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Smart GirlsSuccess, School, and the Myth of Post-Feminism$

Shauna Pomerantz and Rebecca Raby

Print publication date: 2017

Print ISBN-13: 9780520284142

Published to California Scholarship Online: September 2017

DOI: 10.1525/california/9780520284142.001.0001

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Fitting In or Fabulously Smart?

Fitting In or Fabulously Smart?

(p.57) Chapter Three Fitting In or Fabulously Smart?
Smart Girls

Shauna Pomerantz

Rebecca Raby

University of California Press

Abstract and Keywords

In this chapter, we explore tensions in smart girls’ lives by focusing on how girls and boys negotiate gender and peer culture. While girls are deemed to be the new dominant sex in education and beyond, we offer stories that illustrate the strategies girls used in order to negotiate their smart identities. We explore the challenges of a smart girl identity in relation to popularity, sexual desirability, fitting in, and standing out. We also explore the strategic negotiations of girls in contrast to boys, who used different tactics to manage their academic success.

Keywords:   boys, gender, peer culture, femininity, masculinity, popularity, fashion, dumbing down, sports, humor

I tell you, this year we’re going to be popular … even if it kills us!

Lauren, Square Pegs

Friendly, talkative, and animated, Virginia nonetheless struggled with what she saw as a deep incongruity between her intelligence and the possibility of being a popular girl at school. Middle-class and white, Virginia’s family lived in a midsize, nicely decorated house in a suburban area of Secord. Virginia traveled about fifteen minutes to school each day to attend the French immersion program at Blue Ridge, which she described as having a “partying and preppy” reputation and a lot of rich, gossipy kids.1 This description signaled Virginia’s outsider status. She was tall with roundish cheeks, wore glasses that she felt enhanced her look, and had her hair pulled back into an easy ponytail. Compared to her very smart sister, Virginia considered herself to be social and outgoing, but she wrestled with her lack of popularity—a situation that flummoxed her. She felt that she should have more friends but saw herself as trapped in her academic identity.

(p.58) Virginia told Rebecca that there were smart kids and then there were popular kids, although she really seemed to be talking about girls specifically. “It’s a very rare species of person who is smart and popular,” she explained, and those people “pretend to be dumb!” She felt strongly that the popular group was largely off limits to her: “If I try to go hang out with these blondes that are super popular, they won’t accept me because they know I’m smart.” In much of her conversation with Rebecca, Virginia maintained this dichotomy between being smart and being popular. For example, she felt out of sync with the other smart kids at school because she was interested in airy TV shows like Jersey Shore. As she explained, laughing: “I’m basically a popular girl trapped inside a smart girl’s body.” That said, she did find that popular girls would sometimes treat her nicely in order to copy her work—and sometimes she would let them do it because she wanted their friendship. Even her best friend would copy her work “all the time.” Virginia also felt that it was hard to be smart and attract boys, describing smart girls as “the bottom of the ocean. You want to be the top, and you’re not. They [boys] don’t want to date smart girls! If they did, I would have had a billion boyfriends by now!”

Yet while Virginia wanted to be popular, she wasn’t willing to compromise her intelligence or her academic ambitions to get there. Although it seemed to her that popular girls were less likely to work hard, she put effort into school because she was committed to academic success. Touching on the relevant, interconnecting themes of academic investment, gendered peer culture, and physical appearance, Virginia explained: “[Popular girls] just care about hanging out, and going out at night, and friends, and sleepovers, and beauty, and hair. It’s like, that might be normal for them to their priorities, [but] for me that is second. (p.59) School comes first. You are going to need school in the future, but you can always flat-iron your hair another day!”

Though brimming with confident quips about her life, Virginia was actually in a difficult place. She desperately wanted to fit in with the popular girls at her school, but she also valued her smartness and investments in school far too much to let them slide, and these two priorities were at odds with each other. Like other girls in our study, Virginia talked about how being a popular girl required sociality, good looks, and fashion, but she also felt that, to have a chance at popularity, she would need to suppress a part of herself that she cherished and that held promise for the future: her brain.

Most girls are not supergirls, and most girls, like Virginia, navigate some tough tensions if they want to be both smart and popular—the supposedly smooth path of the smart girl is frequently complicated by the uneasy relationship between smartness and femininity.2 For some girls in our study, finding a place in peer culture meant downplaying or hiding academic success to prevent themselves from being seen as “too smart” or from being negatively singled out as antisocial and undatable. Others felt they had to make a comfortable or lamented trade-off between popularity and embracing smartness in order to stay true to themselves and secure future gains. Then there were some girls, like Virginia, who vacillated back and forth. While the girls in our study told us many diverse stories about their experiences of being smart—both positive and negative—to one extent or another, they all had to navigate academic success in relation to being a girl.3

Boyhood and masculinity are inextricably linked to the story of smart girls. Like girls, boys must maneuver the expectations (p.60) of gender, and the ever-present backdrop of masculinity complicates the possibility that boys can thrive in their studies and in peer culture at the same time. Like girls, boys must manage their smart identities, but with different challenges, resources, and effects, all of which interconnect with, and inform, girls’ experiences. In our interviews with boys, we learned about how they saw girls, the distinction they made between being smart and working hard in school, the fact that they were more concerned with how they prioritized certain kinds of athletics over their looks, and their use of humor as a strategic tool. Their stories thus offer a fascinating counterpoint to the girls’ stories.

In this chapter, we focus on the entanglement of gender, peer culture, and academic success within the post-feminist and neoliberal landscape, which places the individual at the center of all things and downplays gender as a relevant context or concern. And yet dominant gender norms and the inequalities they bring affect how girls and boys deal with academic success. If girls have achieved gender equality, why did some girls in our study feel the need to dumb down as a way to flirt with boys? Why was Virginia so frustrated with her own dating prospects? Why do terms such as “teacher’s pet” and “class clown” get applied to girls and boys differently? And what does it mean when boys tend to position themselves as actively engaged in shaping the world around them, while girls are still expected to be accommodating and look pretty for others? Given these considerations, the girls in our study often seemed caught between the idea that being smart is a compatible, comfortable feature of girlhood and the experience of being on the outside of what we call “popular femininity” because of their academic success, deepening the context of what it is like to be a twenty-first century smart girl in the West.

(p.61) Gender and the Rocky Social Terrain of Academic Success

In the 1980s cult classic sitcom Square Pegs, protagonists Patty and Lauren are intent on shifting their status from nerd to cool. Lauren’s long-shot plan is for them to “click with the right clique,” no matter what. Yet the best friends’ scheme is consistently thwarted, as there is no tolerance in the popular clique for the looks, style, and brains of the two girls. A few decades ago, smart girls like Patty and Lauren were largely presented in film and on television shows as “nerds” and “losers”: socially awkward and undatable, dowdy and bungling.4 These smart girls were depicted as longing to be pretty, have dates, and fit in with the popular girls, for whom the smart girl was either irrelevant or an object of derision.5 In the 1990s, this stereotype shifted slightly to the makeover nerd, which involved a smart girl like Laney Boggs in She’s All That or Josie Geller in Never Been Kissed who gets transformed—often on a dare—into the most desirable girl in school.6 However, in order to complete her transformation, the makeover nerd had to suppress her academic side and fully embrace popular femininity. More recently, the post-nerd—a smart girl who is intelligent, capable, and “hot” at the same time—has emerged in television and film.7 Characters such as Veronica Mars from the eponymous television series, Rory Gilmore from the Gilmore Girls, and Gabriella Montez from High School Musical typify this new archetype, suggesting that girls can, and perhaps even should, be both conventionally beautiful and super smart.

Yet, despite the proliferation of a new kind of smart girl in popular culture, feminist researchers assert that there is still a tension between being smart and being a girl. For example, they (p.62) argue that an “ideal” girl is typically compliant, nice, helpful, decorative, and passive, whereas smartness and academic success tend to be associated with more conventionally masculine traits, such as being assertive, outspoken, competitive, critical, confident, and focused on the intellect over the social.8 Research from the 1990s and the early 2000s illustrates the consequences of this pattern: when girls are invested in being smart in school, they are often excluded from popular femininity.9 We found that this opposition between smartness and popular femininity remains an ongoing challenge for numerous girls, as Virginia’s story suggests.

The girls and boys that we talked with explained that academically strong students were in danger of being seen as caring too much about school, and it was assumed that this meant that they did not have the time, energy, or skills to invest in a social life. We thought at first that our participants would worry about being labeled nerds,10 and some did, but the ultimate danger was being thrust into the position of the outcast or loner.11 Loners were isolated and quiet, and they hung out alone or with a very small group of loner friends. They were people who were outside of accepted peer circles, and not all of them were smart or strong students. Becoming a loner was presented to us as a worst-case outcome for being too smart. If someone was overly focused on getting high grades, was cocky and in-your-face about their smartness, or failed to invest in being sufficiently social, then they might be cast as a loner. Bella, an athletic Academy House girl from a financially secure family, was very careful to manage the balance between schoolwork and social life. She explained how academic success can take you down the (p.63) loner road: “Like, there’s some girls in my grade who are very single-minded in their academics, so they do freak out about their grades, and they maybe don’t hang around as much with other people because they’re studying […]. Like, the boys for example, they might not talk to them as much because they’re just more focused on schoolwork […]. Like, I’m still focused on my work, but I’m not as single-minded on it as they are, which is why I’m less known as being smart as they are.”

The dangers, pleasures, and consequences of academic success did not unfold in the same way for girls and boys, however, as expectations and opportunities were generally different and depended on gender dynamics. There are certain forms of masculinity and femininity that are idealized within the broader cultural context and which are, therefore, relevant to how girls and boys negotiate being smart. We use the terms “popular masculinity” and “popular femininity” to talk about these dominant forms of masculinity and femininity in the context of school peer cultures to acknowledge the overlaps between dominant gender norms and popularity in school. Popular masculinity is commonly linked to being athletic, muscular, attracted to girls, “hot,” independent, and even aloof, whereas popular femininity is commonly linked to being pretty, thin, nice, attracted to boys, “hot,” fashionable, and demure.12 Popular masculinity and popular femininity also reinforce each other in an intimate hierarchy. It is frequently and problematically assumed, for instance, that, in a dating relationship, a boy’s masculine strength, brashness, and rationality complement a girl’s vulnerability, kindness, and emotional depth.13 These are not rigid ideals, however. Gender expectations shift between situations, including across schools, racial- and class-based backgrounds, and religious contexts and through the multiple ways that young people “do” gender.14

(p.64) In the rest of this chapter, we explore dominant gender ideals in relation to how our participants negotiated their peer relationships and academic success in school. First, we explore the various ways that the smart girls in our study reckoned with popular femininity. While some girls shifted between strategies and others challenged the dichotomy between smartness and popular femininity altogether, we discuss how certain girls acquiesced to popular femininity at the expense of school and how other girls despairingly, matter-of-factly, or sometimes happily embraced academic success at the expense of popular peer relations. We then go on to explore how boys navigated the gendered terrain of school. The commonalities and differences in girls’ and boys’ approaches illustrate the ongoing relevance of dominant gender norms and the interconnections and inequalities between the experiences of girls and boys.

Popularity at a Price

When Shauna asked fifteen-year-olds Jenny and Agnes who was popular at Blue Ridge, they had no trouble providing examples. Agnes first suggested that it is a lot of football players, as well as “loud and obnoxious people.” Jenny was more generous, adding, “It’s people who are friends with everyone and have a lot of friends.” Agnes then agreed with Jenny, “They can be anywhere in the hallway and be, like, ‘I’m going to talk to these people.’ … It’s, like, how many people do they know?” The social side of school is significant to most students, and many of the girls we talked with were both aware of social hierarchies in their school and interested in being popular. These girls most commonly defined popularity in much the same way that Jenny and Agnes did—that is, as being social and well known. Frequently, (p.65) these characteristics also linked popularity to fulfilling dominant gender and dating expectations within a heterosexual social world—such as when Agnes referenced football players.

It was because of aspirations to attain this kind of popularity—and fear of being labeled a loner—that girls reined in or masked their academic success. Many girls were reluctant to broadcast or even discuss their grades, and they felt frustrated if teachers did so. Some refused to put up their hand in class or ask questions. For instance, Christy, a poised perfectionist who attended a Christian public school, told us that she had to “tone it down a bit” and that “you really have to watch it. You don’t want to be the know-it-all.” Christy did not want to bring attention to herself, stand out, or appear cocky. Even during their interviews, some girls distanced themselves from being seen as being “too” smart by temporarily positioning themselves outside of the smart girl category. As Anna explained, “sometimes the smart kids are always talking about school, so sometimes it’s nicer to not hang out with smart kids.”

One specific category that girls can be placed in powerfully illustrates the dangers of being too smart in school: the teacher’s pet. Typically girls, teacher’s pets—also known as “brownnosers,” “suck ups,” and “know-it-alls”—are individuals who are keen in class and seen as attempting to curry favor with the teacher. Teacher’s pets were commonly described in our interviews as students who are brazenly committed to showing their smartness and who suck up to the teacher for marks—behavior that was considered more prominent in elementary school than high school. While many said there were no teacher’s pets at their schools or that it was no big deal, there was a vocal subgroup of younger girls who had negative feelings about other girls whom they saw as teacher’s pets. Joanne, a fourteen-year-old student at (p.66) Blue Ridge, found teacher’s pets annoying: “They raise their hand for everything. They just have to answer and feel better than everyone else, and it’s pretty annoying.” Celeste, also fourteen, was in the French immersion program at Pinecrest Public School, and she similarly said that teacher’s pets were “nerd girls” who “suck up” to the teacher and “always have that little smirk on their face.” Quinn, who attended St. Helen’s Catholic Elementary School, lamented, “I just don’t think it’s fair how they get special treatment just because they kiss up to [the teachers]. I wish it were more equal.” Interestingly, it was only girls who condemned teacher’s pets, and it was only girls who talked about trying to avoid being seen as a teacher’s pet.15 The term “teacher’s pet” can thus be seen as a gendered and derogatory term for openly smart girls who try too hard, refuse to contain their intelligence, and reject a nice, passive, and demure identity.16

To dodge appearing cocky or like a suck-up, lots of girls avoided flaunting their smartness, and other girls took this effort a step further by dumbing down or intentionally pretending not to be smart. While a small number of participants talked about boys dumbing down, girls appeared to be much more likely to engage in this practice. Both the girls and boys in our study had observed girls dumbing down, and some girls also spoke about doing it themselves. Isabell and Kaitlyn, friends who were interviewed together, suggested that some of the popular people think it is cool to be “dumb” because it elevates their status. More frequently, participants said that girls dumbed down in order to attract boys.

While a few girls told us that boys were attracted to smart girls, more felt that it was just the opposite, and this left many smart girls wondering how to get dates. For example, Caramel overheard a group of boys on the bus say they would not want to date a girl who was too smart, and Christy felt that, “If you are the brainiac (p.67) know-it-all, then usually you aren’t that attractive [to boys].” In short, smart girls were seen as being too focused on school and also intimidating, which meant that they might upset the gender hierarchy of a dating relationship. Laughing, Smartypants explained, “maybe boys don’t really generally like smart girls as much as normal [laughs] girls. […] I think for a boy it would be intimidating, ’cause they would feel, like, dumb and stuff, but [they’re] not!”

Haley and Luna went to St. Mary’s High, the Catholic and sports-oriented rival of Blue Ridge. They also noticed girls dumbing down at their school, which led to a spirited conversation during their interview. Haley told us, “The girls that hang out with the hockey guys act dumb, and I know they are smarter than that.” Luna agreed: “You can tell, sometimes they say their answers and it’s really good. You know they are capable, but they are acting stupid.” Haley thought that this was perhaps because “guys find it attractive.” Luna agreed, noting that sometimes girls try to dumb down and “put their beauty on” to appeal to guys. Haley and Luna were not alone in their observations of girls dumbing down to attract boys. Anna, also a student at St. Mary’s, talked about a friend who “goes around purposely acting dumb and will go around asking the guys if they know the answer even though she just told me the answer!” Michelle, a student at Emily Carr, also suggested that a girl would act stupid around a boy she cares about so that she can be the damsel in distress and the boy can save her. Thirteen-year-old Olivia, one of our younger participants, noted that girls acted dumb at her school, too: “The boys will act, like, ‘Oh my gosh, oh you don’t know that?’ Then they will tell her and tease her playfully.” But she saw this as an acceptable form of flirting and admitted that she also engaged in it. These examples illustrate how a number of girls strategically embraced popular femininity. Along with cultivating a social life (p.68) that prioritized peers over school culture, they played down their intelligence to position themselves as inferior—and thus seemingly attractive—to boys.

Boys Don’t make Passes

Of course, girls’ appearances and bodily presentation were also highly important to acceptance and popularity, and the girls we interviewed often suggested these attributes were valued more than intelligence.17 Sighing, Haley explained, “Our school definitely goes for pretty [over smart].” Participants told us that, to be considered pretty, especially by boys, a girl needed to be thin, care about her looks, have nice skin and long (blonde, flat-ironed) hair, wear makeup, and be fashionably dressed. Being skinny, in particular, was mentioned frequently as important for girls, and a number of our participants had concerns about their weight. Prettiness was thus connected to a certain body type, prep time, beauty skills, racial background, and class-based privilege that enabled girls to afford the latest fashions and the right makeup and hairstyles.

Elizabeth, a gregarious, white, middle-class girl at Blue Ridge High, who was herself fashionably dressed and had flat-ironed hair, suggested that smart girls might sometimes be unpopular because they do not do the work to make themselves attractive: “Sometimes, smart people become smart because they are so focused on the school work and, like, getting good grades and stuff,” and because of this, “they don’t spend as much time trying to like look like everyone else and, like, put makeup on and straighten their hair and everything.” She was somewhat approving of these priorities, acknowledging that the girls were right to be so focused on school, but she was also critical of girls (p.69) who took it “too far” but still wanted higher peer status. Elizabeth further explained it this way: “Some people, like, come to school with, like, their hair just tied back in a ponytail and, like, sweatpants and, like, a grubby T-shirt on and then they say ‘Oh,’ like, they think, ‘Oh I wish I was popular,’ then they don’t really put the effort in, but that’s because they are more focused on being, like, the best intellectually they can be.”

Related to looks was the question of heterosexual dating. In our interviews, we asked if smart girls could also be seen as “hot” or sexy to boys, and again we heard about the need to invest time in looking good. Maggie, a middle-class, white student, was still in middle school when she was first interviewed. She was pretty, tall, not really into fashion, and not yet dating—but she was still highly observant of the social scene. To Maggie, “the people who get, like, the boys more would have to be people that don’t get bad marks, but don’t get good marks. [It’s] people in the middle that kind of try and put together their clothes rather than doing home-work.” Many girls argued that the pressure to look good was far greater for girls than boys. Kaitlyn explained, “Girls try so hard to be perfect and spend so long on their hair and their makeup. I know some people who wake up at six in the morning even though they have to go to school at eight.” She noted that girls have to put on their makeup and straighten their hair every day, while “a guy can just roll out of bed and no one will say anything. I know guys who will wear pajamas to school and no one will laugh. People will comment, but it’s nothing. Girls wear pajamas and people will be like, ‘What are you wearing? You’re weird.’”

While a few of the boys suggested that the pressures on boys and girls to look a certain way are equal,18 far more boys talked about the unique pressures on girls to be attractive. John, for instance, pointed out that girls are pressured about weight and (p.70) fashion to a degree that just does not affect boys. Boys also occasionally referred to the role media played in creating unrealistic ideas of what a girl should look like. Noah, for example, told us, “Everything you see is pressure … like, anything in the media, if you read a magazine, you see it advertised—there’s a woman who is thin, right? And in TV shows, really there’s always, the women always are thin, you know, etcetera, etcetera.” For this reason, Noah felt there was a lot more pressure on girls related to their looks, as well as more general “social stuff … like fitting in, like weight, like how you dress, how you look.” Kurt made very similar observations about the role of the media in girls’ lives, although he also felt that girls “put a lot of it on themselves.” He was constantly telling his female friends, “You don’t have to listen to the media!”

Louis, a popular boy who liked video games and sports, helpfully summed up the differences between pressures on girls and boys in his interview, explaining, “for girls, for the most part, if you’re pretty, you’ll be popular.” In contrast, he said, boys do not always have to be good looking: “They just have to be kinda outgoing and funny and that kind of thing, mostly outgoing.” Andrea, our research assistant, then asked him, “So if a girl were outgoing and funny, but she wasn’t particularly good looking, could she still be popular?” Louis paused and then said slowly, “Maybe, if she was good friends with one of the popular kids.” But then he reconfirmed that being good-looking was the most important thing for girls.19

Given this context, it is not surprising that one of the ways girls tried to manage or downplay their smartness was by devoting attention to their looks, including which fashions they wore. We saw a poignant example of this in Erin’s story. On a shopping trip to update her wardrobe at Lululemon, an expensive leisure and yoga clothing store, Erin asked a friend to honestly tell her (p.71) why she was not considered pretty and, thus, popular at her school: “We were talking about why some of the other girls make fun of me. She said one of the things was how you dress and the way you look. When I asked her what was wrong with the sort of stuff I was wearing, she was honestly saying, ‘I don’t know what to tell you.’ […] She showed me what sort of stuff girls like to wear for their makeup. We went through my stuff and put … a pair of shorts and a pair of track pants in the bag [to donate to the thrift shop].” Erin, a lower-middle-class, white student, was one of the smartest girls in her class, but she was also one of the most ostracized in our study. The solution, at least according to her friend, was to fix her up with cosmetics and the latest fashions. This highlights the ongoing importance of popular femininity. British cultural theorist Angela McRobbie notes that girls can express themselves as being smart or accomplished only as long as they remain conventionally feminine by investing in their bodies and physical appearance. McRobbie calls this unwritten rule the “post-feminist masquerade”—excessive femininity is required to buffer and downplay women’s success.20 McRobbie suggests that the post-feminist masquerade is indicative of the broader post-feminist and neoliberal landscape, which assumes gender equality yet ironically prioritizes hyper-femininity. Like the heroines of makeover movies, who change their look and style to become popular, Erin felt the only way to fit in was to balance out her academic success by redoing herself according to a narrow, fashion-oriented definition of feminine beauty.

It’s all about the Social Life

Many of our participants, both boys and girls, talked about how it was important to have social skills in order to be popular, but for (p.72) girls, this skill set took on a specifically feminine feel, as we discussed in chapter 2. Being social was all about vigilantly being nice and spending significant time on building and maintaining friendships, both of which are hallmarks of white, middle-class femininity.21 Ella, Allie, Celeste, Lisa, and Nicole all acknowledged the importance of being nice, particularly in relation to popularity. Even playing down their smartness was part of being nice, because being pegged as having an obsession with schoolwork could be seen as throwing one’s intelligence in other people’s faces. As Agnes observed, “It’s how socially willing you are. If you won’t talk to people, and [you] study all the time, people will think that you think you are too good for them.” Reflecting the dangers of being seen as a teacher’s pet, Maggie made particularly cutting comments about smart girls who were perceived as mean because they were too focused on school: “Goody two-shoes, [girls who] try too hard, browners [brown-nosers]—most of them are fake. Once you get to know them, they just do it for marks and to be smart; they don’t care about others’ feelings. They are just fake so they can be smart, get grades, go to a [better] school.”

Allie stood out as a girl who placed a lot of importance on congeniality and tied it firmly to a specific kind of popular femininity: “It just means that, like, you are […] part of, like, the pretty girls and the small girls, the nice girls and stuff.” White, middle-class, and a devoted Christian, Allie was well known for having phenomenal grades and working hard in her small-town elementary school. While she was popular among her peers, she had been called “smarty-pants” in the past, and this contributed to her ongoing concerns about being too blunt and, therefore, seen as uncaring about others. She also worried about her looks and wished boys thought she was pretty. But Allie, like all of our (p.73) participants, was a multifaceted girl and was not willing to wholeheartedly compromise her academic success for social status. Later, she admitted her frustration with girls who focused too much on their looks, and she was confident that independence and smartness would take her further than hair and makeup. Allie went back and forth in her interviews in this way: was it better to be pretty and nice or independent and smart?

We also spoke with girls who were less invested in, or less successful at executing, the nice girl persona. Tony B. and Tony M. were white, working-class girls at Central High who were uninterested in joining the popular group, for instance, and did not mind that they might be seen as “awkward” or “weird.” In fact, they embraced their outsider status—an identity they actively cultivated. Flowerpower was also a working-class girl, with a South Asian heritage. She had recently transferred to Blue Ridge to gain access to the more diverse possibilities for friendships she thought a large school could offer. At Blue Ridge, she gradually shifted from hanging out “with the party kids” to befriending students who, in the past, she would have considered too “quirky,” including those who shared her interest in social justice. Flowerpower described herself as a popular girl who fit in with different groups of kids, but she also felt that other students sometimes thought of her as “weird and too vegan.” She was occasionally teased because of her politics, and felt pigeonholed as “this angry little person.” Unlike Tony B. and Tony M., who seemed not to care what others thought of them, Flowerpower blamed herself for giving off a negative impression and believed that she needed to have more control over her emotions. She was drawn to the nice girl ideal but could not attain it, in part because of her political stance as an activist, feminist, and vegan. As we argue in chapter 4, many girls felt (p.74) that certain political beliefs, such as feminism, were at odds with being perceived as nice—and most, therefore, chose to pursue the latter. Flowerpower, however, was unwilling to give up that side of herself for the sake of popularity.

Embracing Smartness, Whatever the Cost

Although students like Virginia and Allie cared about fitting in and being popular, they also placed great value on their intellect and were loath to entirely push it aside. They were not willing to hold back, dumb down, or reject school and were part of a significant number of girls who did not embrace popular femininity in its entirety, with its incessant focus on looks as a way of defining oneself or fitting in, the need to dumb down to attract boys, and the centrality of peer-oriented social lives.22 They refused to play that game, even if some of them really wanted to be popular. For these girls, academic success was more important; it was part of their sense of identity, it earned them status and freedom, and in their minds, it was directly tied to future success. The demands of a narrow form of popularity had too great a cost. For example, Darlene categorized herself as “middle” in terms of popularity at Blue Ridge, and she put a lot of energy into getting good grades. She described her intellect as the primary source of her personal worth: “I think that you, as a person, just being smart, you feel better about yourself. I think you are more confident with yourself if you are smart, and other people look up to you.”

Both boys and girls took great satisfaction in earning high marks. Their identities as smart and their school successes sometimes earned admiration and respect from their teachers and pride from their parents. They talked about the glow they experienced (p.75) from doing well on tests, bringing home a strong report card, or getting awards. A few also talked about earning respect from other students. Joanne, for instance, knew that some girls would dumb down to gain popularity but said she enjoyed getting recognition for her successes: “You definitely get respected [by peers]. Like, if you aren’t a total airhead or always goofing off, more people will respect you and want to talk to you.” Participants also spoke about getting certain perks and freedoms at school because they were liked and trusted by their teachers. Overall, many students that we talked with appreciated their own intelligence and the admiration and independence it brought them. Students like Virginia acknowledged that there were trade-offs, but they also saw some immediate, valuable benefits, as well as future advantages, in choosing academic success over popularity.

For those who could not, or would not, achieve popularity, their imagined futures validated their skills, choices, and trajectories. They were confident that their intelligence and their grades would translate into future success, even if they were grappling with unpopularity in the present moment. As Haley put it, “It doesn’t bother me if someone calls me [a nerd]. I’d rather be a nerd than not smart. [Being smart] will help me in the future. I’ll get a good career and they won’t.” Kurt, a gregarious boy who sometimes faced challenges at school, similarly said, “If someone is bullying you because you’re smart, then you can just think in your head, ‘In twenty years, you’ll be working for me!’” These responses suggest that some students thought about the hard work they did to cultivate high grades as part of developing their cultural capital.23 In a way that fits well with the broader popular narratives of neoliberalism that favor individualized, school-based success and self-actualized futures, those students who looked to their futures for solace in the (p.76) present assumed they would be able to convert their skills and qualifications into university enrolments and, later, well-paying jobs. Haley, criticizing some of her peers, said, “Yeah, right now, like, […] some of them are really smart, they just don’t care ’cause they are like, ‘Oh, I’m going out to party tonight; I’ll study later.’ They just need to realize that in thirty years, I’m not gonna remember whose party you went to, what you were wearing, and you will remember that you didn’t study and now you’re working at a low-paid [job]!”

There were many overlaps in the commentaries of the girls and boys who focused more on future aspirations than on their present social life, mobilizing a narrative of individualized, middle-class success. However, there were a few differences in how boys and girls framed this focus on the future. The narrative of future economic success steered girls away from a more traditional and unequal form of femininity in their present lives—a form of femininity that encourages dumbing down or spending time and money cultivating a certain look—and towards a goal of economic independence. For certain girls, this desire for independence was specifically tied to the expectation of encountering sexism and the need for women to have autonomy from men, which we discuss in the next chapter. Boys were more likely to link success in school to being able to get a job in particular high-status, masculine occupations—for example as a doctor, chartered accountant, or aerospace engineer—and earn an income that would allow them to have a house, family, nice car, and even a boat. In this way, boys could mobilize a future-oriented masculinity in order to counter possible challenges they had with popular masculinity in the present.

The dream of future success was not the only thing that helped some participants prioritize their schoolwork; many (p.77) kinds of support were also crucial. School cultures varied, some providing a context that better facilitated girls’ commitment to academics, and girls’ friendship groups also made a valuable difference—two factors that we return to in the last chapter of this book. Many girls also talked about high levels of parental support in their education, and while sometimes this support was experienced as pressure, parental commitment helped them negotiate the pulls of peer culture. An excellent example of this negotiation came from Erin, whose friend once asked her to “dumb it down” a little. Erin was mystified: “You want me to be dumber?!” She spoke to her mom about the incident afterward, and Erin found solace in her mom’s advice to “never dumb it down. … If you need to dumb it down for your friends, that’s not a good thing.”

Some girls received added cultural or religious support. In chapter 5 we discuss the challenges some participants faced due to the widespread and problematic stereotype that Asian students must be smart. That said, some girls with Asian backgrounds attributed parental expectations that they would work hard to their cultural background and cited this as a valuable form of support. Unexpectedly, we also found that, for a small group of girls, religion was deeply connected to investing in school, even at the expense of popular peer expectations. For Smartypants, a South Asian girl and a devout Mormon, faith was integral to her academic focus. In her interview with Shauna, she referenced a booklet called “Strength for Youth,” explaining that “Heavenly Father wants us [laughs] to, um, He wants us to get a good education, so I think that’s motivation for me.” She also felt that her religion gave her the guidance she needed to have good morals and standards that helped her do well in school. Among the eleven girls we interviewed who prioritized their religion, (p.78) about half of them considered faith to be integral to their commitment to education.

Boys’ Strategies for Negotiating Academic Success

John, the first boy we spoke with, began his interview by outlining some of the ways that boys negotiated their smartness in school. He met with Rebecca in the corner of a Tim Hortons coffee shop in one of the small towns outside of Secord. He was a middle-class, white student with a slight build, a close-cropped haircut, tanned skin, and big, brown eyes. Like many other participants in the study, he was committed to school and earned high grades. He was also one of the more involved boys we talked to; he participated in speed skating and volleyball, represented youth at the municipal government level, and was on his school’s student council. He was proud of these involvements and his academic achievements but careful about the impression he gave to others. He wanted to make his parents and teachers proud, but he also wanted to be “part of the culture, to be the popular one.” That said, if he had to choose between hanging out with friends or studying, he would take the same route as Virginia: “I guess it would be the schoolwork […] over the friends.”

In general, John explained, there are “stereotypical things people have with smart people […], like the nerdiness thing they kinda think of.” It is not that John was teased for being smart, but more that people had assumptions that made him feel uncomfortable. He was frustrated that people associated academic success with being weak at sports, so he would try to make a more “athletic” first impression. In this way, he aimed to bridge the gap between being smart and being popular— (p.79) something he said only “a few people” can achieve—by getting formally involved in athletics and student council activities, and this strategy seemed to work for him. He had a good circle of friends, including some who were more athletic and some whom he described as “low-ballers”—popular boys who just “float by,” getting average grades.

Emphasizing sociality, John felt it was possible to fit in while being smart “as long as you don’t just go in your shell and you’re always open and you’re always social.” Like others, he noticed that the boys who were negatively labeled as loners were usually “techno-type people” who talked about video games, kept to themselves, or bragged. John added, “Personally, I don’t go out and announce, you know, ‘I’m smart! Look at me!’” He also confided that he had avoided being involved in the technical side of a theater production in order to sidestep the nerd label. Overall, he suggested that being a smart boy was the same as being a smart girl, even though boys were more likely to be cast as nerds or geeks. But later in the interview, despite this observation, he noted that it was girls, not boys, who dumbed down: “I guess they want to get more attention so, um, they don’t want to make [being smart] a turnoff, I guess.” He also talked about the pressure on girls to keep up to date with friendships and fashion in ways not required by boys. His own style was to dress casually to fit in with his friends, and he usually wore jeans and a T-shirt.

In chapter 1, we explored the corollary to girls’ purported rising success: the narrative of the failing boy. A common trend in this narrative is indicating the so-called innate tendencies of boys that lead them to feel out of place in school, which is often criticized for better serving girls. For instance, some researchers and journalists have pointed out that the majority of teachers are female and noted that a large percentage of classes prioritize (p.80) cooperative learning and seatwork, suggesting that education has been feminized in a way that turns boys off.24 This form of analysis has, in turn, shaped policy, including the introduction of specialized boy-focused reading programs.25

Yet others26 have raised significant concerns about this approach, consistently pointing out that, just as not all girls are academically successful, not all boys struggle in school. Often, it is specifically racialized boys from low-income neighborhoods who face more challenges, while other (for example, white, middle-class) boys flourish, illustrating how a uniform, innate masculinity is not the issue.27 Expectations that are linked to dominant gender norms are relevant, however, to students’ school-based achievement. Just as there are tensions between popular femininity and academic success, popular masculinity precludes certain aspects of academic achievement; if popular masculinity is premised on the denigration of anything feminine, this denegation includes presumed feminine studiousness, attention to detail, and obedience,28 which all contribute to doing well in school. That said, as we pointed out above, there are also areas of strong resonance between certain aspects of popular masculinity and schooling. Smartness in school is often about individual competition for grades, for instance, and intellectual inquiry is frequently coupled with risk-taking, logic, and rational detachment, all of which correspond with popular masculinity.29 So are academic pursuits more in line with popular femininity or popular masculinity? We argue that academic success in schools today is multidimensional, requiring attention to detail but also creativity and risk-taking; obedience but also critical engagement; cooperation but also competition; and emotion but also rationality. These features vary across subjects and the way they are taught. In other words, there are central features of academic success that conflict (p.81) with popular femininity, but there are also features that sit uncomfortably with popular masculinity.

In this context, as we see with John, boys also managed their academic success in school, but they did so from a different location within gender dynamics. As we describe below, being smart was valued over being studious, for instance; athletics and humor were more likely to provide gender security for boys;30 and looks were less essential. Despite many comments in our interviews that gender was irrelevant, these patterns came together to outline a peer-oriented, gendered terrain that shaped boys’ (and, in turn, girls’) engagements with being smart and studious—sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse.

“Low-Ballers”: Boys Just Getting by?

There were boys and girls who argued that it was easier for girls to be smart. Academically strong girls could garner popularity, they argued, while boys could not. Rory, a girl who fully embraced her own academic skills, even if it meant sometimes taking flak from other students, was particularly adamant about this gender distinction, suggesting that, if boys are smart, “no one likes them,” and “they are instantly not cool at all, [but] when girls are smart and cool, it’s okay.” Sully, a fourteen-year-old girl, even told a story about a boy in her seventh-grade class who asked her to mark a few questions wrong when students were marking each other’s work because he was embarrassed to get too high a grade. These arguments reinforce the common perception that the “nerd” label is more likely to be applied to boys—and this was an observation that the girls in our study were particularly likely to make. For example, Virginia, Isabell, Kaitlyn, and Lisa considered boys to be more typically nerdy. Lisa explained it like this: “For (p.82) some reason, being smart as a girl often makes you more popular, but being smart as a boy makes you more of a nerd. I don’t know why, but that’s how it is a lot.” Others, like Michelle, said that smart boys were nerdy, but she also noted, with a smile, that she found nerdy boys attractive.

Donovan, a smart, athletic, white student with a Beiber-esque hair cut, who was comfortable with his mid-range popularity at school, echoed these girls’ observations, but he shifted the focus from smartness to school work, which resonated with much of the data we collected from the boys. “If you are a girl, you can be smart and really popular,” he explained. “For a guy, I think it’s harder. I think if you are smart, they won’t make fun of you, but they will judge you and think you care a lot about school, and that might affect [your popularity].” Just as we heard from John, Donovan felt that there was an assumption that an academic focus thwarted social skills and told us, “The only thing you get teased about is that you try too hard for marks or care too much about school.” For these boys, intelligence itself was fine, but working hard at school was not.31 Donovan framed it this way: “People who are smart, in my opinion, are people who don’t have to try. You can memorize a textbook, but you aren’t necessarily naturally smart.” Part of the failing-boys narrative is the argument that it is uncool for boys to show interest in school—an argument that certainly jibes with these comments.

Other things that boys said suggested that, perhaps, more boys were happy to coast through school as “low-ballers” in a way that girls were not. Semai, a sharp, somewhat awkward, middle-class, white student who was really into Japanese animation, explained that girls just care more, put more effort in, “and go above and beyond,” while boys like him “go for the least work with the best mark.” He wondered aloud why this might be: “Maybe boys are (p.83) just more relaxed? Perhaps it’s just laziness.” Paul, a very athletic, working-class boy who described himself as “kind of popular,” also noted this difference: “Girls try to be smarter, guys really don’t care.” And Batman, who aspired to be in the military when he was older, linked this pattern to future promising, nonacademic, masculine occupations: “I don’t know, I guess [it’s] the way we are taught, that we can do the manly jobs! You don’t need a physics degree to chop down a tree!” With a few exceptions, the boys we interviewed presented themselves as having a laid-back approach, downplaying their need to study or saying that they certainly could study more but did not really feel the need. The intense perfectionism of some of the girls we interviewed was absent in all but two of the boys. These observations suggest that the stakes are lower for boys, who may feel less driven by the job market to go to university, and may also bolster the position that, while it is quite acceptable for a boy to be smart, it is less acceptable for a boy to work hard in school.

Indeed, a number of boys and girls contradicted the idea that it is not cool for a boy to be smart. They pointed out that it is easier for boys to publicly share their grades and compete in class than it is for girls. John and Paul enjoyed a bit of competition with their friends over grades, and Tim and Jason suggested that boys take pride in telling others what marks they got, while girls do not. As Tim explained, “I see a lot of guys who will show me their grades and yell them out, but the girls won’t do that.” Many also said that it is harder for girls than for boys to be both smart and popular, countering the stories that opened this section. They pointed out, for instance, that it is girls who tend to downplay their intelligence. Louis argued that girls hide being smart, while it does not matter if a boy is open about being academically successful. Smartness is not a pro or a con, it (p.84) simply is, he suggested, and smart boys fit in regardless. Walrus, who seemed very blasé about his academic successes, argued that a negative “nerd” label was more of an issue for girls. Even Rory, who contended that only smart girls can be popular, later said that smart girls were “weird” and “can’t get dates.”

Interestingly, being called “geek” or “nerd” was not always an insult among boys. While there were boys, like John, who certainly felt that a boy who was very smart could be negatively labeled a nerd, many boys (and girls, too) talked about “nerd” being used in a positive, joking way between friends, and some even happily identified themselves as nerds. It seemed to depend a lot on how the terms were being defined between friends and within peer cultures. If being a nerd or geek meant that you were clever, then some boys considered it to be a badge of honor. It was not being smart that problematically made one an uncool nerd but rather being overly focused on certain activities, such as video games or Star Wars, and keeping to oneself—in other words, being a loner with limited or obscure interests. Adding to the complexity, a few boys suggested that being smart was actually a social bonus, remarking that academic success helped them make friends and naming popular boys who were both smart and popular.32

It is clear from these mixed observations that it is less difficult for a smart boy to fit in than it is for a boy who is seen as overly focused on school33 or on other pursuits that are considered similarly antisocial. While being perceived as working too hard at school resulted in social risks for boys and girls, girls seemed more likely to soften or mediate their cleverness, while boys seemed more likely to downplay their studiousness. Reinforcing this observation, while Rory and Lisa felt certain that it was difficult for smart boys to be popular and were more likely to negatively portray these boys as nerds, the boys we interviewed were (p.85) more circumspect, problematizing a focus on schoolwork rather than smartness. This can lead to some real challenges for boys. If they want to do well in school, most boys cannot simply wing it—they need to study. But doing so will leave them vulnerable to social risks in a climate where studying is considered antisocial and even a sign of weakness. Some of the boys who were interested in going to university managed this tension by focusing on the future successes that hard work would (hopefully) ensure. Other boys projected outward nonchalance but worked just enough to get the grades they needed. And, as we discuss in the next section, the boys were also able to balance these rival pressures with other interests, particularly if they could mobilize useful resources, such as athletic skills or humor.34

On the Field and in the Gym

While, overall, boys were not as involved in extracurricular activities as girls were, particular activities were important counterweights to an academic focus, as we saw for John and Donovan. Athletics, especially certain sports like football, hockey, soccer, and wrestling, are central to popular masculinity in North American high schools.35 Athletic skill can secure a boy’s popularity36 and provide a buffer to being considered too focused on school. Researchers argue that what allows some boys to be invested in an area that seems less masculine—excelling in reading, for example—is their specific capacities in (and knowledge of) certain sports.37 Not unexpectedly, boys’ involvement in sports came up frequently in our interviews and provided insight into how boys strategically located themselves, especially as involvement in sports was seen as antithetical to being too nerdy or a loner.38

(p.86) Kevin, who did not hold back at all about being smart, was one of the boys who talked directly about the value of being both intellectual and involved in sports. He suggested that other kids did not bother him about his academic success because he was on the basketball team. It was not that he was great at basketball. “But I’m not horrible,” he told us, adding, “I don’t get picked on because I’m kind of an asset.” Kevin suggested that playing basketball balanced out his academic pursuits. Kevin was a bigger boy, and he was particularly sensitive to the fact that his size was both helpful in sports and an armor against bullying, especially as one of his friends, who was small and smart, was picked on for not being as athletic as the other boys. Kevin also felt that playing basketball provided an avenue for building social connections and friendships: “I’ve tons of friends who do sports, we just all enjoy playing them, [it’s] kind of really fun.” Louis also talked about athletics as a common and valuable binding factor among his friends, all of whom were “kind of known for sportiness.” He suggested, “If you play sports, it helps [your popularity]. A lot of people don’t even know if you play sports, and they are like, ‘Hey, do you play any sports?’ ‘Yeah, I play this.’ ‘Oh, cool!’” He said that being good at sports helped him along socially, although he contended, “It doesn’t really matter [in the same way] for girls.” Other boys were strong in athletics in a way that seemed to trump their academic success. Tim’s heavy involvement in various sports, from hockey to soccer, meant that he was known mainly for being sporty, not smart, even though he was also very accomplished academically. Tim was one of the more popular boys in our study, and he saw this social success as directly tied to his athletic abilities.

Sports were not the only activities that could help boys successfully negotiate popularity and academics, however. While (p.87) the girls in our study were more likely than boys to be highly involved in extracurricular activities, there were some boys who, like John, found that their participation in certain clubs and councils helped them shift away from being seen as just overly focused on studying. While involvement in activities like manga or robotics club might be considered a little too nerdy, playing music or being on the student council could counter an academic stigma. Jason’s involvement in a band allowed him to be considered well rounded, and John’s involvement in student council provided him with an opportunity to develop status and social connections. While researchers39 have been rightly inclined to emphasize athletics as central to popular masculinity and, therefore, to boys’ social standing at school, there are other ways that less athletic boys can enhance their status, and these should not be overlooked.40

Only Boys can be Funny

Like the girls, the boys emphasized the importance of sociality vis-à-vis being popular, although rather than being nice, building friendships, and holding back, they were more likely to focus on being easygoing, outgoing, and, especially, funny.41 A sense of humor was mentioned frequently by the boys as a way of managing popularity and intelligence, and this was well summarized by Noah: “If you are, like, loud, if you make friends easily, if you are very outspoken, if you are funny in class, then I think it would be a lot easier to be popular [and smart at the same time], but if you are not, if you are quiet, if you just, like, don’t talk, then I think you won’t be popular.”

Kurt used humor as a central strategy in navigating school. Kurt was a lower-middle-class, white student who was tall, (p.88) slightly overweight, and wore short, curly blond hair. He was also outwardly gay at his Catholic high school. He was exceptionally strong in the sciences, not at all athletic, and though well known, had few close friends. Kurt would frequently speak out in class and was very generous in helping other students with their assignments. He was gregarious and confident during his interviews, although his comments implied that things were not always as easy for him as he let on. For instance, he said that he was accepted for being gay but also that he would not want to have children because they would be bullied for having gay parents. Similarly, he was one of the boys who suggested that looking toward future success was a way to manage bullying in the present. For Kurt, being funny and easygoing and laughing things off seemed to be a key strategy for making his way through the challenges of school: “I don’t like things being overly stressed out. I, like, try to make a laugh out of anything ’cause […], like, you have to be happy or you’re going to eventually get miserable. So I just try to … make people laugh.”

The positive and negative possibilities of boys’ humor and silliness sharpened when we asked about class clowns—those students known for joking around a lot, especially in the classroom. None of our participants had to ask what a class clown was. Rory nicely summarized this unique social role: “Every guy wants to be like them, and they want attention from girls. They sort of get in trouble and get to make the teacher angry and think it’s funny.”42 Almost every participant said their school had class clowns, and almost all of the class clowns were boys. Not all class clowns were popular, however. Some were very popular and considered very funny, garnering attention and lightening the boredom of slow-moving classes, but others were (p.89) less successful and described as annoying because they would go too far. Bella explained this fine line, saying, “If you’re the kind who disrupts the class, you will be less liked than the people who know exactly when their humor is okay, they are kind of more loved.” In other words, being a class clown was one possible avenue to popularity, but it could easily backfire.

While many of our participants spoke fondly of the more successful class clowns, some girls were very critical because the joking was often at their expense. Maria and Selena noted that class clowns named anyone who tried to stop them a “goody-goody.” Flowerpower was quite blunt, calling class clowns “idiots because they are assholes, they say really offensive arrogant things [laughs], and … that’s how I feel towards them!” As an example, she told us about a time a boy said something racist toward her in an attempt to be funny, and even the teacher laughed. Many other participants made comments about class clowns wasting time or disrupting lessons. Darlene provided a concrete example of this frustration: “The teacher loves him [the class clown] and is always laughing at him and thinks he’s hilarious, and I hate it. It also distracts the rest of the class, and we can’t do our work, and it’s hard to stay on track.” Paul was similarly annoyed at how class clowns would break his concentration. He even tried, unsuccessfully, to address this with one of his friends, whose clowning was a distraction.43

A particularly interesting part of the class clown discussion was speculation on why class clowns tended to be boys and not girls, and it was in these observations where gender inequality became strikingly apparent. While some participants said that girls are not class clowns because they are more focused on doing well in school, a noteworthy number argued that girls are (p.90) more self-conscious and less confident about making jokes in front of everyone, because, as Yasmin said, “the girls will do nothing to, like, do anything funny or embarrass themselves ever.” Abbey reinforced this: “Everyone would be shocked if a girl was a class clown.” Boys, however, were considered to be less afraid of saying what was on their minds, less afraid of what others thought of them, and less afraid of getting in trouble. A smaller number of participants said that, although both girls and boys sometimes tried to be funny in class, boys were funnier. For instance, Celeste suggested that, while she liked both girl and boy clowns, there was an edge to girls’ clowning that felt unkind. Bella echoed this feeling: “Class clowns are the boys; loud and obnoxious people are mean girls. […] They are doing it in different ways. The girls are doing it in a mean way, and the boys are just doing it to be funny. They are lighthearted, while the girls are mean and manipulative.” The negative tone and content of these comments provides good evidence for why girls might be more self-conscious about clowning around in class and shows how boys’ meanness may sometimes be overlooked or redefined as good-natured humor.

Overall, a sense of humor could be an asset to boys, unless they took it too far. It was one potential avenue smart (and other) boys could take to garner social acceptance—one that was less available to girls. Being funny in class also required brazenly putting yourself out there, which was risky, but this risk unfolded very differently for boys and girls. When girls tried to be funny, according to Celeste and Bella, they ended up being painted as mean rather than friendly or fun. There was little positive payoff. Boys also took risks—of going too far, undermining the lesson, and getting in trouble—although these risks did not seem to slow them down much, and the payoff could be very high.

(p.91) Gender Differences and Gender Inequalities

Being a smart, academically engaged student is not always easy, and the stories in this chapter show that this is true for boys and girls. We have highlighted myriad clashes between a focus on school and the gendered demands of peer culture. Within specific schools and friendship groups, and with specific family support and future goals, some young people in our study were able to fully embrace their own intellectual skills and interests—sometimes wholeheartedly and sometimes with regret—but most were actively and thoughtfully engaged in careful negotiation of their academic identities. How clashes between peer culture and academic demands play out can undermine both girls and boys in terms of school achievement, if girls hold back on putting up their hands, for instance, or boys do not want to be seen as studious. These clashes unfold differently and hold distinct consequences for boys and girls.

As noted in chapter 2, girls in our study came across as far more likely to be stressed out, expressing worries about the present, the future, their bodies, and popularity. Boys cared about peer relations and school, to be sure, but they did not appear to care nearly as much as girls did, or if they did, they certainly did not show it during their interviews with us. We also noticed that boys were often rewarded for being extroverted, a presentation of self that positioned them as active, public subjects. Girls, however, were more likely to be positioned and to position themselves as passive, or as objects, by playing down their intelligence, holding back, being nice and worrying about appearances. These gendered actions and consequences reflect and reproduce gender inequalities not just in the school but also (p.92) in broader society, where such distinctions (girls as passive, boys as active; girls as objects, boys as subjects) continue to be reproduced. One other thing was very clear to us: girls will manage or contain their smartness to be attractive to boys and to be popular with other girls, but boys only felt the need to manage or contain their smartness to be popular with other boys. In both instances, the judgments of boys held the most weight.

The post-feminist landscape suggests to girls that gender inequality is a thing of the past, evidenced by girls’ ubiquitous and easy success in school. Yet the examples in this chapter tell a different story. We have outlined ways in which narrow, dominant gender practices endure, which was abundantly evident in how smart young people talked about maneuvering through the social world of school. These stories betray ongoing gender dynamics and inequalities that are woven into everyday peer interactions. In the next chapter, we specifically explore our participants’ perceptions and experiences of gender inequality in both the informal and formal spaces of school.


(1.) As we discuss in other chapters, many girls had a much more positive experience of Blue Ridge and saw it as a haven for smart girls.

(2.) The actions of teachers and administrators are important as well and are also embedded in ideas about appropriate and dominant masculinity and femininity, which we touch on in chapter 4. In this chapter, however, we focus our attention on peer relationships.

(4.) See Sandra B. Conaway, “Girls Who (Don’t) Wear Glasses: The Performativity of Smart Girls on Teen Television” (PhD diss., Bowling Green State University, 2007), https://etd.ohiolink.edu/ap/10?0::NO:10:P10_ACCESSION_NUM:bgsu1182800368; Sherrie A. Inness, Geek Chic: Smart Women in Popular Culture (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007); Pomerantz and Raby, “Reading Smart Girls.”

(5.) Examples of this kind of smart girl include Jan from The Brady Bunch in the 1970s, Carol from Growing Pains in the 1980s, Andrea from Beverly Hills, 90210 and Angela from My So-Called Life in the 1990s, and Willow from Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Lindsay from Freaks and Geeks in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

(7.) Ibid.

(9.) Dawn H. Currie, Deirdre M. Kelly, and Shauna Pomerantz, “‘The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth’: Girls’ Agency, Subjectivity and Empowerment,” Journal of Youth Studies 9, no. 4 (2006): 419–36; Currie et al., “Girl Power”; Francis et al., The Identities and Practices of High Achieving Pupils; Francis et al., “The Simultaneous Production of Educational Achievement”; Renold and Allan, “Bright and Beautiful”; Skelton et al., “Brains before ‘Beauty’?”; Walkerdine et al., Growing Up Girl.

(10.) Terms like “geek” and “nerd” came up in the interviews, but in very mixed ways. Some participants noted that being seen as a geek or a nerd was linked to being smart and antisocial and that this was negative. Others suggested that these terms were not as much about being smart as they were about being narrowly obsessed with a specific, often technical activity or genre (for example, science fiction or manga). Still others spoke positively about these terms, suggesting they had been reclaimed and made acceptable through shows like Big Bang Theory; consequently, in the spirit of “geek chic,” some were proud to call themselves geeks.

(p.213) (12.) Raewyn Connell calls these culturally valorized forms of gender “hegemonic masculinity” and “emphasized femininity.” Hegemonic masculinity is predicated on power, aggression, and physical strength, which Connell explains is the most culturally rewarded kind of masculinity in Western culture. Its corollary is emphasized femininity, the most culturally rewarded kind of femininity, which in the West is predicated on sexualized beauty, thinness, and passivity to men. Connell argues that, while there can be a “hegemonic” form of masculinity, no form of femininity usurps male power, and, therefore, femininity can never be considered hegemonic. See R. W. Connell, Gender and Power: Society, the Person and Sexual Politics (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1987).

(13.) American sociologist Mimi Schippers (“Recovering the Feminine Other: Masculinity, Femininity and Gender Hegemony,” Theoretical Sociology 36 [2007]: 85–102) builds on Connell’s work to suggest that hegemonic forms of masculinity and femininity support a hierarchical dynamic between men and women. In other words, masculinity is not viewed as more central than femininity but rather is entwined with femininity to bolster a “heterosexual matrix”—a norm of unequal power relations between men and women based on an assumed “fit” between dominant masculinity and supportive femininity (Butler, Gender Trouble).

(14.) Relevant context includes the unique dynamics of local places; broader historical changes, including the rise of post-feminism; everyday beliefs about gender and smartness; young people’s bodies and the work young people do to shape and present them; family, social, and financial resources; and material practices, including those of specific schools and teachers, as they measure and reward certain actions over others.

(15.) Some girls and boys described what might be considered a male teacher’s pet in their school, but in these instances, the boy’s behavior was dismissed as insincere, and the boy was then reframed as a class clown.

(16.) Teacher’s pets might thus be considered part of what Mimi Schippers calls a “pariah femininity.” Schippers suggests that pariah (p.214) femininity is evident when certain girls or women are socially problematized and rejected for acting in masculine ways that might challenge the hierarchical and complimentary relationship between men and women. Dismissing and rejecting pariah femininities then contains their threat to dominant gender norms. Schippers (“Recovering the Feminine Other”) provides examples of the “slut,” the “bitch,” and the “witch” as forms of pariah femininity. From the examples we give in the book, the teacher’s pet can be seen as fitting into this category, too, in that attributes that might be valued in a boy are condemned in a girl. The brazen smart girl who speaks out, takes up space, and seems to curry favor is rejected and dismissed, which neutralizes her power to jeopardize dominant gender norms.

(17.) This pattern has been well described elsewhere. See Francis et al., “The Simultaneous Production of Educational Achievement”; and Renold and Allan, “Bright and Beautiful.” For a more psychological treatment of girls’ looks and popularity, see Patricia Adler and Peter Adler, Peer Power: Preadolescent Culture and Identity (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1998).

(18.) Boys were less likely to talk about their looks directly, although a few boys described instances that suggested that certain styles were best avoided if one did not want to look nerdy. Noah talked about how there was a typical “nerd look” to avoid that involved wearing glasses and being scrawny (a typically less masculine, unathletic look), and Paul suggested one of the reasons “nerds” were not cool was because they “don’t have the money for the right clothes.” This interesting thread was echoed by Rory, a female participant, who said, “If you are a smart boy, you are a nerd unless you are rich and wear Hollister and Abercrombie or [have a] super good look.” We address these class-based intersections in chapter 5.

(19.) In his second interview, however, Louis suggested that, now that he was in high school, he was feeling that these appearance pressures were becoming more equal between girls and boys.

(21.) Lyn Mikel Brown, Raising Their Voices: The Politics of Girls’ Anger (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988); Edward W. Morris, “‘Tuck In That Shirt!’ Race, Class, Gender and Discipline in (p.215) an Urban School,” Sociological Perspectives 48, no. 1 (2005): 25–48; Valerie Walkerdine, Schoolgirl Fictions (London: Verso, 1990).

(22.) Rebecca Raby and Shauna Pomerantz, “Playing It Down or Playing It Up: The Pleasures and Hazards of Doing ‘Smart Girl’ in High School,” British Journal of Sociology of Education 36, no. 4 (2015): 507–25.

(23.) For a description of “cultural capital,” see chapter 2, note 12.

(25.) For instance, in 2009, Ontario’s Ministry of Education named boys as a disadvantaged group alongside children who are new immigrants, indigenous children, low-income children, and children with special needs. This designation has influenced programs such as Ontario’s What, Me Read?, which is organized around the idea that boys must be lured to reading through short, action-based stories. Wayne Martino and Gol Rezai Rashti (“Neoliberal Accountability and the Politics of Boys’ Underachievement: Steering Policy by Numbers in the Ontario Context,” International Journal of Inclusive Education 16, no. 4 [2012]: 423–40) are critical of this program, arguing that it treats all boys as if they have the same interests, thus reproducing the very form of hegemonic masculinity that stereotypes boys as uninterested in reading in the first place. See also Ringrose, Postfeminist Education?; and Skelton, “Gender and Achievement.”

(28.) This clash between classroom expectations and masculinity has been emphasized by scholars who argue that boys have innate characteristics that are being shortchanged in the classroom (see, for example, Gurian and Stevens, “The Minds of Boys”; and Sommers, “The War against Boys”), as well as more critical, constructionist scholars studying hegemonic masculinity (see, for example, Kimmel, “What about the Boys?”; Martino, “Failing Boys!”; and Emma Renold, “Learning the ‘Hard’ Way: Boys, Hegemonic Masculinity and the (p.216) Negotiation of Learner Identities in the Primary School,” British Journal of Sociology of Education 22 no. 3 [2001]: 369–85).

(29.) Francis et al. (“The Simultaneous Production of Educational Achievement,” 187) argue that successful academic achievement requires “hard-nosed determination, singularity and concern with mental/intellectual (rather than social) pursuits.”

(30.) For similar findings in a British context, see Stephen Frosh, Ann Phoenix, and Rob Pattman, Young Masculinities: Understanding Boys in Contemporary Society (Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave, 2001).

(31.) See Ibid.; and also the discussion of “real Englishmen” in Máirtín Mac an Ghaill, The Making of Men: Masculinities, Sexualities and Schooling (Buckingham: Open University Press, 1994).

(32.) Our findings on the significance of the terms “geek” and “nerd” are less stark than those of other studies conducted in Britain and the United States on boys and academics. See Adler and Adler, Peer Power; Mendrick and Francis, “Boffin and Geek Identities”; and Renold “Learning the ‘Hard’ Way.”

(33.) Other research studies have similarly suggested that trying hard in school is problematic, although these studies found that studiousness was associated with being “wimpy” or effeminate. See Mac an Ghaill, The Making of Men; Renold, “Learning the ‘Hard’ Way”; and Paul Willis Learning to Labour: How Working Class Kids Get Working Class Jobs (Farnborough, UK: Saxon House, 1977).

(34.) It is also important to note that, as with the girls, the boys found that some school contexts and peer groups made it more or less comfortable for them to be focused on their schooling—a point we return to in chapter 6.

(35.) See, for example, Frosh et al., Young Masculinities; Andrew Parker, “The Construction of Masculinity within Boys’ Physical Education” Gender and Education 8, no. 2 (1996), 141–58; C. J. Pascoe, Dude You’re a Fag: Masculinity and Sexuality in High School (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006); and Jon Swain, “The Role of Sport in the Construction of Masculinities in an English Independent Junior School,” Sport, Education and Society 11, no. 4 (2006): 317–35. However, across these examples, authors also point to boys who complicate, challenge, or circumvent this prioritizing of sport as central to masculinity.

(p.217) (36.) In a way that was reminiscent of the supergirl imperative, athletics were also important to girls’ social success and could thus be a counterweight to girls’ smartness in some contexts. Some of the girls argued that, in their schools, popular girls were frequently athletic. Involvement in sports was seen to provide opportunities to be skilled, social, and maintain a good figure. Overall, there was some overlap with boys in this sense, as athletics was often a ticket to social success for girls, but it was not as central as it was for boys.

(37.) Francis et al., “The Simultaneous Production of Educational Achievement”; Renold, “Learning the ‘Hard’ Way”; Christine Skelton and Becky Francis, “Successful Boys and Literacy,” Curriculum Inquiry 41, no. 4 (2011): 456–78; according to Frosh et al. (Young Masculinities), this trade-off can be easier to attain in private schools or schools that prioritize academics.

(38.) Brothers Sam and Ben spoke most directly about a dichotomy between athletics and smartness, or as they explained it, between “jocks,” who prioritize sports over all else, including grades, and “nerds,” who focus on academics. They talked about their lack of success in trying to fit in with the jocks, which they explained was due to both showing their smartness and being quite focused on getting good grades.

(39.) For example, see note 35.

(40.) Recognizing the breadth of skills that can be valued in boys, Skelton and Francis (“The ‘Renaissance Child’: High Achievement and Gender in Late Modernity,” International Journal of Inclusive Education 16, no. 4 [2012]: 441–59) suggest that being studious and being popular can fit well together for some boys, specifically if they are well-rounded boys who reflect what the scholars call “renaissance masculinity,” evoking a time when boys were trained in humanist subjects, like philosophy, as well as athletics and the sciences. Skelton and Francis build on the concept of the “renaissance child” introduced by Carol Vincent and Stephen Ball (Childcare, Choice and Class Practices [London: Routledge, 2006]), who are interested in how middle-class parents have become invested in endowing their children with multiple accomplishments in order to compete in the new economy. Skelton and Francis (“Successful Boys and Literacy,” 471) suggest that, today, neoliberal (p.218) demands for a flexible, multitalented workforce reward a modern “renaissance man”—someone who can be smart and athletic, rational and expressive, and masculine and feminine, a “good all-rounder.” At first, renaissance masculinity might evoke the privileged supergirl from chapter 2, but in contrast to the girls aspiring to be supergirls, the well-rounded boys we interviewed did not seem over-the-top in their involvements and came across as fairly relaxed rather than driven to perfection.

(41.) For a detailed discussion of the ways humor is used to consolidate heterosexual masculinity, see Mary Jane Kehily and Anoop Nayak, “‘Lads and Laughter’: Humour and the Production of Heterosexual Hierarchies,” Gender and Education 9, no. 1 (1997): 69–88. See also Frosh et al., Young Masculinities; and Renold, “Learning the ‘Hard’ Way.”

(42.) Other researchers have described how boys link popularity to pushing against adult authority in the school. As Frosh et al. (Young Masculinities, 200) describe, “popular boys were generally expected to ‘backchat’ the teachers.”

(43.) For further discussion of boys’ disruption of class, see Molly Warrington and Michael Younger, “The Other Side of the Gender Gap,” Gender and Education 12, no. 4 (2000): 493–508.