Mike Messner, “Soft Essentialism,” and Ideologies that Gender Social Spaces

Mike Messner has written a few pieces that I do not teach courses on gender without.  One of them is an article about the opening ceremonies of a American Youth Soccer League in which his son participated–“Barbie Girls Versus Sea Monsters: Children Constructing Gender” (2000).*  What I love about the article is Messner’s simultaneous attention to structure, culture, and agency.  He does this in a way that is beautiful in its simplicity.

The following is the scenario Messner witnessed and wrote about.  The opening ceremony for this league asks players to come dressed in uniform and with banners (if they have them), and beyond attempting to create a community, the event seems designed to help the young boys and girls feel like athletes.  Each team walks around the track at the local high school football field behind their banner as they are announced.  The boys’ team that Messner discusses (the “Sea Monsters”) is sitting together, proudly looking at their large banner of a sea snake appearing to eat a soccer ball.  A girls’ team (the “Barbie Girls”) enters pulling a wagon with a large Barbie doll standing on a rotating platform and dancing and singing along to Barbie-themed music coming out of a boom box.   While at first the boys seem entranced, smiling (and perhaps even wanting to take part), eventually, enough of the boys notice each other noticing the Barbie parade going on and they take action.  One of the boys yells out, “NO BARBIE!” and they are on the move, jumping around, and bumping one another.  The girls do a good job of not noticing, but “NO BARBIE!” ends up serving as a chant that unites the Sea Monsters in solidarity.

One of the most interesting parts of this analysis to me is that Messner also pays careful attention to the adults in this interaction and examines how they make sense of this behavior.  It’s a great example of Thorne’s concept of “borderwork.”  The adults take this moment as an opportunity to reflect on just how different boys and girls are.  Messner illustrates how much work it is to actually think of boys and girls as completely different sorts of creatures.

The scenario he documents in the article is common enough, but he shows how parents have colluded (without intending to do so) in producing a social space in which certain kinds of gender performances were more likely to occur.  Messner uses Barrie Thorne’s (1993) work in Gender Play to show how children are not here simply the passive recipients of adult socialization.  They are creatively working within a context that was largely structured by adults.

Performativity, Structure, Culture

What I love about this article is that Messner illustrates how gender performances come into being.  They’re hardly ever inevitable, but there are structural and cultural forces that make certain performances a lot more (or less) likely.  Messner usefully looks at this scenario from three different perspectives: performative, structural, and cultural.

Building on Acker’s analysis of gender in the workplace, Messner shows how this setting is also one that might at first appear “gender neutral,” but is actually reflecting, reproducing, and naturalizing inequitable relations between boys and girls, men and women.  This is primarily accomplished through the sex segregation of boys and girls teams and the sex segregation of authority and power structure of the league more generally (men occupy the overwhelming majority of coaches and assistant coach positions while the team managers–often referred to as “team moms”–are predominantly women).  This league structure helps boys and girls to see gender as meaningful and boys and girls as different.

To look at this from a cultural perspective, Messner focuses on the use of cultural symbols in identifying team names.  Each team in this league was charged with coming up with a team name and team colors.  Initially the Sea Monsters had wanted to be the “Blue Sharks,” but learned that another team had already chosen that name.  I usually talk with students about this in my course.  What are the odds?  They got together and can choose ANY name they want, and two teams came up with exactly the same name?!?!?  Not only did boys’ teams choose similar names, but the boys were also much more likely to chose names that made reference to power and might than were girls.  So, team names like “Raptor Attack” were common among boys, while team names like “Sunflowers” were more common among girls.

I think the strategy that Messner employs in this analysis can be used much more widely.  Workplaces, homes, schools, and more are gendered in ways that might be fruitfully analyzed using this framework.  It also illustrates some of the ways that gender inequality can exist even when we don’t think it’s there–even if we don’t want it to be there.

“Soft Essentialism”

In his more recent work on the topic (see here, here, here, and here), Messner analyzes the ways that adults actively create a gendered world for their children in youth sports.  Building on Charles and Grusky’s analysis of the persistence of occupational gender segregation (Occupational Ghettos), Messner argues that gender inequality still exists, but is perpetuated in a slightly different way–through a process he calls “soft essentialism.”

Messner applies this ideology to the ways that adults and parents make sense of children’s participation in youth sports.  There’s nothing that biologically recommends segregating boys and girls in cooperative sports play (especially as early as this takes place in their lives).  But, through soft essentialism, parents are able to say, boys and girls are equally capable, they’re just different and need to be separate.  And, with the structural and cultural barriers already in play, this form of soft essentialism perpetuates gender inequality in a way that is–as least currently–more culturally acceptable.

I think this is a great way of looking at “spaces” that we study.  Michael Kimmel and I used Messner’s concept to discuss the transformation in public discourse surrounding education in the U.S. as well as changes in the rhetoric employed by the U.S. Fathers’ Rights Movement (here).  I think that “man caves” can be looked at in a similar way as well.  In fact, Messner analyzes the gender of his own upbringing in his recently published memoir, King of the Wild Suburb, with a chapter on the “man cave” in his own home growing up–a room he calls “Gramp’s Den.”  I’ve been getting more interested in studies of gender within bounded physical spaces (like youth sports, education, or the workplace).  Concepts like Messner’s ought to be used in domains outside of those in which they were initially invented to explain.

*The findings are also presented a bit differently in Taking the Field.

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