of the evolution of human beings, so that what Hall considered to be a central facet of adolescence, the “storm and stress” and immaturity, represented an earlier and less evolved period in the development of the human race. Hall’s description of adolescence was also embedded in his assumptions about what was considered to be “normal” for that time period, particularly in terms of gender (Lesko, 2012). He assumed major distinctions between girls and boys; for example, boys naturally “sowed wild oats,” but there was no parallel for girls. Further, along with many other social scientists, Hall assumed White adolescents to be the standard against which all other adolescents of different races and ethnicities were measured.

Although the book is over 100 years old, Hall’s Adolescence continues to shape how contemporary society thinks about youth. The book was partially a product of the tumultuous social and economic contexts of the early 20th century when U.S. society worried over national unity due to the influx of large numbers of “foreign” born immigrants (at this time, mostly from Eastern and Southern Europe) and the supposedly declining American male virility since men and boys no longer worked on farms (Hall, 1904; Lesko, 2012; Tyack & Hansot, 1900). Thus, there was an immediacy about Hall’s work in attempting to ready young male adolescents for a turbulent world in which the nation’s future was at stake. Boy scouts, vocational education, and extracurricular school activities such as organized sports were all attempts to corral the energy and untapped potential of young men.

Nancy Lesko also notes the role that adolescence plays in the building of the nation. Lesko argues that:

Adolescence became significant to nation-making through the linking of affect with a political order . . . Adolescence was strategized as the right age to get boys to imagine and desire a particular national and international order. In desiring a particular nationalism, boys would likely become willing to struggle and sacrifice for this national identity.

(Lesko, 2012, p. 41)

For example, Lesko details how the constructing of the Boy Scouts was a ploy to prepare young boys for military service and instill a nationalist identity. A more contemporary example of the use of adolescents’ liminal social status can be seen in vocational/work programs found in high schools and post-secondary technical programs, which often focus on shoring up the affective realm of work such as engendering a good work ethic that includes being punctual and following directions as much as teaching the technical competencies of a particular career (Gregson, 1996). These worries, however, were not about all boys. Indigenous, Mexican American, African American, and the new immigrant boys were not the target of Boy Scouts or organized sports; rather vocational education was conceptualized to Americanize immigrants and to train them and other marginalized groups to be workers in the newly emerging industrial order.

As an early psychologist, Hall made youth and adolescence the focus of his studies. Other emerging social and physical scientists such as those from sociology and biology also began to focus on adolescence. They measured adolescent growth in a number of ways including intellectually, emotionally, sexually, and biologically. Drawing from the research of these emerging disciplines allowed policy experts to embed their initiatives in academic research and “scientific” language, thus solidifying the important role of social scientists in youth policy construction, which continues today. These youth “experts” began the social phenomenon of making youth objects of study and attempting to offer insights into their behaviors. Not until recently, have university researchers asked youth to articulate their own understandings of the world and their identities.

Today, adolescence is typically understood as a distinct time period in which an individual is no longer considered a child but has not yet taken on the privileges and responsibilities of adulthood. The American Psychological Association (APA) commented that:

There is currently no standard definition of “adolescent.” Although often captured as an age range, chronological age is just one way of defining adolescence. Adolescence can also be defined in numerous other ways, considering such factors as physical, social, and cognitive development as well as age.

(American Psychological Association, 2002)

Interestingly, in a footnote, the AMA (American Medical Association) admits that facets of adolescent development continue past the age of 18 with 21 and 25 as representing other endpoints of adolescence. These older ages reflect the elongated economic dependence that some middle- and upper-class youth in the United States and other nations have with their parents due to continued post-secondary education. However, some working-class and poor youth work during high school so that they may contribute to their families, and their adolescence time period supposedly ends at an earlier age, which demonstrates the fluidity and changeability of the concept depending on which youth are being discussed. Typically, “growing up too fast” is not a positive descriptor, and is derived from social class assumptions about what is appropriate exposure for adolescents to the “real world.”

The ways in which society defines, talks about, and understands youth could be/has been described as a rather simplistic and reductive “single story” of adolescents.

For youth, the single story is one of raging hormones, rebelliousness, and defiance of authority. In the context of schooling, assumptions about age, stage, and what is developmentally appropriate predominate. As such, a one size fits all perception spurs adults to set limitations that do not always reflect the immediate circumstances accurately.

(Patel, 2013, p. 36)

In a similar vein, Lesko (2012) offers what she calls four “confident characterizations” of adolescents to critique the dominant discourses and stereotypes society readily applies to youth (p. 2). The characterizations are as follows: (1) That youth are hormone driven is one of the first attributes that adults confidently assert about adolescents. This characterization emanates from biology and lately has been augmented by “cognitive scientists” who examine the brain activities of adolescents and compare them to that of adults. One of the findings from this research approach suggests that adolescent brains do not have the capacity for long-term thinking, meaning that they are “stuck” in the present and cannot think through the implications of their actions. (2) Another confident characterization made about youth is that they are typically thought about in relation to their futures; rarely are youth considered to be fully realized as youth. They are seen as always in transition, as adults in the making. (3) This characterization is also congruent with an understanding of adolescence as demarcated by age. Although the age range that delineates adolescence has changed with economic and social shifts, adults still consider age to be key and make vast distinctions between a 15-year-old and an 18-year-old when three years would be less important in comparing adult behaviors. Finally, (4) Lesko argues that adolescents are shaped profoundly by their peer groups. Parents matter of factly assume the importance of peer group influence when monitoring with whom their kids socialize. This commonsense understanding can be made problematic when adults consider the influence of coworkers as well as family friends, their own peers, who exert a profound influence on adult lives. Such characterizations assume a universal adolescent, and deny the profound differences that race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, first language, social class, immigration status, and ability make in adolescent girls’ and boys’ lives. When mainstream or dominant discourses regarding youth do take into consideration these more nuanced facets of identity, they often reflect and produce racist, classist, and sexist notions of adolescence. For instance, Black adolescent girls are rarely situated as having lost their voices in the same way that White girls supposedly have. In fact, another prominent framing of African American girls is that they are loud and sexually provocative. Thus, although all adolescents are subject to dominant discourses and commonsense characterizations, there exist a variety of subordinate discourses that are applied to particular groups of adolescents, based on their status in dominant society. Indeed, this single story and confident characterizations of adolescence are reshaped when the general public begins to talk about youth and gender.

Making Sense of Gender

In the same way that we can see how the concept of “adolescence” is a historically, culturally, and socially contingent discourse, discourses of gender similarly shift and transform over time and in relation to particular ideologies, and for particular purposes. However, how gender is framed and discussed has a much longer history than adolescence. Early discourses of gender in the West emanated from religious texts and supposedly biological necessity and situated men and woman as uniquely different. Although the gender binary was challenged by various individuals throughout Western history, it was not until 1949, that White French feminist philosopher Simone de Beauvoir’s (1953) declaration that “One is not born, but rather becomes a woman” challenged the biological “nature” of women and subsequently men and provided ample “evidence” to support her claim (p. 1). De Beauvoir argued that males’ (specifically White and of Western European origin) biology and the traits or behaviors associated with masculinity were situated as the norm by which all others were measured. What men were naturally thought to possess, women were thought to naturally lack, and this made women suspect in their abilities in most realms of life, including the civic, religious, familial, and economic spheres.

De Beauvoir’s work also made the distinction between sex and gender, the former believed to consist of primary and secondary biological sexual characteristics, accompanying hormones and life cycles, with gender referring to the daily habits, discursive practices, and dominant understandings of what constitutes appropriate masculinity and femininity. Simply put, sex is equated with the body and gender refers to how we think about and practice being feminine and/or masculine. Although sex and gender have come to represent the split between nature and nurture, the supposed “naturalness” of the two sex categories has also come under scrutiny, as the imperative to assign a sex to newborns who have illegible or intersex genitalia has caused some scholars to question if these two categories are not also socially constructed (Fausto-Sterling, 1993).

As one might expect then, discourses on boyhood are often (if not always) entangled with discourses of masculinity. Within most scholarship, the male body and masculinity are often discussed as coterminous, a nod to the U.S. culture’s continual conflation between biological sex and gender. For example, males are assumed to be “naturally” tough, strong, violent, and adventurous because these are traits associated with masculinity. Basic theorizing about masculinity, and thus by extension males, often begins with examining the idea of hegemonic masculinity. Hegemonic masculinity refers to an ideal masculinity—a normative masculine identity—that all men are either explicitly or implicitly taught by individuals as well as socializing institutions, such as the media or school, to adhere to, but never actually achieve (Kimmel, 2011; Pascoe, 2007).

At its most basic, this masculinity is defined in opposition to femininity. In other words, to be a man means to not be a woman, and thus masculine identity is shaped, in almost its entirety, in opposition to women and other men (Connell, 2005). Hegemonic masculinity says that “real men” are tough, self-reliant, strong, stoic, assertive, and aggressive (Kimmel, 2011). Hegemonic masculinity positions men as superior to women (and by extension, femininity), not allowing for any sort or weakness or “feminine” emotions (i.e., nurturing, sadness, sensitivity, and caring/kindness) (Kimmel, 2011). Although there are central aspects of hegemonic masculinity by which all males are measured, importantly, masculinity is not only performed but also received differently when mapped on to bodies that differ by race or class, for example. However, it should be noted that, as C. J. Pascoe (2007) maintains, because hegemonic masculinity requires extreme adhesion to certain emotional, as well as physical ideals, “very few men, if any, are actually hegemonically masculine, but all men do benefit, to different extents, from this sort of definition of masculinity” (p. 7). The idea that all men benefit from hegemonic masculinity has also been called the “patriarchal dividend” by R. W. Connell (2005, p. 79).

Because masculinity is not necessarily strictly or easily adopted by most boys all the time, it is helpful to think of masculinity as a “process rather than a social identity associated with specific bodies” (Pascoe, 2007, p. 5). Hence, the masculine identity is never fully actualized within a single person; it is achieved through specific gender performances and can be adopted or stripped away depending on the context and social situation. In her research on high school-aged boys, for example, Pascoe (2007) discovered that often masculinity is established through the continual insulting and challenging of boys’ masculinity by other boys. Through the performance of dominance and the debasing of another male’s masculinity (perhaps through an insult questioning his manliness or heterosexuality), the challenger’s masculinity becomes established and reaffirmed. The belittled male must now perform a masculine act or demean another’s masculinity in a similar fashion in order to reestablish their own manliness. Pascoe (2007) refers to it as a “verbal game of hot potato” (p. 60). It is not unusual to hear a group of adolescent boys, lobbing—like a hot potato—the epithets “fag” or “you’re so gay” back and forth in their everyday banter. This exemplifies the continual surveillance and masculine policing that, in this case boys, exert on each other. Thus becoming a man is always a social process, symptomatic and productive of dominant beliefs of what an ideal man should be or do. The expectations of masculinity even manifest in popular and pervasive phrases such as “boys will be boys.” Entangled within this narrative are the commonsense notions about what it means to perform adolescent masculinity correctly and thus boyhood, itself. Such ideas include the more emotional aspects of masculinity, including that boys are rowdy, rambunctious, troublemakers, while also the behavioral ones that say boys should be engaged in rough play, athletics and outdoor activities, and general debauchery. The boys will be boys discourse lends itself to not only naturalizing masculine behaviors in boys but to also justify any behavior that might otherwise seem offensive and inappropriate.

This “boys will be boys” narrative is set up in opposition to what it means to be a girl in the United States. “Girls will be girls” is a phrase not heard as often as “boys will be boys” and because femininity is considered subordinate to masculinity, this phrase carries a particular negative connotation. When the phrase “girls will be girls” is used, it often connotes the gossipy drama, inducing jealous- and appearance-focused traits that are associated with adolescent girls and young women and femininity. Thus, even though “boys will be boys” sometimes refers to offensive and inappropriate behaviors, boys and men are forgiven since they supposedly have no control over mostly physically problematic behaviors (Kimmel, 2011). Because girls and women are thought to naturally be more thoughtful and compassionate than boys and men, enacting such negative traits as gossipy means that they succumbed to selfishness and are not their typical generous self. Thus “girls will be girls” is often a negative slur to all girls and women.

Just as the meaning of boyhood hinges on the accepted beliefs about masculinity, the meaning of girlhood also is subject to the dominant views of femininity, which are often in opposition to masculinity. However, the traits that characterize ideal girlhood have shifted over the last century and continue to do so. It should not be surprising that understandings of contemporary girlhood are multiple and contradictory. Gender norms have always been struggled over and are revealed in what is considered “new” or “deviant” or “normal” gendered behaviors. Because girls are members of the second sex (de Beauvoir, 1953), they are situated in an ongoing conflict about their “nature” as docile or aggressive, virginal or promiscuous, and demure or bold. Whatever is characterized as feminine is often considered less than and just like masculinity is tied to female bodies. For example, the supposed emotionality of girls and young women is viewed as only a product of their hormonal changes and not as part of the dominant social forces at work that position women as subject to their emotions and bodies. Fortunately, with the passage of U.S. federal legislation (Title IX, 1972), girls and young women are able to compete in female sports in public schools and universities. Along with popular culture, Title IX also helped alter how the female body was viewed. In the past, the dominant ideal for young White women’s bodies was for them to be soft and fragile but that has changed to an ideal of strength. Although girls and women’s bodies are still not deemed necessarily as tough and strong as boys, there is a new appreciation for female athleticism and strength. In addition, girls are subject to an array of competing discourses that encourage them to assert themselves in work and play (but not too much); to make good choices (in terms of sexuality and prioritizing school); and to do the former while maintaining an appropriate femininity, one that still revolves around achieving physical perfection and not engendering conflict.

We now turn to the intersection of discourses of adolescence and gender to see how young men and young women and those youth who do not subscribe to the narrow gender binary are understood.

Discourses of Boyhood: Crises and Absences

The Boy Crisis

More than a century after Hall described the traits of adolescent boys, eerily similar discourses can be heard describing male adolescents, particularly around their unmet needs, today. With the rise of factories in the Industrial Era, boys, with their families, left the physicality of work on the farm behind and moved to the cities for work and to attend the newly emerging public high schools. This shift ignited the first U.S. “boy crisis” with concerns over boys’ virility in these changing social and economic contexts. What has been called the current “boy crisis” operates somewhat differently than the previous one in explaining why boys are troubled. The 21st-century concerns are not regarding the loss of virility from boys leaving the physicality of farm labor. Rather, the current crisis is embedded in vastly different social and economic circumstances, such as a shift to a post-industrial economy, one in which emotion work, collaboration, service, and technology predominate. New York Times columnist David Brooks maintains that this shift has profound implications for changes in gender power:

Once upon a time, it was a man’s world. Men possessed most of the tools one needed for power and success: muscles, connections, control of crucial social institutions. But then came the information age to change all that. In the information age, education is the gateway to success. And that means this is turning into a woman’s world, because women are better students than men.

(Brooks, 2005, p. 12)

As Brooks makes clear, schooling has now become the domain of girls and women and over the last 20 years, a plethora of statistics has been used to make that point. Besides girls outperforming boys academically from kindergarten through college, boys also have higher rates of being diagnosed with a learning disability or as emotionally disturbed during their elementary years, and they suffer from higher rates of school expulsion and suspension (Rivers, 2006).

However, what is often missing in these reports of a boy crisis is the acknowledgment of the complications that race, ethnicity, social class, sexual orientation, and able-bodiedness contribute to the “boy crisis” (Rivers, 2006). For example, the shortage of male college students turns out to largely be a shortage of non-White males (Kimmel, 2010). Only 65% of boys graduate from high school. But less than half of all Hispanic boys (49%) or African American boys (48%) graduate from high school. Actually, the gender gap between college-age middle-class White males and White females is rather small, 51% women to 49% men. But only 37% of Black college students are male, and 45% of Hispanic students are male (Kimmel, 2010, p. 25). These statistics demonstrate that facets of the “boy crisis,” although framed as boys losing privileges to girls, is much less about gender than it may be about race and class and the privileges and disadvantages that these vectors of identity produce.

Nevertheless, one can hear the fears of a failing adolescent masculinity when concerned educational policy analysts argue for more male teachers. The commonsense belief is that only adult males can shape boys and adolescents into healthy young men. Worries about the preponderance of female teachers who have little understanding of boys’ innate “needs” has resulted in this call for more male teachers and a changed curriculum, one that plays to the interest of boys. Examples of these curricular changes include a focus on increasing adventure- and action-oriented literature and pedagogical approaches that allow children to use their bodies in the classroom. Supposedly, these approaches will tap the unmet biological needs of boys that are shortchanged in the typical public school classroom.

Although the stated reasons and historical moments for declaring such “boy crises” are somewhat different, there remains an underlying cultural and social fear that boys/men have the potential to lose some essential masculine nature and thus become susceptible to any or all aspects of femininity. Connected to this is also the idea that boys/men are going to “lose out” in the supposed feminization of social life, pitting boys against girls in school, work, and other areas of life (Kimmel, 2011).

The Crisis of Missing Boys

Further, U.S. worries over boys’ academic failures are exacerbated by the statistics on the violence that adolescent boys and young men perpetrate. Ninety-five percent of violent crimes in the United States are committed by boys and men; boys die from homicide at 10 times the rates of girls (Foster, Kimmel, & Skelton, 2001). Columbine, Colorado, in the United States, is perhaps the most well known of school shootings in which adolescent boys target teachers and/or classmates for a variety of reasons, although the list of other school shootings is long and includes: Jonesboro, AR; Pearl, MS; West Paducah, KY; Stamps, AR; Fayetteville, TN; Conyers, GA; and Blacksburg, VA (Danner & Carmody, 2001). However, these young men and adolescents were not just any boys. For the most part, school shootings are committed by White boys, a fact that does not often surface in school shooting discussions. Many scholars see these tragic acts as an attempt to shore up a fragile masculine identity by these boys in the face of bullying and harassment by other boys; the violence enacted in video games and movies; and a culture obsessed with guns (Katz, 2013).

However, what is perhaps most interesting about discourses of boyhood, particularly in relation to violent behaviors, is that although they often serve as the dominant discourse by which all others are measured against or stem from, they are also decidedly absent when it comes to addressing particular topics where boys should be the primary subject under investigation. For example, regardless of the fact the majority of mass shootings or sexual assaults are perpetrated almost entirely by boys/men, broad discourses of boyhood break down to the individual level when discussing such issues. Instead, the discourse becomes about “a few bad apples” or the mental instability of those blamed for committing these violent crimes, despite that such acts are carried out primarily by one gender. That sweeping discourses come to disintegrate when applied to boys is illustrative of the ways in which male violence or violent masculinity becomes invisible through normalization: that boys will be boys.

Competing Girl Discourses

While the U.S. boy crisis represents the ongoing mantra of worries about adolescent boys, girls, in contrast, have been the subjects of a multitude of competing popular discourses. Among these are those that celebrate the ascendancy of girls as the new harbingers of hope for the economy such as the so-called Alpha Girl (Kindlon, 2006). This understanding of girlhood is in sharp contrast to the 1980 and 1990s worries of a “girl poisoning” culture that framed girls as losing their sense of self and voices when they entered puberty and begin to self-regulate to meet the expectations of heterosexual femininity (American Association of University Women, 1992; Orenstein, 1994; Pipher, 1994). Another contemporary and commonsense understanding of girlhood frames girls as predatory and hyper-sexualized beings (White, 2002). Finally, a plethora of popular press books position girls, particularly White middle-class girls, as mean, or in the psychological parlance, “relationally aggressive” (Simmons, 2011; Wiseman, 2008). How could all of these competing and at times contradictory understandings of girlhood exist in the public imagination at one time?

Based on the social, political, and economic contexts, and which particular group of girls are being discussed, how we understand girlhood careens from worries about their loss of voice to believing that they have too much voice. Thus, there have been a cascade of changes in what constitutes normative girlhood in the United States since the 1970s.

Due to the institutionalization of Title IX (1972), which was a result of the Second Wave of the liberal feminist movement in the United States, any public institution that received monies from the federal government had to ensure that their policies and practices reflected gender equity. Although the consequences of Title IX were found in changed curriculum and counseling practices in public K–12 schooling, the change that was most notably struggled over was that around athletics. Title IX mandated that girls be able to participate in athletic activities in a relatively equal manner as that of boys, which meant equality in locker room facilities and the number of available sports for girls. The percentage of adolescent girls and young women who now enjoy school-sanctioned organized sports has grown exponentially since Title IX’s implementation. However, different from male athletes, girls and women who play sports still must negotiate the tightrope of femininity and not appear too athletic, meaning that their sexual orientation, assumed to be heterosexual, will be more likely questioned if they don’t display a “proper” amount of femininity. Worries about athleticism and femininity can be seen via what has been labeled the “inner strife between gymshoes and high-heels” (Palzkill, 1990, p. 226).

A Girl Poisoning Culture

During the 1980s and 1990s, the mainstream understanding of girlhood presented a dismal portrait. Instead of reveling in the possibilities of what girls could do in classrooms and on athletic fields that followed Title IX, girlhood was worried over in a series of well-publicized educational reports and popular press books. The American Association of University Women’s 1992 report, How Schools Shortchange Girls, pointed to the continuing differences in test scores between boys and girls; preponderance of boys in the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) curriculum and related fields of study; and teachers’ pedagogical focus on boys in the classroom (American Association of University Women, 1992). Along with dire educational reports, popular press books like Pipher’s Reviving Ophelia (1994) and Orenstein’s Schoolgirls (1994) detailed the psychological injustices for girls living in what was labeled a “girl poisoning” culture. Middle and high school adolescent girls were said to have lost their sense of identity and voice. Pipher’s and Orenstein’s narrations of adolescent girls losing their self-confidence spawned an entire industry devoted to changing girls’ images of self. Schools changed curricula to highlight the role of powerful women, pedagogical practices to include more girl-friendly approaches to learning such as cooperative learning and instituted sexual harassment policies that were hoped to stem the loss of girls’ voices. Although these curricular and policy changes benefited all girls, it was White middle-class girls who were worried over the most. Pipher’s and Orenstein’s claims were based on their interviews with mostly White middle-class girls. However, when scholars looked carefully at the AAUW’s report, African American girls were not losing their self-esteem at the same rates as White girls. This demonstrates once again that most mainstream discourses do not reflect the variability of girlhood, and assume a White middle-class, able-bodied, heterosexual girl.

Girl Power: From Consumption to “Changing the World”

Many touted the success of these policy and social changes and noted that by the turn of the new century, girls were outperforming boys in reading and writing at all grade levels and began to outnumber boys on college campuses, a trend that continues today. At the same time that girls were improving their academic performance, cultural variables such as the 1999 U.S. Women’s World Cup win, the proliferation of physically strong female movie characters, and the immense popularity of female singers such as the Spice Girls, Britney Spears, and Christina Aguilera made girl empowerment the new mantra of girlhood. No longer were girls considered without voice and self-esteem. The term “girl power” entered the lexicon in the early 1990s but became a part of popular vernacular in the late 1990s and was used to explain a plethora of social, economic, and academic changes such as the boy crisis; the increase in girl fighting in schools; the growth of women in the entertainment industry; and girls’ buying power (Bettis & Adams, 2011).

In the new century, Girl Power manifested itself fully in the work of Harvard psychologist Dan Kindlon whose book, Alpha Girls: Understanding the New American Girl and How She Is Changing the World described the supposed new face of girlhood (Kindlon, 2006). Arguing that the landscape of girlhood had been radically changed by Title IX, working mothers, and an increased involvement of fathers in girls’ lives, Kindlon details the characteristics of this new girl, the Alpha. She is smart, industrious, athletic, a leader, and future oriented and uninterested in romance, consumption, and gossip, which are typically associated with feminine characteristics. More recently, this discourse was exemplified and embodied by Sheryl Sandberg, CEO of Facebook and mother of two. In Lean In Sandberg (2013) details how she achieved both career and home success. Sandberg’s story is the continuation of the Alpha Girl’s life in that her good “choices” resulted in academic success, which led to career and life successes. What both Kindlon and Sandberg neglect to share is that the stories they present only represent the possibilities of certain girls’ lives, those from middle and upper classes and those who are mostly White, able-bodied, and heterosexual.

Unsurprisingly, in mainstream society, when a marginalized group gains some power, it is often read as too much; thus, the underside of the ubiquitous phrase, girl power, resulted in two powerful negative framings of girls in the United States, both counter to what was and is considered appropriate girlhood. Although girls benefited from the focus on their academic, psychological, and athletic success, the norms for girls’ out-of-school behaviors remained relatively unchanged, thus there were powerful societal responses to mean girls and phallic girls.

Mean Girls and Phallic Girls

The discourse of Mean Girls took a hold of the American public’s imagination with the publication of two popular texts, Odd Girl Out (Simmons, 2011) and Queen Bees and Wannabees (Wiseman, 2008), both originally published in 2002, and was solidified in popular culture with the successful 2004 movie, Mean Girls. This discourse examined how girls dealt with anger via relational aggression. Many psychological studies characterized relational aggression as a form of aggression in which the perpetrator harms another through excluding her from social groups and through lies and rumors damages her reputation. Relational aggression was supposedly comparable to the physical aggression through which boys settle disputes. Although relational aggression was understood as the corollary of boys’ physical aggression, the former is not sanctioned as much. One does not see an array of popular books and curriculum that targets boys’ aggression specifically. However, the mean girl syndrome was considered so problematic that its eradication became a national obsession.

As witnessed in popular culture, girls became more assertive about their ability to choose to be openly sexual beings and that was seen in popular culture, clothing, and social practices, and the term “phallic girl” was coined by Angela McRobbie (2009) to name this new identity. Part of the new freedoms for young women besides being the empowered employee and consumer, lay in the realm of sexuality, both sexual orientation and sexual practices. The first decade of the new century saw an explosion of LGBTQ clubs on both high school and university campuses (Mayo, 2011) as well as young women supposedly expressing their sense of sexual freedom through engaging in Friends With Benefits (FWB) or what has been labeled “hook up” culture meaning that young women engage in casual sex without relationship commitment (Bogel, 2008). Some young women actively chose to bare breasts and engage in woman-on-woman sensual activities for the cameras of Girls Gone Wild. What was often neglected in the exaggerated adult response to these newfound sexual freedoms was the fact that most girls and young women were not engaging in these behaviors and that the traditional social constraints on young women’s sexual activities were still in place but via Internet and peer group shaming, with the concept of “slut,” meaning a promiscuous woman/girl still a powerful regulatory slur against these kinds of activities (White, 2002). In U.S. culture, the parallel concept of “stud” referring to a promiscuous man/boy does not hold a negative connotation.

These understandings and struggles over what constitutes ideal girlhood and ideal boyhood have real consequences for those who inhabit that identity. For example, scholars have noted that during the popular cultural emphasis on girls’ meanness or relational aggression, girls were concomitantly receiving harsher juvenile justice punishments for what once were considered minor infractions (Chesney-Lind & Irwin, 2004). Chesney-Lind and Irwin maintain that the mean girl discourse has deflected attention from the racism and classism so prevalent in criminal justice systems. Previously, girls who had run away from home were often returned to their homes with warnings but now were being sent to juvenile justice facilities instead. Thus, using White middle-class girls as the standard for girlhood discourses is problematic not only for White girls but even more so for girls of color and working-class girls who can never occupy that identity but still suffer from it. Thus, how we talk about and think about youth, and in this particular example, girls, has material consequences.

Changing Discourses of Youth and Gender: What’s Next?

Commenting on the consistent swings in concern for either adolescent girls or adolescent boys, Carole Tavris points out:

As long as we keep seeing the sexes as opposite players in some unwinnable zero-sum game, rather than as allies seeking to solve a specific problem, whoever suffers from it, society’s responses will careen drunkenly from one sex to the other, depending on who is making the most noise, whose problem seems worse, and whose problems make the news this week.

(Tavris, 2002)

Fortunately, there has been great growth in critical scholarship surrounding adolescence and gender. New fields of study have emerged to challenge the gender binary as well how we, as adult scholars, think about youth. Girlhood studies has become a distinct entity tied to yet separate from women’s studies, and critical masculinities scholars can be found examining masculinity including its construction during adolescence. As importantly, queer theorists have challenged categories of “woman” and “man” and suggest instead that gender is always in flux and unstable and exists in a fluid state. Individuals who identify as transgender, androgynous, or genderqueer demonstrate that gender is not innate but rather constructed by the individual.

Further, queer theorists have provided alternative discourses of youth that challenge mainstream accounts of adolescence, which tend to temporarily frame youth as in transition, becoming, or developing. These commonsense understandings imply that adolescents are always moving toward something (adulthood, maturity, stability) but yet remain in between and never fully actualized. This conceptualization not only positions adults as superior to children (as though adults are the fully developed ones), but it also imposes a strict, linear temporal model of development for youth. Such models elicit, for example, the normative “conventional forward-making narratives of birth, marriage, reproduction and death” (Halberstam, 2003, p. 314). Underlying several queer interpretations of youth or adolescence is a reconceptualization of adolescent temporality—especially in relation to growth and development. For instance, for Kathryn Bond Stockton the idea of growing up is steeped in heteronormativity and not necessarily a type of linear development that all kids, especially queer ones, can engage in (Stockton, 2009). Instead, Stockton describes “sideways growth” as a reformation for growth (Stockton, 2009, p. 13). Whereas growing up implies there is an endpoint to be achieved or actualized, growing sideways recognizes the way our brains, bodies, and relationships extend, transform, and continue to make connections throughout our lives, not just after the stage of adolescence.

Similarly, Judith Halberstam argues that queer subcultures “afford us a perfect opportunity to depart from a normative model of youth cultures as stages on the way to adulthood” (Halberstam, 2003, p. 328). More so than their heterosexual counterparts, Halberstam suggests that queers tend to participate in subcultural practices—in clubbing, slam poetry, the punk scene, and drag shows—much more and for far longer. In the same way that homosexuality was (is) said to be a phase that young people may experience or experiment with, subcultural activities are seen as something you engage in for a bit when young, but eventually leave behind when one eventually “grows up,” gets married, has children, and starts a career. However, Halberstam argues that because queer lives often look differently, producing and adhering to alternative life course trajectories, the time spent on/in subcultural worlds extends far beyond the typical adolescent age. As such, we need different ways of thinking about adolescent temporality, extending or reforming time markers, activities, in order to recognize various identities and modes of living. Moreover, Halberstam notes the gendered implications of queer subcultures, especially for girls. Young girls who adopt the tomboy identity or participate in the femme punk rock scene, precisely because of the “not-yet” liminal spaces they occupy as adolescents, disrupt the sexual and gender scripts we often conflate because such performances are not “predictive of either heterosexual or lesbian adulthoods” (Halberstam, 2003, p. 329).

Star Wars as Illustrative of Changing Gender and Adolescent Scripts

We turn now to an analysis of Star Wars, a 40-year-old multi-movie saga that can be examined for how discourses of youth and gender manifest over time. The first installment of the film series, Star Wars, was released in 1977, and the ongoing movie franchise has been heralded as the United States’ greatest contemporary myth, popular memory, and collective ritual (Brabazon, 1999; Johnson, 1999; Leming, 2002; Lev, 1998). However, Star Wars is also a global cultural phenomenon with the latest movie, Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015), released in 84 countries and translated into 23 languages. The narrative of an adolescent orphaned boy named Luke Skywalker and his journey to heroic manhood continues to be beloved by multiple generations and by multiple cultural groups. At the time of the original trilogy (1977–1983), the movie’s simplistic story of good versus evil, in addition to entertaining children, satisfied a nervous U.S. White adult population, perplexed by the seismic social and economic changes shaking the United States, including President Nixon’s impeachment, the dissolute end of the Vietnam War, and the continuation of multiple civil rights and youth movements challenging adult and White hegemony. A nostalgia for what was, the supposedly peaceful and prosperous post-World War II decades of the 1940s and ‘50s, was also satisfied with one-dimensional representations of gender such as the iconic good boy (Luke Skywalker); the bad guy (Darth Vader); the sage (Obi One Kenobi); and the beautiful girl in distress (Princess Leia) (Bettis & Sternod, 2009).

Twenty years later, the next trilogy installment of the movie series (1998–2003) presented a very different gendered universe. Anakin Skywalker is a conflicted young man who is capable of great compassion and love, and simultaneously terrible anger and violence. It could be argued that Anakin Skywalker’s contradictory masculine persona reflects the worries of an American population who have witnessed young men commit tragic school shootings, fail academically, and appear to be lacking any career aspirations (Bettis & Sternod, 2009). This new version of adolescent masculinity corresponded to the popular refrain of a “boy crisis,” one in which adolescent boys and young men were understood to be in trouble socially, academically, and economically. However, the focus of this crisis was mostly on White boys, in line with the representation of the Anakin Skywalker character.

In late 2015, the seventh film in the sequence, The Force Awakens, broke all box office records for the opening day of a movie in the United States (Box Office Mojo, n.d.). Further, its success in international venues was demonstrated by a total gross of over a billion dollars in 84 countries and its translation into over 20 languages (Box Office Mojo, n.d.). Once again, the latest Star Wars film offered audiences the opportunity to observe how adolescent and adult gender scripts have changed (or not) in popular culture. Many critics were pleased to note that the two new major characters offered opportunities for rewriting normative gender and racial scripts. Rey, an orphaned White girl who scavenges for a living, meets Finn, a Black Storm Trooper turned renegade. These new characters are on their way to becoming the new heroes of the series, thus challenging both gender and racial adolescent tropes. Although the new major characters have broken gender and race barriers, The Force Awakens presents the same set of challenges that Luke Skywalker faced 40 years ago; these youth must confront and defeat an evil White male entity with supernatural powers who is obsessed with controlling galaxies, a similar narrative for many movies.

We close with the evolution of Star Wars because, like many popular culture vehicles, it provides the opportunity to observe how gender and adolescent scripts have changed over the last 40 years. Yet, one thing that seems to have remained constant throughout the series—and that which can be seen if we leave the Star Wars universe and return to our own—is that adult faith in youth is always less than solid. Between the contradictory messages of “Youth are growing up too fast!” and “Youth don’t take enough responsibility!,” we find adolescents caught between their own development and that of the anxieties placed upon them by adults. Such conflicting sentiments become even more complex when they are gendered, as girls are told they are victims of a sexist society, while simultaneously instructed not to be too aggressive. This is not surprising since adolescents are often thought of in terms of their futures and how those futures may impact adult futures (Lesko, 2012). American high school and college graduation speeches often include the common refrain, “You are the leaders of tomorrow”? Clearly seen in Star Wars as well, it is the youth who are called upon to save the universe. No doubt, youth often need guidance from wise mentors, but it is the young characters who must solve the current galactic crisis through their own intellectual, physical, and spiritual strength.

Discourses of adolescence and gender are both pervasive and nuanced, producing norms and roles for both girls and boys. Although dominant discourses within a patriarchal culture like the United States situate men/boys as the standard and women/girls as less than, both boys and girls are constrained. However, emerging scholars and gender activists maintain that young women and men actively participate in their gender identity construction, allowing individuals the ability to either reproduce and/or disrupt gendered discourses and ways of being in the world. Awareness of these dominant discourses of adolescence and gender provides opportunities to imagine radically new and hopefully transformative possibilities for humanity, unhampered to explore and take up myriad ways to be human.

Further Reading

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                                                                                              Stockton, K. B. (2009). The queer child, or growing sideways in the twentieth century. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.Find this resource:

                                                                                                Tavris, C. (2002, July 5). Are girls really as mean as books say they are? The Chronicle of Higher Education, B7–B9.Find this resource:

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