"Get the Girls": Patriarchy on the Preschool Playground
When we think of gendered aggression, it’s easy to think of beer-fueled moments at high school and college parties. But young girls’ first encounters with gendered aggression often happen much earlier and in seemingly more “innocent” settings. Like preschool playgrounds.
As we walked home from school on Tuesday, I asked my 4-year-old about her day. And the story she told me left me heartbroken but not entirely shocked. The ethnographer in me wanted to capture our conversation as closely as possible, so I took out my phone and jotted notes as she spoke. Here's our conversation, to the best of my recollection, with all names changed:
Me: Who did you play with at recess today?
4yo: I was playing with Emma, Olivia, Ava, and Isabella. We were playing princess sisters, but then the boys started chasing us.
Me: The boys were chasing you?
4yo: The boys were the bad guys and they wanted to play "get the girls." They were like touching the girls and grabbing them.
Me: Did the girls want to play that game?
4yo: No. I don't think they wanted to play that game at all.
Me: Did the boys try to get you too?
4yo: I was too fast for them. I was trying to keep the boys from touching the other girls by blocking them. I had to be everywhere at once and defend my friends.
Me: Oh, kiddo. I’m so sorry.
4yo: Are you angry, mama?
Me: Not at you, kiddo. You didn't do anything wrong. I'm upset that the boys were touching the girls without asking. That's not okay. Because they shouldn't touch you or chase you if you don't want them to. Right?
4yo: Right. Like, I thought Jack was a really good friend. But he started being rough. And then other boys saw it and said that looks fun. And they did it, too. Except Noah. Noah wasn’t one of the bad guys. He was helping us.
Thankfully, the teacher stepped in to stop by the boys. When I talked to the teacher the next day, she reassured me that she had taken the boys aside to have a conversation about the importance of listening to the girls and respecting them when they said “no.”
And in that way, my daughter is lucky. She’s lucky to have teachers who understand the importance of consent.
But not all kids are that lucky. As sociologist Heidi Gansen found in her observations of preschool classrooms, some teachers ignore or even facilitate boys’ efforts to control girls’ bodies. In one of the three schools Gansen observed, teachers actively encouraged boys to kiss girls and did not require the boys to obtain consent. In another school, teachers regularly turned a blind eye when boys were physically and even sexually aggressive toward girls. In one incident she describes, two boys chase girls, tackle them, and slap their bottoms. The girls repeatedly try to get away from the boys, but the teachers never intervene. Given those patterns, Gansen argues that boys are learning—as young as preschool—that they have power over girls’ bodies and that they can use that power to demonstrate their masculinity and their heterosexuality.
But why do young boys want to demonstrate their power over girls’ bodies?
In watching her classmates, my daughter surmised that the boys joined in the “get the girls” game because it “looks like fun.” And she wasn’t too far off.
For boys and young men, displays of masculinity and heterosexuality are a way of bonding with—and avoiding judgment from—friends. Psychologist Niobe Way finds that boys want and need the kind of intimate, caring friendships that we often associate girls. But they feel pressured to avoid that kind of closeness for fear of not looking “manly” enough or being perceived as “gay.” And so, as sociologists like Barrie Thorne and Michael Messner have described, boys solidify their boy bonds with “borderwork” like aggressive chase play. That borderwork reinforces boys’ sense of themselves as distinct from and in opposition to girls. Similarly, sociologist C.J. Pascoe finds that boys and young men police each other’s masculinity and sexuality. Essentially, boys use displays of masculinity and heterosexuality to avoid being labeled “gay.” And they want to avoid those labels because of the persistent homophobia in American society.
As a sociologist, I understand how powerful those labels can be. And I understand how hard it can be for people to break social norms. So I don’t blame the boys in my daughters’ class. I don’t think they’re “bad” kids. But, I do think their behavior should give us pause. Make us question the messages we send to young boys. Make us want to raise our boys to be more like Noah—the boy who was “helping” the girls.
Noah is the kind of kid who plays just as easily with boys and with girls. He wears “boy” clothes to school, but he’s comfortable putting on an apron in “dress up.” He likes Legos, but he’s also happy to play dolls. He’s not ashamed to cry.
We need more Noahs. But to have more Noahs, we need to raise more Noahs. That means teaching our boys to be gentle and caring and kind. Teaching them to respect others’ bodies and choices and ideas. Teaching them not to play “get the girls” but rather to play with the girls, instead.
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