The purpose of this study was to investigate children’s interpretation of a popular gendered fairy tale at the level of peer interaction. Walt Disney’s Cinderella was used in elementary school reading groups to investigate the ways that children understand messages regarding gender and the influence of peer culture on the production of meaning. The findings indicate that gender and gendered expectations were essential to the process of interpretation and the construction of eaning for the children. Gender unified the boys and girls into two distinct groups, particularly around the “girls’ book,” Cinderella.
Gender was reinforced along traditional lines in the peer group, serving as a deterrent to the production of alternate interpretations to traditional messages in the text.
Keywords: Gender, Peer interaction, Children, Agency, Cinderella
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Children’s literature has long been cited as a vehicle for the transmission of gendered values and messages (Weitzman et L. Baker-Sperry (*) Department of Women’s Studies, Western Illinois University, 500 Currens Hall, Macomb, IL 61455, USA -mail: L-Baker-Sperry@wiu. edu al. 1972; Agee 1993; Zipes 1997). The ability of children’s literature to impart meaning and reflect social constructions of masculinity and femininity to its readers has also been documented (Currie 1997; Gledhill 1985; Zipes 1997).
More recently, particular attention has been paid to the influence of peer culture in the construction of meaning derived from media sources, children’s literature included (Corsaro 1997; Currie 1997; Davies 1990; Milkie 1994; Pike and Jennings 2005). The purpose of the present study was to examine how children’s peer culture influences the interpretation of endered messages derived from children’s literature.
Interpretive Reproduction and Children’s Peer Culture
Children are inventive and resourceful social participants in the preservation (reproduction), interpretation, and formation of their social world as they actively interpret the social world by constructing the meaning of social messages (Corsaro 1997, 1992). Corsaro (1997) stated that children “quickly appropriate, use, and transform symbolic culture as they produce and participate in peer culture” (p. 100).
This view of the child’s active interpretation of the social world, termed interpretive reproduction, conceptualizes hildren as research participants and social individuals. Children appropriate messages and meanings from the world of adults and filter them through their own understanding and experiences. Children’s responses to social messages indicate their ability to understand and make meaning of the social world. This does not occur simply as the child’s reaction to social messaging, however. The process of interpretation is most effectively negotiated at the level of interaction where understanding is conceptualized, organized, and reaffirmed through peer identity (Corsaro 1997; Currie 1997; Davies 1990; Miller et al. 990).
Through interaction that occurs within everyday routines (Corsaro 1997), Sex Roles (2007) 56:717–727 718 children are able to learn the rules of the social group in which they are a part. Interaction in the peer group also solidifies gendered perspectives (Hibbard and Buhrmester 1998; Thorne 1997). Acting out gender, as well as sometimes pushing its boundaries, is often manifested in the peer group. Children discursively position themselves as boys or girls in their play, thus reifying the dichotomous nature of the construction of gender through peer interaction (Davies 2003; Hibbard and Buhrmester 1998).
Children also rely heavily on traditional normative structures to make sense of the world, and they often accept gendered expectations as truth. The process of internalization and negotiation of messages becomes unique in relation to gender when one considers the primacy of gendered norms and expectations.
Gendered Messages and the Peer Group: Prescription or Negotiation
Scholars have identified fairy tales as vehicles of gendered messages and forms of prescriptive literature for children (Baker-Sperry and Grauerholz 2003; Bettelheim 1976; Tatar 1993; Zipes 1997), and others have argued that such gendered messages are interpreted and reinforced through peer interaction (Corsaro 1997; Milkie 1994). Corsaro (1997, p. 4) identified children’s literature, particularly fairy tales, as important sources that are “primarily mediated by adults in cultural routines in the family and other settings. ” The intent of the present study was not to document which essages are gendered, but how gendered messages are understood and internalized by children and, further, the ways that such tales are interpreted through peer interaction.
The static, gendered messages and the highly structured form of the fairy tale provide a vehicle for children to interpret gendered norms and expectations more clearly. The well-known tale Cinderella was chosen for its clear, traditional depiction of gendered expectations, fantasy, and romantic love as well as for its current status as a feminine text limited to the world of girls in its recent production and advertisement (e. g. a story central to the “Disney Princesses”) (Shumway 2003; Zipes 1997). Cinderella is a tale that focuses on girls and women, with predominantly female characters. Boys are not likely to embrace a female main character (Hibbard and Buhrmester 1998; Pike and Jennings 2005). Girls, however, are often willing to embrace a male main character such the popular children’s character, Harry Potter, for example. Choosing Cinderella for the present study was an intentional way to clarify the reactions to a book clearly identified as targeting one sex and not the other.
The choice of a “feminine” text that lluminates this relationship between boys, girls, and gendered text was deliberate. Fairy tale scholar Jack Zipes (1997) has argued that, currently, children’s understanding and image associations of the fairy tale Cinderella are so closely linked with the animated film Cinderella (Disney 1950) that they are inseparable. Based on the expectation that the children may describe Disney’s animated images even when not referenced, and that this might lead to the incorrect assumption that the children were exploring alternate ways of telling the story when in fact they were reproducing the opular Disney image, a textual version of Walt Disney’s Cinderella that contained many of the well-known images from the animated film was selected for use in the present study. An analysis of Walt Disney’s Cinderella, in preparation for data collection, produced several themes. These assertions are supported by Shumway’s (2003) assertions concerning traditional feminine text and in Grauerholz and Baker-Sperry’s (2007) findings on pervasive themes within popular Grimms’ tales. These themes guided, but did not limit, the discussion and influenced the questions asked of students during the reading groups.
Romantic Love The text is a romantic tale in that love and/or marriage are driving forces and the text “deals with love that leads to marriage or love outside of marriage, but not love in marriage” (Shumway 2003, p. 3). The story’s inevitable culmination in marriage, coupled with elements of love at first sight and the concurrent competition among women for the prince, is pivotal to the overall action of the story Cinderella. The search for a suitable marriage partner for the prince is the reason for the ball.
Gendered Role Expectations in Disney’s Cinderella
Although the stepmother and stepsisters do not engage in raditional domestic work, Cinderella is required to do so. All women in the text are concerned with physical appearance of self or other and clearly understand this to have direct impact on the ability to procure a suitable mate. Men in the tale fill traditionally masculine status roles: king, prince, and ambassador. The men have obvious social power; the women struggle to attain or maintain status on their own. Transformation Cinderella is transformed from a dutiful and submissive girl imprisoned in a domestic world to a beautiful and enviable young woman thrust into the public and both desired and sought by the prince.
Transformation may be highly Sex Roles (2007) 56:717–727 attractive to young girls, given the tendency to link femininity with beauty, desirability, and marriage suitability. Boys may or may not be used to experiencing the progression of a male character or the development of masculinity in such a way.
Rescuer and Rescued
Although the man’s role is de-emphasized in this tale, the “Cinderella story” is one of trial, rescue, and redemption (return to rightful place). The prince, who offers Cinderella an escape from her dire circumstances, is the true rescuer. This construct serves to support traditional notions about asculinity and femininity.
Importance of Physical Beauty
Cinderella is identified as good and industrious, but she is also very beautiful. It is her beauty that first attracts the prince, as well as her mystery, and it is her beauty (symbolic in the form of a small foot encased in glass) that confirms her place as rightful bride. Domestic slavery also hid her physical beauty.
The Lack of a Pivotal Male Role
This is really a story about girls and women, and the young prince does not play a central action role. The king and his advisor, although both male and powerful by their status, re relatively asexual and are juvenilized in the portrayal of their antics. The protagonist is female (Cinderella), and the key supporting characters are also female: the wicked stepmother, unattractive stepsisters, and the fairy godmother. The decentralization of male character further instantiates this tale as a feminine love story (Shumway 2003). These themes situate the text, Cinderella, as a highly gendered and traditionally normative story through which an analysis of interpretations as negotiated in peer groups may occur.
In the present study I explored the following research questions about the ways that gendered messages re understood, appropriated, or reinvented through interaction: How does the peer group influence the production of meaning concerning gendered messages? Do boys and girls contribute to the production of meaning in the peer groups in similar ways? To what extent do boys and girls reject or accept the tale as about them? To what extent do the children accept the traditional gender representations without question? Do they produce interpretations that displace traditional stereotypes and gendered expectations? Analysis of these questions, through the lens of symbolic interaction and the sociology of childhood, serves to lluminate the relationship between gendered text and the everyday world of the child.
Method Setting and Participants
To collect the data for this project, I participated in informal, intensive, preliminary observation of 148 students in eight first-grade classrooms. In six of the eight classrooms, a total of 50 students participated in reading groups. Each reading group contained between nine and nine children, except for one group of 11 participants. Walt Disney’s version of Cinderella (Disney 1986) was the subject matter for each reading group. All students involved were either 6 or 7 years old and were in the first grade.
All data were collected in a public elementary school serving a midwestern rural area (population 21,659). The children’s socioeconomic backgrounds ranged from uppermiddle class (parents often university employed with high educational attainment) to children with unemployed heads of households (the area experienced two factory closings immediately prior to data collection). The participants were otherwise relatively homogenous. The majority of children had working parents and either single, two-parent, or blended families. Eighty-nine percent of the children in the study were European American, 8% were African American, and 3% were Asian American. These numbers are representative of the larger population for the area (U. S. Bureau of the Census 2000). At all possible times, reading groups were conducted when Children of Color were present (e. g. , scheduling around sick days). The reading groups were formed by classroom, and consisted only of children who met the criteria: first-grade status, a willingness to participate, and a consent form signed by a parent or guardian. As a member of the university community, I was granted admission in the classroom by the principal and then by each individual teacher.
The local university houses a successful elementary education program, and the number of university associates at the school at any given time is quite large. Student teachers, researchers, facilitators, and assessors are present throughout the regular school year. The students and teachers were very friendly and quickly became accustomed to my presence.
Procedure Preliminary Observation
The use of interpretive ethnographic methods (Corsaro 1997; Eder and Corsaro 1999) has become more prominent since researchers began to explore “the meaning of social processes from the perspective of those studied” (Corsaro 997, p. 75). To become familiar with how children actively engaged in group work, as opposed to working Sex Roles (2007) 56:717–727 720 singly or as a larger class, I engaged in preliminary observation of eight first-grade classrooms over a 3 month period for approximately 4 h/week.
Observation occurred during the children’s classroom reading time, scheduled time to work in groups, and/or time usually scheduled for “extra activities,” such as movies. This time spent in the elementary school was an introduction to the nature of these everyday routines and to the research participants. I then ngaged in the primary data collection by conducting reading groups with the children.
Data collection occurred in structured reading groups to explore the ways that children negotiate peer relationships in a small group around the highly traditional and gendered fairy tale, Cinderella. The reading groups were chosen as the primary method of data collection because they were naturally occurring and provided a flexible, yet constant routine in the children’s school day, one where intentional learning was conducted while children were encouraged to think and work in groups.
The style and format of the reading groups closely resembled the usual in-class format. For this study, I invited the children to come sit on the floor and hear me read the tale Cinderella (Disney 1986) as was their usual way. All children chose to participate, although they were given the option to decline. I allowed the children to discuss the illustrations and make interjections throughout the tale, though they were accustomed to a pattern of listening while the story was read and of asking any questions afterward. Overall, the atmosphere of the reading group was very relaxed. Control over the attention of the group was fairly asy to maintain, due in large part to the children’s familiarity with the reading group structure and with being read to by adults other than the teacher (e. g. , parents often did this). Each reading group was recorded using a video camera on a tripod in a corner of the classroom. As the classrooms were small, I was able to capture the reading group interaction, albeit from only one angle. The students did not to respond to the camera as I had anticipated. After the initial set-up occurred, they ignored the camera. I later transcribed all tapes and typed my observation notes myself. I am identified in the transcripts as LBS.
All students’ names were changed. Results To become familiar with the environment, I often asked the children questions, engaged in their play, and physically joined them as they learned (e. g. , I sometimes sat with the group on the floor). Initially, the students questioned my role in their classrooms and wondered why I did not actively participate in the regular work in a normative adult way as a student teacher or librarian might. Quickly, the children became accustomed to my presence, and I was soon the object of friendly and playful competition. Students would often ask to sit by me during an activity r ask me to “come out and play tag with us” while lining up for recess. In conjunction with what Davies (2003) found, by not behaving in an authoritative way, I was quickly welcomed into the children’s activities.
The children did not forget that I was an adult, as evidenced in the following excerpt from field notes, but often used my age to situational advantage: The children played “knock from the chair” today during free time. I was invited to play and agreed to sit on the chair while one team of children tried to knock me off. Soon there were cries of “no fair, she is too hard to knock off! immediately followed by a discussion about how to reconfigure the teams so that I was on theirs! Before we determined membership, the game was halted by the teaching assistant for roughness (observation notes, October 1999). There were also times when my adult status was obvious and irrevocable. For example, one day a boy fell backwards in his chair and hit his head on the floor.
Immediately, I stepped outside of my role of observer and confidante and assumed adult status. There were times when the children became rather more formal in their interactions with me, such as when I became a reader, a role often filled by eacher, parent, or other adult. I also believe that the reading groups, although they occurred only once with each group of children, underscored my adult status. This meant that, at times, the children and I interacted more formally, whereas at other times I was easily invited into the game or activity. The interactions below are representative of what occurred during the reading groups, and are infused with a familiarity between myself and the children, but are also reflective of the structured routine of the reading group and therefore are more reserved in nature than other forms of interaction that occurred.
Gendered Role Expectations
The children were very familiar with the Disney version of the fairy tale, Cinderella. They knew the story well enough to finish my sentences as I read. When I read “On Cinderella ’s feet were tiny.... , ” many immediately responded with “glass slippers. ” Similarly, many of the students joined in at the end of the tale with “... happily every after! ” In fact, the students knew the story so well (particularly demonstrated by the girls), and were at times Sex Roles (2007) 56:717–727 so caught up in the tale, that they jumped ahead in their excitement, finishing the story long before the end.
Many students also knew the names of Cinderella’s animal friends, an element unique to the Disney version. In the reading groups, stereotypical views of traditional gender expectations were reproduced in the children’s accounts of the tale. When asked about Cinderella’s physical appearance prior to the reading of the tale, the children responded with a characterization of Cinderella that is consistent of Disney’s well-known image. The children’s description of Cinderella’s personality was also static and highly traditional, in keeping with the text. Cinderella was identified as beautiful, nice, deserving of riends, and as skilled in domestic tasks. These are highly emphasized elements within the tale and were consistently linked to one another by the children in the reading groups. The students did not problematize this imagery. The students characterized the stepsisters as ugly, mean, and inept in feminine skills.
Therefore, they identified them in ways that were, for the most part, consistent with the text. The stepmother was described in ways that reflect her characterization in the story, both in text and in pictures. For example, Cinderella’s father, at the beginning of the tale, is shown as a young man, possibly in his late 20s, ppropriate for the father of a young girl. Concurrently, the stepmother is illustrated as gray, older, and very matronly. The students indicated that they noticed some of the inconsistency. Linda: Her hair is gray. Carol: She is old. LBS: Right, she is older. Ben: She is 100 years old. Those are her grandchildren. LBS: She is 100 years old? But those are her daughters. [Laughter and exclamations of “No! ” from the students. ] The students, particularly the girls, were aware of the stepmother ’s lack of beauty. Her appearance, age, and the fact that she is “mean” were often discussed.
She was not defended as a mother or as a person. No child made a positive statement about the stepmother or her behavior. The prince was characterized positively by the girls, who saw him as a romantic character. The girls described the prince as handsome, although the text did not. There is no mention of handsomeness in the tale Cinderella (BakerSperry and Grauerholz 2003). LBS: What does the prince look like? Brooke: Handsome! Jill: Charming. Gary: What’s that mean? Marge: That is his name. LBS: What does charming mean? Marge: That’s his name Jill: He is beautiful, handsome. Brooke: He is dreamy. 721
Although the text does not identify the Prince as handsome, charming, or dreamy, these names were often linked to this character by the girls, particularly when asked (specifically and repeatedly) about his appearance. The students did not once, however, reply that they did not know what the prince looks like or that the book does not provide that information textually, nor did they make reference to the images offered in the book’s illustrations. Nor did they indicate that he was not attractive or balk at the question. The text does offer much insight as to the prince’s personality, and the students did not elaborate.
In the previous excerpt, the prince was also identified as charming, a commonly used designation for many fairy tale princes, but Marge could not define charming except to say “that is his name. ” Davies (2003), in her work with children and feminist fairy tales, found that the belief that the primary male or female character will be attractive supersedes textual portrayals. This is the case here, possibly because attractiveness is more in keeping with the romantic nature of the tale. The children did not question the basic gendered assumptions embodied in many images and characterizations in the text, nor did they explore alternatives.
For example, no child commented that the stepmother is not motherly toward Cinderella, that she does not look motherly, or that her personality does not fit with what one might associate with mothering, although her physical appearance is inconsistent with popular images of mothers, which was mentioned (see above). No child questioned Cinderella’s desire to marry the prince. Such consistency across responses indicates that this group of children accepts many of the normative gendered images within the text without overtly questioning them, yet questioned those that do not fit expectations (as the stepmother ’s ppearance). Corsaro (1997, p. 20) argued that “confusions are addressed but not resolved in routines,” but these reading groups served as routines where basic gendered assumptions were negotiated and interpreted, but not necessarily problematized or resisted.
Retelling the Tale: A Form of Social Power
The girls in the present study often found social power or acceptance in the retelling of the tale. For the girls, there was more at stake in telling the story as it was read, than in changing the story to reflect less traditional roles and behaviors.
This was documented in numerous ways; for example, one girl was quickly admonished by another for suggesting that “maybe Cinderella did not like her fancy ball dress. ” In keeping with West and Zimmerman’s (1987) theory of gender work and performance, the girls wanted to 722 be perceived as feminine and, therefore, to prove their femininity through sharing components of the tale within the peer group. By retelling and defending the tale as it was read, they reinforced their positions as girls and as knowledgeable of the feminine world. Assertion of femininity was most influential with other girls, but the oys did not problematize the girls’ interest (as they did with other boys’). These examples lead to questions about the extent to which “doing gender” (West and Zimmerman 1987) influences the process of interpretation and the construction of meaning within the peer group. If active negotiation is about sometimes resisting dominant messages in favor of working out meaning within the peer group, but doing gender is about affirming gendered stereotypes within the same group, the two ways of understanding and making sense of the world are at odds.
Girls: Filtering Fantasy through Experience
Fantasy and the dream world informed the ways the girls discussed the tale. They often combined the fantasy world with their everyday lived experience to create a space for their own storytelling and/or interaction with the text. Many of the children discussed the text in terms of how their lives did or did not parallel the fairy tale, but the girls repeatedly engaged in fantasizing about their futures as we read. Sometimes the girls would decide that the ideology of the fairy tale world and their personal expectations for the future conflicted. Bridget: I am going to get married to a prince. He is oing to meet me at the ball. [gets up and dances around in a small circle] Karen: I don’t think they have balls anymore.... Bridget: I am going to have one when I turn 6... Kristi: 6? You are 6, dummy. Right? Lana: I wouldn’t want to go to a ball if that is what happens. [marriage] Bridget: I mean 16. Lana: I don’t want to get married [until] I am 23. Bridget: Well, I can do what I want. [sitting down] When the content of the fairy tale struck children as related to or reflective of their own lives, personal desires, or experiences, it was obvious that their interest in the tale was elevated.
This process of identifying with the text seemed to blur reality with fantasy. It was when the text did not strike the children as reflective of their lives that the processes of interpretation and group interaction were most clear. At these times, the children worked to create an image that was more reflective of their lived experience. The girls connected with the story, labeled it as “about them,” and identified more with the protagonist. There were also times, however, when they acknowledged identification with the less positively identified characters (e. g. , those Sex Roles (2007) 56:717–727 haracterized as bad or ugly, such as the stepsisters). When they discussed the stepsisters’ behavior toward Cinderella, the children spoke in terms of their own punishment for similar misdeeds.
Bridget: They are very, very, very, very selfish. Karen: They should get a swat. Kristi: [Swats her own bottom. ] I have had a swat. Bridget: On the bottom! Many of the girls discussed the tale in terms of what they had done or would like to do, who they are or would like to be. The girls sometimes seemed envious of Cinderella. For example, one girl asked, with a voice full of anxiousness, ow Cinderella got to be so beautiful, and stated that she wanted to be as beautiful as Cinderella. Even at age 6, a girl knows that beauty is rewarded in our society. LBS: What does Cinderella look like? Isabel: Very, very, very beautiful. Shelly: She probably looks very pretty with blond hair [touches her brown hair] and blue eyes. [touching near her own brown eyes] Isabel: I have blond hair [touching her hair] and blue eyes! [Shelly swats Isabel] This passage illustrates how children identify with a story, discussing it in terms of how the characters are “like them” and how the situations parallel their experiences.
Furthermore, the girls were interested in what might be in store for them as adults by assuming that what happens in the tale might happen in their lives as well. Currie (1997) argued that the adolescent girls in her study gave the messages in teen magazines ontological status, that they saw them as true and reflective of their own lives. Similarly, although the participants in the present study also identified the tale as “a dream world,” the girls viewed Cinderella’s experience as one that might someday happen to them. In so doing, they embraced the ideological messages about emininity, yet, at the same time, negotiated, added to, and subtracted from the tale as they filtered the messages through their own experiences, hopes, and desires. For example, they were particularly interested in Cinderella’s new married life. Kristi: Does Cinderella have babies after she gets married? LBS: The book does not say; what do you think? Kristi: She should have babies, and she will change diapers, right? LBS: If they have babies, do you think the prince will change diapers? Chorus: No! The girls offered interpretations that existed within the traditional framework of the text.
Corsaro (1997) asserted hat children engage in interpretive reproduction, and, in so doing, they borrow from adult culture and renegotiate the messages in a reflexive process of defining and (re) Sex Roles (2007) 56:717–727 producing what is real. But that they borrow from their own lived experience is clearly evident in many of their discussions and reactions to the text. The girls’ belief that Cinderella (and they themselves) could marry and experience this traditional love story, at the same time as they realize that parts of the tale simply are not possible (such as the fairy godmother who turns a pumpkin into a coach), or re not realistic for them (marriage at a very young age), speaks to this process. They are taking the reality of their own experiences and blending it, through their discussion, with their understanding of what they are and what they might hope to experience in the future. Delight and Damage: Girls’ Peer Culture and Expectations of the Feminine During the reading groups, most girls were excited, often interjecting comments, such as “I have Cinderella Barbie,” and running ahead in the story. One girl asked to have the story read again. Many girls in the reading groups engaged in spontaneous role play.
Role play does not usually happen after a story is read in the everyday classroom. As I did not discourage eager comments or the beginnings of role play when they first occurred in each group, they may well have simply taken my cue. One example of particularly exuberant role play occurred after a short debate over Cinderella’s age. Meg: She was not much older than me in the book. I think she was my age. Carla: She was old enough to get married. Meg: She grew up in the book. Like this. [stands up and twirls around] When she got her dress. Do you like my dress? I am going to the ball.
Carla: No, this is how Cinderella danced. [stands and begins dancing] Rachel: I will be Cinderella when she tries on the shoe. LBS: How many Cinderellas are there, anyway? [laughing] Tess: We are all Cinderella! [others get up to dance] As in this example, the girls often worked to allow everyone to be involved. This is not to say that competition for the status-filled position of Cinderella did not occur. It did. But, most often, the girls worked together to make meaning of the tale. Role play did not happen routinely with the boys, and they usually stayed seated when the girls were acting out the tale.
In the only example of role play in which the boys were actively involved, the prince and his friend left the group to chase dragons before the ball began, about midway through the tale. There were examples of less affiliative interaction between the girls. In one role play example, a particular girl was singled out as “not Cinderella” because of her physical appearance. It was difficult to witness the 723 interaction when a girl said “you can’t be Cinderella, but you could be the ugly stepsister. ” The competition inherent in the story was painful when witnessed in children in the real world.
As I stood to signal the end of the reading group, another little girl said to the first: “Don’t listen to her... she just doesn’t have a nice heart. ” The gender work in the children’s groups was, in many ways, reflective of the expectations and pressures of the larger adult world. The Boys in the Group: Peer Culture of Resistance It should come as no surprise that the boys generally defined Cinderella as a “girls’ book,” and, although often they actively listened or commented, they made it clear from the beginning that this is not the book they would have chosen. This was an expected response based upon the hosen text. Even though there were many loud guffaws at the introduction of the text, it was fairly clear that the boys were as familiar with the tale as the girls were. The boys did answer questions and offer comments, but as often as not it was to steer the discussion off track.
This tactic was noticeably common among the boys, and they engaged in some friendly competition as to who might be the most successful, complementing each other on a job well done. The boys also rivaled one another for the attention of the group and for my attention. As we had spent time in other orms of classroom interaction, our relationships were often friendly and familiar. But, when it came to approval from the group or my approval, the boys usually sought approval from the group. This was often manifested in raucous storytelling. Their stories or comments interested the group because of their (sometimes sexually suggestive) shock value. LBS: On Cinderella’s feet were..? Mike: Shoes. Larry: Glass shoes. Chorus: Glass slippers! Larry: It looks like a glass dress!! I wish it were a glass dress! Larry: Ha! It would be funny if it was... Mike: And then we could see... LBS: All right.
Her slippers are the only clothing item made of glass. One should note here that the student might not have received my approval, but the comment did receive my attention. Teachers often told me that sometimes students would seek notice regardless of the consequences. Although I actively fostered a relationship where the children were less likely to view me as an authority figure, I was, regardless, an adult. Some of the alternate responses may simply be attributed to the boy’s unwillingness to embrace the more romantic images in the tale (and their keen 724 awareness of the repercussions if they did).
At one point, a boy broke out in song: Matt [singing]: “Happily Ever After and kiss my hand! ” LBS: I have a couple of quick questions for you, do you mind answering? [No comment] LBS: What is the Prince like? Matt: Stupid. Ben: Dumb. Brian: A dummy. Jeremy: He got in a coach crash. LBS: Why? Matt: Because he does not even love her. LBS: Why? Matt: [in a gruff voice] Because she is rotten to the core!... LBS: What is Cinderella like? Chorus: Dumb. LBS: Nice or mean? Ben: She is a cleaning lady. Matt: She loves me. LBS: I did not know she had ever met you. [Boys laugh] The satirical nature of these responses is evident.
Not only did the boys challenge the structure of the reading group and my authority as a researcher, but they also pushed the boundaries in terms of what is considered by adults in the school system to be an “acceptable” reference to sex and sexuality. In stopping the conversation, my status as an adult was emphasized, which hindered my inclusion to their world. The boys did not elaborate on the tale in ways that identified with the prince, the king, or with Cinderella. Furthermore, the boys did not experience any social rewards from other boys for knowing the story. In fact, ost of the boys adamantly argued that they did not care for the story at all and reacted negatively toward any boy who showed any sign of interest in the tale. The only boy who took an interest in the prince used a different characterization than what was offered in the tale, although his description clearly resonates with masculine culture and expectations of male sexuality. Mark: I think the prince has a lot of dances. Joe: What? Dances? Mark: He dances and dances and dances because he likes to kiss lots of girls... Joe: Oh, yeah, well he does not dance if he doesn’t have to. [shrugs] Mark: He does have to so he does.
Joe: Yeah, I would dance if I had to. Mark: What? This conversation illustrates the tension between the social expectations that the boys sensed from one another and the larger adult world, as well as the conflicted nature Sex Roles (2007) 56:717–727 of the traditional stories of heterosexual love and masculinity. Examples such as this, when juxtaposed with the preceding examples of some of the girls’ responses, demonstrate the reproduction of larger social norms concerning sexuality and desire, as well as acceptable roles and displays for men and women. The boys were not always willing to offer a response, resumably for fear of disapproval from the other boys in the group. In one group, for example, I could not elicit a verbal response from any of the boys unless I asked them a direct question, and then I would receive a very short reply. One shrugged his shoulders at a general question aimed at the group; the others shifted sidelong glances at each other. They did not seem to feel the need to feign enthusiasm for the book.
A girl in the group stated that the boys did not like it because “... it is a girls’ book, even though there are men in it. ” In that particular case, one girl in the group attempted to xplain the boys’ attitudes toward the tale. The anxiety that the boys’ silence produced in the girls was acute, as was evidenced by multiple responses, both apologetic comments stated to me and admonitions to the boys. The girls wanted to discuss the tale, and they desired my approval, in part so that I would keep reading. They were embarrassed by the boys’ lack of enthusiasm, and indicated that they were worried that it might hurt my feelings or cause me to end the reading group. The boys seemed to sense the power of their own silence, even to revel in it, but the girls did not enjoy the silence at all.
In each of the groups, most of the boys began to disengage within the first 10 min. Inevitably, one or two boys began quietly to discuss something other than the story, and the other boys quickly tuned in to what it was that they were doing or saying. In fact, if a boy in the group did not become engaged in these other interests, he was often solicited by a boy sitting next to him, or the other boys would look at each other and signal about him. For example, one boy who seemed to be shunned by the group as a whole engaged neither in conversation about the text nor in the boys’ alternate conversations.
Most boys ignored him, although one said “Mark likes Cinderella” in a derogatory way, to identify Mark as “not one of us. ” Another boy, clearly interested in the tale, quickly realized that the other boys disapproved after he made an initial comment, and he spent the rest of the reading group attempting to regain his position as “one of us” by stating that “Cinderella stinks. ” These findings illustrate how gendered behavior is expected of and by boys and girls. Whether Mark had earlier shown an interest in “girls’ stuff” or was alienated from the boys as an unpopular student, his gender was suspect and became a means of torment.
The second boy is an example of the work commonly done to regulate Sex Roles (2007) 56:717–727 masculine behavior. Most students were very in-tune with the group’s expectations for gendered behavior and quickly accommodated. Davies (2003) argued that teasing and alienation serve to maintain the categorical boundaries between the constructions of femininity and masculinity. This regular, everyday maintenance work was evidenced here in the boys’ treatment of the group member who deviated from the expected response. Only one boy who spoke positively about the tale was not chastised by the other boys.
This instance was also one of the rare occasions when a child offered an alternate image from a media source more reflective of lived experience or identity. Recently there have been a number of attempts to create films of fairy tales that include challenges to traditional messages, such as Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella (1997), starring Brandy, a young African American woman, as Cinderella. Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella was also produced by Disney Studios. LBS: How many of you liked that story? Derrick: I have the movie, but Cinderella is Black. LBS: Do you have the movie with Brandy in it?
Derrick: Yes. This student, an African American, referenced the images from this alternate source. No one in his group, however, seemed to be familiar with this version, and only two other children in other reading groups mentioned the alternate Disney version of the tale. Discussion As has been previously argued, and is evidenced by the data in the present study, there are very few children who have not been exposed to Walt Disney’s Cinderella. The assertion that the media serve as vehicles of women’s subordination is a common element among theories of gender and gender socialization. The fact that children onsume stories like Cinderella on an everyday basis, and that stories often reify highly gendered constructions of behavior and roles, encourages us to look closely at the messages within the media to which children are exposed (Baker-Sperry and Grauerholz 2003). It is important to explore the extent to which children take these well-known messages and filter them through their lived experiences, altering them and sometimes producing new readings of gender, but it is also necessary to note that, if the text is ‘about them,’ then the children are more likely to contribute ontological status, or truth status, to the text.
This is further unified by conflict between groups, as in this case between the boys’ and girls’ responses to the text. The boys did not find themselves reflected in the text; therefore they did not elevate the text to truth status. There are other stories that resonate more soundly with the construct of masculinity. 725 The very act of defining the text as a “girls’ book” authenticates the assumptions of gender difference for the boys and girls. The children’s behavior within the reading groups was highly influenced by group interaction. This is in keeping with Corsaro’s (1992) assertion that most socialization ccurs at the level of interaction, be it in the family, among peers, or elsewhere. The nods and sounds of approval from group members encouraged both acceptance of the media messages and interaction and interpretation of those messages, depending upon the perspective of the group. An uncomfortable group atmosphere was often evident in conjunction with “doing gender. ” The girls and boys were highly influenced by the group, and acceptance or rejection of the text was enhanced by whether or not the children identified with the story, whether they thought that it was or was not about them.
This is no doubt one of the reasons that the boys in the present study did not enjoy the tale, or did not openly admit to doing so. Cinderella is a text that resonates with social messages aimed toward girls (e. g. , social rewards for goodness, kindness, and care as well as an emphasis on feminine beauty) and does not problematize a beauty ideal, romantic love, or competition among women for a the attention of men. The messages routinely found in books for boys, such as an emphasis on strength, the ability to protect others, and the denial of emotions (Seiter 1993), are not prevalent in Cinderella.
The girls embraced the story, identified with the female characters, and actively engaged in filtering the text through their lived experience and expectations of the future. They clearly took pleasure, for the most part, in reenacting the fairy tale, taking particular delight in the transformation of a young, downtrodden girl into a beautiful princess. The tale was well known, and well loved, by most of the girls. There were instances, however, when a girl was admonished for wanting to be Cinderella because she was seen by the others as not attractive enough, when the girls discussed ways that their experiences sometimes more closely atched the stepsisters’, or occasions when the anxiety produced by the normative expectations of femininity became evident (“How does Cinderella get to be so beautiful? ”).
But, for the most part, the acceptance was unanimous and excited. Through the girls’ discussion of the story, traditional expectations for femininity were identified, reified, and reinforced. The strong identification with the tale, as evidenced by the girls, is an indication of the social importance of traditional expectations of femininity. In light of previous research that has identified girls as active negotiators in the construction of meaning (Corsaro 1997; Currie 1997), the unquestioning response to the traditional elements of the tale signifies the importance of gendered Sex Roles (2007) 56:717–727 726 expectations and the solidity of gendered boundaries. The girls responded with a clear reaction: Cinderella is about us! Such a reaction, from any single girl, evidenced and affirmed her femininity. Cinderella was not, however, about or for the boys. As a feminine tale, any association might be seen as feminizing for them. This supports a traditional ideology associated with heterosexual masculinity.
Furthermore, it might be xpected that a boy would respond differently, possibly more positively, outside of the group setting (e. g. , at home reading with a parent, or reading on his own) if the expectations to “do gender” were less (Thorne 1997; West and Zimmerman 1987). Through group displays, the boys demonstrated resistance to the messages in the tale and reinforced group acceptance of normative masculinity.
The textual association with romantic love, messages traditionally directed toward women and girls (e. g. , domestic work, competition for men, emphasis on beauty), and the packaging of the text (i. e. , colors of pink and purple with cute’ animals) inherent in Cinderella simply do not mesh with boys’ experiences in learning about masculinity or the cultural expectations of them. These conflicts are reinforced through interaction in the peer group, and the peer group often regulated interpretation. The boys also actively moved the story to a place that was more about them. In this way, they de-centered the central character and instead turned to other components of popular fairy tales that are more interesting to them, such as chasing dragons and engaging in adventurous sword play. They also shifted the focus from the story in general to hallenging my authority as its reader. This is particularly interesting given the friendly and affiliative behavior I previously had experienced when interacting with the boys during in-class observation, when they were either doing assigned work or engaging in more routine (and less gendered) everyday activities.
This is in keeping with their quick and decisive treatment of each other when gender boundaries were crossed. Davies (2003) identified similar responses in the preschool children she observed. Corsaro’s assertions concerning the influence of the peer group on the interpretation and production of meaning were evident in he reading groups conducted for the present study. The children actively participated in peer socialization through the use of encouragement, enticement, pleading, and, sometimes, ridicule. The children dealt with the messages and images together, often building on one another ’s sentences and nodding in agreement at the final product. At other times, their disagreement contributed to an understanding of the complexities of the questions raised. The boys and girls produced and affirmed meanings consistent with their gender, and actively worked to ensure these processes.
These findings indicate that the work of “doing gender” West and Zimmerman 1987) plays an essential role in the process of interpretation for children. Aydt and Corsaro (2003) argued that this is particularly the case for middleclass, American children. The highly formalized classroom may reify the gendered categories “boys” and “girls,” thereby constraining group interaction and the ability to engage freely in the negotiation process. Further research in other kinds of social settings would more clearly indicate the relationship between formal structure and agency.
Children are engaging in a process of resisting and conforming, of forming and producing meaning, through heir everyday reading of stories and through their interactions in peer culture. The present study serves to emphasize the power and autonomy of the child’s world, yet, also illustrates that none of us, children included, singly create and interpret gendered understandings. Such a process is necessarily a social one that is finely entrenched in the beliefs and cultural expectations of gendered difference.
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- Mothers and daughters: Gender-role socialization in two Newbery award books. Children’s Literature in Education, 24, 165–183. Aydt, H. , & Corsaro, W. (2003).
- Differences in children’s construction of gender across culture. American Behavioral Scientist, 46, 1305–1325. Baker-Sperry, L. , & Grauerholz, L. (2003).
- The pervasiveness and persistence of the feminine beauty ideal in children’s fairy tales. Gender & Society, 17, 711–726. Bettelheim, B. (1976).
- The uses of enchantment. New York: Vintage Books. Corsaro, W. (1992).
- Interpretive reproduction in children’s peer cultures. Social Psychology Quarterly, 55, 160–177. Corsaro, W. (1997).
- The sociology of childhood. Berkeley, CA: Pine Forge Press. Currie, D. (1997).
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