Everyday Sexism in a 'Post-Feminist' World

Pop culture tells girls they can do anything, but the messages they experience in the classroom tell a different story.

A girl looks through a viewing box.
Stefan Wermuth / Reuters

For the past two decades, “girl power” has become a popular way of describing the success of girls in American culture. Widespread reports of “alpha girls”—girls who can do it all, find popularity, escape gender stereotypes, excel in school and walk away with the Homecoming Queen prize—have, according to all kinds of media reports, pioneered a gender takeover. In 2007, The Nation reported that girls can do everything boys can—and better. A New York Times story that same year documented what the author described as “amazing girls”—girls who are high-achieving and confident and engaged and “have grown up learning they can do anything a boy can do, which is anything they want to.” Business Week in 2003 described girls as “building a kind of scholastic Roman Empire alongside boys’ languishing Greece.”

Yet in a number of Canadian secondary schools at least, girls have encountered a sort of cultural time-machine when interacting with their male counterparts. In interviews with researchers between 2010 and 2013, the girls often spoke of boys’ tendency to “joke” with them when they didn’t like something they heard, allegedly telling the girls something along the lines of: “Go make me a sandwich.”

Shauna Pomerantz and Rebecca Raby, professors in the Department of Child and Youth Studies at Brock University in St. Catharines, Canada, heard plenty of those sandwich-type anecdotes in a six-year study aimed at dissecting the media’s coverage of the so-called alpha girl. Earlier this year, the researchers published a book—Smart Girls: Success, School And The Myth of Post-Feminismthat documented their interviews with a group of 57 girls between the ages of 12 and 18 in schools all over Southern Ontario.

These narratives weren’t isolated to one school or one group of friends. A number of girls from different middle and high schools reported similar experiences. One girl, Rory, 13, told them, “I was trying out for basketball and I got up to sign the sheet and everyone was like, ‘Oh get back in the kitchen!’” Rory’s initial response was anger—but then it turned to acceptance. “Guys are like that, and you get over it. It doesn’t bother me, it’s stereotypical. We read these books all the time where women are in the kitchen,” she said. (Pomerantz and Raby used pseudonyms to protect the girls’ identities.)

Pomerantz and Raby have both written various books on girl culture and knew that girls’ lives didn’t just amount to the beautiful, perfectly crafted sound bites portrayed in the media. While the authors heard plenty of alpha-girl stories—a girl who was the only female player on a boys’ hockey team, a girl who worried about balancing her popularity and her academics, a girl who stayed up until 1 a.m. checking her schoolwork—the articles made it sound as if society had transitioned into a post-feminism climate. But while they expected to hear about uncomfortable dynamics between boys and girls, they weren’t necessarily anticipating overly sexist commands reminiscent of the 1950s. Both Pomerantz and Raby gasped when they heard the “Go make me a sandwich” comment.

A few girls surveyed pushed back against the sexist statements and were able to clearly delineate what is and isn’t a joke. But more of the girls were reluctant to call out boys for their sexist behavior. They didn’t want to appear bitchy or outspoken or unsexy. It would make them look like a feminist, and feminism was a potentially damaging label. It had too many implications: that you were a prude, that you couldn’t take a joke, that you were a “man-hater” or a “bitch.” It was much cooler to say nothing. To laugh it off.

Another twist: The girls didn’t always see it as sexism, Raby told me. “They thought it was just something they shouldn’t take too seriously.” But in middle and high school, a joke is rarely just a joke. It’s often layered with all sorts of implications about race or popularity or grades or other ways that teenagers use strategic pecking orders to keep each other in their place.

This is where the problem swells. Despite cultural messages and alpha girl reports indicating that females are advanced or the smarter gender, sexism still persists in politics, in Hollywood, and in the general workforce. It also rears its head at the most rudimentary, primal levels—in schools, among children.

So why does this persuasive a girl power narrative exist even though it doesn’t match a realistic girlhood experience? Pomerantz and Raby have one theory: They believe the girls are influenced by what academic researchers and cultural critics deem a “post-feminist” perception of gender inequality, a notion that women are somehow “running” the world and that sexism towards women no longer exists.

“Girls are told that everything is equal and that they are maybe even ahead of the boys,” Pomerantz said, referring to a range of studies showing that girls earn higher grades in every subject. “But the reality is that they’re facing all of these elements of gender inequality all the time,” she said. Earlier this year, a study from researchers at the University of Illinois, New York University, and Princeton found that girls as young as 6 years old believe that “brilliance” is reserved for men. The girls in the study also believed that, unlike boys, they don’t have the innate abilities to get good grades at school. These findings supplement extensive data that show women not only get paid less than men for the same jobs, they also hold fewer CEO positions and are highly underrepresented in elected office.

Yet the post-feminist idea persists, including among women. More than 45,000 people, for instance, have liked the Facebook group for Women Against Feminism. In February of this year, the writer Jessa Crispin’s Why I Am Not A Feminist blamed the failure of feminism on the dilution of its message. Crispin argued that feminism has become another corporate slogan, a watered-down lifestyle brand. (In an interview with The Guardian, she cited a $600 Dior t-shirt that reads “We Should All Be Feminists” as an example.) A 2016 Harvard Public Opinion Project Poll of Americans ages 18 through 29 found that while roughly half of those surveyed supported feminism, only 37 percent of women actually identified as a feminist. Pomerantz and Raby wrote the book in an effort to spark a conversation that would challenge the “super-girl” narrative. “This tension between feminist narratives and post-feminist narratives and girls navigating that tension,” Raby said, “these things are messy.”

The post-feminist perception stems not from real life, but through the media and pop culture. Probably the most oft-cited analysis comes from Rosalind Gill, a City, University of London, sociology and media-studies professor, who calls post-feminism a “sensibility,” meaning it’s more of a feeling or a response to what people are seeing culturally than a communication of girls’ own experiences. Girls have been so inundated with messages in popular culture about girl empowerment—Nickelodeon’s female football quarterback in Bella and the Bulldogs, the strong female protagonist in Cars 3, and the success of Wonder Woman at the box office—that it’s hard for them not to believe that they’re living in a post-feminist society. Girls are certainly exposed to conspicuously sexist tropes in video games and on mainstream TV, but the sexism on television isn’t so in-your-face. It’s far more difficult to recognize than the “jokes” the middle school girls in Southern Ontario have dealt with.

Which is why Pomerantz and Raby found the girls’ reactions to those comments so noteworthy. Some of them struggled, the researchers explained, to confront the boys for their sexist behavior, in part because they didn’t want to seem “unattractive or ugly” to boys—or to other girls. One 2014 study, consistent with Pomerantz’s and Raby’s findings, found that 14-year-old girls felt the need to play down their intelligence so they wouldn’t scare off the boys. “Popular femininity is a challenging path to navigate,” Raby said. “Some of them [said] that you can’t come across as too smart. You can’t be seen as putting up your hand all the time. You can’t be seen as a know-it-all. It’s important to take care of your social life.” In other words, it’s easier to let a sandwich comment slide and keep your mouth shut.

This tendency among girls to see popularity and intelligence as mutually exclusive, to position themselves as either a popular girl or a smart girl, is something that educators have been struggling with for a few decades, particularly since the advent of the global movement to get more girls into STEM fields. As the National Girls Collaborative Project has explained, numerous programs and initiatives have been created to move girls in the STEM direction only to burn out and fade away because of hampering cultural forces. While the number of women in STEM has increased since the 1980s, females today still hold less than 25 percent of STEM jobs, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce.

This problem is even more complicated for black girls, who experience sexism differently than their Latina, Asian, or white counterparts. As The Atlantic has reported, black girls are not only suspended at higher rates than white girls, they’re also disciplined more harshly. “When a darker-skinned African-American female acts up, there’s a certain concern about their boyish aggressiveness, that they don’t know their place as a female, as a woman,” Lance Hannon, a Villanova sociology professor who’s conducted research on the issue, told The New York Times in 2014.

For Melissa Lyken, a counselor at a nonprofit called At The Well that holds week-long summer conferences at colleges like Princeton and Swarthmore in an effort to empower black girls, the sentiments Hannon described aren’t uncommon. Lyken, who recently graduated from the University of Southern California-Santa Cruz where she worked on initiatives aimed at increasing diversity on campus, heard a range of stories from girls from all over the United States who described a multitude of sexist interactions with adults and their peers. Yet the girls didn’t use the word “sexism”; the term, Lyken said, wasn’t in their vocabulary.

“We know what we’re experiencing, but sometimes it’s hard to put a word to it,” Lyken told me, recalling the conversations she’s had with conference participants. Many of the girls she had spoken to at previous At The Well conferences told her that they were interested in STEM classes but were deterred by guidance counselors from taking those classes. Same with honors and AP classes. “They’re being told they should take lower-level courses or they should look into a community college as opposed to a university,” Lyken said. Some girls said they’d even started their own nonprofits at their respective high schools to reach out to fellow young women of color but were often questioned in a way that felt demeaning.

Girls need to have a 3.0 GPA and recommendation letters to attend an At The Well conference. Many of their parents belonged to highly regarded African American fraternities or sororities; they often come from upper-middle-class families. Yet these girls are often the only people of color in certain classes or in their entire school, Jacqueline Glass, who founded At The Well, told me. “This summer [at the conference] there are 81 girls who look like them and who are smart, high-performing, hard-working girls,” Glass said. “It’s not just about making friends and connecting, it’s [also] about meeting someone else who knows their story. Someone else who has been through what they’ve been through.”

Pomerantz and Raby, for their part, found that peer groups (as well as families) played an influential role in helping girls cope with stress, pressure, doubts, or anxieties. In addition to At the Well, organizations such as Girls In Stem, Girls Who Code, Black Girls Code or Girl Leadership, research shows, can have a powerful impact on girls’ sense of self because they allow them to revel in their successes. High-school clubs play a similar role—they allow girls to engage in friendly competition and feel confident rather than embarrassed when they excel.

The United States, of course, has also witnessed an intensification of feminist politics, particularly after the 2016 election. Rebecca Traister, in a recent New York Magazine article about the role of sexism in determining the outcome of Hillary Clinton’s campaign, wrote: “At a visceral level, the revelation of sexism’s lingering power is why 3 million women marched in protest on the day after Trump’s inauguration and why more than 13,000 women have expressed interest in running for office since the election.”

It will take some time to see if that kind of visceral reaction will erupt in girls. But for now, many girls remain ingrained with this swirling paradox of cultural expectations and messages.