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Becoming a woman and a man in secondary school practice

Stockholm University, SE-106 91 Stockholm, Sweden.

tel: +46 (0)70 735 5114

e-mail: auli.arvola.orlander@mnd.su.se

Department of Education

Maynooth University

Maynooth, Co. Kildare,


Department of Mathematics and Science Education

Stockholm University

SE-106 91 Stockholm


  • Side: 233-250
  • Publisert på Idunn: 2015-12-15
  • Publisert: 2015-12-15

This article illuminates the significance of images of femininity and masculinity in everyday school practice. Specifically, we examine role-plays concerning inter-relational dilemmas performed by 15-year-old students as a part of their work regarding the human body in science education. The results showed that the portrayal of girls, homosexuals and others who do not fit the masculine norm were presented as fragmentary in comparison with the characterisations of heterosexual boys. The images were reflections of boys’ actions and feelings. Our purpose is to discuss the possibilities that exist in order to re-symbolise and re-imagine femininity and masculinity.

Keywords: Masculinity, femininity, images, relational.


A class of grade nine students has been studying the human body in science education during a semester. For their final project, the students chose between different role-play scenarios involving inter-personal relationship dilemmas. The purpose of this teaching unit, according to the teacher, is ‘to help you [the students] on the path to becoming a man and a woman’. In this paper the focus is on the empirical examples of these role-plays undertaken in a Swedish secondary school. In the following example, a group of students shows part of the play: «At a party you can see a girl who is down-and-out on the toilet floor. What do you do? Show a dream and a nightmare scenario.»

Amanda: We are going to do a play where we all three are at the same party, and I lie, yes, knocked out, asleep... on the floor. [Amanda settles on the floor. Jonny and Julius arrive]

Julius: We should call an ambulance.

[Jonny picks up his phone.]

Jonny Hey Amanda’s mother. Amanda is lying here completely unconscious in a toilet, in the school. Can you come and pick her up? Yes, goodbye.

Julius What did she say?

Jonny Yes, they would pick her up.

This was a role-play of a dream solution. The nightmare was really a nightmare, which we will return to later on.

Empirical classroom research within the field of science education has not previously focused on making a connection between, on the one hand, images of femininity and masculinity and, on the other, the type of teaching and learning about the human body that goes on in schools. This means, for us, exploring the connection between classroom practices and the gendered images produced by the students through these practices. Our aim is to study what kinds of images of femininity and masculinity are revealed in the performances of students and how these can be related to the question of becoming, which is the stated aim of the activity.

In a research overview, Öhrn (2002) points out the need for further inquiry into current gender patterns in school and what kinds of femininity and masculinity they promote. Irigaray and Green (2008) argue that education needs to become appropriate for each person in order to make it possible for girls as well as boys to develop their subjectivities; that is, for them to learn to become subjects.

This study draws on the feminist concept of sexual difference which highlights the ways in which images of femininity and masculinity are constructed in relational and interdependent terms. It is framed by Yvonne Hirdman’s (1990; 2003) work on gender and rehearsed acting, as well as Luce Irigaray’s (1985; 1993; 1994; 2000/1994) theory of sexual difference, her concept of the role the imaginary plays in constructions of femininity and masculinity, and her idea that images of femininity and masculinity are possible to re-symbolise beyond dominating norms. This idea of breaking ruling norms, although it had good intentions, proved to be hard to realise in the classroom practice.

Femininity and masculinity as actively constructed at school

Post-structuralist theories have influenced a shift away from the tradition of exploring the becoming of boys and girls as men and women and toward exploring the ‘becoming’ of masculinities and femininities (Youdell, 2005). Along these lines, feminist theories have argued convincingly that our understanding of masculinity as well as femininity is actively constructed and negotiated. In a research review of youth gender patterns, Elisabeth Öhrn (2002) highlights the role of the school in these constructions. Raewyn Connell (1996) shows how school practices produce different kinds of masculinities by undertaking activities such as labelling school subjects according to gender, and how adults in schools control what is recognised as appropriate male behaviour and activities.

Research has shown how heterosexuality and conventional gender relations are (re)produced in schools through the rules and expectations of teachers and institutions concerning how girls and boys should act (Epstein, 1997; Nyström 2009), which often construes lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender/transsexual students as outsiders deviating from the ‘normal’ (Ryng et al., 2005). There are tendencies, when teaching about inter-personal questions, to render classroom knowledge through men’s eyes and exclude other views (Holland et al., 2000; Kenway & Fitzclarence, 1997). Along another line altogether, some studies claim that classroom practices foreclose opportunities for boys to develop democratic relations in schools (Öhrn, 2001; 2002). Indeed, at school there exists a wide variety of activities that produce different kinds of expectations regarding how students should and should not act.

For example, several studies illustrate problems in combining scientific school discourse with students’ experiences of inter-personal relations. Some of these studies highlight discourses that fail to expand students’ imaginative repertoires, which subsequently limit opportunities for girls and women to explore and understand their bodies (see Elliott, 2003; Ivinson, 2007). As Sandra Harding expressed it (1991), what becomes apparent is that there is a gap between dominant conceptual schemes and women’s experiences, which are multiple and often even contradictory. Discourses of biological processes have been criticised for reinforcing women’s inferior status to men through gender biases that present, for example, males as active and females as passive, for instance active sperm/passive egg or donator/recipient (Martin, 1991; Roy, 2008; Stronach et al., 2007). Feminist critique has also focused on the way sexuality is represented as being connected to reproduction, particularly for women (Elliott, 2003; Peers, 2005; Scholer, 2002), as well as how scientific presentations during history have been based on a masculine ideal (Keller, 1985). Educational situations are thereby structured through a range of ideas and discourses, where conceptualisation and understanding of the morphology of the body have significance for students’ images of masculinity and femininity (Butler, 1993; Fausto-Sterling, 2000; Nehm & Young, 2008; Oudshoorn, 1994; Whitford, 1991).

Still, empirical classroom research within the field of science education has not previously focused on making a connection between, on the one hand, images of femininity and masculinity and, on the other, the teaching and learning about the human body that goes on in schools. In her research overview Nyström (2009) points out the need for further inquiry into current gender patterns in school biology and what kinds of femininity and masculinity they promote. Irigaray and Green (2008) argue that education needs to become appropriate for each person in order to make it possible for girls as well as boys to develop their subjectivities. This means, for us, exploring the connection between classroom practices and the gendered images produced by the students through these practices.

Sexual difference

Our theoretical point of departure is the concept of sexual difference, largely developed by Irigaray (1985); it names a difference that seeks to move away from the logic of male primacy (Whitford, 1991) without claiming an essentialised identity. For Irigaray, sexual difference1 operates relationally at the level of the imaginary. She writes with regard to male and female imaginaries in order to indicate the field of fantasy and body images (or bodily actions) that support particular conceptions of subjectivity. Sexual difference does not relate to two types of sexual identity, but instead suggests a possibility for conceiving sexual identities differently as a relation between their differences (Grosz, 1994).

According to Irigaray (2000/1994), conceptual systems, such as philosophy and science, have not yet regarded men and women as two parties who are present to each other. She writes that we are ‘always divided between one who is subject and one who is object, one who is active and one who is passive, one who has intention and one who remains nature and experiences it, we have not built a between–us, […]’ (Irigaray, 2000/1994, p. 100). Instead we have built a relation where women have been shut out from the possibilities of defining their female identities, which subsequently influences their possibilities of engaging with the world (Irigaray, 2000/1994; Stone, 2006). Irigaray (1985) asserts that sexual difference corresponds to a relational identity, in which one is dependent upon the other for one’s sexual constitution.

Irigaray (1985) gives a description with the help of the Lacanian term ‘imaginary’2 of how subjectivity is fundamentally embodied, based as it is on the imaginary relationship each of us has with our own body. ‘The imaginary works in images […] it has the morphology of the body, and this corporeal morphology informs the symbolic and the social at all levels’ (Whitford, 1991, p. 150). According to Irigaray (1985), relationships between women and men are based on images experienced in and through the body and its actions.

The concept of sexual identities does not refer to biological or anatomical dissimilarities between the sexes, but instead to the dynamic interplay between imaginary and embodied understandings of femininity and masculinity, which shapes the kinds of knowledge and social relationships that are produced in any given context (Irigaray, 2008). This means that focusing on how students act in school will make it possible to study what kinds of images of masculinity and femininity are being employed (Speer, 2005). The body is important to Irigaray’s work, but she does not claim that there exists some essential difference between the sexes that could explain this (Irigaray, 2008). In her writings, sexual difference is tied to the ways in which images of femininity and masculinity both operate through an embodied experience that is neither fixed nor unitary. In accordance with Hirdman (2003), Irigaray claims that, in patriarchal symbolic and imaginary practices, masculine experiences are given primacy; these experiences inform the existing ways femininity has been defined. What Irigaray (2008) outlines is ‘another logic and discourse, which recognizes the existence of two different subjects and allows coexistence and communication between them to exist’ (p. 129). It is a philosophy that focuses on the dialectical and relational process between two subjects.

To analyse these dynamic relational processes, through which images of femininity and masculinity appear in classroom practices, we find Hirdman’s notion of rehearsed acting helpful.

Rehearsed acting

Hirdman’s work (1990; 2003) focuses on processes through which men and women come to identify as masculine and feminine subjects. These processes, she claims, not only reflect the distinct power relations that exist between men and women, but also in themselves create hierarchies and inequalities. Drawing on Judith Butler (1999), who characterises gender as performativity, Hirdman views gender in terms of reiterated acting, that is, acting which is rehearsed and reconstructed in different social settings. Such acting is a continuous process in communities, where situations and locations become carriers of the gender by creating legitimacy while forming gendered bodily acts (Hirdman, 2003). This order is not something fixed and unchangeable, but it drives men and women toward different rationalities, which Hirdman3 (1990) labels as the gender contract. Characteristic of this contract is that rationalities are permeated by a social pattern driven by the double logic of the segregation of the sexes and of male primacy (Hirdman 1990). The gender formation or performances, as Butler names the social patterns, are an effect of what we do (Butler, 1999).

According to Hirdman, men and women need to adapt, to a greater or lesser degree, to the underlying conceptions of gender within this contract in order to manage their everyday existence in various social institutional settings, such as schools (Hirdman, 1990; 2003). In this way the individual actions of men and women, all trying to do their best in a given situation, become an increasing cementation of gender segregation and patriarchy. To break with the gender contract has often been difficult, especially for women, but this does not mean that it is impossible (Hirdman 1990; 2003). For example, individuals have possibilities to re-imagine and re-symbolise these patterns (Irigaray, 1985). In this way Irigaray opens up a path from the theorisation of a gender contract toward continued discussions of the possibilities of changed patterns that are not built on the primacy of the masculine.

Accordingly, the students in this study are seen as being embodied subjects in continual transformation, a part of a context, in which they are constantly ‘becoming’ through various iterative acts within the school’s discursive practice. The gendered constructions of knowledge in the classroom are seen as an effect of the ways in which femininity and masculinity are sustained through the images that appear in school practices. How students understand themselves as boys or girls and how they are understood by people around them is dependent on the situations in which the students are involved and also on how they position themselves in relation to others (Hirdman, 2003). This also means that femininity and masculinity are contextual, performed and acted out in the specific classroom situations in which students and teachers find themselves.

Aim and research questions

In the observed role-plays that the students performed in class, which according to the teacher were designed to prepare the students ‘on their journey toward becoming men and women’, we became interested in how students represented certain characterisations of men and women. Our aim is to study 1) what kinds of images of femininity and masculinity are revealed in the performances of students and 2) how these can be related to the question of becoming, which is the stated aim of the activity. We pose the following questions:

What kind of reiterated possibilities of acting do these students have in their current educational situation?

What kinds of images of femininity and masculinity are rehearsed in science classroom practice?

In posing these questions, we do not regard school situations merely as the acquisition of increasingly complex knowledge, skills and values, but also as processes of becoming that are forms of situated and embodied acting (Arvola Orlander & Wickman, 2011). This is why it is important to discuss what possibilities for agency are opened up through the students’ acting and what kind of opportunities for reimagining femininity and masculinity exist as a result.

Our research shows what happens in a specific context involving students’ actions and what kinds of images of gender they perform. The purpose of this research is to highlight and discuss educational issues using examples from lived classroom practice, not to present ready made solutions concerning how teachers or educators should act; classroom practice is far too complex for quick and easy solutions (Biesta & Burbules, 2003). However, researchers can highlight representative cases, problematise them and suggest lines of action, although it is ultimately up to the teachers in their everyday behaviour to create possible new ways of acting by questioning, rethinking and re-embodying the cultural habits, discourses or processes in science education. It is important that educators, as well as researchers, remain open to challenging current knowledge (Brickhouse, 2001).


The results reported here are generated through science education class ethnography, which was undertaken with fifteen 15-year-old grade 9 students in a compulsory school in Sweden. The school is located in a municipal suburb with students coming from both privately owned houses and apartments in high-rise buildings.

The teacher, the students and the parents received written information about the research project, which included their right to decline to participate and quit whenever they wanted, all of which is in accordance with the ethical guidelines of the Swedish Research Council (2011). Two students chose not to take part in the study.

In this paper we present an analysis of a part of the students’ final project work for a unit on the human body in biology. Data was generated during observations ranging from half a day to whole-day visits and consisted of tape-recorded teacher instructions and student group discussions as well as video-recorded classroom activities. It also included a variety of collected material related to teaching, such as written working instructions for students and the assessment criteria.

The data presented here focuses on role-plays that the students performed and which consisted of ‘real-life’ relational dilemmas. The students produced 14 role-plays, lasting approximately 5–10 minutes each where they were told to imagine both a dream and a nightmare scenario for each one. Fifteen students, five girls and ten boys, were involved. The data is based on verbatim transcribed situations,4 such as oral teacher instructions and preparations of one of the student groups (every group had approximately one day to prepare for the plays), and the participants all performed 14 role-plays. The recordings used in this study were chosen because these discursive moments clearly dealt with questions that related to images of masculinity and femininity. The role-plays offer moments during which the content can be studied and discussed in relation to the aim of the schoolwork. The presented situations are meant as examples of illuminating certain instances, which then open up toward more general discussions relating to the complexity in science teaching concerning the human body.

The teacher introduced the activity as follows:

‘We want you to understand how interpersonal relationships affect us and what view society has of various relationships. We want to help you on the path of becoming a woman/a man and help you to manage your feelings and knowledge.’

The teacher gave the students a handout with 21 ready-made optional choices of subjects for the role-plays, from which the students had to choose at least two. The teacher divided the class into groups. The students were asked to perform a variety of role-plays in front of a live audience and were supposed to ‘express ethical positions’ [the teacher’s expression] on the dilemmas chosen for performance. The contents of the various scenarios had to take into account the fundamental democratic values of the school, a description of which the teacher presented along with the written criteria. The students were instructed to display these values through their performances. The role-plays were performed to the rest of the students in the work unit (grade 7 and 8 students), without any follow-up discussion. Some of the plays were also performed in an evening event at school, in front of approximately two hundred parents, friends and relatives. On both occasions, the audience showed great enthusiasm, by laughing and giving a round of applause.

The groups’ choices, concerning which dilemmas they would perform, resulted in a total of nine different topics, which are presented in Table 15. Some of the dilemmas had no gender ascribed to the characters, while others did. In four plays where gender was optional, the students chose to start from the boy’s position in three of them and from that of the girl in one. In five plays where the gender was assigned in the description of the dilemma, the students chose three plays starting from the boy’s position and two plays from the girl’s; yet here these latter choices both dealt with girls in exposed situations (e.g. being pregnant, passed out drunk). After a closer look at all 14 performed plays (some of the nine role-plays were performed twice/three times) it becomes apparent that ten of the role-plays started from the position of the boy, assigning boys active parts, while just four plays took the girl’s position as their point of departure6. All of this is summarised in Table 1 below.

Table 1. In the first column on the left there is a presentation of the role-play choices the students made. All of these texts were phrased by the teacher. The second column shows the role-plays in which the characters had an assigned gender and those in which gender was optional. The next column shows groups that performed the play. The last column on the right shows the gender performed in the play.

The role-play choices ended in the following nine topics.

Is gender assigned or optional in the role-play?7

Groups that performed the play.8

The student groups’ choice of gender.

1. A guy is in love with a girl in class and decides one day to tell her ... how does he do it?

Assigned – a boy



A boy

2. A guy realises he’s in love with another guy at school and decides to tell this to a friend. How does the buddy react when he hears that his friend is gay?

Assigned – a boy



A boy

3. Your friend says that (s)he has a sexually transmitted disease. What do you do?



A boy

4. On the way from a party some people fall out and start fighting, what do you do?





A boy

5. One of your friends tells you that she may be pregnant, how do you act?

Assigned – a girl


A girl

6. At a party you can see a girl who lies passed out on the toilet floor. What do you do?

Assigned – a girl



A girl A boy9

7. Two friends have got some ‘pot’ to liven up the party a bit. They want everyone to be in a «good mood» and get into «high spirits». What do you do?



A boy

8. You see that a friend’s little sister is trying to get someone to buy her alcohol from a liquor store, what do you do?

Assigned – a girl


A girl

9. You want to break up with someone, how do you do it?



A girl


14 plays in total

Four plays starting from a girl’s position. Ten starting from a boy’s position.

We began our analysis by examining the ways in which the agency of the girls and boys was construed in the role-plays and in particular we focused on the images of femininity and masculinity that were being invoked through the action of the plays being performed. To explore the differences between the plays, we examined who were the subjects (i.e. who was presented as the main actor) and who were the objects of the action. We then moved onto the question: How do these images change between the dream and the nightmare scenarios? In the following results section, we present a summary of these related analyses, highlighted with empirical examples.


The dream girl is construed in relations to the boy’s acts

After a review of all of the dream scenarios we were struck by the close similarity between them. In these plays the girls are considerate, caring, accommodating and accepting when it comes to how they act in relation to the men’s actions. So even when the students have chosen a girl as the main actor or her position as the starting point for the performance, she is not presented as the one who is in charge of the on-going action. The following illustrates how a girl accommodates a boy’s actions in a dream scenario of Play 1:

‘A guy is in love with a girl in his class and decides one day to tell her. How does he do it?’:

Michael : Hey, Julia. I don’t know how to say this, but I think I like you and want to be with you.

Julia : I like you too and have done so for a long time, but I never thought that we could be together so I haven’t dared to say anything.

The girl is accommodating by confirming the boy through belittling herself. The girl, who in the first place did not even dare to believe that she could be with the boy, now becomes the object of his feelings. In the dream scenario the girl’s actions could be interpreted as detracting from her own importance in relation to the masculine figure. In this dream scenario the boy is in charge of the course of events and the girl accommodates him.

In another dream scenario we find a girl who is reprimanded by her older brother in Play 8. Here a girl who is a minor, ‘a little sister’, and asks a man outside a liquor store to buy a case of beer for her. She gives the beer away as a birthday present to her big brother, who then scolds her, because she has done something silly. However, her brother accepts the present, but adding ‘only this time’, and he promises not to mention the whole matter to their mother. Once again the masculine subject takes charge of the course of events whilst the girl is somewhat patronised in her accommodation of him.

There is one performance that differs from this typical construal of a feminine subject. In this performance the girl is imagined as the main actor in wanting to break up with her boyfriend (Play 9). In the dream scenario the girl says that she has pondered over her decision for a long time. She feels neglected and is not satisfied with their relationship and his way of behaving. In the dream scenario the girl is determined to break up with him, yet at the same time she also offers her friendship, which the boy is grateful and content with. The girl here is construed as the one who is in control. She does not do anything hasty and is the one who in a compassionate manner sticks to her decision to break up. So even when a girl feels slighted and unfairly treated, she nevertheless emphasises that she does not want to give up her friendship with the boy. Thus even in this performance, where the girl is positioned as a subject and is in charge of events, she still shows signs of accommodation. In this respect the portrayal of the dream girl did not differ from the other performances.

The dream boy is construed as an accepted authority

The construal of the man in the dream scenarios is of one who shows his feelings, though in an awkward, fumbling way, as we can see in Play 1. The boy seems to take his place for granted. He does not ask if the girl is interested in him, but simply tells Julia that he wants to be with her. The characters of the boys in the dream scenarios are met with acceptance on the part of the girls. The boy is to be trusted, he is in charge of events and he has the right to determine the meaning of different events. He can be indulgent toward an illegal act if it is well meant (the beer gift of Play 8) and can even overlook them (Play 7, using pot at a party). He helps those who are at a disadvantage or in a vulnerable position (Play 6 with the passed out girl). He accepts his gay friend (Play 2). He is prepared to fight, but is also willing to repent or change his behaviour (Play 4). A dream boy is also one who is glad when he finds out he is going to become a father, as illuminated by the following example (Play 5). The performance takes its point of departure in the girl’s predicament, but goes on to reveal instead something that concerns the boy much more as a fulcrum for the action of the play.

Marty [Announces to the public]: Let’s go with the idea that Alice is pregnant for me.10 We’ll see how it ends. [Alice enters.]

Marty: Hi!

Alice: Do you remember, two months ago?

Marty: What two… what did we do?

Alice: The party, you know.

Ted: It was good.

Marty [Turns to the public, remembering that they have forgotten to present that they are performing now a dream scenario.]: This is the good one.

Alice: Is it good?

Marty: Yes. [The sketch continues.]

Alice: Something happened.

Marty: I can’t remember shit, I was so fucking loaded.

Alice: You didn’t notice anything?

Marty: No.

Alice: Something sort of happened then.

Marty: What?

Alice: I woke up beside you.

Marty: What did you do beside me?

Alice: If you’re drunk and I’m drunk… figure out the rest.

Marty: Tasted some cock?11

Alice: Eeh?

Marty: What’s wrong with that? We had some sex.

Alice: We forgot something.

Marty: Yes?

Alice: A condom.

Marty: Don’t worry, I don’t have any venereal diseases.

Alice: Something else can happen.

Marty: What? Did I shoot into you?

Alice: If you want to put it in that way.

Marty: Yes, and… are you pregnant?

Alice: I think so.

Marty: Yes! Ted! I’ll be a father! [Shakes hands with Ted.]

Both Alice and Marty have been drunk at a party, but with the difference that Alice remembers what happened, while Marty doesn’t. We can say that in this performance the boy is construed as the one who receives information concerning what happened in his bedroom, that he has made the girl pregnant, because he did ‘shoot’ (line 27) into her. This is a performance where a girl is pregnant ‘for’ him (line 1); it construes the masculine as an active subject, and the feminine as a passive object that simply follows his lead. By definition a pregnant teenager is often regarded as a female ‘problem’ (Stronach et al., 2007), but here Alice tries to see this more in relational terms. She attempts to link the pregnancy to a relation that involves both her and Marty, as two subjects, but the image of space in-between them never really materialises since the two characters never become fully present to each other – each speaks her/his own words which seem to fly past each other. As the subject of the story, he determines and grants significance to the information being given to him, the one who is the decision-maker, the one who is going to become someone – a father. How the girl experiences the situation is neither presented by the group nor considered in their discussions. Although they both, a girl and a boy, stand there in flesh and blood, it is the masculine subject who becomes foregrounded while the feminine remains passive. The masculine subject is also portrayed as one who ‘says it like it is’. There is no representation of the in-between space between femininity and masculinity as being equal but different.

In one of the dream scenarios we find the construal of a boy that differs from the other dream portraits. In Play 9 a group presents a figure of a boy that is the object of the girl’s acts. This is the only sketch where a boy is not in charge of the events (the girl breaks up with him). In this dream scenario the boy is the one who affirms the girl, he understands her, he admits that he has spent more time with his friends than with her, that he has neglected her and that he is prepared to try to change his behaviour. There is one more performance (Play 3) where the boy is treated as an object in the dream scenario, but the subject of the sketch is not a girl but another boy. Here the boy in charge is an understanding person who listens to his friend, who has got a venereal disease.

The nightmare girl is construed as a shadow of the men’s actions

In most of the nightmare scenarios the girls are construed as facilitators of the boys’ nightmare acts, for example, by laughing with them or by remaining silent and compliant when they are acting in unwanted ways. The girls are depicted here as hangers-on, who do not have any major impacts on the course of events. In some nightmares she even disappears entirely – she has not been assigned any role at all. An illuminating example of disappearance is seen in Play 2, in which ‘a guy realises he’s in love with another guy at school and decides to tell this to a friend. How does the buddy react, when he hears that the friend is gay?’ In the dream scenario the gay boy talks with a ‘buddy’ who is a girl, a girl who already had noticed that he likes boys and accommodates him through drawing similarities between them: they both like boys.

Michael: I don’t know how to say this but I am gay. Julia: Oh, okay. I noticed that you kind of seem to like guys and stuff like that, but then we have something in common I guess.

And in the nightmare scenario, which takes place between two boys:

Michael: I don’t know how to say this. I am gay. Kaleem: Oh, hell, I’m leaving! Never talk to me anymore!

During the role-play the girl leaves and is replaced by a boy. Accordingly, in the nightmare the understanding girl is replaced by a judging boy. Both the physical girl and the role of the girl are changed to a boy. In only three out of the 14 nightmares performed is the girl construed as a subject, as one whose actions become crucial for moving the sketch along. These three function as exceptions that challenge the predominant portrayals of girls in the nightmare scenario.

The nightmare boy is construed as dangerous and powerful

In the nightmares the boy is construed as one who ridicules gays (Play 2) and the sick (Play 3). In the nightmare scenario where the girl is passed out on the bathroom floor (Play 6) the students portray the boys as extremely violent and abusive: the girl is shown to be raped by the boys. In the nightmares, the boys take revenge on those who are vulnerable or weak, or they steal. In the Play 8 the older boy who is approached by the girl outside the liquor store is a man who, instead of buying what the girl wants, steals her money.

Play 9, in which the girl breaks up with her boyfriend, shows an exceptional portrayal of a boy. In this nightmare he is really willing to do everything he can to keep her as his girlfriend, and not only just to try to change his manners, as the case is in the dream scenario. In this scenario the man sees her as his last hope, saying that he has even planned to marry her. He tries to take the lead by proposing to her, without success. The proposal functions as a trope of ultimate proof, a well-known way of showing a boy’s love and power, and when that does not work, he becomes desperate and weeps. In the nightmare the girl does not believe in the boy’s willingness to change; he is positioned as the weaker one or as a loser, an exceptional position in comparison to the rest of the performances.

The changes between the dream and nightmare scenarios highlight the masculine position

The masculine subject is typically construed as independent in his relationship to others, yet he still needs others in a way that gives definition and contour to his actions. The girls and everyone else who is portrayed as ‘the other’, e.g. a homosexual (Play 2), a sick boy (Play 3) and a physically weak boy (Play 4), are presented in relation to him, not as subjects in their own right (with the exception of the girl breaking up with her boyfriend). This has the effect of representing masculinity in the normative terms of a physically able and strong heterosexual male whereas the feminine figure is caring and affirmative, independent of what kind of position she is in.

In the majority of the performances, agency exists in the boy’s actions, with few exceptions: it is he who creates change in the drama. Concomitantly, in the majority of the performances the girl, or somebody else outside the male norm, is one who is not changed considerably between the scenarios, and is the one who becomes violated by the man in the nightmares. However, some interesting exceptions exist. In three nightmares (Play 1, played by two groups, and Play 9), the boy was rejected by the girl because he neglected her in favour of his male friends. On these occasions, it was a nightmare from the perspective of the boy that was represented: here the girl possessed the power to determine whether he would be rejected or not. However, overall it is striking how it is mainly the boys’ actions that become changed between the dream and nightmare solutions. The depictions of boys in the nightmares are ones in which he dictates the outcome; he is the one who is active and shows his terrifying power. By contrast, the girls’ capacity to undergo change through their own initiative becomes crucial in only a few nightmares. Generally speaking, she has only a minor, assisting role to play, from laughing, through passively observing to completely disappearing.


Research studies in science education stress the need for discussions regarding what knowledge should become possible for students. These studies speak in favour of fostering expanded strategies of what science can include concerning the need to allow students to become more involved (Brickhouse, 2011). Acting out role-plays during science classes does not occur frequently, at least not in Swedish schools. This makes the presented role-plays even more interesting. Here the teacher has an idea of letting the students experience situations they recognise in their lives, although the content turns out to be more problematic than imagined.

Changing and unchanging

Our analysis shows that most of the key active roles in the performances were given to the boys and the dilemma was presented from their perspective. The analysis of students’ depictions show girls that are construed in relation to boys, as secondary to boys, and in most cases without any authority. In this way the construction of masculinity and femininity of these 21st century teenagers seems to echo the patriarchal depictions described by Irigaray (1985) 29 years ago. The boys were in charge of the situations being portrayed in the role-plays, whereby their power and authority was taken for granted as the girls largely accommodated them. The girls were granted control over situations only when breaking up with a boy, but they were not positioned as a subject within situations of joint action. Neither were the girls defined independently of their male counterparts. They sometimes disappeared with barely a trace and without any possibility of using their energy for something other than being an object of attraction or accommodation (cf. Irigaray, 1993; Stronach et al., 2007). The students’ presentations of masculine action and agency with regard, for example, to an unintended pregnancy can be compared to a common scientific account of biological processes, where masculinity is the subject of and femininity is the object of activities (Roy, 2008). When it came to a question of changes in the constructions of masculinity and femininity between the dream and nightmare scenarios, it was the boy’s actions that became changed in most of the performances. The girl’s actions remained largely unchanged, as though she did not occupy a presence in the sketch, or at least not a dynamic one. As is very clear here, alternative gender images, as opposed to stereotypical depictions, of masculinity and femininity were very limited.

Are a boy’s positions dependent on the structures in nightmares?

By contrasting the nightmare scenario with that of the dream scenario we can say that the students in their nightmare performances tacitly condemned certain actions of the boys and their indisputable position of power – that is, their apparent rights to be those with the impunity to determine what happens to others. Nevertheless, there are a few examples that point to an alternative circumstance, in which the girl has been assigned the role of the person who has the power to determine the outcome.12 The result can be interpreted to show that the students themselves identify whose actions must be changed if the aim is to bring about a change in representations of masculinity and femininity. After all, the nightmare situations that students are performing are disturbingly familiar; the nightmare boy is indeed a real nightmare to be wary of.

A question, however, is how much the dream images of the boys are dependent on those revealed in the nightmares? There seems to be an ambiguity here in the sense that both nightmare and dream images blur into each other. The nightmare scenarios illustrate the possibly cruel consequences of the unlimited power of the boys, which to some degree is also found in the dream scenarios. Here lies an educational opportunity, in our view, to discuss why the nightmares are precisely nightmares, and what their relations are to the dreams. As Connell (1996) has pointed out, schools have an important task to involve students in discussions and critical examinations of existing culture in order to open up alternative constructions.

The phrasings of the dilemmas themselves are also suggestive of the images that students represent in their performances. For example, ‘how do you react when you hear, for instance, that your friend is gay?’ invites the students to see homosexuality as something deviant, thus adding to the prejudices portrayed in the nightmare scenario. What possibilities do students have to express ethical positions that ‘respect other people’s intrinsic value’ (one of the values that the teacher presented to the students), when the assigned gender arrangement marginalises students who exist outside the heterosexual masculine norm? This question also applies to the ‘reality’ presented in the sketch in which a girl says she thinks she is pregnant. How can students present something so close to their lives (as they see it13) without falling into prevailing stereotypes? In what way can these forms of symbolisation be altered in education in a manner that opens up new alternatives for the future? With regard to the gender contract (Hirdman, 1990), the hierarchical power relations that arise in the nightmares can be seen to be a reflection of power structures, which students respond to in their daily lives, whether in dream or nightmare situations.

‘Is it good?’

That the students pinpoint the need for change in the boy’s actions by contrasting nightmares and dreams, and in that way extend possibilities for welcoming different images, is one thing. But what about the ethical issue regarding how girls are portrayed in the dream scenarios? One could ask in accordance with Alice’s reflection (‘Is it good?’ Line 8, Play 5) if the so-called dream scenarios were indeed really good ones, or if they were reflecting a dream of normativity. The girls are depicted almost exclusively as an enabler of the boys’ activities, as support for his actions. The role-plays, as formulated by the teachers, were already coloured by a focus on the boys’ agency. Although the choice of such material might be due to the fact that teachers think these dilemmas represent everyday social issues that need to be altered and given critical attention, they at the same time inadvertently put the boys in the driver’s seat, since they fall within the logic of male primacy (Hirdman, 2003).

But what also happened when Alice posed her question was that she stopped and reflected on the situation. Her action revealed a certain resistance – something that we view as a possible opening for re-imagining the depictions of femininity and masculinity. It is a moment when Alice became a subject in her own right, although a moment that faded out.

Concluding remarks

Without facing the present situations in schools it can be hard to imagine alternative kinds of representations of femininity or masculinity. After the teacher’s short introduction of the role-plays, the responsibility of planning and acting the plays was handed entirely to the students. It is near at hand to claim that this is not good, but it is not certain that the teacher’s involvement at this stage would have changed the gendered images. However, can we evoke new kinds of images that address relations in-between us, in line with Irigaray’s (1985) reasoning? This would require becoming aware of the excluding structures that are currently present and the acknowledgement of a need for a change. Part of this involves questioning the present images we use in our teaching, and how our actions as teachers can position masculinity and femininity differently, a field that this study throws light upon, but that can be difficult to recognise for those in action. Situations illuminated in this paper pinpoint overall themes, such as: girls’ invisibility, boys’ unquestioned authority, masculinity as model, girls as facilitators of boys’ acts and how schools’ activities maintain unwanted gender structures. Our awareness of these structures and how we teach becomes critically important. If we are open to re-imagining our relations, we are also open to previously unasked questions, and this makes us vulnerable. Therefore, it can be difficult to approach the field of relational dilemmas in isolated classrooms or lessons. It takes hard work in everyday school practice to break tendencies, in which anything other than the masculine norm of the man is marginalised. Irigaray (1985) asserts that a new imaginary is impossible if it is confined within a discourse that has the masculine subjects as its model, where the ‘other’ is restricted to its fringes, and where the feminine ‘subject’ experiences herself fragmentarily as a specular image. Teaching instead needs to welcome otherness outside the logic of the same and also welcome pedagogy as a process of becoming (Todd, 2009). The possibility for ethics lies precisely in welcoming new and different ways of acting, imagining and symbolising.

Enormous changes in representations of femininity and masculinity over the course of the past half-century have, of course, taken place at all levels of society in Sweden as well as in many other countries (Connell, 2008).14 This is why we were astonished at the images of femininity and masculinity revealed in the students’ performances. Our findings seem to reflect Hirdman’s (2003) analysis of the changes that have taken place in the construction of femininity and masculinity in Sweden during the last decades: that they overall have favoured masculinity, which Hirdman (2003) claims to be a traditional understanding of patriarchal power. Thus, insofar as education is limited by the norm of masculinity, it is difficult to see how new images can be symbolised. When representations of differences are fragmentary, or when inter-personal relations are presented from the masculine position, it is not easy to re-imagine and re-symbolise a different relationship between masculine and feminine subjects. Yet, viewing pedagogy as a space of becoming means being attentive to those conditions that open up the possibility for alternative imaginings that help us to re-envision what is not-yet (Todd, 2009). It further means attending to femininity and masculinity through relational spaces that are part of the project of reconfiguring gender differently. School practice is an important scene in welcoming and giving opportunities for such re-imagining and re-symbolisation. The activities in the presented school practice have the capacity to construct new images, but the students as well as the teacher need more awareness of the subject in order to be able to provoke other non-dominant imaginings of gender and sexuality. Although many feminist scholars have long pointed to various discourses that powerfully rule over presentations of gender (Keller, 1985; Harding, 1991), the changes occur slowly. The effort the teacher makes is worthy of our attention, even if the attempt to use role-plays as a way of helping students «onto the path of becoming a woman/a man» needs more focused treatment involving, for example, critical discussions. Studies show (Andersson, 2012) that even though teachers are aware of questions connected to gender and teaching, they still have difficulty noticing these in their own teaching practice. We hope that our study makes a contribution to shedding light on the subject, because discussions concerning the meaning of performed activities and images need to become an obvious part of the regular science curriculum, in teaching as well as in teacher education. In spite of everything, teaching about the biological body in science education concerns young people’s lives as well as their views of women’s and men’s bodies, of sexuality and of becoming.

In our example, Alice’s question as to whether they really were showing a dream resolution can be viewed as an example of an opportunity to focus on the space in between. This kind of opportunity, which could make other kinds of images possible, needs to be highlighted, encouraged and articulated. This reflects a collective and pedagogical struggle to transform current forms of symbolisation and make use of new metaphors, articulations and symbols that can ethically position the ‘other’ differently. In our view, science education can offer such opportunities, but only if it problematises its presentations of the biological and reproductive body, and how we connect the body in new ways to the manner in which we (men and women, girls and boys) relate to one another. In this way, education can move a step toward welcoming the becoming of different kinds of equals. What seems to be required is a radical rethinking of the biology class as a social and symbolic space, so that becoming ‘men and women’ is indeed a project of becoming that which is not-yet.


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1Irigaray (2008) renames sexual identity to sexuate identity to stress that «it is determined by both the morphology of the body and the relational environment which goes with this body» (p. 142), «the difference between boys and girls are not only sexual in a limited sense, but sexuate, that is to say that this difference does not only concern their sex and the few bodily characteristics, but also their whole subjectivity» (Irigaray and Green, 2008, p. 205).
2Jacques Lacan’s ‘imaginary’ is based on his theory of ‘mirror-stage’ in which an infant misrecognises its own image, and in this way the formations of the «I» take place (Lacan, 1977, pp. 1–7). Irigaray widens Lacan’s theory to include wider discourse, and claims that the whole of Western philosophy is built on the masculine subject reflecting himself and projecting his own ego on the world (Irigaray, 1985, p. 30). Women, in her view are expected to play mirror-functions.
3See also Rubin (1975).
4The translations from Swedish to English are made with as few changes as possible from the original wording. However, translations of idiomatic expressions in Swedish sometimes become non-idiomatic in translation. In these cases care has been taken to retain similar connotations in English. The translations have been checked by native English speakers.
5In what follows the role-plays are referred to in the table as ‘Play.1’, ‘Play.2’
6The number of boys in the class might have influenced the choice of whose position is in the foreground.
7The 21 possible role-plays that students could choose between included 11 with optional gender and 10 with an assigned gender, of which seven were about a boy and three were about a girl.
8The students were divided into four groups A–D. Group A consisted of one girl and two boys, B of two girls and two boys, C of four boys and group D of one girl and three boys. The groups performed a different number of total plays.
9One of the groups changed one of the girl’s roles to a boy.
10Marty is here using non-idiomatic Swedish and is literally saying «Let’s go with Alice is pregnant for me [Nu ska vi köra att Alice är gravid för mig]». We interpret Marty’s use of «for» here as indicating him being the agent in the pregnancy. This interpretation is supported by the performance as a whole.
11Marty uses quite shockingly obscene language throughout the performance.
12All student performances still remain inside the traditional patriarchal representations of relationships, in which the female body is an object for male dominance.
13This became evident when one of the student groups was rehearsing and discussed a girl they knew that had experienced a similar situation.
14These details might be different in other countries, but the fact remains that representations of femininity and masculinity have altered considerably.

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