THE BLOG
03/13/2013 04:01 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

Popularity, Heterosexism and Girls' School Success

Popularity in middle and high school operates as a heterosexist reward system. Who "fits in" and who does not has a great deal to do with heterosexuality and gender conformity, which makes it difficult for LGBTQ kids to engage in the school social scene. For adolescents, school is (significantly) about social connections, social possibilities, social hierarchies and navigating through them. A great deal of school social life is about reinforcing the "normalcy" of heterosexuality and marking those considered to not measure up as "weird" or "less than" in some way. For example, making new friends, avoiding insults and isolation, and being considered an important person in the school can be difficult for the girl who doesn't get dates with boys because she is not thought attractive, the boy uninterested in dating who focuses his time on academics, and anyone else who is either uninterested or cannot compete in the "heterosexual marketplace" (Eckert, in Payne 2007) of high school. This experience is true for both boys and girls, but can be particularly salient for girls whose "worth" in high school is often evaluated by the boys they attract.

For adolescent girls, heterosexuality and a traditional presentation of femininity are the foundation of the high school social hierarchy. Attaining status requires dedication to the attraction of boys and this is often a primary topic of conversation in peer groups as is achieving a desirable feminine "look." Time spent developing individual skills and excellence in the arts, athletics, and academics gain less attention and validation for young women than does feminine attractiveness. This reinforces the idea that how a girl "looks" is more important than what she accomplishes. These cultural values are often supported by high schools through traditions and rituals such as "cutest couple" competitions, school dances, gendered dress codes, and election of popular girls to school titles such as "queen" where beauty and femininity are anointed with a rhinestone crown. So where does this leave adolescent lesbian and queer girls?

We know that young lesbian women often report feeling disconnected from peers and out of place in the high school social arena whether or not they are "out." Research consistently confirms that for teenage girls, popularity and heterosexual desirability are intertwined. One study reported that when teen girls were asked what characteristic was least likely for a popular girl, they said: "lesbian." In their estimation, popularity required attracting boys, and the activity of attracting boys required a lot of effort around which girls could bond and compete, forming relationships and positioning themselves in the social hierarchy (Duncan, in Payne 2007). This creates social issues for lesbian and queer (L & Q) girls in two ways: 1.) The road to popularity is through attracting boys and that is not of interest to most L & Q girls. 2.) Hetero-feminine appearance work is an activity many L & Q girls are not interested in, yet it provides opportunity for peer connection and building friendships with other girls as well as recognition and position in the high school social arena.

Lesbian teens often describe themselves in contrast to the "popular" girls, using words like "perfect" to talk about "popular" girls' clothes, body size, and overall appearance. In my own research, one of my young lesbian-identified participants explained it this way: The popular girls "were cheerleaders, they wore make-up everyday, hair fixed perfectly. Never ate. They just weren't in my world. They were really skinny, cute hair, make-up, the right clothes, the right shoes." Another participant describing the difference between herself and popular girls focused on their concern with the opinions of others:

The popular girls did girlie girl stuff, just like, you know, getting your nails done, wearing make-up all the time, always doing your hair, you know, just those type of people. I was actually totally not into that, like, pretentious girlie girl type deal. Always worried about what you're wearing, how you're gonna look to other people.

The good news is that it may be that lesbian youth not striving for this sort of popularity and hetero-feminine desirability are able to develop healthier body image and feel more freedom of expression around gender. In discussing teen culture, one of my research participants brought up the numerous magazines targeted at young women. She said:

I didn't see one magazine that didn't have a diet in it, and how to look good for your boyfriend, you know what I mean? Why doesn't he look good for you? Why should it matter? Shouldn't you meet together? And it was a crock. And all the tests were 'Do you meet his standards?' I was like, 'No!' That was just so fake, I mean, maybe it's not for some girls, but I don't want to waste my whole life trying to add up my scores for some person, you know, that's stupid.

But the disparity in activities and focus on heterosexual dating can leave lesbian and queer girls often without a social group -- particularly in schools where there are no GSAs or other visibly queer or "out" students. A young woman in my study who identified herself as "a feminine lesbian" and a "musician" said she did like to wear make-up but felt that she just couldn't connect with the straight girls' constant focus on appearance and boys. She said, "I didn't have any girls to just hang out with... I really didn't like to talk about make-up and boys and that seemed to me that that's what they liked to talk about. So -- I didn't really know how to fit in with that." One high school senior in my research explained "I made good grades -- I was in a lot of activities but still -- it didn't mean much to people unless, you know, I have a boyfriend or I'm chasing after guys with the rest of the girls, you know."

Exclusion is painful and young women who don't conform to the sexual and gendered expectations of heterosexuality are more likely to face isolation, ridicule and the potential for being social outcasts. "Lezzie," "dyke" and "lesbian" used pejoratively are often intended to name a girl as "not mattering" -- not "counting" because she exists outside of the heterosexual social circuits of power and desirability -- regardless of her actual sexual identity. Teachers are so accustomed to hearing the name calling that they often don't react, further "normalizing" this behavior. Many lesbian and queer girls choose to retreat to the actual physical margins of the school, spending time in the library, a supportive teacher's classroom, or other less frequented areas of the school building to avoid harassment.

Schools continue to reinforce the importance of gender conformity in subtle and not so subtle ways, implicitly sanctioning the peer social hierarchy. This can leave lesbian and queer girls who seek recognition for their individual accomplishments -- rather than through appearance or relationships with/to boys -- at the margins. Students should not feel "out of place" or that they are "not fitting in" to their school environments because of their gender, how they choose to enact their gender, or their sexual attractions. What does it mean to "fit in" to school? How can we re-imagine what "fitting in" means for high schools? How can schools participate in shifting the cultural emphasis away from how a girl looks and her heterosexual desirability to how a girl thinks, contributes to her school, excels in sports, arts, and academics?

In recent years, significant research and funding have been directed toward increasing girls' participation in higher level math and science with modest gains, while research has also consistently found that gender stereotyping limits girls' success. One study indicated that only 13 percent of girls who are interested in science and math would make a career in those areas their first choice. This may in fact be because these fields are not seen as gender appropriate. Telling girls that they are not good at math and science because of their gender -- even just telling them once -- actually reduces their ability to succeed in those area. So if we are consistently telling girls that what they ARE and SHOULD be good at is looking pretty and cheering for the boys, it stands to reason that this too has an effect. Further, the ways a school rewards girl femininity rather than girl accomplishments might be counter productive to the stated educational goals of increasing girl success in math and science and many other areas.

So, here's a thought: Rhinestone crowns and satin sashes -- or their less normatively gendered equivalent -- should be awarded to the girls who excel in academics, in the arts, in sport, and in innovative community service. The school should create visibility for these high achievers through school assemblies, pep rallies, award ceremonies with great fanfare (let's say...just like for a homecoming football game.) They should occupy the professionally photographed in-color front pages of the high school yearbook. They should get special privileges like getting out of class early to attend the debate team competition or build a house for Habitat for Humanity. There should be no awards, no visibility, no privileges granted simply for attractiveness -- as model Cameron Russell recently so well stated it -- for winning the genetic lottery, or for successfully reproducing an expected femininity. The "Senior Superlatives" section of the yearbook displaying pictures of students deemed by their peers to be "most attractive," "sexiest," "biggest flirt," "cutest (heterosexual) couple" should be replaced with " most compassionate," "best team player," "most likely to cure cancer," "best endurance under duress," "most creative," "best problem solver," "most willing to help others," "most dedicated student." School-sanctioned recognition (such as what the yearbook confers) should be about significant contribution and accomplishment -- not about who has the "best bedroom eyes."

As with all forms of oppression, heterosexism reproduces and supports a society where some people are privileged over others and the perpetuation of heterosexism requires a feminine gender continually subordinated to the dominant masculine gender. For girls, high school popularity is the successful performance of that subordinated gender. Failure to properly display a sanctioned hetero-femininity is punished not only through name-calling and the ostracizing of resisters, but through ceasing to matter at all -- the later perhaps most painful in the social world of adolescence. Current school practices are invested in preserving the heterosexist structure of schools and in continuing to reinforce heterosexuality as the "norm" -- which reinforces "rigid gender role stereotypes that keep men and women in their respective places" (MacGillivray, in Payne 2007). When we think about the answers to pressing educational issues like bullying or girls' low participation in science and math, it is imperative that we increase our understanding of "how schools operate as heteronormalizing institutions" in consistent and unexamined ways.

Among the many ways in which schools normalize heterosexuality is the institutional recognition of heterosexist popularity and through the celebration of popular young women who most closely conform to a narrow heteronormative standard for femininity. This sends a clear message to the school and larger community about what high school popularity is and who a girl must be if she wants a place on the high school social scene. Girls who are smart and academically successful, artistically accomplished, community engaged, or fierce sports competitors gain no such rewards for those efforts alone. We need to re-think what "fitting in" to a school environment should mean, align it with stated educational goals, and engage our schools in actively shifting the cultural emphasis away from how a girl looks and her heterosexual desirability to how a girl thinks, contributes to her school, excels in sports, arts, academics and community service. Yes, peer culture will be peer culture. But school as an institution should be encouraging and rewarding student achievements, not reinforcing heterosexist ideals. Reducing heterosexism in schools could in fact increase girls' interest and success in math and science, competitive athletics, and many other arenas, as well as reduce bullying AND make schools vastly more comfortable for LGBTQ kids.

Subscribe to the Queer Voices email.
Get all of the queer news that matters to you.