Myers, Kristin, and Laura Raymond. “Elementary School Girls and Heteronormativity: The Girl Project.” Gender and Society (2010): 167-88.
Myers and Raymond’s study looks at the behavior of elementary school girls (from age 5 to age 11) in creating their own structures of heteronormativity amongst themselves. To study this, researchers created small groups of different ages to track the behavior of girls as they are prompted to talk about things that are important to them and other girls their age. What is interesting about the study is that the researchers did not make reference to boys—the girls brought up boys on their own. The girls constructed heteronormative standards to which they subjected themselves and others.
Examples of heteronormative behaviors the girls brought up were talking about heterosexual crushes even though no boys were mentioned or present. They were vulnerable to each other and pledged to keep each other’s secrets. This vulnerability is an example of the girls constructing heteronormativity. Women are taught from the time they are girls to be the opposite or social complements of men in order to partner with them sexually. The authors write, “’Just as the fish does not know that it lives in a wet environment,’ so too are we unable to recognize the pervasiveness and effects of heteronormative messages” (168). Thus, from a young age, girls are subjected to pressure to pair up romantically with (“have a crush on”) a boy. The girls used language in ways that indicate their awareness of this expectation. They used terms such as “my” to claim a boy as their own, and “hottie” to refer to celebrities. Thus, the girls might talk about having crushes on one of “their hotties.” Simply spending time with a boy might garner teasing that the two are “dating,” but by affirming it, the two can avoid that teasing. The girls use heterosexualized terminology to validate even nonsexualized interactions; no such parallel exists for relationships with female friendships. From this, the article posits, one can conclude that even though boy/girl friendships may not be romantically motivated, they are shaped by heteronormative pressures. Boys, too, are not oblivious to this pressure, and “hit on” girls by using pick up lines on them, even if their attention is unwanted.
Other ways girls co-constructed heteronormativity amongst themselves, were by deciding what actions (dating, kissing, sex, etc.) were “appropriate” for what ages, and by using “gay” and “lesbian” in intolerant and pejorative ways, despite the girls’ tolerance of intimacy between girls. One important difference the study finds between the young girls’ construction of heteronormativity as compared to older girls’, is that the younger girls’ constructions always worked out to their advantage, unlike older girls. The study concludes that more research will need to be done to discern why this may be the case.
I thought this study was interesting for a number of reasons. The first was that I realized even within heterosexual relationships and contexts, heteronormativity still uses violent language to describe relationships—we call liking someone a “crush” and refer women being approached by men as being “hit on.” This use of violent phrases to explain something like love already sets up romantic and sexual relationships as a power differential, frequently with the male in the more dominant position. Even if no physical violence is being done to one or both partners in the relationship (although I would posit, using words that are descriptive of physical harm like “crush” in innocent contexts normalizes physical violence later on by linguistically representing relationships in terms of power transfers), violence is done to whichever partner is giving up their autonomy.
Another aspect of heteronormativity the article mentioned was how our culture refers to children’s sexuality and “mimicking” adults, and that later on, children experience a “sexual awakening.” The girls knew that desirability in the eyes of boys was a “good” thing, part of their construction of femininity and a part of the bonding process between them, evidence of heteronormative pressures. The rejection of anything “lesbian” is in keeping with heteronormative structures, and, in my opinion, so is the decision-making about what is “appropriate” for them. Heteronormative tradition requires men to be heterosexually active, aggressive, and predatory, and women to be modest and virginal. Thus, the emphasis on actions being “appropriate” is a way of constructing femininity among the girls. The use of the word “appropriate” is violent in several ways; it can be used to delegitimize or stigmatize girls’ feelings or desires, especially if those feelings or desires are homosexual or otherwise break with the sexuality and gender roles prescribed for girls even within heterosexuality. It seems to me that discussions of what is “appropriate” is closely related to “slut-shaming,” a form of violence in which women who have a number of sexual partners are mocked and degraded. This has both immediate and far-reaching implications. On the individual level, the discussion of “appropriateness” is violent because it can cause emotional damage or social isolation, but on a grander scale, the discussion of what is and is not “appropriate” for women of all ages is related to political discussions about abortion and birth control. Women lose control over their own bodies because having sex outside of marriage is seen as “inappropriate” (but only in the context of femininity, as the article implies). Furthermore, the standards on what “appropriate” behavior and dress for women is contributes to victim-blaming in contexts of rape—which I would argue that the article in part suggests—is derived also in part due to the violent ways we describe relationships, and the ways we describe and glorify masculinity.