Football, Fast Cars, and Cheerleading: Adolescent Gender Norms, 1978-1989

By Suitor, J. Jill; Reavis, Rebel | Adolescence, Summer 1995 | Go to article overview

Football, Fast Cars, and Cheerleading: Adolescent Gender Norms, 1978-1989


Suitor, J. Jill, Reavis, Rebel, Adolescence


During the past decade, there has been substantial interest in examining and explaining changes in gender-role attitudes and behaviors in the United States. This line of research has shown that gender-role attitudes have become markedly less traditional over the past two decades (cf. Mason & Lu, 1988; McBroom, 1987; Thornton, Alwin, & Camburn, 1983). This work has also revealed a decrease in traditionalism regarding the division of household labor across the 1970s and early 1980s (cf. Robinson, 1988; Shelton & Coverman, 1988), although the changes on these behavioral dimensions of gender roles are far less dramatic than are the changes in stated attitudes.

While this literature has shed a great deal of light on changes in adults' gender-role attitudes and behaviors, much less attention has been directed toward changes in gender roles among adolescents. This segment of the population should be of particular interest to scholars since adolescents are the harbingers of American gender roles in the coming decades.

Data from several sources suggest that adolescents entered the 1980s with surprisingly traditional gender-role attitudes. For example, Thornton and her colleagues' 1980 findings (1983) revealed that although adolescents held more liberal gender-role attitudes than did their mothers, a substantial proportion maintained relatively traditional attitudes. In fact, almost half of the adolescents agreed with the statement that "It is much better for everyone if the man earns the living and the woman takes care of the home and family." Similarly, Corder and Stephan (1984) found that while 70% of the school-age girls they surveyed in 1978 wanted to combine parenting, marriage, and employment, only 40% of the boys wanted their future wives to combine these roles. Consistent with this pattern, Hansen and Darling (1985) found that the majority of the adolescents they studied in 1981 held relatively traditional attitudes toward the division of household labor.

Studies of adolescents' views toward girls' participation in sports in the late 1970s and early 1980s also demonstrated the persistence of traditional gender-role attitudes, and the characteristics of the people they would most like to date or be friends with. Feltz (1978) reported that participation in sports accrued less status for girls than did other behaviors or attributes, while Williams and White (1983) found that the lowest ratings were assigned to girls who participated in sports. Kane (1988), using data collected in 1982, found that girls were least likely to choose athletics as the way they would like to be remembered in high school. She also found that the "gender-appropriateness" of the sport in which the girls participated greatly affected both girls' and boys' choices of friends and dating partners. Girls who were associated with sports that were seen as gender-appropriate (e.g., tennis) were substantially more likely to be viewed as desirable friends and partners than were girls who were associated with less gender-appropriate sports (e.g., basketball).

Studies of other dimensions of adolescents' behaviors also suggest the persistence of traditional gender roles a decade ago. For example, Canaan's (1990) findings revealed that boys used different mechanisms from girls to create and maintain their position in the social hierarchy in their high schools in the late 1970s and early 1980s. While boys used joke-telling to demonstrate their masculinity by defining their superiority to other males and females, girls used note-passing to develop friendships and to subordinate other females. Further, Eckert (1989) found that physical appearance and dress were of greater importance to girls' than boys' social status among adolescents in the early 1980s. Last, while cheerleading was an important means by which girls could accrue prestige (Eckert, 1989; Eicher, Baizerman, & Michelman, 1991; Foley, 1990), this activity was never mentioned as an avenue by which boys could do so. …

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Football, Fast Cars, and Cheerleading: Adolescent Gender Norms, 1978-1989
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