Tomboys and Other Gender Heroes: Confessions from the Classroom
reviewed by Maureen P. Hogan - March 13, 2017
Title: Tomboys and Other Gender Heroes: Confessions from the Classroom
Author(s): Karleen Pendleton Jiménez
Publisher: Peter Lang Publishing, New York
ISBN: 143312694X, Pages: 155, Year: 2016
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Tomboys and Other Gender Heroes: Confessions from the Classroom is a brave, smart, and inspiring book. Karleen Pendleton Jiménez brings together feminist and queer theory, race, intersectional identity, place consciousness, media literacy, curriculum design, and pedagogy with 600 children who are aged 918. They co-exist in a groundbreaking work about teaching gender equity for youth in rural Ontario, Canada. Educators, educational researchers, administrators, teacher trainers, parents, and other caregivers need to read this book. We can no longer ignore the importance of gender in kids lives. We can also not ignore how gender identity, performance, creativity, ambiguity, and complexity are key to kids identity formations in painful, neutral, paradoxical, and joyful ways.
Are you a boy or a girl? (p. 12) is a question that Jiménez, a self-described tomboy, was often asked when she was growing up. She was teased and bullied because of her androgyny. The torment of her own life story made her ask how can we make schools better for gender non-conforming youth? Research on this topic is risky. Fortunately, Jiménez had community support, university support, and federal funding. She also carried out this study mainly in rural Ontario where the Ministry of Education has principles (akin to U.S. standards) that address issues like gender, bullying, and well-being.
We know that queer youth are likely to report schools as being negative spaces (Higa, et al., 2015), but we rarely hear the same youth expressing a sense of joy. In Chapter One, Jiménez introduces the books goal of exploring the intersection of gender, place, and schooling. It also aims to bring about understanding, happiness, and healing. She means to curtail the sexist, homophobic, and transphobic discourses or activities in schools. Refreshingly, the author is also concerned with gendered things that kids love (e.g., horses, soccer balls, dolls, or guns) and how those things are accepted or rejected by their peers based on gendered assumptions. Highlighting kids discourses of gendered emotionality and geographical nuance as they negotiate the politics of inclusion is the books most important contribution.
Jiménez lays out her research methodology and teaching techniques for the gender equity workshops in Chapter Two. She borrows from Pinars autobiographical and critical curricular methodology, currere (2004), where
he asks us to (1) reflect on and document past experiences, (2) dwell for a while in the fantasies of future worlds, and 3) take the knowledge garnered from the first two tasks and apply them to a critical analysis of present pedagogical conditions. (pp. 2021)
Jiménez gathers her study data using a variety of pedagogical techniques. These include a screening of her award-winning short cartoon Tomboy, writing prompts, drawings, exit cards, skits, and a public rubric activity where kids write about and categorize instances of nonconforming gendered events on sticky notes under four headings: Gender Destroyer, Gender Police, Gender Bystander, and Gender Bender. Along this continuum, Gender Destroyer documents the shaming of gender-creative youth, while Gender Bender supports alternative gender expression. The kids place most of their stickies under Gender Police, which means that they are often disciplining each other into strict binary gender roles. Jimenezs gender workshops help them find ways to recognize these inclinations and disrupt them.
Jiménez observes that students also create skits where boys become the most excited because they could wear gender-bending clothes. In these skits, boys are throwing on sequined gowns, putting their hair up in ponytails, and borrowing purses from classmates (p. 31). These kids could experience what gender bullying looks like and feels like. Afterward, the children describe having newfound empathy to gender diverse youth.
In Chapter Three, Jiménez tackles the first part of Pinars methodology. She shares her own journey as a gender-ambiguous child in her co-directed animated film, Tomboy. The author draws on Chicana feminist and queer theory to reveal places where lines of race, gender, corporality, and sexuality intersect. These are places where one needs to read against, around, and through the stereotypical sexy Latina and the confusing tomboy body. She also uses her film as a pedagogical tool with her children to good avail.
In Chapter Four, Jiménez draws on Ahmeds happy objects theory (2010) and object ethnography. She elicits kids drawings and responses about things that genuinely make them happy. The author discovers that gender happiness surrounding objects can lead to gender acceptance. This occurs even if this happiness is stereotypical, like when a fifth-grade boy describes his profoundly meaningful and developmentally formative love of guns as a young person living in rural Ontario.
Jiménez writes that, [t]here are many ways to convince people that they do not belong (p. 79) such as in sports. Chapter Five is about gender justice, sports, and the body. In her workshops, many girls report gender exclusion, especially in football and hockey. The latter is a ritualized training ground for Canadian masculinity. Other girls find acceptance in boy sports and never look back. Boys usually select themselves out of activities like dancing, baton twirling, and figure skating. They fear being teased, even if they admire these activities. Importantly, the youth express well-being and body connection when they could play their favorite sport and disappointment when they could not. Overall, athletics turns out to be a rich site for understanding kids gender and identity development. Unfortunately, it is also a site where we still need more inclusive practices.
Educators have known for a long time that pop culture profoundly influences kids lives. In Chapter Six, Jiménez reports that nonconforming gender expression in the media is usually coded as urban. One of her findings is that rural Canadian kids have surprising gender-bending musical favorites. They do not mention Lady Gaga as might be anticipated, but rather Joan Jett as the tough (rural) female icon. Eighth-grade boys think Justin Bieber is too feminine and is intended for girls. However, many still copy his whippy hip hairstyle. These kinds of exceptions and paradoxes contribute to our understanding of how youth manage mass-mediated gender codes in rural spaces.
Chapter Seven looks more closely at gender creativity. For example, girls in rural Ontario take cues from The Hunger Games books and movies to claim the sport of archery for themselves. Boys express that they like both dolls and trucks. Why not? Breaking down binaries and trying to understand what kids genuinely enjoy outside of stereotypes is a wonderful way to develop acceptance.
In her final chapter, Jiménez offers guiding principles for gender education. She provides four full lesson plans for Grades 4, 6, 8, and 11 that are aligned with Ontarios curricular expectations.
This book is a powerful resource for anyone interested in having honest discussions with all children about gender. It is also useful for those who want to understand youth dynamics of inclusion and exclusion. My only warning is that educators who wish to model Jimenezs wonderful work in their own schools need to have support from their peers, institutions, and communities.
Perhaps Jiménez best summarizes Tomboys and Other Gender Heroes through the following quote:
Ultimately, I believe that the beauty of the stories these young people offered will have the most profound effect on the lives of gender creative youth and those of us supporting them, the pride and confidence of the archer, the sexiness of the boys whipped hair, the vulnerability of the grade 11 boy with his toy cars and Barbie Dolls, and the defiance of the young Korean boy with his pink purse, unwilling to accept the cruelest of playground taunts. (p. 115)
Ahmed, S. (2010). Happy objects. In M. Gregg & G. Seigworth (Eds.), Affect theory reader (pp. 29-51). Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Higa, D., Hoppe, M. J., Lindhorst, T., Mincer, S., Beadnell, B., Morrison, D. M., & Mountz, S. (2014). Negative and positive factors associated with the well-being of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and questioning (LGBTQ) youth. Youth & Society, 46(5), 663687.
Pinar, W. F. (2004). What is curriculum theory? Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Press.