What is it about?

This paper sets out to investigate how children make sense of and negotiate non-traditional gender discourses promoted through the feminist version of the fairytale of Snow White. This study builds upon Davies’ (1989) ground-breaking research with pre-school children in Australia by amalgamating post-structuralist theory with Connell’s concepts of hegemonic masculinity and emphasised femininity in analysing primary-schoolchildren’s sense making of gender discourses in the Hellenic educational and cultural setting. Research was based on work with 120 pupils aged 9–11 years old in 2 Athenian primary schools. The data were collected through semi-structured group interviews. The findings suggested that schoolchildren gave conflicting accounts in relation to gender discourses and identities. There is a strong indication that girls of this age are more prepared than boys to challenge traditional gender discourses.

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Why is it important?

Although the feminist version of Snow White prompted children to challenge normative gender discourses, the pre-existing structures of traditional narratives remained extremely powerful and several times prevented a feminist hearing of the story by most children, especially boys. The findings indicate that texts are polysemous sites, allowing multiple readings and offering readers several possible positions. Boys and girls provided contradictory accounts of femininity and masculinity which had no consensus. These differing responses supported observations of conflicting subjectivities at the individual and group levels. In particular, pupils’ views of Snow White ranged from full acceptance to complete rejection of her roles/activities. Most children idealised matrimony, motherhood, androphilia, and gynephilia as the only acceptable expressions of sexuality. These views reveal the extent to which the heterosexual matrix framed pupils’ views of gender. Constrained by dominant discourses of hegemonic masculinity and emphasised femininity, many children drew upon rigid gender binaries to make sense of gender. In an attempt to identify with the ‘correct’ gender, children challenged Snow White’s positionings in the narrative and engaged in ‘category maintenance work’ (Davies 1989, 29). Girls seemed more prepared than boys to challenge normative gender discourses, suggesting that the discourses available to girls enabled them to challenge traditional gender discourses. Girls likely had more to gain than lose by doing so for by opposing emphasised femininity discourses they challenged the constraints imposed on them (Paechter 2006; Rice 2000). The findings also suggest that mothers’ educational level and workforce role exert significant influence on children’s agency and their role in constructing gender. In particular, it was noted that pupils with well-educated mothers who actively participated in paid employment had greater ability to disrupt normative gender discourses. Despite the discernible parallelisms between my study and Davies’ (1989) research, my study takes a new epistemic approach. First, the geographical, cultural and chronological parameters constitute critical points that differentiate my study from Davies’. Additionally, the literature suggests that children accept traditional gender dichotomies by the age of 5, ‘so at this stage children are keen to demonstrate their awareness and knowledge of being the “right” gender’ and then ‘they begin to establish and refine these conceptual understandings’ (Skelton et al. 2009, 189). A comparison of my findings with Davies’ (1989) research shows that children’s age does not necessarily affect their ability to disrupt traditional gender discourses even when they do not have the discursive history to do so. This is corroborated by the fact that although participants in my research were considerably older and had established a better sense of gender identity they were more prepared to participate in the disruption of discourses. The findings, therefore, offer valuable insight into children’s subjectivities and the ways in which they deploy discourses of hegemonic masculinity and emphasised femininity in the production of meanings. This also emphasises the synergy that characterises the construction of masculinity and femininity upon which children draw for making sense of gender. It should also be noted that the study of children’s responses to non-traditional gender discourses has not been attempted previously in Hellenic primary education. My approach of sharing a feminist fairy tale in the Hellenic primary school context is a unique application of an Australian study and constitutes feminist intervention. It offers valuable insight into children’s sense making of non-normative gender discourses, and thus a similar approach could be employed by future researchers interested in examining children’s negotiations of gendered discourses. These findings make a significant contribution to the existing Hellenic literature on gender identity construction in primary schools by shedding light on an under-researched field. Most importantly, it illuminates how children simultaneously are positioned within these discourses and engage with and negotiate these positions. Additionally, this analysis employed a post-structuralist paradigm to investigate how gender meanings are constituted and reconstituted through discourses in multiple and diverse ways and how these are related to broader social norms, hegemonic masculinity and emphasised femininity. Throughout the study, I attempted to understand children’s perceptions, experiences and meanings of gender within the broader Hellenic social context. By keeping in mind the broader gender discourses and the structural and social dynamics of gender, I could understand the complexities of children’s negotiation of gender discourses and how they position themselves in the hegemonic heterosexual matrix. As well, my study offers some valuable insights into the influence of social parameters on children’s perceptions of gender roles. In particular, the findings revealed that pupils’ gender, parents’ educational level and mothers’ employment status have a crucial effect on their sense making of gender discourses. My research showed that girls were better able than boys to challenge normative gender discourses. Furthermore, a causal relationship was found between a higher parents’ educational level and a greater probability that children would be able to challenge normative constructions of gender. In essence, the higher the professional status of the mothers, the greater the possibility their children would reproduce gender egalitarian discourses. In conclusion, feminist fairy tales per se are not a panacea to alter children’s perceptions of gender roles but can be a useful tool for pedagogues to present children with gender-egalitarian discourses because children can ‘be taught to read critically’ (Arizpe 2001, 36; Wasserberg 2012). Educators should encourage children to actively engage with such storylines and discuss gender-equality issues in the classroom (Davies and Banks 1992).

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This page is a summary of: Snow White in Hellenic primary classrooms: children’s responses to non-traditional gender discourses, Gender and Education, October 2016, Taylor & Francis,
DOI: 10.1080/09540253.2016.1237619.
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