Girls today grow up in a world with an unprecedented set of educational and professional opportunities. More of them will graduate from college and earn advanced degrees than ever before, and all professions are open to them. Although the activities of girls and boys have converged over time, there are still distinctive paths for each sex, and many children's activities are still associated with particular aspects of feminine or masculine identity.
How do parents of girls navigate this often-difficult terrain? To answer this question, I'll focus on 38 families I met and interviewed who have at least one elementary school-age daughter currently involved in competitive chess, dance, or soccer. These families are a subset of the 95 families I met while researching Playing to Win: Raising Children in a Competitive Culture. Over the course of 16 months I interviewed nearly 200 parents, children, and teachers/coaches involved with these competitive after-school activities in six different organizations, three in the suburbs and three in an urban setting. While boys were also part of the larger study, what I found about girls and competition was especially intriguing for what it says about who these young women might grow up to become.
Unlike masculinity, multiple forms of femininity are seen as acceptable by parents and by children, so it's not surprising that different gender scripts emerged for each of the three activities. The names of these different gender scripts—"graceful," "aggressive," and "pink"—all came from language used by parents of girls in interviews. They help us understand how parents choose among different activities for their daughters.
When talking about why dance is good for their daughters, moms highlighted dance's ability to help their girls be graceful. One dance mom told me that dance produces good posture, which contributes to a more graceful appearance: "There are kids that you see in the studio and they walk in gracefully; there's just something about the way they hold themselves. If it gets her better posture then I've achieved something. But you know, if I see her slouched over, then I think, 'Well she's not pulling the whole dance experience with her through life.'"
Producing a graceful body also means producing a feminine body. Another mom explained, "When I started Brittany in dance I thought about grace, flexibility, and posture. A girl should be feminine and, you know, like refined … And for girls I think it is good for them to have a little bit of that grace that you get from dance."
Even with their daughters still in elementary school, some of the mothers made an explicit connection between the importance of having a graceful body and attracting male attention. This mom explained how dance can help her daughter in the future: "It builds coordination, it builds confidence and I don't think there's anything worse than a girl that's in her teens that can't dance. You know? If nothing else, just knowing how to dance is important [at a school dance]." Dance has long been associated with preparing girls for various aspects of society life, such as etiquette and social grace, usually implicit attempts to increase one's chances on the marriage market.
However, the mothers I studied who promote this graceful girls gender script not only select dance for their daughters; they also promote a competitive dance experience. In this setting, how you look can help you be a more successful competitor. Additionally, the overlay of competition adds the other crucial element to the graceful girls script—which applies to both physical and emotional comportment—and that is being graceful in interactions at competitions.
One mother, also a dance teacher, described her favorite dance competition:
I think StarProducers is a wonderful competition … Everyone is welcomed backstage. People say, "Hi, how are you? Good luck. I love your outfit. Your hair looks great! Oh, don't you look pretty?!" Even with the youngest dancers they did this, which really gives them a boost backstage, and 99 percent of the studios that went there were also the same way. Everyone would say, "Good job. Good luck on stage." It is just a very supportive atmosphere and they made sure to include everybody in the awards, even though it is an adjudicated system where more than one person can win gold or silver or whatever. Everybody got some- thing and they gave out special awards to groups that maybe didn't win the platinum or the high score ... Maybe their costumes weren't custom or the greatest, or whatever, but they did focus on, for example, "Wow, that group had really great smiles," and they got a special award for that.
This quote captures the two ways in which graceful girls learn how to compete in a feminine way. First, in this competitive environment where competitors are being judged based on their talent, how the girls look plays a part. Costumes, hairstyles, and even smiles are complimented and may be a way to win special recognition. Girls learn that their feminine appearance is part of the evaluation and can earn its own reward, beyond the talent they have practiced. Second, girls also are expected to support their competitors. Wishing a competitor good luck, cheering for her, or telling her that she looks nice are seen as desirable in this competitive environment. Being supportive, traditionally seen as a feminine attribute, is also a way to demonstrate social graces. So the graceful girls are graceful both physically and socially.
That said, dance parents and teachers strive to emphasize that competitive dance is a serious physical activity that should be thought of as having the same legitimacy as team sports. Comparisons to sport actually helped establish dance competitions, at least in terms of the way parents viewed the value of participating. Following the model of a competitive athletic activity helped establish the competitive dance model by appealing to parents who wanted their girls to be athletes and learn to be more competitive, while still being feminine in terms of appearance and attitude.
Overall the "graceful girls" strategy teaches girls that they need to be feminine, which means being graceful, looking good, and being supportive of competitors. While competitive dance does infuse dance, a traditionally feminine activity, with competition, it still keeps that competition indirect for girls. Yes, that competition can be fierce both between rival dance studios and within dance studios, as you might see on Lifetime's Dance Moms, but that show is purposely extreme, and you still see the girls supporting and cheering for one another. The dance girls I met do not get in the face of their competitors, as do the aggressive soccer girls, instead honing relational skills and their appearance, which are traditionally associated with femininity.
While the graceful girls are taught to be kind competitors and value appearance, the aggressive girls are taught to be both physically and competitively forceful, actively subsuming aspects of their femininity. Many soccer parents define their daughters in opposition to those "girly girls" who dance. They employ the "aggressive girls" gender script when selecting competitive soccer for their daughters.
One father, whose older son plays travel soccer and whose seven-year-old daughter is already a member of a training academy team, captures the core elements of the aggressive girls gender script: de-emphasizing physical femininity, focusing on future career opportunities, and cultivating a winning attitude. He is concerned that his daughter has a tendency to be too feminine and not aggressive enough:
I encourage her to be more aggressive because she's a cute little girl, but I don't like her to be a girly girl … You know, I don't want her to be a cheerleader—nothing against that—but I want her to prepare to have the option, if she wants to be an executive in a company, that she can play on that turf. And if she's kind of a girly girl, maybe she'll be a secretary. [Pause] There's nothing wrong with that, but let her have the option of doing something else if she wants.
This dad clearly thinks that being a "girly girl" subjects a girl to less desirable occupations, which are seen as traditionally feminine, like being a secretary. The images this father evokes related to being an executive, such as "play on that turf," suggests the importance that he places on athletics to help his daughter follow a selective, historically male career path. In addition, he identifies cheerleading—which has much in common with competitive dance—as being too much of a girly girl activity.
As the no-girly-girls soccer father suggested, many parents think being cutthroat and aggressive sets girls on a particular path, perhaps to the corner office as a company executive. In fact, every parent with a soccer-playing daughter I spoke with used the words aggressive or assertive in his or her interview. The focus on de-emphasizing appearance, evidenced by the fact that soccer girls wear androgynous uniforms and take off all of their jewelry, is especially important in this career race, as many parents know that being ladylike will not cut it in certain corner-office professions.
This mom of a nine-year-old soccer girl said, "We have no illusions that our daughter is going to be a great athlete. But the team element [is important]. I worked for Morgan Stanley for ten years, and I interviewed applicants, and that ability to work on a team was a crucial part of our hiring process. So it's a skill that comes into play much later. It's not just about ball skills or hand-eye coordination." This same mom went on to explain, "When I was interviewing [job candidates] at Morgan Stanley, if I got a female candidate—because it's banking and you need to be aggressive, you need to be tough—if she played, like, ice hockey, done. My daughter's playing, and I'm just a big believer in kids learning to be confidently aggressive, and I think that plays out in life assertiveness."
As this quote suggests, being part of a team and being assertive are other skills aggressive girls can learn from competitive sports like soccer. Another mom powerfully explained, "I think when you play a sport, I think it teaches you assertiveness, because you can't just wait for the ball to come to you. You have to go for that ball."
Going after balls by getting in head-to-head match-ups and emerging as the only winner is definitely a different competitive experience than dance. One of the moms I met from dance has two daughters who do the dance team, one of whom also plays soccer for their local travel club. She sees a difference in how parents behave at the different competitive events, and this behavior seems to map on to the different gender scripts they are employing while raising their daughters. She told me, "Other parents [at soccer games] tell their kids to be aggressive and push. They just act inappropriately and their mouths are swearing throughout soccer [games]. Not so much in dance!"
These aggressive and assertive girls are being raised to be women who will go after physical and metaphorical balls and tackle difficult and challenging environments throughout their lives. They are taught to be aggressive in various aspects of their lives, but without an emphasis on appearance, unlike the graceful girls in dance. Chess presents a slightly different picture; chess-playing girls able to focus on their feminine appearance and be aggressive at the same time, if they so choose.
Pink Warrior Girls
Like soccer girls, chess girls are encouraged to be aggressive. But this aggression is slightly different because chess is not a physical game. Unlike dance and soccer, chess is a primarily a mental competition, so physical femininity is not an issue at competitive events. With the lack of physicality, the femininity associated with chess is more inclusive. Chess promotes a hybrid gender script for the small group of girls who participate. These girls learn to be aggressive, but they also can focus on a feminine appearance if they so choose.
Chess allows girls to be what one mother of two sons described to me as a "pink girl": "These girls have princess T-shirts on. [They have] rhinestones and bows in their hair—and they beat boys. And the boys come out completely deflated. That's the kind of thing I think is so funny. That girl Carolyn, I call her the killer chess player. She has bows in her hair, wears dresses, everything is pink, Barbie backpack, and she plays killer chess."
That a winning girl can look so feminine has an especially strong effect on boys, and their parents. A chess mom described how a father reacted negatively when his son lost to her daughter: "The father came out and was shocked. He said, 'You let a girl beat you!'"
Most of the chess girls I met are not "pink girls" in the sense that they don't dress exactly like Carolyn. But in chess there is the chance to be both aggressive, like a warrior, and girly, embracing pink. The pink warrior gender script allows girls to be aggressive and assertive but still act in a normatively feminine way—if they want to do so.
For people affiliated with scholastic chess, it matters that the game is not physical. For example, when I spoke with Susan Polgar—the first female Grandmaster, a leading advocate for girls in chess, and an author on gender and chess—she said the fact that chess is not a physical game is important in its promoting gender equality: "Well, I think girls need to understand that, yes, they have equal potential to boys. I think that chess is a wonderful tool as an intellectual activity, where girls can prove that unlike in physical sports, because by nature maybe boys are stronger or faster, in chess women can prove equal."
Many parents actively use chess as a way to teach girls that they should have similar opportunities as boys. A chess mom explained, "We're raising her … to be feminist. And so she says she wants to be a Grandmaster or the president [of the United States]. She doesn't have any ideas about gender limitations and I think that's a good thing."
Despite its not being a physical game, there are more similarities between soccer and chess than between dance and chess because of the focus on aggression. With their head-to-head competitive match-ups, both chess and soccer are closer to hegemonic masculinity, hence the warrior component to the chess gender script. Those who write about chess often focus on this aggression and what it means for women. In the book Chess Bitch: Women in the Ultimate Intellectual Sport, the author Jennifer Shahade, herself a chess master, explains that in chess the common epithet "playing like a girl" actually means playing with a lot of aggression.
Despite, or perhaps because of, this aggression, girls are a distinct minority in scholastic chess. More elementary school-age girls participate in tournaments than at any other age, but they are far less than half the number of participants in coed tournaments. This is a problem that organizers seek to address by offering "girls only" tournaments, giving separate awards to the highest achieving girl and boy, and maintaining separate top-rating lists for girls and boys. Some feel this approach is negative, only reinforcing the feeling that girls can never be as good as boys, and advocate against it, but many of the parents I met feel that the additional attention and success can keep girls involved.
Classes in Femininity
The graceful, aggressive, and pink warrior girl scripts generally vary by class, just as the class background of the majority of the families in each activity varies. Through these competitive activities we can see classed forms of femininity. Though nearly all of the families are part of the broadly defined middle class, parents higher up in the class hierarchy of the middle class promote a more aggressive femininity, and we see this in both soccer and chess families. Dance mothers, who generally have lower status (based on educational attainment and income) than the chess and soccer parents, promote a femininity that is less competitively aggressive and prioritizes physical appearance. Middle- and lower-middle-class and working-class families place a greater emphasis on femininity. Working-class and lower-middle-class women have occupations that are typically more "front stage," "pink collar," and involve emotion work, like being secretaries, which require a focus on feminine traits such as friendliness and cleanliness. Girls who are raised in these families are being taught that they will likely need to use their femininity in their future occupations; however, these occupations may be more competitive than they were in the past, which is why competitive dance is a useful socialization activity in these families.
Thinking in terms of occupations highlights parental occupations, in addition to parental aspirations for their children's occupations. Recall the soccer father who wants his daughter to be able to play on the turf of corporate executives and not be a secretary, and the soccer mother who previously worked at Morgan Stanley. The former is a lawyer, and the latter was an investment banker who recently stopped working to spend more time with her five children. Both of these parents attended elite universities as undergraduates. Most of the soccer parents had similar occupations or were professors or doctors. In short, these are parents who are highly credentialed and who have been through competitive credentialing processes themselves.
Upper-middle-class girls are being prepared much more strategically to help maintain their family's class position by entering what are traditionally hegemonically male worlds. This includes choosing after school activities that will give these girls an advantage in college admissions. Today there are three times more female soccer players than Girl Scouts in the United States. The comparison to the traditionally female activity of Girl Scouts is indicative of the shift to using sports like soccer to train girls to succeed in the future. Those with strong financial, social, and cultural resources—associated with upper-middle-class families—are more likely to have access to and focus on travel and elite competitive experiences.
In contrast, the dance moms did not discuss future careers for their daughters that require lots of credentials and higher education. Some mentioned the possibility that their daughters would become a doctor or lawyer, and nearly all expect their daughters to attend college, even those who seriously consider a professional dance career for their daughters. But these moms routinely mentioned teaching as a career goal, while none of the soccer parents did—even the soccer mother who was herself a high school teacher. Being a dance teacher was specifically mentioned by several mothers, which has less status than teaching in a scholastic setting (because it does not require a licensing exam).
Despite more opportunities than ever for girls today, different environments constrain and transform gender roles. We can see this in competitive afterschool activities for children. Gender and class are being reproduced in these competitive activities, which will likely impact who ends up in that corner office and who ends up as the boss's assistant.
This post is adapted from Hilary Levey Friedman's Playing to Win: Raising Children in a Competitive Culture.